The Future of Higher Learning Is Already Here

Remote learning is top of mind these days, but this tech start-up has already been disrupting the post-secondary education world for years.

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Over the last decade, the Toronto-based tech startup Top Hat has made a name for itself as an all-in-one digital education tool for teachers and students in post-secondary institutions. Now that COVID-19 has disrupted university life, Top Hat is driving the future of online education by optimizing the platform to help schools adapt.

Top Hat is also making waves in the academic publishing world by brokering deals with paper publishers to digitize their content and make textbooks more affordable and accessible.

The inspiration for the company came from the idea of using the very thing that disengages teachers and students the most: smartphones. With these normally distracting devices, professors can engage students in and out of the classroom with captivating and interactive content, tools, and activities.

According to their website, 750 of the top 1,000 post-secondary institutions in North America now feature courses using their platform, with a total of 2.7 million students. They have expanded into five countries including the UK, Australia, and Italy, and employ roughly 400 people.

The all-in-one digital education platform

In a traditional lecture, students sit down and learn passively by listening and taking notes, whereas Top Hat offers an active alternative right from the start of class. Lecturers can issue a secret code at the beginning that students can enter on the platform to confirm attendance.

The teacher can draw stored lessons and digital materials from their account and put it up on the projector as well as the app for all to see on their devices. At intervals during the lesson, the teacher might pose a quiz to gauge how well the students are grasping the information and track participation.

Meanwhile, there’s a live chat happening between members of the classroom so students can debate or discuss and also have questions answered. The lecturer can keep an eye on the thread and raise an important point for the whole class to discuss if needed.

Any material stored on the platform, be it a presentation slide or a book chapter, can be assigned as a graded or non-graded test. Even better, the app provides data-driven performance insights so educators can track, review, and act on students who are falling behind.

The Gradebook feature follows the students’ results for all the various exams, tests, and assessments in one convenient place. Bolstering the Gradebook is the Weekly Course Report, which summarizes the weekly performance of the students and highlights those who need extra attention.

Digitizing textbooks

When CEO Mike Silagadze founded the company in 2009, he believed that the textbook publishing industry was set for the same kind of disruption that the music industry faced in the early 2000s. Top Hat’s initial venture into this area involved digitizing textbooks on behalf of major publishers like Nelson and Pearson, but what the clients wanted was just a full-priced PDF version — something that was contrary to Silagadze’s vision.

Top Hat struck multiple deals in recent years to transform print content into digital courseware. They have partnered with publishing groups like Fountainhead Press and Bluedoor Publishing, but most importantly, Nelson came on board earlier this year in a $30 million deal.

“You can think of this almost as a changing of the guard within higher education,” said Silagadze to the Globe and Mail. “In one swoop, the largest player has effectively become a technology company.”

“The funding will enable Top Hat to continue to accelerate the disruption of traditional textbooks and course materials in order to deliver greater educational ROI to students,” he said.

Silagadze predicts that paper publishing will be on the way out by 2023 given the way things are going.

Top Hat enables professors to publish their own course books digitally. These e-books can be updated on the fly, so students with older versions aren’t left behind, and the authors can embed multimedia into the book, like a video at the start of a chapter to brief the student on the topic.

Digital textbooks bypass a lot of the costs associated with printed materials, like printing large amounts of physical pages, shipping, and the overhead cost of running bookstores. This allows digital publishers to offer textbooks at a much lower price.

Most of the digital textbooks Top Hat offers cost under $67, whereas the average cost of a printed textbook is roughly $200. Students in Canada are spending upwards of $900 per year on printed textbooks, according to Macleans.

COVID-19 and remote learning

With greater forces at play like COVID-19, schools have been forced to innovate and adapt to an increasingly online world.

In a separate interview with the Globe and Mail, Silagadze noted that “some schools were basically trying to deliver that same experience, the sage-on-the-stage-talking-at-you-for-an-hour model of learning, but they’re trying to do that through Zoom or whatever conferencing tool. It was a disaster.

“Honestly, it never worked in the first place, pre-COVID, but now it’s particularly bad because students don’t have the on-campus, student life environment to supplement the fact that their learning environment is so sub-par.”

Top Hat responded to the crisis by introducing a secure online environment to conduct exams and a virtual classroom video-conferencing tool designed for a post-secondary environment. In August, they released a free version of their platform along with a premium edition for extra features and content.

“In this environment, you either have to adapt or die,” said Silagadze. “There is no alternative to just keep doing what you were doing before.”

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.