To succeed, edtech companies must listen to teachers

Technology can revolutionise teaching – but only if its creators integrate learning or pedagogy, and consult with teachers first

Ed tech_editorial

Technology today has an unprecedented power to transform how we work and interact, from social media and Twitter politics to remote working and the digital economy.

But one area whose potential has not yet been explored to the full is technology in education – even though it could help us meet the serious educational challenges facing our world.

For decades it seems that governments and stakeholders have been discussing the lack of quality educational provision, particularly in the developing and emerging world. The damning statistics should be burned into our consciousness.

It is a scandal that in 2018, nearly 263 million children and young people are not in school, and of the 650 million primary school-age children that are, 250 million are not learning the basics. To meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of quality education for all, we will need to recruit 69 million more teachers by 2030.

With no realistic sign of politicians being able to solve these deep-rooted problems we have to hope that edtech can help bridge this education chasm. Teachers should be able to use technology to access hard-to-reach pupils as well as helping pupils access educational content for the very first time. Time is running short for another generation that are being denied their birthright: a quality education.

Even here in the UK, where pupils have good access to teachers, it is hoped that technology will play a role in improving the quality of education through personalised learning, smart feedback, and improved access to information, networks and resources. Celebrated apps such as Remind, ThingLink, Wonder Workshop and ClassTag for parents are all just the tip of the iceberg.

The growth in the global edtech market over the last few years should be enabling even bigger and better innovations. In 2015, funding of edtech startups reached $3.3 billion, and overall sector investment hit $9.5 billion in 2017; the market has been forecasted to grow 17 per cent year-on-year (20 per cent in China) to an overall value of $252 billion by 2020.

Importantly, this growth is also reflected in developing economies: for example, in the last decade India has become the second-largest edtech market in the world after the US, and an estimated eight-fold increase to $1.96 billion is predicted by 2021.

Despite this huge potential, however, there is a sense that edtech products are falling short. The recent failures of some edtech companies to deliver on projects are well documented: sometimes these occurred because the original aim was too ambitious – or not grounded in the real experience of students and teachers.

However, the problem is not merely individual companies “getting it wrong”. A 2015 OECD report found that even countries that had invested heavily in information and communication technology (ICT) for education had seen no noticeable improvement in their PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.

And in the US, only 33 per cent of parents surveyed by the Learning Assembly say that their child’s school did an “excellent” job of using technology to tailor instruction.

There are many reasons for these failures but three stand out for me. The first is that some edtech startups may not be fully integrating the science of learning or pedagogy into their products. Some companies even confuse market research with educational research.

There needs to be a much greater focus on bringing the education into edtech; in particular, there needs to be a deep research-based understanding of how edtech can usefully augment educators. One piece of meta-analytic research from 2014 showed that improved outcomes in edtech principally depended upon three factors: interactive learning, exploring and creating, and crucially, the right blend of teachers and technology. Edtech is most successful when teachers also play their unique roles as curators, mentors, and facilitators of meaningful peer interaction.

The second is a related issue about the economics of tech entrepreneurship. Some new entrants to the market hope to launch a product that will scale quickly and potentially allow them a lucrative exit.

But those who come to the education sector without an intimate understanding of its economies, timescales and ways of working will struggle – and many companies who have not been aware of this have failed to realise their value or become profitable.  

Edtech investors must have the mindset that they have a rare opportunity that transforms people’s lives. That is a complex task that can take many years of work before they will start to see any results.  

Thirdly, and most crucially, entrepreneurs need to understand that edtech is just as much about people as it is technology. Understanding how the different interest groups involved in education fit together – from governments to parents, policymakers, teachers, parents and students – is key to success or failure.

I have come to believe that we need to make research and consultation more central to the edtech debate. Student outcomes are most improved when innovations work as part of systems that have substantial educational research behind them.

We also need rigorous evaluations of how a new product actually works in the classroom. Furthermore, we have to bring teachers to the fore in everything we do. In all the conferences I have attended around the world, I have never once seen a teacher invited to be a part of the edtech discussion – which often revolve around policymakers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and investors.

It’s surprising that the sector hasn’t much consulted the teachers who are actually on the front line: in my own experience, the conversations I have with teachers are always the most productive ones.

To promote this approach, I will be guiding the setup of the Tmrw Institute that will look to answer some of the key questions about the role of technology in education. In particular, I want to look at how edtech can help provide a quality education to the billion-plus young people who are either not in school or have no access to a good teacher.

The institute will aim to infuse edtech entrepreneurs with an understanding of what it takes to shift those educational outcomes. And with a rigorous, evidence-based approach, we have reason to hope that technology can help bring a good education to young people wherever they are in the world.

Vikas Pota is the chief executive of Tmrw Digital 

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