What next for ed tech?

19th January 2018 at 00:00

The ed-tech market is predicted to be worth a whopping $252 billion (£189 billion) by 2020, according to a report at a recent EdTechXGlobal conference. For teachers whose classrooms are still largely analogue, the size of that figure will come as a surprise. But for those in the ed-tech sector, it would seem a sensible estimate.

For example, Ty Goddard, chief executive of event organiser EdtechUK, says that he is enthusiastic about the future. Writing in the White Paper Edtech Vision 2020, he offers a compelling insight into how technology will continue to impact education and teaching.

Jewel in the digital crown

Education and learning technology looks set to be one of the jewels in Britain’s digital crown, as teachers, education leaders and entrepreneurs build new approaches, tools and platforms with evidence-based approaches across the teaching and learning environment,” he writes.

“When used effectively, ed tech can support great teaching, sharpen useful assessment, help consolidate learning and open up new worlds in literature, creativity and the arts.”

But in this young and rapidly moving industry, you need a crystal ball to spot which new ideas will become commonplace, and which will burn out and fade away. So where will the next ed-tech revolution come from? What will be the emerging trends of 2018 and beyond?

Start-up incubators and accelerators of early-stage ed-tech firms have a unique perspective to look ahead to the future and spot trends developing – after all, they’re staking their investments on the belief that these products will soon be in high demand.

So, Tes picked the brains of several leading organisations to ask them their thoughts on the trends emerging in 2018 and beyond. They highlighted five key areas.

1. Social and emotional learning

Ash Kaluarachchi is managing director of StartED, the ed-tech investment programme of New York University’s Steinhardt School.

He describes social and emotional learning (SEL) as “one of the most impactful things to emerge over the past few years that’s become tech-enabled”.

“The most powerful thing you would learn from it,” he says, “are concepts like ‘what is empathy? How do you exercise it? What is integrity?’ ” Such topics were traditionally reserved for the brightest students, Kaluarachchi says. “These philosophical questions are now getting scaled through technology.”

Jean Hammond, co-founder of Boston-based accelerator Learn Launch in the US, agrees that SEL tools are a growth area.

“Traditionally [these products] have been pretty weak. But we are seeing more investment there, and more people go at it from a bunch of different directions that are a touch more subtle.”

Kaluarachchi singles out Canadian ed-tech firm Peekapak as one to watch. The company uses research-based learning and digital games to teach children more nebulous concepts such as gratitude, respect and teamwork.

Hammond cites Panorama Education as another company on the rise. It offers educators the tools to build extensive data sets about their students, monitoring their personal growth and development through frequent surveys. Currently being used by 10 per cent of American school children, it recently raised $16 million from investors, including the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg initiative.

2. Assessment

Hand in hand with this increased focus on softer, more abstract skills will be a need for new tools to measure their effectiveness, believes Saki Tuominen, creative director of Helsinki-based non-profit technology partner HundrED.

“If you say, for example, that you need to be teaching creative skills, the obvious question is, how do you know that [the students] are learning?

“How can we assess whether it’s making any change, how do we know which children are more creative? It’s extremely complicated. I think there will be a big amount of business in that area,” he says.

Hammond echoes these sentiments. “We’re seeing a trend of methodology platforms for developing a more complete picture of a student. We had a company in our last accelerator called SchoolHack that’s an example of this.”

SchoolHack, based in Vermont in the US, provides an online personal development platform that encourages students to offer feedback on their lives in a more holistic way. “They’re being encouraged to say, ‘Hey, I participated in the school play, that’s part of my expertise.’ Or even things that aren’t at school, such as, ‘Hey, I’m helping build a skateboard park across town,’” says Hammond.

In this way, students from a non-traditional academic background can earn credits and be assessed on other, less tangible skills. SchoolHack is rapidly spreading across the US, with schools in Florida, Tennessee and Washington adopting the platform this year.

3. Tools for digital skills

The demand for products offering fun, friendly ways to teach children vital tech skills is only increasing. One such product is the Pi-top, an external, modular case for Raspberry Pi computers.

Emerge Education, an East London ed-tech incubator, recently invested in Pi-top. “Previously many schools had a Raspberry Pi sitting in the back of the classroom but most people had no idea what to do with it and it just collected dust,” argues Lucy Lynn-Matern, a venture hunter at Emerge.

The Pi-top enables students to build a more recognisable computer around the Raspberry Pi, with a screen and keyboard. “It makes it immediately useful, and then you can use that computer to learn to code…it enables teachers much more radically to deliver this curriculum than just [having] the piece of hardware itself,” she says.

Tuominen agrees that demand for innovative ways to teach coding and software skills to children will be huge, and cites Hello Ruby as one to watch.

Hello Ruby is a Finnish start-up that teaches children about algorithms and computational thinking but without using computers. Instead, it provides a series of creative, artistic activities specially designed to get children thinking in a problem-solving way that will prepare them for the sort of challenges encountered in programming.

Aimed at four- to 10-year-olds, it is already in use in more than 40 countries, including the UK, and has been translated into 22 languages. It has proved extremely popular in Asia, recently winning the prestigious Design Intelligence Award, China’s biggest design accolade.

4. Special educational needs and disability

Research and knowledge from neuroscience is increasingly finding its way into classroom tech, particularly in terms of tools to help children with SEND.

Branching Minds is one such tool. Previously backed by New Orleans-based incubator 4.0 Schools and the Kaplan Edtech accelerator, it utilises the latest developments in learning science and academic research to help improve response to intervention (RTI) for children with learning difficulties.

Kaluarachchi praises its ability to market the tech in an accessible way that doesn’t alienate educators. “They have several renowned neuroscientists on the board. But the way they talk about their product isn’t ‘it’s a cool new neuroscience solution’; it’s that it’s solving the problem of RTI.

“They’re focusing well on talking about the product using the language that educators understand and that educators care about,” he says.

Similarly, Boston accelerator LearnLaunch invested in Education Modified, a tool offering strategies for educators to assist certain students, whose “diagnosis is there, but it’s not so bad that they need to be kept out of school – they just need that little bit of assistance”, says Hammond.

“We try to mainstream a lot of these students but we don’t give the teachers very many extra tools to support them.” Education Modified allows educators to keep data on such students, monitoring and tailoring their educational and behavioural needs in a deeper, more analytical way.

5. Keeping track of technology

So far, ed tech has made its way into the classroom in a fairly fragmented manner.

As a result, there is a growing demand for ways to keep track of what pieces of tech are being used in the classroom, and whether educators are using them in an efficient way. Education management companies such as Lea(R)n and Catch-On offer services that can “keep track of what is being used in school, then allow teachers to collect their thoughts on it”, says Hammond.

It provides a platform for educators to develop usage patterns and also offer feedback. “It’s a place where teachers can collect their thoughts or give advice and recommendations,” she adds.

Less than a year old, Catch-On has already secured a partnership with Google’s education programme to monitor Chromebook usage in schools.

Meanwhile, in Finland, Student Agents is a revolutionary platform that tackles the issue of increased reliance on technology by turning the student-teacher relationship on its head. “Teachers all over the world are struggling with digitalisation,” says Tuominen. “In one Finnish school, instead of hiring consultants, they made kids teach teachers how to use different digital tools.”

Student Agents provides a platform for educators and students to work together to get the most out of classroom technology.

This innovative approach has proved hugely successful, Tuominen says.

“Teachers loved it, principals loved it, and it’s now in around 100 schools in Finland. I think that’s massive.”

Josh Worth is a freelance journalist

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