How can we enhance education?

December 17, 2014

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Europe is one of the largest edtech markets, and there is a vast potential for it to continue the growth at a rapid pace. The edtech community is developing strongly across Europe, but still faces a lot of challenges. Fragmented market, resistance to change, complex educational systems, a gap between creators and users of innovative solutions, and too many unvalidated assumptions are just some of those. 

 

We are not running out of ideas – plenty of new services are being introduced every year. So what could be done to speed up the diffusion of innovation? How can we help institutions and educators adopt innovative solutions? I asked Yishay Mor, educational design scientist & programme leader of the Open Education Challenge, to put some light on challenges educational startups are going through.

 

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Technology hasn’t blended into our learning environments yet. In your opinion, why hasn’t education been visibly enhanced?

 

Difficult question. First, there’s an assumption here that education hasn’t been enhanced by technology. On the other hand, there’s the assumption that technology in itself is a disruptor, which will enhance any sector it penetrates. Both are true and false at the same time. The data seems to indicate a correlation between technology availability and educational achievement. But the link is far from simple. When comparing Singapore to Botswana, there are so many parameters to consider, it’s really impossible to isolate technology from politics, professional development, school management, parental involvement, child labour and a million other factors.

 

Technology gives us unprecedented access to knowledge. For most children (in developed countries) this access is a given. But, access is not enough. When I was a boy, I went to a shop to buy a used bike. I could choose one of the 20 or so machines on display, and had to agree to the price the shop owner asked for – which was probably four times what he paid the previous owner. Last year, I bought a used bike using my smartphone ebay app. I completed the deal while waiting for a train, choose from a wide variety of options, and most of my payment went to the seller. Technology has changed my access to (market) information, but it has also changed my communication dynamics (a dense network of connections to hundreds of sellers replaces the monopoly of the shop owner) and consequently, my practices – patterns of behaviour, have changed.

 

Now, let’s look at education. The communication dynamics are resisting change: education is still a centrally managed, highly regulated and monitored domain. Collaboration and knowledge sharing is called “cheating”. Teachers and educational innovators are often isolated, lacking channels to share their questions and insights. Practices are also resisting change: walk into most classrooms today, and map the arrangement of humans in space. Compare it to a picture of a 19th Century classroom. Can you spot the differences?

 

If we don’t allow systems to adapt – technology will have a marginal impact. How do we change education? Easy. Empower the primary agents of change: teachers. Instead of dumping technology down the same old chains of power – use technology to give teachers more control of their classrooms, allow them to explore, make mistakes, analyse, improve, and share the lessons they learn with their piers. Look at Denmark and Finland, where schools and teachers have the autonomy and resources to lead innovation. The next step? Train teachers as learning designers – provide them with the knowledge and confidence to conduct bold yet rigerous educational experiments in their classrooms.

 

During the past year, you have been leading the Open Education Challenge to support edtech startups and foster innovation in education. During the camps in different European tech hubs, you’ve met many local leaders working in the field of education. Have you noticed any trends in these ecosystems? Are you aware of any initiatives taken by the European governments to support innovation in education?

 

In all cities we were amazed and inspired by the incredible vibrancy and energy of the local educational innovation community. Helsinki feels like a small village where every household runs a startup – Mum is the technology guru, Dad the designer, the Son is a school teacher who tests the products and publishes academic papers and the daughter jets around the globe cutting international deals. Barcelona is one big, laid back family. Government, academia, and industry all meet for long lunches and exchange ideas about innovation. Change happens, but there’s no rush.

 

Berlin is a hub of incubators and accelerators. Get off the U bahn, say you want to set up a startup, and someone will offer you an office space. In France, the government likes to keep things in order. On one hand, it encourages innovation through initiatives such as the Canope Network and the FUN consortium, on the other hand – grassroots initiatives are faced with strong barriers.

 

London is a centre of activity in academia, industry, finance and non-profit organisations. It hosts self-organised communities in domains such as edtech and edgames. The British educational system seems to be in transition, which would suggest opportunities for innovation – but the direction of that transition is a bit unclear.

 

What are the main challenges edtech startups are going through? Have you noticed any patterns?

 

The three main challenges an aspiring edtech entrepreneur needs to confront are design, implementation and funding. Well, duh, right? Aren’t these the big challenges for any entrepreneur? Yes, but education is harder. 

 

Design: any innovation needs to blend in to existing systems of human practise and then transform them. Educational systems are extremely complex, and change dramatically from one country to another – or even within a country. For an innovation to be relevant, the innovator needs to have a deep understanding of the system she wishes to penetrate, a clear view of the critical “pain points” within that system, a valid solution to some of these and a path for change. Some educators, or educational researchers, have this knowledge, but they don’t know how to realise it. 

 

Which brings us to the second issue – implementation: once you have an idea for an educational innovation, you need to develop your prototype, turn that into an MVP, test it, and gradually grow your killer product. There are many talented engineers who can do that. Very few of them understand educational systems and practises. Then there are the visionary educators, who don’t have a clue about product development processes. To make things even more interesting, schools will rarely allow a product that hasn’t been fully tested through the door, creating a catch 22 for developers: if you can’t get access to testing grounds, how will it ever be tested? 

 

Funding, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. Build a better logistics application – and the financial benefits for the companies who purchase it are immediately evident. Develop a good first-person shooter, and gamers will cash out gladly. In education, a good nursery experience can increase your happiness or employabilty as an adult – that’s wonderful, but it means (a) the effects of an innovation are often removed from the intervention by many years and (b) the people effected are not the ones paying for the products. Add to this a fragmented and over-reguated market, and you can see why investors are cautious. That said, there are some inspiring success stories. Sadly, most of them in the US.

 

Sounds like many challenges for entrepreneurs to overcome! Luckily, we see more and more founders with a desire to create a change in education. If there is only one advice you could give to one of those founders, which one would it be?

 

Connect with your users. As soon as you can, as often as you can. Never work on the basis of assumptions – always validate your ideas by translating them into things (sketches, demos, prototypes, MVPs…) and putting those things in the hands of the people you think will use them. 

 

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