By May Woods
For emerging technologies and futurist start-ups, now is a time of unrivalled opportunity. The so-called disruptors must take advantage of the disruption. The chance is offered most clearly in the EdTech (Education Technology) sector: schools are closed, while parents, teachers and students are relying on technology for learning to continue.
In 2019, Metaari reported EdTech as a sector emboldened by demonstrative investor confidence. Last year saw $18.7 billion of global private investment in learning technology suppliers. The industry garnered attention not only from education sector veterans, but from cross-industry investors too.
Yet despite holding a clear stake in the future, EdTech’s limitations were apparent. Lesson plans are primarily virtual, and homework can be set on apps, but wide-scale adoption remained a challenge.
“Schools and teachers, already under pressure, can be somewhat resistant to change.” explained Paul Cuatrecasas, CEO of tech acquisition advisory firm Aquaa Partners and author of Go Tech or Go Extinct.
But Covid-19 transformed everything. Toptol predicted last year that online learning would accelerate in 2020. Renewed investment in platforms such as Outlier, MasterClass, Osmosis, Coursera, and Degreed suggested a renaissance of sorts. Now, learning is only online.
The uptake of innovative learning platforms such as BluTick has ballooned. BluTick’s A.I.-powered learning offers the entire maths curriculum for ages 11-16. Students are guided towards problem solving, mistakes are identified in real time, and students benefit from intelligent line-by-line feedback. BluTick, like many of its competitors, has offered its platform for free in light of current circumstances.
As parents struggle to substitute for teachers, web apps such as Floop are also booming. This platform is designed so that educators can give specific and meaningful feedback to students as quickly as possible. Students send pictures of their work to the teacher, highlighting the areas they require help with. The teacher types constructive comments anchored to specific parts of the photos, triggering a feedback loop.
Investors like Cuatrecasas are clearly impressed by the transformative potential of EdTech apps:
“Uplearn claims to guarantee every student an A*. What parent isn’t going to be impressed by that!”
Further enthusiasm, though, is reserved for the sector’s potential: one that will be unlocked when 5G is rolled out and fully operational.
Cuatrecasas is betting that the near future will see remote learning experiences brought to life with haptic holograms, and enhanced by augmented and virtual reality.
“Holograms, for instance, will allow the teacher to be projected into your home. Thank goodness we already have screen sharing and video, so that there is some sense of real-time interaction with students. But with holograms, the teacher will be actually in the room.”
Then there’s the possibility to fuse holograms with haptic technology for a heightened sensory experience.
“Haptic is feeling. So, you can put a suit on and feel someone touching you, or you can touch someone else. That technology is advancing very rapidly. We’re going to have almost all of the senses, so we can feel like we’re there. And that’s one of the biggest promises for EdTech.”
But while investors, futurists and tech enthusiasts hedge their bets on EdTech, legacy institutions should not be underestimated. Many have been rolling out innovative responses to the crisis. The BBC’s Bitesize, often considered a clunky relic of old-style online learning, has announced a new daily service. The platform, Bitesize daily will offer fourteen weeks of curriculum-based learning for kids across the UK, with lessons taught by an impressive roster of famous faces. Sir David Attenborough is helping youngsters to learn about the oceans and mapping the world, while Professor Brian Cox teaches key science topics including force and gravity. Danny Dyer will handle KS2 history, while Sergio Aguero, Manchester City’s star striker teaches counting in Spanish. The broadcasts target six age groups, from 5 to 14, and are enhanced by online resources.
The BBC’s offerings demonstrate two things. Firstly, that despite this huge opportunity for tech-driven start-ups, primacy in this young market cannot be assumed. Secondly, that this crisis has fundamentally shifted the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ regarding the design of education solutions. It has laid bare the potential of technology to maintain interactivity and engagement. Joe Wicks has become the nation’s PE teacher overnight, with households across the UK (and increasingly the globe) tuning in daily via YouTube. As the pandemic eases its grip, our minds will turn to climate change. Must we all return to our dreadful commutes, to the pressures of the school run? In the long term, this shift is likely to spell the demise of the traditional classroom.
Instead, says Cuatrecasas, the increase in parents working remotely will result in an emergence of ‘hybrid schooling’; whereby learning is split between the physical and the home-based virtual classroom.
As such, it is imperative that the race to offer innovative education solutions is propelled by strategies to address opportunity imbalances. It is widely understood that children from poorer homes face an education gap: one which starts before school, but widens over time. While technology can act as a leveller, those without access to strong broadband, or future 5G networks, will miss out. The result will be a potentially fatal hindrance to the development of underdeveloped areas.
“It’s an incredibly important point” agrees Cuatrecasas. “The big risk is that all of this will enhance the social divide, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.”