Edtech Meetup

I recently attended a panel hosted by the Irish International Business Network (IIBN) New York Chapter and Digital Irish titled “Back to School: EdTech.”

Here is the description of the event:

Education is the second largest sector of the US economy; however, it has changed less quickly than any other. Join IIBN-NY and Digital Irish on September 12th to hear how edtech utilizing AI, blockchain, VR is transforming the future of education and workforce training.

The moderator was Michelle Dervan, Principal at ReThink Education. The panelists were Aoife Dempsey (CEO, Waggle), Barry O’Neill (CEO, Touch Press), and Terry Nealon (SVP & GM of Follett Classroom Solutions).

Location

The event took place at Alley Chelsea, a workspace/community area in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. Alley touts themselves as not simply a mere coworking space, but a “platform” (for what, I’m not sure).

Highlights and notes

After Michelle introducted the panelists, we watched a video produced by BBC Worldhacks, “Schools of the Future,” to provide context for the discussion to follow.

After the video, the panel opened into a lively discussion.

Here are my notes:

  • Right now a huge amount of capital is flowing from venture capital into edtech.
  • The tech landscape has changed completely in the last few years.
  • Ideas are being taken out of big data space and applied to education and schooling. Edtech companies are using large data-sets. What are the pros and dangers of that?
  • There is a clamoring to get in to the space regardless of proven benefits.
  • Use case #1 for higher-ed: can you use machine learning to predict whether a student is on-track to graduate?
  • Use case #2 for higher-ed: develop “last-mile” programs for students to overcome the claim by employers that students are not prepared to enter the workforce. There is an opportunity in programs to get students trained-up, and provide access points to entry-level jobs.
  • We are seeing a trend toward social, mobile, and curation. “We don’t need a single bible of content” anymore. [No more textbooks.]
  • The average career is only 5 years. High burnout rate.
  • Teachers are not looking for big changes, only incremental additives that make their lives easier day-to-day. Things that save teacher time are the bottom-line.
  • The concept of aligning/teaching to standards is going to be wiped out within the next 4-5 years.
  • There is high learner variability so student profiles will become more of a thing. There should be solutions that allow student profiles to carry, but there are bureaucratic and legal challenges.
  • How to to overcome the “creepiness factor” (cameras on the wall, capturing every data point)?
  • There is a concept of voice-activated learning, or conversational learning, in which students can interact with bots using their voices.
  • 2018 is “The Year of the Chat Bot.”

EdTech Pitches

Finally, we heard brief rundowns from a few tech companies. Here are two I found interesting.

  • Initify is a contractor management system. Companies using software can create a portal system with forms, orientation material and training documents to help onboard contractors and temporary employees. It also allows organizations to manage contractors through their tenure.
  • KnowHowDo is a “lifestyle learning” platform. Lifestyle learning is a term used to describe how people teach themselves new skills, learn more about their hobbies, pass-times, etc. This company says they will help develop your course, produce it, and distribute it to prime market areas according to your content.

My thoughts

Preface

Whenever I hear an abundance of buzzwords (#AI, #Blockchain, #VR, #AR) attached to a thing, I’m skeptical. We see it frequently with new tech: enthusiasm and hype build, but go nowhere. Indeed, AI as a concept has been around for decades with the big breakthrough perpetually just around the corner.

How is this latest resurgence of AI any different from those that came before? Are edtech companies for real? Or are they baiting venture capitalists and school districts with flashy buzzwords? In the context of education, how can this “new” generation of tech help a child understand The Catcher in the Rye or solve quadratic equations? How can it help teachers teach this material?

What problem is edtech seeking to solve?

The problem, according to the panelists, involves teachers and students alike. Teachers are overworked, and burn out is high. Students lack material appropriate to their learning level and style. There is a set standard, or curriculum, and classes are taught against it—regardless of each individual student’s ability.

Artificial “Intelligence”

Part of the solution, according to edtech companies, involves the use of artificial intelligence—essentially computer programs, or algorithms—that perform predictive analysis.

What is predictive analysis? According to Wikipedia,

Predictive analytics encompasses a variety of statistical techniques from predictive modelling, machine learning, and data mining that analyze current and historical facts to make predictions about future or otherwise unknown events.

AI is great at learning patterns. Applied to the classroom, AI can quickly process patterns in the learning environment and generate highly-accurate student profiles. With this data, material students are presented with can be made hyper-relevant, or even personal. Meanwhile, teachers prioritize time more efficiently (if you only had 20 minutes with your students, you know exactly where to spend it). Data can be used to drive instruction.

Since teachers simply don’t have enough time or energy to devote personalized attention and analysis to every single student, I can see the obvious benefit.

Alt Schools

The main platform for testing and developing these ideas are Alt Schools. Alt schools are essentially a research product, or incubator environment, for this student-centric approach to teaching and learning. Alt schools apply concepts used in the big data space—bringing them into the sphere of education.

Near the end of the discussion, one audience member asked, “How do edtech companies make money?” The answer from the panel was that they sell their product to school districts. While schools districts frequently have limited budgets, there are funds reserved to solve “failing outcomes.” I interpret this to mean that schools set aside discretionary money for new or unique projects that could help in any way possible.

Blockchain

Blockchain technology was only lightly discussed. The primary use of this technology are systems that synthesize student performance data into a highly-accurate and robust student profile. This profile would follow students throughout their educational career, helping teachers, admins and students themselves track progress on a long time-scale.

Conclusion

This was a fascinating panel. While I still believe the ideal solution to the problems presented by the panel is more teachers (who have more support financially and administratively), the solutions presented were realistic and practical, and in the end forced me to put some of my initial skepticism to the side.

It’s impossible to forsee how this new generation of tech will impact education in the coming decades, but if it can help teachers and their students today, perhaps that’s a good place to start.

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