6 critical things to keep in mind when discussing edtech products

From learning management to language learning, more and more startups are trying to bridge gaps and build bridges in the increasingly global education market.

However, before venturing into the edtech space, there are several issues and pain points that entrepreneurs must keep in mind in order to reinvent the learning process with the right tools and for the right purpose.

  1. Learning how to learn as well as having a growth mindset is the most critical thing to develop

“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success — without effort.”

New teaching practices are designed to help students adapt to new situations and construct original understandings more effectively. Edtech can help them achieve that by building intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset (the belief that intelligence can be developed). The concept of a growth mindset was developed by psychologist Carol Dweck and tackles the perception of the self in an educational context to change skill acquisition, learning achievements and beyond. Edtech is about creation and development of the self, not observation.

To put this in perspective, amplifying the student narrative must be a priority to understand what is at stake in edtech and how it can empower the students themselves. EdSurge recently launched their own Medium publication, EdSurge Independent, to enhance critical reflection on education and edtech products, as the student voice is often missing from the conversation.

2. Edtech is critical to renew (and not replace) higher education

The idea of the university is diversifying and expanding, complicating the higher education landscape.

MOOCs did not bury the necessity of college education, and software isn’t doing that either, although it may unbundle the college experience gradually to focus on the true added value.

What are the individual and societal benefits of pursuing higher education? Colleges and universities have access to an ever bigger set of data about the way students interact with their learning environment. The question is now to learn how to tackle the new data and insights to make the most of this peripheral vision of the learning process of students. Sadly, the initial fascination reveals struggles with training as only 41% of colleges use data for predictive analytics: they must develop their own agenda, and be, beyond smart purchasers, thoughtful users. There is a growing need for a clearer view on those matters for educators and decision-makers alike in order to keep college education relevant and fill the capabilities gap: one must identify best practices in faculty-driven initiatives in order to make it relevant for all parties. Credentials are becoming one of the hottest topics in higher education.

3. Maker education matters outside and inside schools to move from curriculum to project-based learning

Maker education can also integrate the school curriculum and move beyond its current state of being confined to a room or hackerspace in isolation. Dependence on complex equipment is not necessary, as Albemarle County Schools have been showing in the US. More than machine, it is about incorporating maker’s ideals (collaboration, experimentation, creation). Learning and tinkering can be done anywhere with a low budget — it is just about giving a place and time for it to happen, and ways to showcase the power of creation.

FabLab@School is a Stanford-based global network that allows a deeper reflection on those new spaces, putting cutting-edge technology for design and construction, such as 3D printers and laser cutters and robotics, into the hands of middle and high school students.

“Such labs are a place for invention, creation, discovery and sharing, a space of inquiry where everyone learns and knowledge gets integrated into personal interests and daily life.”

4. Professional development opportunities for teachers are key, come in all shapes and sizes, and can also be driven from within an existing structure

Rapid change can cause teachers to feel like “perpetual novices”. How do you incorporate playfulness in professional development to rethink its purpose, which is not about disrupting but facilitating change? In New Zealand, The Mind Lab is an inter-disciplinary learning lab offering science, creative and technology programmes for school groups and professional development for teachers. The professional development programme delivers a postgraduate certificate in Digital & Collaborative learning for New Zealand teachers — a part time qualification to build on knowledge of emerging technologies and teaching methodologies.

Moreover, innovation is the catalyser driving changes from within. In Australia, the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL) is an innovation unit embedded in a K-12 school. It runs a range of programs and research projects that seek to transform educational thinking and practice both at NBCS and in the wider educational community.

Stephen Harris founded SCIL in 2005, with a vision to embed research and innovation into everyday school practice. This new paradigm which he aims to help schools moving with is one “where learning is personalized and collaborative, technology is adaptive, spaces are radically different to the traditional mindset, and a community built on positive relationships is at the core”. At the heart of the change is a profound learning culture facilitated by technology, space and pedagogy that empowers and engages students and teachers to change their practice and adapt to needs they have identified themselves.

5. Research and industry: the great divide?
Many of the existing programmes do not reflect international best practices. This is compounded by little engagement between research and industry. In France, the Lab School Network and Compas are trying to bring research outside the lab and enhance shared best practices. Many edtech networks do not fully engage with the educational expertise in the community to augment internal resources, resulting in a sub-optimal experience for entrepreneurs with few effects beyond general networking. One must take advantage of the expertise in various worlds and communities to create smarter products that take education through a scientific approach in motion, beyond common sense.

6. We must analyse the vested interests of algorithms and understand them to embrace personalization

Personalisation is the delivery of the right content at the right time. Whilst analytics can have a significant downside by mechanising the learning experience, they may enhance the current education quality in overcrowded classes. The key question now is to pinpoint what it truly takes into account (past answers, or interests?) and how it integrates within the brick-and-mortar, given the variety of school structures and timetables, from 365 day per year lab schools to classical models.

“Once something is algorithmically sorted, it is not about conversation but consumption” (Rob Horning). If algorithmic edtech brings instruction and assessment that is more efficient and personalised, we may wonder about efficiency as a goal as well as the values and vested interests reflected in the algorithms. Personalisation works by building specific profiles about us: disruption/revolution, if we do not worry about it accordingly, it may re-create power relations that are already in place, as well as worry technophobe parents.

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Edtech goes way beyond investment trends. Despite the recent drop in funding, we must focus on building the right products rather than a plethora of pre-packaged add-ons that make the space noisier every day.

The next several decades will alter the current work-life balance and make us perpetual learners. We must not be fooled by the “employability narrative” (George Siemens), whose effect would be to prepare our children for the workforce, when they should be prepared to respond critically and constructively to change.