Zzish: Engaging with edtech innovation

By Charles Wiles, CEO at Zzish.

In the 2009 remake of Star Trek, a glimpse of the future of education is shown in a young Spock learning at a Vulcan school. He’s being taught and mentored entirely by a computer. Although still science fiction, such technology may be closer to reality than people realise.

Schools and education authorities are constantly looking for ways in which to help children learn better and a fair argument is that technology in the classroom has not made a difference … yet.


One study published by MIT this year actually showed a negative correlation between student performance in exams and frequent use of computers and tablets in classrooms. But one method that yielded a dramatic improvement in student performance was personalised one-on-one teaching from a qualified teacher. Long live the teacher!

Not enough teachers

The problem is that there are nowhere near enough teachers to give every child one-to-one teaching. This is compounded by a recruitment issue in the sector [NAO, February 2016], particularly within STEM disciplines where the shortage of good teachers is even more acute.

Education is ripe for innovation, and it definitely needs it. Teaching and learning needs to be relevant to the next generation of students and teachers, and technology must be mobilised to make the process more efficient and engaging in order to curtail this critical decline. The good news is that technology is slowly turning subjects like maths — an academic discipline often deemed (by children and adults alike) as one of the blandest necessary evils of the national curriculum — into something that is captivating.

Why is disrupting the tedium important? The best of edtech fundamentally speaks in the language that children understand: gameplay, colour, interactivity and friendly competition. This drives motivation and funnels focus; it helps students develop an appreciation and even a love for learning which is crucial to unlocking a fascination in subjects that may lead to pursuing it at higher level or even later as a career. This is a welcome advancement in a sector short of good teachers.

We are starting to see innovation optimise personalised learning that will address both the broader problem of teacher shortages and the narrower problem of giving every child their own personal one-to-one teacher. Indeed, mobile learning is an emerging $38 billion market and presents an exciting opportunity for new players to create valuable businesses with meaningful social impact. There is an opportunity to innovate, and it is there for the taking.

Forefront of the revolution

Some of the UK’s new education technology companies are at the forefront of this revolution, and London’s Kuato Studios is a case in point. Everyone is aware of Apple’s Siri personal voice assistant, a piece of technology that was originally created at the Sarnoff Research Centre in California, licensed by a small start up acquired by Apple in 2012. Sarnoff had another project using the same core technology to produce a virtual teaching assistant and Kuato licensed that technology to try to deliver a commercially viable virtual tutor.

As with many innovations, the technology didn’t quite live up to the vision, and Kuato pivoted to deliver educational games. But the vision lives on …

With Google and IBM now producing ever-smarter artificial intelligent engines, the breakthrough may be just around the corner.

In principle a virtual tutor can do a better job than even the best teacher. A virtual tutor can know and remember, in intimate detail, every single exercise that you ever did and they can compare that to millions of other students in real time. They can compare the effectiveness of strategies used before on other similar students and they can deliver exactly the optimal teaching experience to help a student progress using big data and adaptive algorithms. A virtual tutor will never lose patience, will never tire and can always be there, 24/7. What’s more, virtual tutor can work out exactly the right thing to motivate each and every student.

Virtual teaching assistants

Data and algorithms have the power to really transform learning, but the job of such technology is not to replace teachers but to provide them with their very own virtual teaching assistant. Such an assistant can help the teacher know each student intimately, make recommendations for each student and help the teacher personalise their teaching individually.

Adaptive algorithms in their own right are an exciting area of progress here. Professor Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered what has since become known as the “forgetting curve” in 1885, but it was only in recent years that UK companies like Memrise and Lingvist then developed these learnings into algorithms that have made it into mainstream learning.

Professor Ebbinghaus discovered, through empirical observation, that if you learn a fact, then your likelihood of remembering it over time decreases exponentially. A further finding was that if you are asked to recall that fact just at the point of forgetting it, then the probability of you remembering it is pushed back to 100%, but, more importantly, the slope of the forgetting curve decreases and you will be able to recall the fact for longer. Indeed if you relearn a fact five to seven times you are likely to remember it forever.

Algorithms based on a technique called “spaced repetition” aims to select the optimal time to retest students so that they memorise and retain knowledge as quickly as possible. Lingvist, for example, which focuses on helping students learn vocabulary for foreign languages, claims that students can learn a language ten times faster using their software when compared to traditional methods.

Science of motivation

Another exciting area of innovation in education is gamification. Gamification is not fundamentally about turning learning into games, but it’s about applying the science of motivation to help students stay focused and motivated. In fact today’s leading games, whether it’s Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, use the science of motivation to keep players playing for longer. Setting and achieving small achievable and measurable goals and using social levers such as competition and collaboration are key drivers to motivation. These drivers are hard to apply in a normal school setting, but, when it comes to software, they become simple and natural features that drive usage, engagement and improvement.

Technology isn’t just, of course, about making learning more fun and more efficient. It’s also about employing technology in order to radically optimise the time and efficiency of a teacher who is increasingly weighed down by an unsustainable workload dominated by marking (DfE, Workload Challenge Report, 2014).

There are over 200,000 apps in the education category of the Apple app store, and a core failing of a vast majority of these is that they are not classroom ready. They do not collect data on student performance, nor provide teachers with a simple dashboard showing how students are doing well. All of that is about to change.

What if every single app that was created and currently available on this vast market was actually transformed into powerful tools with huge capabilities to motivate, tangibly improve performance and give the deep-dive analysis teachers need in order to support struggling students better?

Current transformative innovations being developed are doing exactly this; giving teachers access to valuable real-time data and insight into the classroom. In the past teachers would test their students at the end of a term or topic and only at that point would they discover what students really knew, by which time it was too late to do anything about any learning gaps students might have. Now teachers are able to get this insight instantly in every class and change their teaching immediately to address any issues. Technology of this kind is new, and it exists today. This is exactly what we are pioneering with our own venture.

While it will probably take until 2040 for technology like artificial intelligence and virtual reality to be incorporated within education apps to make the teaching and learning dynamic more immersive and thus engaging, there are some very exciting developing occurring in the sector that is set to change teaching and learning as we know it, for the better. We are still at the early stages of this revolution, but the implications of this change will go some way in curtailing the ever-growing teacher shortage.

Edtech venture Zzish is a software company that specialises in transforming all e-learning apps into classroom-ready tools and gives real time analytical insight on student and class performance.

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