I’m talking about the really really floppy one on the far left. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Threats and floppy predictions at London Edtech Week 2017

I remember very clearly the day they rolled the first computer into our village primary school in rural England. It was a big deal, and this was made clear by the presence of the local priest who hovered over the new machine as it was wheeled into the classroom on a huge custom-made metallic frame.

With all us expectant kids crowded around it, he singled me out and told me off for touching it — “It’s not a toy!” I asked if it was his computer. It was not. Alrighty then.

We ignored the threats because we were good irreverent kids and as soon as the priest left, it became our plaything. My friend figured it out straight away and we raced through all the games. I’d like to say we marvelled at the floppy disk, but come on, put floppy in front of any word and do you feel excited? It was fragile and stupid looking and they didn’t even write what game it was on the label. There’s a good reason the drive got a hard prefix.

Not long later we’d run through all the computer had and abandoned it. The teachers didn’t know how to use it. They had found the budget for the beast and they did feed it a few more lame, unstable games, but, they did not (lord forbid!) use it to teach us how to code or explain how it all worked. It seemed pretty faulty as more often than not it didn’t load. I think I would have been expelled if I’d tried to pull it apart. So it took up space in the back corner of the room which, arguably, could have more usefully housed a bookshelf of maths and science textbooks, or a freshly stocked craft cupboard.

Our school had a kiln. When I discovered it, it became my favourite place after the climbing frames and the trees. We made things. We pretended we were TV presenters explaining to other kids how to make a clay hippopotamus. We would argue how to spell that animal’s name, what it looked like, where it lived and what it ate. We knew it was more dangerous than a lion. Class on craft days were less hellish than other days. We noisily made stuff and the teachers backed off.

It’s totally normal then, that anyone of or above my age would have misconceived concerns about edtech today. And maybe that’s why the three main points I got from London Edtech Week were pretty floppy and laced with threats.

Number 1: Get out of London, probably also the UK

The UK edtech scene needs to “step up” because school budgets have been slashed and teachers are less gullible. You’ll find it harder to persuade, so you’d better get good if you want any of that tiny budget to fuel your invention.

In fact, edtechpreneurs who have already semi-made-it are openly advised to hit the US and India markets, and not hang around here. What are you waiting for? :(

There’s only one edtech space in Europe and only one edtech accelerator programme worthy of the name (I find this hard to believe). But basically, you are on your own here, unless 1) you get lucky winning places and prizes on the few existing programmes, or 2) you have friends in the right places (I now know exactly where those places are if you’re interested), or 3) you are great, but I mean spectacularly gifted, at sales. The 4th option of course is that you already have a lot of money to blow on London rents while you’re tinkering with your idea or product.

Those close to the UK government said edtech is not to support learning but to cut costs in schools, with direct reference to teachers as the unseemly cost in the hefty budget lines. Although, did you know, the broken exam system costs £1 billion per year? And, did you know, if your kid gets an unexpected C you can pay to get the exam re-marked? It works, most complaints result in a higher grade. So now you know your kid won’t need an expensive top-up tutor for next year.

It’s a different story coming out of France. A young and vibrant team proudly launched the edtech observatoire with an open invitation to entrepreneurs, consumers and investors, from anywhere, to get involved. Allez les bleus! :)

Number 2: Learners don’t know how to learn, teachers can’t teach and the tech is stupid.

There was an emphasis on how bad students are at learning. Speakers were heard misquoting generalizations about “completion rates” taken out of context, and there was an emphasis on the ineffectiveness of education technologies, in general, because the learners and teachers don’t know how to use them and because the technologies are creating as many barriers as other systems.

Figures I heard (could be wrong), include: 51% of students can’t keep up with courses and 44% of Bachelor degree students in the US drop out.

The UK is now getting famous for lack of management skills. Workers are spending 61% of their time on non-productive work checking emails, attending useless meetings and looking for information; they only spend 1% of their working lives, i.e. 5 minutes a day, educating themselves to skill up for the impending and inevitable changes to their roles. No matter how much money is thrown at corporate learning systems, they are all based on 20 year old unwieldy technology that was never effective, and is now overwhelmed with content.

More UK problems

Artificial Intelligence is not a threat because you need human intelligence to get that to work and we’re nowhere near achieving that due to such poor education and lack of skills in this area. That probably was the most ironic takeaway of the entire week. And also not entirely true.

Some-one calling themselves a “philanthropist”, said, “If you are offending teachers and offending education ministers, you know you’re on the right track,” as if all the problems in education are solely caused by the incompetence of those with a hand in controlling education. They put across the assertion (without any evidence), that it’s only philanthropy funding risk-taking innovations in education, because corporations and governments don’t know a good thing when they see it and only smell the money.

But the so-called incompetent teachers’ concerns should on the whole balance out, because on the one hand UNESCO has declared that we will be 69 million teachers short globally by 2030 and on the other, automation in the shape of robots and teacher-bots will replace them all with what must be artificial stupidity(!), or is it natural stupidity(?) as artificial intelligence doesn’t stand a chance, or will kill us all, depending on who you listen to.

Number 3: The experts know how to do it, but no-one is listening

After ad-nauseum references to all the things that are wrong in education (yawn), it was good to hear some people saying we do know how to get this right.

Putting evidence to work would make the new systems work.

Sadly, they also say that few are applying that expertise systematically yet and not enough are looking at education technology as a systemic solution to a complex set of problems. This is despite those in the know being exceptionally generous in sharing their research, findings and entire fully-functioning and ever-improving iterative systems.

Evaluating innovation in learning outcomes is as simple as breaking it down to whatever you can test and find the evidence for, which is significant given the massive scale of data edtech is generating on education at an unprecedented rate.

The so-called impossibility of improving quality and measuring impact is blown out of the water for the fallacy it always was, with lots of tried and tested tools available. Still, few people are applying them.

Evaluation as a ladder rather than as a method for fearful critics to use as proof of failure against those innovating in education.

It wasn’t all bad, of course not

The three unexpectedly depressing takeaways paint a disappointing London Edtech Week. Of course there were many positives, but since they weren’t complicated they don’t stick out like sore thumbs. I can list them with ease:

  1. It was a networking event so I met some fantastic new people and made international connections that could lead to great things.
  2. It’s always helpful to take a feel of the pulse, even if it’s far more lethargic than expected.
  3. I did get the answer I was looking for on Blockchain — it’s happening. The proof of concept is done and my understanding that it will be fundamental to the new global education system now under construction has been confirmed.
  4. AI is coming, and it’s going to be great for learners, or should I say “customers”, since that is how students want to be treated from now on. Why shouldn’t we expect the service to match the fees people are paying?

One thing is certain and does now seem to be agreed by all, including those set to lose out. The school system designed to churn out workers to fuel the economy is doomed. Some people are confused how to build the new system, fortunately many others have good clarity and just keep rising to a higher scale.

Teaching based on rote learning of content decided on by government committees, and forced upon people according to nothing but their age, and ineffective testing, by lecturing teachers ordered to follow outdated curricula, is not working.

What is currently referred to as “traditional education”, (and now used in the most disparaging sense), dates back to the medieval ages, with a particular boost in the Victorian era when industrialization created a demand for a minimum set of skills for the general population to contribute to the surge in productivity.

There’s another revolution going on now, caused by a new wave of technology, that has created a desperate need to exponentially elevate the skills of the global population on an unprecedented scale at an unheard of pace. There will be quite some upheavals while those with vested interests in the current system resist the inevitable changes required to support people’s efforts to learn.

People are determined to find ways to contribute to the next hyper-surge of hyper-productivity required to solve the enormous global problems we have set up for ourselves, and for own kids, without mentioning the issues that need resolving caused by the astonishing ignorance of our parent’s generation. This is going to happen whether people like it or not. So I know which side I’m placing my bets on.