Relationships before scale: The true power of EdTech

Saving young minds: the work of educators (Image: Touchstone Pictures)

I arrived in graduate school as a mathematician on a mission. I had just spent eight years learning and teaching mathematics, and had long struggled with a disconnect. Maths brought me so much joy and success, yet it was feared, despised and often misunderstood by society at large. So here I was in grad school, pursuing a Master’s in Education and searching for ways to reform maths education. My professor told me something that year that’s always stuck with me:

“As educators, we’re in the business of saving minds.”

It was an inspiring thought, but also a daunting one. The world is a large place; there are billions of minds to be saved. So I was naturally drawn to the challenge of scale. How do you take what works and deliver that to students all across the world?

Those questions led me to my current role as Head of Product at Whizz Education. We offer a virtual tutoring service to learning communities the world over. The online, adaptive Maths-Whizz tutor currently reaches 150,000 students in eight international markets.

My work endows me with a sense of power. Any changes I implement to our product stand to impact hundreds of thousands of students around the world. That will hopefully become millions and (who knows?) billions of students as we grow to serve more learning communities. Talk about scale.

And yet, I am troubled by this numbers game. I see large swathes of the EdTech community lurching towards scalable models, apparently unaware of the trade-offs.

The most basic challenge with serving more students is that the promises of personalisation — the very promises EdTech solutions are predicated on — are compromised.

EdTech advocates (really, just tech advocates finding their opportunity in Education) relish scale, even if it means lowering the bar. They make outlandish claims of what their solutions can do. Knewton believes it has a mind-reading robo tutor. It doesn’t — it just has a depressingly simple conception of a child’s brain.

My work in EdTech is juxtaposed with my own journey as a mathematician. For me, the bar is every bit as high as I experienced it. My eight years of studying mathematics at university was the stuff of dreams. I thrived, I toiled and I persevered through multiple degrees, culminating in my doctorate. But I earned more than stamps on my resume (though they have surely helped). I earned an identity.

Throughout primary and secondary school, maths was something I studied. I learned my methods, passed my exams and received my grades. But at university, maths became more than a subject. It became a way of thinking and being; something I proudly identified with and approached with gusto. I became a mathematician, and I will always remain one.

This evolution owes its debt to the relationships I enjoyed with my tutors. At school I faced an apathetic instructor whose enthusiasm for maths was, frankly, underwhelming. As an undergraduate, I had the privilege of working under some of the best minds in mathematics. What furnished my university experience was the close interaction I had with my tutors. Every tutorial was a conversation with a mentor. Every single one challenged me and uplifted me. My tutors expressed a sincere commitment to my intellectual development. They made me believe that I was meant to study mathematics. They empowered with an identity and made me into a mathematician.

In her stirring TED talk, Rita Pierson reminds us that every child needs a champion. I was fortunate to find several. I do not believe a virtual tutor can ever be that champion. Even as technology evolves to take on deeper cognitive tasks, it will never provide the affective support that only a teacher can. Education is a fundamentally human process. Learning and teaching should be a shared dialogue built on emotion and empathy.

Teachers are, and always will be, the most powerful technology we have for supporting students.

But perhaps technology can be a great enabler of champion-teachers. We must design and implement digital tools in ways that enrich the interaction between a teacher and their students, and deepen the human connection between them.

Blended Learning pedagogies hint at this approach. The efforts of Michael Horn and others to codify the best practices of technology integration are laudable. But Blended Learning is hard, hard work.

At Whizz I have seen blended learning implementations all across the spectrum. I am inspired to see technology liberating teachers to spend more time connecting with their students. And at times I am dismayed that technology takes centre stage. It is a struggle to get this balance right.

The fate of blended learning — and EdTech in general — largely rest on our intentions, and on how we conceptualise learning and teaching. If we truly aspire to save young minds, then we have to place the teacher-student relationship at the heart of our efforts.

Our real power as innovators lies in empowering students with role models that can help foster their identity as learners. Scale must be a secondary goal, and it should never be pursued at the expense of human relationships.

Originally posted on my personal blog.

I am a research mathematician turned educator working at the nexus of education, innovation and technology. Come say hello on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you liked this article you might want to check out two of my other pieces: EdTech’s Culture Problem and The Teacher of Tomorrow .

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