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A year in edtech

We ask some of the sector's experts, was 2016 a success for edtech, and what developments can we expect over the months ahead?

Posted by Hannah Oakman | December 17, 2016 | People


  • John Jackson, CEO, Grid for Learning
  • Dave Saltmarsh, Global Education Evangelist, JAMF Software
  • Jeff Rubenstein, VP Product, Learning and Collaboration, Kaltura
  • Sophie Bailey, Founder, EdTech Podcast
  • Matt Walton, Chief Product Officer, FutureLearn
  • Martin Hamilton, Futurist, Jisc

Q. What do you think was the most significant edtech development in 2016? 

John Jackson: The main thing we’re seeing at LGfL is the acceleration of cloud technology in schools. This opens up a lot of possibilities in itself; cloud platforms offer the tantalising opportunity to transform teaching and learning-enabling collaboration, flipped classrooms and blended learning; the cost of supporting tech is lower, meaning less spend on administration protecting front line teaching; and cloud services can operate across schools irrespective of geography as well as on the move or home. Given the cost and benefits to schools I expect G Suite and Office 365 adoption to accelerate even further.

Dave Saltmarsh: There has been a greater awareness around the failure of BYOD and low-capable tech to support transformational equity improvements.

Jeff Rubenstein: First, I would say we saw the start of a major move to the cloud in higher education.

Second, and this is very much a work in progress, I think we’ve seen a mental shift toward greater understanding of the potential of predictive analytics – a potential that now needs to be realised.

Sophie Bailey: For me, this is the edtech community re-organising to be more resilient, relevant and proven in the face of a new global political and educational landscape. We know that on the supply side in 2016 investment is slowing, consolidation is likely, and there has been a return to more traditional politics and policy in the West. This translates to edtech innovators really needing to define what they are about, being more critical on spend or revenue-generation business models and proving their worth through efficacy trials. 

We have seen entire swings in policy from (in the US previously) focused digital content delivery to (in the UK currently) a return to the textbook. On the demand side, budgets have been cut and educators and institutions are having to think far more critically about what they really need and why; the shift in the UK appears to be away from device purchasing and towards quality content for those devices. 

Matt Walton: We’ve seen more universities moving more of their core business to MOOC platforms this year. Degrees that can be delivered online are a game changer in terms of giving the opportunity for education to many more people than have ever had access to it before. In May, we began offering FutureLearn programmes offering pathways to degrees and micro qualifications in their own right.  

This increased use of MOOC platforms also opens up other professional micro-credentials to learners, which are increasingly being recognised by employers who, in a market where more people have degrees, are increasingly looking at short courses to differentiate between candidates and with more specialist skills that they can bring to the job.  

Overall, we’re also seeing a shift from early adopters interested in technology and education to mainstream adoption of education delivered online. Our market research shows us that 5% of the UK adult population (around three million people) have already taken a short online course and that another 9% are planning to in the near future. This is a big number considering it’s less than five years since the launch of the big MOOC platforms. We’ve reaching a tipping point and I think we will see a radically different range of education opportunities emerging over the coming years.  

Martin Hamilton: This summer it emerged that children in over 400 schools across London are being exposed daily to dangerously high levels of pollution. Of course, this is also a serious problem in many other countries like China and India, with New Delhi the most polluted city on Earth right now. Against this backdrop there’s an interesting new start-up called Learnometer, which I believe has created one of the most significant edtech developments of 2016.

The Learnometer team have built an inexpensive piece of hardware designed to assess the impact of the physical environment on a student’s learning. Data gathered includes light and noise levels in a lecture theatre as well as air quality. The data from multiple Learnometers can be used for benchmarking and peer-to-peer comparisons through a cloud-based analytics engine and dashboard.

“There is nothing particularly new about the technology that Learnometer is using, but thanks to miniaturisation and economies of scale it’s now available at an affordable price point that makes Learnometer almost an impulse buy for any school, college or university that wants to get a better understanding of the physical environment in which learning takes place. The research that Learnometer is based on shows that simple things like where a student sits in a classroom or lecture theatre can have an impact on their learning outcomes, as well as obviously drawing on even bigger issues like whether it is actually safe to send your kids to school today with the levels of pollution for example.

Q. Were we successful in reducing the digital divide this year? How do you think we can improve on this in 2017?

John Jackson: We’re seeing the digital divide close in a few key areas. SEN provision has really improved over the past year particularly when it comes to improved content. We’re also seeing more technology to help bridge the gap between disadvantaged children and other children. LGfL’s pupil premium checker has, for example, helped to identify approximately £2m in pupil premium funding currently not being claimed by schools.  

Dave Saltmarsh: We now have a better understanding of the cause and effects in implementing certain technologies and how this impacts the digital divide.

This divide is being widened by the provision of low capability technology and poor BYOD management, particularly in low income communities. This is disproportionate to learners from higher income communities, who are able to benefit from access to more advanced devices and better connectivity, which, in turn, is helping them to have greater access to resources on campuses and at home. 

Jeff Rubenstein: The digital divide is lessening as technology becomes easier to access and more intuitive and necessary for usage. 

Sophie Bailey: In short, no. I don’t have the figures but initiatives like the Connect Home initiative in the States and Digital Inclusion Champions in the UK exist for a reason. It is a complex issue and although equipment can be purchased for school by school, that doesn’t account for lack of access in the home. This brings into question otherwise excellent learning opportunities like flipped learning. 

To improve on closing the digital divide or just attainment gaps generally, I would like to see more attention given to innovation and investment in the early years area, where £ for £ investment spent in the years before six years old is shown to have the most positive social, developmental and economic correlation. We need to challenge the current paradigm where investors want scale and scale means large-scale institutions e.g. K-12 or HE, leaving early years behind. The actual potential for positive change, proven through collaborative projects such as EasyPeasy or up-coming with the Western Cape Government in South Africa could have better consequences than retrofitting later down the line.  

Martin Hamilton: After a lengthy gestation period, this was the year that the BBC’s micro:bit finally reached the hands of a million schoolchildren across the UK. If you hadn’t heard about it before, the micro:bit is a credit card-sized computer developed to support coding and digital literacy in schools. It was developed with support from Nominet and the IET, as well as leading tech firms like ARM, Microsoft and Samsung. The micro:bit Educational Foundation has now announced that it will be rolling it out across Europe and beyond, which is very exciting. But this is really just the beginning – how many of these children have the support and the environment that they need in order to really get to grips with the technology and understand its potential? One way in which I think we can continue to close the gap is by universities working with schools to support digital skills and digital literacy. This is something the government is encouraging and I think could have a huge impact on children if they are given the opportunity and access to some of our best technology facilities and equipment from an early age. At the recent Edtech UK Global Summit it was very interesting to hear how the Ministry of Education in Italy is creating a makerspace in every school across the country – perhaps this is an initiative that could be adopted more widely.

Q. The computing curriculum has now been in place for over two years, has it proved to be a success so far, and how do you think we will we see this evolve in 2017?

Dave Saltmarsh: The US is catching up with the UK in recognising the need to introduce ‘coding’ to all students at all levels. We will see this evolve with training for teachers and the introduction of programmable robotics that are tied to visual programming commands so that learners can better understand the physical outcomes for programming. As a result, we will create more varied learning environments, which are not purely screen-based and which will be more engaging for all learners.

Jeff Rubenstein: Technology adoption, and the focus on empowering students to contribute content and to contribute to tech development, has been amazing this year. 

In 2017 the focus on creating a seamless digital experience for students and instructors will be top of mind.

Sophie Bailey: I don’t think any educators will argue over the need to equip students with digital skills. However, the push-back I have seen is on the lack of nuance in the curriculum with too much potential focus on programming and coding definitively, as opposed to the collaborative skills and logical reasoning that comes with computing and digital skills. Whilst previously lack of teacher support in this area has been a criticism, I think two years in there are many resources, both self-created and external, that teachers can draw on to help deliver computing lessons whether that’s something like CAS, third-party manuals or even a game like Human Resource Machine. In 2017, I think the pressure to make more of this opportunity and to be more ambitious with the curriculum and the creative elements of it for arts etc. will continue to be explored.  

Martin Hamilton: It had been clear for some time that the old ‘ICT’ approach to computer education had significant limitations. The new curriculum ensures that learners are exposed to computational thinking and key coding concepts. However, the whole subject area is still evolving at a rapid pace and it would be a mistake to think of the computing curriculum as a done deal. 

Of course, it’s very important that learners are able to move beyond computers as black boxes and have an understanding of how they work, but at the same time there are a wide range of digital skills that our economy needs, not all of which involve coding.

I think we will ultimately need to develop a more holistic approach to digital literacy. The skills required for using digital technology in art and music are quite different from those involved in managing servers and databases and ultimately most of us will be consumers rather than producers of code or apps. Perhaps the most important digital skill will turn out to be having the ability to ask informed questions of developers and suppliers.

Q.  E-safety is still a key issue in schools, with cyberbullying presenting a huge problem. What steps can we take to tackle this? 

John Jackson: Online safety remains a key issue, to tackle cyberbullying fully, schools need to begin with leadership and make it a clear priority across their departments, and ensure that appropriate training and development is in place. Children, too, need to be educated on how the technology they’re using works and the risks attached to it. For those still worried, there have been some excellent resources developed by the likes of Childnet, information from parents and teachers can also be found via the LGfL online safety portal.  

Jeff Rubenstein: Making sure that students understand that virtual spaces are not spaces free of personal responsibility; and having authority figures as present as possible in those spaces.

Sophie Bailey: The first one would be acknowledging that there is an increase in wellbeing issues within young people. Creating a decentralised system of support for students by students may allow resources to get to those who need it – things like eCadets etc. Educators also need to know what platforms cyberbullying is happening on so they are not ‘blind’ to what is not happening in the playground. At early years, companies like Creatubbles are looking to try and allow places where students can share their work and connect with others in a controlled environment. I don’t think banning devices is an effective approach; 51% of teachers surveyed in BESA’s recent ICT in schools report said they required training in e-safety issues. With things like sexting, we need to – as a nation of guardians and educators – get over any prudishness and arguments of ‘delaying sex education’ if we are to offer our young people the support they need. Just putting our heads in the sand – the equivalent of ‘ask your mother’ – will not work. 

Martin Hamilton: Technology can go some way in protecting children online, by means of parental controls, privacy settings and passwords, however, ultimately this is a human issue. It’s the same as any activity with children, if unsupervised the potential will always be there for them to consciously seek out or simply come across something inappropriate or unsuitable. If parents don’t understand what Snapchat or Instagram is, or what ‘griefing’ means on a public Minecraft server like Hypixel, they are going to struggle to protect their children from the potential risks. Parents should encourage their children to embrace technology, but like many other activities this is better enjoyed and understood when done together.

That being said, I do think that ‘starter’ social networks aimed at children can be very helpful in giving learners a safe space to explore building an online persona and interacting with others online. In addition, the success of services like eCadets show that a pupil-led approach to discussing e-Safety can be highly effective – meaning peer-to-peer learning rather than knowledge handed down from on high.

Q. BYOD adoption continues to rise in our schools and universities. How can we ensure we further reduce the data security risks associated with this next year?

Dave Saltmarsh:  I believe we will see a natural decline in BYOD – largely due to the concern over e-safety and the failure to support the many layers that contribute to the digital divide.

There are steps that teachers can take now, particularly with Apple devices. The Apple Classroom app provides teachers the benefits of monitoring students’ progress without sacrificing student privacy. 

In terms of balancing access privileges and privacy, Apple device management also lets school leaders gradually allow an increase in responsibility that should lead to a growth in students’ learning and ability to mature in a safe digital environment. Privileges or restriction are no longer all or not, or a one-size-fits-all.

Sophie Bailey: BESA’s latest ICT in schools report showed ‘concerns over security’ as the biggest barrier to cloud-based storage. 

As more services move to the cloud and interact with BYOD this is something schools and universities will need to negotiate. It would seem there is a pay-off between the benefit of user-adoption of services/devices with familiarity versus proprietary services and devices which may have less uptake but be more secure. A lot will come down to training of staff and students who use BYOD of the dos and don’ts. My personal view is people will always seek out the service or device which works for them. 

Matt Walton: Universities must accept that Bring Your Own Device is what student now expect. Students today are digital natives and they fully expect to be able to access content from any device and any location. This is what they’re used to in the real world of social media where all the sites and apps they use work seamlessly together. It is no longer realistic for universities to expect students to log in from a desktop computer on campus with a university email address. Providing a safe but simple user experience that meets the expectations of digital consumers, used to mainstream technologies such as Skype, Google Documents, Dropbox and Whats App, rather than forcing them to work around it is the best way to tackle security concerns.

Q. We’ve seen the rise of AR, VR and MOOCs in 2016, what new edtech trends do you think will emerge over the coming months? 

John Jackson: We’ll continue to see an acceleration of cloud platforms as the technology becomes easier to migrate to and use. I expect to see the rise and rise of predictive analytics and data to drive school improvement

The application of artificial intelligence and augmented reality is set to expand massively as the costs of this technology fall dramatically and this offers really exciting possibilities to rethink and redesign the way we teach and learn.  

Finally, I would also predict a drive toward lower costs for edge devices with Chromebooks becoming much more popular across the board. 

Dave Saltmarsh: If the previous questions are not addressed, namely high-calibre access to technology by all students, AR, VR and MOOCs will only be utilised by a small percentage of students who may already have advantages over those students less fortunate and only increase the digital divide.

Perhaps it is not AR but AI that we will see more of. Currently, we have the potential with mobile tech to be looking around the room to see how students are progressing. The scary part for many teachers is what to do next. Once they’ve determined half their class doesn’t understand a concept, how do they resolve the issue? In my opinion, the next step we’ll be seeing is predictive learning. Apps that can automatically review a student’s test results accurately, predict their learning style, and recommend class exercises or further applications based on that.

Jeff Rubenstein: The simplest measures are the best: making sure that teachers can keep up with the ever-changing digital landscape and continually providing them with the tools to easily create rich content.   That includes smartboards and podiums that record and distribute in-class lessons and make them available for students to review (or view for the first time due to absence).

Matt Walton: Social learning is a growing trend and we’re seeing others follow our lead on this. The social learning capability and approach to teaching of a FutureLearn course delivers a unique experience for learning as people from all over the world come together to study, discuss ideas and share experiences. This ability of an online course to offer people from diverse backgrounds and geographical locations the capacity to learn and work together also makes it very attractive for employers.  

We are beginning to see a growing interest from corporates in our courses and before long, we will be seeing more corporate-branded micro-qualifications whereby corporates themselves will endorse or create online courses. These will be not only aimed at their own employees but at a much wider range of learners looking to develop their expertise in a specific area and employers will use them to drive talent recruitment and retention. Just look at Dyson creating a university for engineers. This will pose a challenge for the traditional institutions that don’t adapt and embrace new forms of delivery.

As short online courses are becoming mainstream, I would expect that there is a growing standardisation of new, smaller credentials alongside that. Indeed, as the corporates continue to see the benefits of short online courses, industry bodies should start to accredit more of these new unbundled micro qualifications.  

Martin Hamilton: We won’t necessarily see lots of new technology developed next year, but instead we will see the existing technology becoming democratised and commoditised. High-end virtual and augmented reality hardware like Microsoft’s HoloLens and Facebook’s Oculus Rift has, to date, been only accessible to those with a sizeable budget, and realistically it is still early days in terms of building the developer capability to fully exploit these new platforms. However, the plethora of platforms are a real challenge, with new ones coming along at a fast rate of knots, like the recently launched PlayStation VR. The runaway success of Google Cardboard has shown that VR doesn’t have to require £1,000 headsets and workstation-class PCs. Cardboard works by taking advantage of the increasingly sophisticated hardware that already exists in smartphones. This plays very well to the combination of high-end specs and budget pricing that we have seen recently from Android OEMs. Whilst the end result is something that you wouldn’t want to spend hours at a time using, it is actually a very good match for classrooms and tutorials. The Google Expeditions app has shown that this approach can be highly successful, offering teacher-led interactive VR field trips to places ranging from Machu Picchu to the International Space Station. Expeditions has reached over a million learners in 11 countries over the last year or so, and I think this is a great way to inspire both teachers and learners alike. 

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