Review roundtable: Sophie Bailey
Charley Rogers speaks to the founder and presenter of The Edtech Podcast about how 2017 has changed the edtech landscape, and what's in store for 2018
1. What are your top three edtech ‘buzzwords’ for 2017? Why?
Efficacy: Efficacy isn’t new to the edtech agenda, but the launch of Educate and the Jefferson Education Accelerator in 2017 have brought the efficaciousness of edtech products and services back to the top of the pile for many in the sector. In the same way that ResearchEd and the Education Endowment Foundation have advocated evidence-based teaching and learning to educators, Educate and the Jefferson Education Accelerator are looking to support commercial organisations to push for outcomes-based product development.
The more recent focus on edtech efficacy has called to attention the lack of a marketplace comparison site for educators to review products outside of the traditional approach of “what does the school down the road do?”, whilst at the same time demonstrating the impossible complexity of such a ‘what works’ approach. That is, ‘what works’ is hugely dependent on a school and student’s particular circumstances and direct comparisons offer a limited view.
Budget: Not a traditional or sexy ‘buzzword’, but in the UK no discussion of edtech is complete without an upfront reference to depleted school budgets. A 7% decrease in school budget spend on ICT in 2017 looks set to continue with stretched school budgets prioritising staff recruitment and infrastructure maintenance as opposed to devices or content. In 2017 the knock-on effect has been multiple. There is a fear that the UK is at risk of losing its position on domestic education innovation and quality as a result of UK schools looking to international education to sustain their businesses.
From an edtech perspective, budget has also meant a squeeze on investment, with a well-reported lack of funding between angel and later seed rounds, especially within Europe vs China or US investment. Crowdfunding through platforms like Kickstarter, either including equity or without, has become more prevalent as innovators seek to get their products off the ground. We also saw the launch of Rocketfund within this context of budget squeezes in the UK. The Department for Education’s Edtech Group are due to announce on their strategy; whether the strategy comes with allocated funding will be of high interest in early 2018.
Future of Work and AI: Our education system is not yet adept at providing us with the agility to continually upskill that many forecasted future-of-work scenarios will demand. This is timely given future OECD PISA rankings will include a new category – ‘global competency’ – which will actively seek out some of these demanded skill sets. Much of the accelerated pace of change around ‘future of work’ comes as AI is brought into view as a force likely to change our employment landscape. Pearson and NESTA collaborated this year on a ‘Future of Skills’ research project which used a combination of machine learning and human analysis to forecast the most in-demand jobs and skills sets of 2030 in the US and UK respectively.
Interestingly, educators are one of the creative endeavours which is forecast to still remain in demand. However, we are likely to see more cognitive AI assistants being developed to work alongside us as learners to help with emotional needs, learning challenges and career decisions. Additionally, the post-secondary step is becoming more sophisticated with the ‘traditional’ university pathway challenged by higher expectation from students on value, which the introduction of the Teaching and Excellence Framework has helped accelerate.
Our ability to do well ‘off the paper’ of an academic CV is now being more thoroughly examined through neuroscience and AI-powered recruitment companies like Pymetrics. Networked certification and credentialling using blockchain technology, like Blockcerts, is also fast disintermediating the university-as-sole-gatekeeper-to-success model. The appetite for continual upskilling is seeing the growth of additional players, for example, 42 Courses on harnessing insights from within corporate organisation, WhiteHat and YourFeed on apprenticeships and showcasing young talent, and Makematic and Spongy Elephant on short-form CPD opportunities for teachers. The DFE’s own Flexible Working Summit is a reflection of the changing future of work and skills needs recognised in 2017.
2. What trends do you see emerging in 2018? Which innovations or companies do you think will take the lead?
Voice technology and language learning: I’m intrigued to see how increasing sophistication in voice technology will impact language learning. Products like Waverly Labs’ Pilot and Google’s Pixel Buds which can, in theory, use neural machine translation to more effectively translate languages in real-time. This has interesting implications for language learners, teachers and existing language and ELT products. Why slog through hours of learning a language via an evening class or app if you can understand a second language immediately? We are yet to see whether these services offer what they say they do, but it’s possible to already see how voice products like Alexa by Amazon are allowing language learners to practise at home and improve on pronunciation.
Chinese Edtech: I expect to see Chinese companies form an increasing percentage of familiarised education brands in the UK, US and the rest of the world. Companies like TAL Education are extremely well-financed and highly ambitious. Keep your eyes peeled!
Online Learning & AI: Online learning was one of the big trends of 2017, and I expect to see this continue into 2018. Online tutoring services, like VIPKIDS, showed exceptional growth and provided the sector with its first female-led edtech ‘Unicorn’. Whether human-to-human online language tutoring survives remains to be seen, but the wider trend of online tutoring still services a great demand in accessing education where bricks and mortar either fails on quality or accessibility. In 2017, artificial intelligence has become a normalised term, with world-leaders referencing artificial intelligence in the context of a ‘skills race’. In 2018, I expect this normalisation effect to trickle down into asking more of our educators in terms of digital leadership, but also AI becoming ever-more prevalent in hybrid learning services which blend instructor guidance and AI data-crunching across learning tools, assessment, and progression decision-making.
3. One of the trends we’ve seen this year is big data – what role do you think analytics will play in improving edtech applications moving forward?
This feeds back to efficacy. Analytics will give us a far greater ability to measure learner outcomes. Opinions on what works will no longer be enough; analytics will be able to pinpoint weak spots in curriculum. The ‘holy grail’ is for analytics to be able to personalise learning, offer continuous, less stressful assessment, and constantly improve teaching and learning. Big data in rote administration should also allow for the automation of routine tasks, freeing up teachers to teach.
Because of the depth of insight big data can offer, artificial and machine-learning capabilities will now become an expected part of edtech products going forward (largely expected by investors as opposed to the education community). However, it is worth stressing that we are still at the beginning of our journey of being able to carefully analyse AI insights, pick out bias, and use these tools to our total advantage.
The introduction of GDPR in 2018, along with changes to the ownership of student data, will see the pace of analytics developments qualified by attention to detail around student data, privacy and ownership. Whilst Silicon Valley races ahead with a merging in AI and human intelligence, the reality on the ground in schools will be quite different for some time. However, there is a sense that more should be done to inform education leaders and teachers about AI and what it means for education.
‘The chasm between the skills gap as a national priority and the on-the-ground reality is felt by tech businesses and schools alike.’
4. What would the ideal 2018 look like in terms of edtech? Are there any tools or capabilities of which you think the sector is desperately in need?
Edtech is still heavily weighted towards K-12 and HigherEd. I’m excited to see more innovations come online in the ‘future of work’ and skills sectors, such as those recently showcased by UFI’s Voctech event. However, the biggest gap still appears across early years, special educational needs, and elderly learners. Whilst there are multiple studies that show the benefit of investing in early childhood education, the focus for edtech here has been relatively little. However, new players like YotoPlay did join the fray in 2017, and Tal Investment has recognised early years as one of its focused funding areas.
At the other end of the spectrum, over-60s will soon account for our largest learner demographic in many developed countries. How do we account for them and develop services to support our learning from 60 to 100? The ideal 2018 will continue the trend of internationalisation of edtech, allowing for more domestic edtech to support local teaching and learning. We’ve seen lots of this documented already via the Global Edtech Census, HundredED, and new accelerators like Injini.
Finally, I would love to see more diversity in edtech from investors right through to product design, edtech venture leadership and uptake of products (e.g. digital leaders in schools). This is something @edtechwomenUK, an initiative brought over from Austin, Texas, and @WomenEd are collaborating on, among many others in the sector. Diversity from investment onwards has implications on who uses edtech products. As the advantages of technologies such as AI become greater, the digital divide will get bigger and ensuring a diverse user group among edtech will become ever more important.
5. What was edtech’s greatest achievement this year?
Edtech’s greatest achievement this year was having a look in the mirror and getting serious about measurement and efficacy. Edtech has also become better at co-creating products in tandem with educators. Both steps are necessary to progress the sector, which is still relatively young.
6. We have heard a lot of concern over the skills gap this year. How do you think the issue has progressed, and is 2018 looking any more hopeful?
The chasm between the skills gap as a national priority and the on-the-ground reality is felt by tech businesses and schools alike. Schools are still playing by DFE and Ofsted rules, and there was a distinct resurgence in traditionalism in 2017. This had implications for edtech, for example, Nick Gibb’s £41m for maths mastery – but only allocated for textbooks not digital resources – the discipline movement, and a potential narrowing of the curriculum, which combined may not support the Global Competency skills that the OECD – and our future work and creative scenarios – may be asking for. That said, 2018 may be more hopeful as the measurement of this category among PISA, and advances in how to assess it, feed into a UK Government which announces its intentions around edtech. But then, there’s always Brexit, potential cabinet reshuffles and devolution chats to take us back to zero again!
You can find listen to The Edtech Podcast here.