What’s preventing innovation in education?

Technology has yet to make a major inroad in the education industry, but that could all be about to change...

By William Zhou, CEO of Chalk.com

In an era where Uber is pushing out local taxi companies and Airbnb is offering an increasing choice in accommodation, technology seems to be ever present in many aspects of our lives. 

Many industries such as retail and finance have been entirely transformed by technology. Jobs are disappearing and roles are changing. However, technology has yet to make a major inroad in the education industry.  

While some hypothesized the reduction of teachers and the rise of online courses, others pointed to the lack of spending in the education industry preventing innovation. Over the past few years, massive open online courses have helped democratize education, but much of education has stayed the same. There’s also no shortage of spending as the US alone spends more than a trillion dollars per year on education.  

Technology will certainly make an impact in education, just not in the way people may think. A walk down memory lane can teach us where technology can really help with education. 

In 1926, Sidney Pressey, a cognitive psychologist at Ohio State University, invented a machine that had two modes of operation: teach and test. Through this machine, after reading through material in the teach mode, a student flicked the control to the test mode and proceeded to answer by pulling down one of four response keys. 

To give the illusion of progress, the machine scored the response and recorded the number of correct answers. A reward dial could be added so that when a student got a certain number of correct responses, a piece of candy would drop into a small dish for the student. Students worked at their own pace and learning was individualized. 

This invention was called the teaching machine

Unfortunately, we do not see these teaching machines sitting on top of desks in classrooms. It turned out that teaching machines do not build more resilient, creative, entrepreneurial or empathetic students. Nor do they build on skills like critical thinking or creativity. 

These adaptive learning systems are reductionist in nature and primarily focus on those things that can be easily digitized and tested. They fail to recognize that high-quality learning environments are deeply creative, human-oriented, inquiry-based, and emotional. 

A high-quality education is one that captures the imagination, engages the learner, and builds on skills. Beyond this, personalization has been identified as the vital next step for education, enabling the next generation of students to develop the skills needed.

Equal opportunity in education means that the system shouldn’t hold you back or leave you behind. It shouldn’t rely on rote memorization to teach fundamental skills. Instead, the system needs to accommodate your needs to give you the best chance to succeed. 

 A high-quality education cannot be automated or mass produced; it must be personalized by a professional who understands the readiness, interests, and preferences of each learner. Why? Because learning is innately human. The problem is that this has not been possible at the K-12 level within the current system. We would all be better off with one to one instruction, but you simply can’t have 30 teachers per 30 students. As a society, we simply don’t have the resources for it.

Technology’s role is to scale best practice and personalisation

In 1997, Garry Kasparov, a Russian chess Grandmaster and then World Chess Champion, and IBM’s Deep Blue were pitted against one another in the battle of the century, man versus machine. Now, I’m sure many of you know that IBM’s Deep Blue won. Computers had triumphed over humanity to forever dominate chess. Although a computer could defeat a human, it turns out that computers PLUS humans are even better than computers alone.  

This was repeated recently in the game of Go with Google’s AlphaGO Lee Se-dol using deep learning algorithms. Go players learned several unconventional moves from those games. This is becoming more and more common in fields other than chess. In fact, IBM is positioning Watson – of Jeopardy fame – as a way to help medical, legal, and business professionals make decisions.

Back to education

Technology can help education in two main ways. The first is that teachers are overwhelmed with work. When used right, technology can help teachers save time. One great example is allowing teachers to more easily collaborate on lesson content. This transfer of knowledge and techniques is especially helpful for newer teachers. Technology also dramatically reduces the friction required for teachers to collaborate over large distances.

The second way is by giving educators insight into their classrooms and their students’ needs. Personalizing an education for every student in a 30-student classroom is impractical, teachers don’t have that much time.  

Technology can give insights to teachers, allowing them to cohort their students into 5-6 smaller groups that have common interests. Teachers are then able to differentiate their instruction to these groups. It might not be one to one instruction, but it is personalization.

Education is a very personal and human endeavor. When you couple great teachers with enabling technologies using methodologies like blended learning, we finally have the tools and methods to achieve personalization at scale.  

When we do this, we’re not only bringing quality education to all but also helping give everyone an equal opportunity to participate in the future. 

This article was written in association with the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Accelerator. The WISE Accelerator is designed to support the development of innovative education initiatives with high potential for scalability and positive impact.