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Edtech can set students free from a one size fits all curriculum. But it needs judicious investment

LOcom_AuthorsEXT-McElvoy.png   By Anne McElvoy, Policy Editor at The Economist


The most stretching ideas in education are those that address gaps we feel exist but find hard to fill from our existing stock of answers.

To my mind, one of the most salient is the idea of the Leapfrog theory – the idea that the best achievers in future education reform will not simply follow existing practice, but learn from it and bypass it.

If we know populations who have been through established education systems find it hard to adjust to, say, changes in the workplace, it seems like a very bad idea to export the same limitations to emerging economies.

Rebecca Winthrop, Head of Education Research at the Brookings Institute in Washington, has extensive experience of working in emerging countries as well as the senior circle of US policy experts. In fact, she advised the Obama administration on expanding girls’ education globally.

She has diagnosed a “hundred-year gap” in outcomes – i.e., how long it would take developing countries to reach parity with the developed ones, if nothing changed in the way the problem was addressed. Her challenge:
 

To leapfrog in education we need to transform what and how children learn. Children need to develop a broad set of skills – both academic and 21st century skills


I wonder how this ambition can be channeled into programs or products that an ambitious policymaker, local administrator in education or school head could buy into.  What would Leapfrog look like in practice – and how might it evolve to become a central tenet of education systems?

Peer learning, where students learn by interacting with each other in person or especially online, for instance, is enjoyed by pupils everywhere– but remains a largely untapped resource when it comes to encouraging better results.

Adaptive platforms like Knewton, which modifies science and maths learning to fit the user, has led the way in crunching massive amounts of feedback into practical help: but the results are slow to reach classrooms.

At MIT’s media lab, Philipp Schmidt points out the dissonance in Europe and the US between pupils learning enthusiastically via Minecraft and YouTube – only to resist classroom teaching.
 

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© Christopher Adams

It is not as simple as hoping that gamification will turn learning from chore to joy – structure still matters and the best pedagogy needs to be fed into apps more effectively.

My daughter uses the Duolingo app to learn German. It has taught her how to go on a date – should the occasion arise in German. But it has not found an effective way to instill those pesky German gender designations, which, as Mark Twain complained, make a turnip feminine and a girl neuter.

If funky mobile phone apps do not engage with the task of imparting fundamental structure, they will always be an add-on, rather than a core technique for learners.  It’s not just a linguist’s moan – too few edtech solutions focus on defining the detail of their proposition, or update themselves quickly enough.

Another big pillar of concern would be the overly loose link between employers and edtech.
 

The industry tends to pitch edtech at schools as if that were an end point. It needs more strategic approaches to move beyond that – and help consolidate the link to better job outcomes


Switzerland is one of the few countries where it is easy to trace the impact of employers on the school system – and low unemployment as a result. 

The majority of Swiss adolescents commence vocational education and training (VET) after lower-secondary education across over 200 different professions, developing skills most other rich-world countries develop only in or after tertiary education.

We do not need to herd the young into career paths, but a lot of school systems (including my native UK one) have done a poor job at encouraging teenagers to start thinking early what their strengths and interests are. Nor have education systems encouraged students to consider what their best paths through apprenticeships, vocational training or targeted university courses might look like.

That is frustrating given edtech’s potential to use many more data points than one school or university has to find the most promising (and fulfilling) routes through education for young people.

And here is a killer irony: in an era of job disruption, the kind of flexibility that good business requires or successful universities exhibit peters out the further down the age range we go in education.
 

We need the very young generations to adapt more flexibly to knowledge economies, yet they are also the ones most tied into previous ways of studying and applying knowledge 


In too many systems I visit, the least interesting classrooms to watch are in primary schools.

What would education or edtech products that might address these shortfalls look like? I trust “small data” more than the big kind, because the macro-level solutions are, frankly, not yet proven. Iceland’s Infomentor, for instance, has helped teachers readily identify when pupils are drifting off or fail to understand a concept. No wonder it has been widely exported across Europe.

Pierre Dillenbourg at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne is a sceptical innovator. “Walk round one of those big fairs where companies are pushing their wares, and you have absolutely no idea: will this make a real difference to my outcomes?” he says.

Now he is trying a fresh “accelerator” approach: an edtech “collider” (the large Hadron has a lot to answer for in terms of accelerating jargon, I fear). It is a network of investors, experts, mentors and business partners, who will work together and pitch ideas that escape the edtech trap of being too tiny to make impact – and have the benefit of cross-hatching expertise as they go through funding rounds. Worth a look to see how it fares.

As well as focusing on the balance between edtech visionaries and business managers, the teaching profession has to grow. It should understand technology is a necessary support, not something to be dismissed or distrusted as a threat.
 

The best digital innovations will not “replace” the teacher, but it will change how the best teachers do their jobs


A final gripe: too much edtech to date has been predicated on a single piece of hardware. Expect that trend to fade. The Amplify tablet, produced by News Corp, which “personalized” learning for students by allowing them to manage class-work, go online and talk with other students,  was too expensive for schools to buy.  It was “a BMW, when we needed a Ford”, as one News Corp insider ruefully put it when the business was sold off.
 

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The “frugal innovation” solutions of learning on cheap mobile phones or androids have not yet achieved scale – and despite the hype, many will not because their quality is often too unreliable to be a pillar of investment.

The single biggest task for technological innovators is to deliver consistency and more solid proof of concept and testable results beyond the airless hype of the trade fairs.

That is not only a lesson for the developing world. All of us need to think more critically about the payback for our tax dollars, euros or francs.

If leapfrog helps others move past our failings, good luck to them in creating happier, more prosperous citizens – and a spur to our own prosperous countries too.

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