Ed-tech: The Redeemer


Education has become expensive and less effective, but there are some hopeful technological innovations which can potentially fix some of the issues

Technological innovation has managed to transform many industries and services. But among them, education has so far resisted drastic reforms from it. Many educational institutions still remain with the techniques and tools which have been used for a long time; pen and paper, textbooks and one or two teachers orchestrating classrooms, increasing in size year by year, at the front of the room. This form of education, in the midst of the digital age, is quickly becoming exhausted and ineffective. The increasing demand for university places, which is quickly becoming excessive, has caused the cost of higher education to rise dramatically. Private non-profit universities in the US have increased fees by 28% in the last decade, with public universities implementing increases of 27% as well. Along with the average tuition of private colleges reaching $30,000, student debt in the US has totalled to $1.2 trillion.

The picture in the UK is equally bleak; with overcrowding becoming more evident in the public school scene many parents try to gain their children places in private schools with smaller class sizes. But this is also a costly venture. Research from last year has found that the cost of putting a child through private education cost £286,000 over 14 years. Average day school fees have reached £13,194 per year, with London remaining the most expensive region with school day fees as high as £15,500 per year.

Increasing costs, derived from rapidly increasing demand due to tightening job markets, has made education as a whole a more expensive and riskier investment. But positive change is on the horizon. Education technology, or ed-tech for short, refers to the industry responsible for the developments in more effective programmes, software and electronics for the purposes of learning and educating. In 2012-13 academic year, the market value of the ed-tech industry reached $8.38 billion, up from the year before and the figure has been rising consistently. American ed-tech companies managed to raise $1.36 billion in 2014, up from the $1.2 billion generated the year before.

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are one of the more successful innovations which have come out of the industry. These are essentially free online courses utilising the web to offer intuitive learning materials, from recorded lectures to interactive user forums and programmes. Since first emerging in 2008, it has grown in popularity and capability. Many top universities, from Stanford to King’s College London, have offered course content online available for unlimited participation and open access. Several non-profits have also excelled. Khan Academy, an e-learning website founded by Salman “Sal” Khan in 2006, produces short lectures on a range of subjects, including math and science as well as economics and business. It has been recognised and praised by Bill Gates, whose foundation has invested millions of dollars into the site. Last year, it teamed up with Disney and Pixar Studios to launch education projects for kids.

One of the great advantages of these online courses is that they can be reached by a much bigger audience. Anybody with a PC, tablet or smartphone, can access the course materials without the physical constraints of classroom sizes. Nor do they have to rely on the availability of teachers, lecturers or professors to provide the resources; all of it can be accessed at any time and used as much as one may desire, much due to the concept unrivalled consumption that the internet offers. In addition, costs can be decreased dramatically, and in some cases, they can fall to zero.

As a result, MOOCs can offer opportunities to become better educated and equip people with more knowledge and skills, even to those who previously struggled to do so. Millions have enrolled in online courses in the past few years, with the numbers predicted to rise in the future. Despite this, course completion rates are extremely low. Statistics have shown that as little as 10% of MOOC students finished their online courses. It suggests that the system has not yet been perfected. Also, concerns that students may have other people take courses for them have also been raised, and the internet, unfortunately, makes it quite straightforward to cheat on tests and exams, more so than in the real world. Overall, MOOCs are not quite set to replace the conventional university, and time is needed to improve the service to make it more effective. “MOOCs’ pedagogy needs to improve very quickly,” says Sebastian Thrun, founder of the for-profit online education service Udacity.

Aside from MOOCs, advancements in machine learning and AI may help to develop educational programmes and electronic tools which can adapt to the best ways individual students learn. Some students may be better at understanding and remembering information in a visual format, or perhaps when it is read to them, or if they make their own notes. Increasing computer power may help to develop programmes suited to each and every student, and present courses and lessons in formats that they will be more likely to learn from. It prevents the likelihood of students losing interest in subject simply due to the unfavourable teaching methods designed to address the masses that fail to meet the specific needs of students.

Dawn of the Cyber School

There are many other technologies which have emerged from ed-tech. Another one includes learning management systems (LMS), which help to organise learning resources and allows teachers to assess the progress of its students as well as give instant feedback on homework and school work. These technologies offer a glimpse of education systems and means for learning that are more efficient as well cheaper and more accessible. Schools and universities are yet to embrace it fully and leave the conventions which have been around for too long. Ultimately, education technology is the future.