EdTech in the classroom

Technology is predicted to play an increasing role in education in the next decade. Co-CEO Simon Sommer provides his personal view on EdTech, which issues need to be sorted out to make it work, and the role he envisages for the Jacobs Foundation.

What is EdTech for you, Simon, and why should we embrace it? 

In short, EdTech, or education technology, is specifically designed technological tools to support learning. We expect to see increasingly more tools being developed and used in the classroom over the next years. The Jacobs Foundation wants to embrace EdTech because, if used in the right way, it offers schools and teachers many possibilities including creating more inclusive classrooms.

EdTech can help learning to be adapted for the individual by adjusting to the strengths and needs of each student.

For example, one of our 2020 Best Practice Prize recipients, Dybuster, combines artificial intelligence with cutting-edge knowledge from neuroscience to help children with dyslexia and dyscalculia learn. Supporting every child’s learning goes to the heart of the work we do here at the Foundation.

Is it as simple as putting every kid in front of a laptop? 

Not at all! This could actually increase inequalities – not all kids have experience working with computers! I rather want to think of EdTech as a way to provide teachers with new ways of using tools in their teaching toolbox to reach every child in a group. Let me explain using an example. In one lesson a teacher may want the class to read an article and have a class discussion, but a classroom of 25 students presents several learning challenges at once.

Using EdTech, the teacher can offer scaled versions of the article and offer support for different learning needs. An audio version of the article might help a child with a below-grade reading level improve its literacy by hearing the passage being read fluently as it reads. A kid reading above-grade may encounter new words and need help with pronunciation, so audio helps here too. ESL learners hear the correct pronunciation and get reinforcement of grammar.

Of course a teacher could target each of these areas, but rarely at the same time in the same lesson! By using an EdTech solution, teachers can provide appropriate resources to children so they can learn what they need to learn at their level, every child has the opportunity to demonstrate understanding in a class discussion, and the teacher is freed up to monitor progress and facilitate the discussion.

So the goal of EdTech is to support rather than replace the teacher?

Teachers are a vital component of a classroom, and the next 10 years are about making technology support teachers and students alike. We should free teachers up to teach by, for example, taking over some routine, time-consuming tasks like marking. Teachers spend hours doing routine marking! If some of this could be automated, the teacher will have more time to invest in more value-adding activities such as lesson planning and teaching.

A further way technology can help is with evaluation and diagnosis – “Learning Analytics”. If teachers regularly perform short, technology-supported tests, we can track a child’s exact development and progress over time.

Clear tracking supports teachers to make key interventions based on diagnostic insights into gaps in understanding and repeated errors. Teachers could even see that a child does well on Mondays and Wednesdays, but poorly on other days, prompting new questions and interventions.

Does this mean that the days of testing to a standard are numbered? 

We will still need to test educational outcomes because governments, decision-makers, and education financiers still have to make assessments to ensure classrooms, schools, and districts are adequately resourced to perform. What is more likely to change through EdTech is that we can think of smarter indicators to use. Rather than testing math skills at the end of the school year on a pass or fail scale, we could measure the progress the kids in a single school, or single classroom, have made.

Some changes and structures happen at a larger level, and we need to understand the effects of school reforms as well, so we need better data on how kids perform. I would even hope to have more frequent data collection, for example, to understand how the pandemic has affected kids.

What work still needs to be done to bring EdTech into the classroom? 

There are still many issues to tackle. First researchers need to translate their work into actionable recommendations for educators, parents, and EdTech product developers. EdTech is more complex than simply gamifying learning.

Then there are regulatory and trust issues. Who owns the data collected, for example? Parents and kids need to trust the technology they are using. When you buy medication from a pharmacy, you know there has been a vetting process behind it. Nothing sold in a pharmacy will harm you, even if it is not guaranteed to help! There is nothing comparable in education or EdTech, so we need a credible system that is supported or accepted by the state. There should be a reliable system that looks at educational innovations and reassures parents, teachers, and school boards that the program is likely to work and won’t harm their children.

What is the role you see for the Jacobs Foundation in EdTech?

EdTech innovation tends to be private industry-driven, adapting quickly as technology advances. To roll EdTech out effectively, we need rapid and credible assessment processes because innovations are short-lived. If you start a traditional certification process when an innovation first appears and receives a lot of hype, it may be out of use by the time we have evidence to back it up. Whether certification should happen on a national or international level is another good question. We want to work with the industry producing education technology as a trusted broker between industry and users. This is something we are already working on with partners and it is a role we want to play in the future.

More about EdTech: https://jacobsfoundation.org/en/activity/unlocking-the-impact-of-edtech/