Why educator involvement in edtech isn’t merely a nice idea.

GUEST COLUMN | by Vikas Pota

Last week we held our inaugural event in London, where two inspirational edtech entrepreneurs spoke about how they made the leap into starting their own businesses, what drove them to take on the challenge, and how they achieved remarkable results in such short spaces of time. They had one thing in common: both used to be teachers.

The growing trend of the “teacherpreneur” is timely, and a potential solution to the impasse afflicting educational technology – edtech – in its current state. Despite all the hype, it’s fair to say that edtech isn’t living up to its potential.

Addressing the Facts

In the developing world, governments and NGOs have had little impact so far in addressing the shocking fact that over 260 million children and young people are not in school, and that of the 650 million primary school-age children that are, 250 million are not learning the basics.

Meanwhile, across the developed world, many edtech products are not yet making the educational impact many had hoped for. For instance, in 2015, an OECD report found that there was no noticeable improvement in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science in countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education. And in the US, only 33 per cent of parents surveyed by the Learning Assembly agreed that their child’s school did an “excellent” job of using technology to tailor instruction. The sector is not yet producing the sort of innovation that will bring about macro-level changes in how education is delivered across the globe to those with fewer resources.

A Key Ingredient

A key ingredient that could make a huge difference to this apparent lack of progress is the involvement of teachers in edtech development – educators are all too often left out of the picture by the current norms of the sector. In all the conferences I have attended around the world, I’m struck by the absence of teachers at edtech roundtables, discussions, and panels – which usually revolve around policymakers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and investors. It’s a shame, since the conversations I have with teachers who are on the front line, in my experience, are always the most productive.

Teacher involvement is crucial, in part because one of the main reasons that many edtech initiatives fail is a lack of grounding in the real experience of students and teachers. Designers and developers often miss failings that would be obvious to those on the front line. By contrast, teachers know first-hand what students need, and what they themselves need as educators – a crucial element in the design process. They also understand the distinction between a superficial innovation and one that will actually help pupils, and they know how the education sector works from the inside.

Edtech’s Next Paradigm Shift

Now, trailblazing teachers are taking innovation into their own hands, bringing the knowledge and insight gleaned in the classroom to the world of edtech. This is a profoundly positive step, and there are good reasons to think that the next paradigm shift in edtech will come from teachers who combine their classroom practice with edtech development.

With such a large role to play, people are looking for teachers to enter this debate, and it was therefore heartening, but also no surprise, that last week’s event was oversubscribed, where we listened to Colin Hegarty and Emma Rogers tell their stories (pictured above; Colin middle, and Emma, left).

In 2011, while working as a maths teacher in London, Colin started making YouTube videos explaining important maths concepts for home study and revision, which eventually attracted millions of views from around the world and grew into Hegarty Maths – an online platform that teaches, assesses and tracks everything a child needs to learn in maths from upper primary to IGCSE level. Colin, a Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize Finalist, emphasized at the event how important it is for students to not only receive quality instruction, but for teachers to be supported in helping their students develop metacognitive awareness of how they study – which is why Hegarty Maths offers in-depth student tracking and analytics for teachers to use.

Similarly, Emma Rogers was a school Head of Department and a children’s writer and illustrator before founding Little Bridge, which helps children learn key English skills through its immersive digital world containing hundreds of carefully designed activities, stories and characters. Emma noted that too many products solve a problem that students and teachers don’t really have; her advice to attendees was to find an actual, specific problem – and then solve it.

Emma and Colin’s backgrounds were instrumental in how they developed their products, as is the case for Adam Still, a Teach First alumnus who recently founded Ripple Education, a digital lesson-planning tool designed squarely with teachers in mind. Adam observed that lesson planning – crucial for developing high-quality lessons and driving positive student outcomes – is currently a major time sink for teachers who tend to do it by themselves. Ripple’s easy-to-use and comprehensive platform aims to address this problem, freeing up precious time for teachers – who spend over 50% of their time outside the classroom – to let them do what they do best: teach.

A First Step

To encourage and support this growing trend of teachers using their expertise to build the next generation of edtech products, I will be guiding the new Tmrw Institute to help bring the worlds of education and technology together.

Founded by Sunny Varkey, the Institute will aim to increase teacher involvement in edtech, explore the edtech innovations that make the most difference, and tackle the problem of global education capacity using the best ideas from the edtech world.

Last week’s event was just the first step of our journey – hopefully it inspired and informed potential entrepreneurs and helped place teachers at the heart of edtech.

Vikas Pota is Group Chief Executive of Tmrw Digital. Contact him through LinkedIn