The Future of Learning
A New Wave of EdTech Teams Are Rethinking Virtual Classrooms—Beyond the Pandemic
BY SARAH FISTER GALE
SOPA IMAGES / CONTRIBUTOR / GETTY IMAGES
More than 1 billion children in at least 185 countries were impacted by school closures related to the global pandemic last year, according to the World Economic Forum. For many, a shift to online learning was as fast as it was unexpected: School administrators raced to roll out platforms, while edtech teams accelerated features, adjusted to exponential growth in users and pivoted to new audiences.
“The world of education got knocked 30 years ahead overnight, and we had to quickly figure out what worked or what didn’t work,” Mac Glovinsky, UNICEF’s global program manager, New York, told PM Network last year when he was overseeing the development of Learning Passport, a digital platform originally intended for displaced and refugee students. The pandemic prompted his team to make a sharp turn toward underprivileged kids impacted by school closures, a pivot recognized as a Most Influential Project in 2020.
But the hasty embrace of edtech as a stopgap measure was just the beginning. As more schools have reopened, it’s become clear that the flurry of language apps, virtual tutoring, videoconferencing tools and online learning software will continue to transform education. The edtech market is expected to more than double between 2019 and 2025, reaching US$404 billion.
“There’s this wave of innovation happening in edtech that’s been accelerated by COVID-19,” says Jamie Beaumont, managing director at Lego Ventures, the venture investment arm of the Lego brand, London.
—Jamie Beaumont, Lego Ventures, London
Minecraft’s Lumen Power Challenge from BlockWorks and EIT InnoEnergy
TOP IMAGE COURTESY OF BLOCKWORKS. BOTTOM: GUVENDEMIR / E+ / GETTY IMAGES
Lego Ventures invests in promising education startups, and Beaumont has witnessed a sharp uptick in the number of companies focusing on new ways to teach 21st century skills, including collaboration, communication and creative thinking. Project teams are also rethinking how students access education and how teachers can introduce technology into the flow of learning.
Projects launched at Eedi are a prime example. The British edtech startup developed a digital math assessment that uses AI tools to determine why a student gets a question wrong. If a student misunderstands the problem, it could lead to a lesson on terminology or language, but if they don’t know how to complete the equation, it would require a different response, says Ben Caulfield, CEO, Eedi, London.
“Understanding why a student gets the questions wrong leads to the right intervention,” Caulfield says. This solution makes better use of the teacher’s time and results in a more personalized learning environment—whether the student is at school or at home.
For edtech platforms to truly inform and supplement lessons, teachers must be trained on how to make the most of the new tech tools in the flow of learning, says Alex Servello, director, corporate social responsibility, Verizon, New York. The Verizon Innovative Learning program provides technology and data plans at no cost to low-income schools in the United States—along with comprehensive teacher training on how to use technology in the classroom. The program includes teacher training pathways, made up of mini courses to help teachers provide more “targeted interventions,” Servello says.
V IS FOR VALUE
School closures caused massive compression of project schedules. At Eedi, the team cut delivery sprint durations from 17 days to just five. The speed was achieved in part by evaluating each task—and letting go of anything that didn’t add clear value. “It’s a move-fast-and-break-things approach,” Caulfield says.
That mantra has become common in edtech, resulting in some innovative ways to goose engagement. To get kids interested in learning about renewable energy, a project team at BlockWorks didn’t start from scratch, but instead partnered with Dutch energy provider EIT InnoEnergy to develop two renewable-energy education programs in the videogame Minecraft. The programs were downloaded more than 13 million times, at least in part because students were already familiar—and interested—in the videogame.
Likewise, in Australia, the same videogame is being used to teach students about electricity, DNA, citizenship and other topics via Minecraft maps built in collaboration with educators and developers. Students work together in the map to learn skills, then apply them in simulated environments.
For all the spending schools do on edtech each year, it can be tough to track the collective benefits and success rates of those tools. To help solve that problem, the University of Virginia launched the EdTech Genome Project, with a 27-member team that spans academics, educators, tech investors and union leaders.
In 2019, the project set out to establish a framework that might influence a successful edtech experience—from cost and training times to how well a product aligns with curricular standards—and how to define and measure each variable. This year, the project moved into its second stage, to build a platform that allows decision makers to access data and analysis about edtech implementations from peers. The hope, the team says, is to give school leaders the tools to better select and implement edtech rollouts.
Along with introducing students to specific concepts, the Minecraft environment requires them to use leadership, collaboration, spatial thinking and logic skills to solve problems and complete journeys, says James Delaney, managing director, BlockWorks, London. “There is something really nice about applying learning principles to a game, versus gamifying a learning environment,” he says. “Students don’t even realize they are learning.”
Still, project teams can’t assume that a videogame backdrop is enough to ensure engagement, he says. “It has to inspire self-motivation and leverage natural gameplay to work.”
—James Delaney, BlockWorks, London
When developing new learning experiences, the BlockWorks teams leverage core gaming principles, like winning treasures, as well as offering students plenty of chances to make decisions—and then experience the consequences tied to those decisions.
End-user feedback throughout the project development cycle can mean the difference between an edtech initiative that sings and one that falls flat. Teams must remember that stakeholders on these projects span students, teachers, administrators and parents, says Sean D’Arcy, vice president of school and home for live game-based learning platform Kahoot, Oslo, Norway.
Before the pandemic, Kahoot project teams regularly conducted classroom visits, interviewed teachers and monitored gameplay in person. As everyday life shifted online, end-user research turned to remote monitoring and videoconferencing for interviews. The team also relies on in-app surveys, which are delivered while teachers and students are engaged with the product.
Like BlockWorks, Kahoot is also using data captured during the pandemic to inform future project decisions. When project leaders rolled out Challenges, for instance, the trivia-style asynchronous lessons were expected to be a minor addition. But within weeks, the new feature accounted for nearly half of game plays, prompting the team to focus on refining and expanding the new feature.
IMAGES COURTESY OF KAHOOT, LEFT, AND THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, TOP RIGHT.
Students using the Kahoot learning platform
A screenshot of ExoTerra
They also saw rapid adoption of Kahoot outside of the U.S., which accelerated the need for more robust language translation options. “It forced our team to fast-track rollout of Spanish, Portuguese, French and other languages,” D’Arcy says. That meant more work, but it led to expansion in new markets and a better experience for users.
This kind of adaptability was critical during early school closures, but it also left a lasting impact on how these project teams approach the future, he says. “We still have a roadmap, but we are really good at pivoting to new projects as needed.”
There remains a stubborn stereotype that edtech is a limited tool meant only to supplement what students might be lacking with in-person education, says Ada Palmer, associate professor, University of Chicago, Chicago. But she has seen students have expansive, immersive, collaborative interactions because of— not despite—the technology.
At the University of Chicago, Palmer worked with a team to develop the online collaborative research role-playing game ExoTerra, in which students from all disciplines pool their expertise to design a new world. “It is a place to do broad education and research while also giving students a social outlet,” Palmer says.
In ExoTerra, users must collaboratively settle a new planet as Earth uses what it learned combatting climate change to settle other worlds. Users engage with AI guides (written by Palmer and other faculty) to navigate the adventure, and volunteer for committees based on their character’s expertise to establish laws, healthcare policies, economic strategies and civil rights.
The game inspired a lot of deep philosophical debates, Palmer says. For example, they had to determine what kinds of reproductive rights immortal AIs need in contrast with mortal humans. They also had to decide how to avoid repeating mistakes made on Earth. Collaborative research assignments allowed students to review peer proposals and share their perspective and knowledge with each other as a way to foster cross-discipline collaboration. “They had to make different ethical choices, then defend their positions,” Palmer says. “It was immensely powerful.”
The University of Chicago has created other edtech projects for the pandemic as well, including the quest game ECHO and a virtual university campus built on the platform Gather.town. The pixelated virtual campus gives students the ability to zoom in on different rooms, talk to people they encounter and take part in adventure-based realms. “They can attend a class, do stand-up comedy or visit the moon,” Palmer says. “It’s all up to the students. They create the environment.”
How much appetite learning institutions sustain for edtech offerings remains an open question. While the social good of helping students spurred project activity during the pandemic, the market will ultimately determine which edtech tools have a lasting influence, says Caulfield.
He believes blended solutions—with teachers and schools leveraging lower-cost digital tools to make time spent with students more impactful—will have a prominent edtech role moving forward.
“Teachers create interest and accountability in learning, and that won’t go away,” Caulfield says. “The companies with projects that combine virtual content with human engagement will be the ones that succeed.” PM
—Ben Caulfield, Eedi, London