Education used to be as simple as a book, a chalkboard, and a pencil but the current notion of education is evolving alongside technology. Is a person’s education defined by the piece of paper hanging on the wall or is it more about the hands-on experience of problem solving and lesson feedback?
The issue at hand sees the education industry pulled in two directions. On one hand, the teacher-to- student ratio is growing across the board while classroom budgets shrink. Outside of K-12, college tuition is simply not feasible for some families. On the other hand, technology has made education more accessible than ever before. The internet revolution changed many things — entertainment, news, communication — but it took a good decade to trickle down to education. However, today’s students can get qualified degrees online from major universities and technical academies; in addition to that, everything from textbooks to course notes and lecture videos can be found on the web.
So while the logistics of traditional education are becoming increasingly difficult for the would-be student, access to the actual material is greater than ever before. Technology has pushed this further and faster, aiding the learning process from top to bottom. With textbooks now on student iPads and college-level calculus taught online, has education reached a new plateau or is this just the beginning? For those in the Education Technology industry, recent achievements demonstrate the power of innovative thinking in a traditional field. But most observers see a much bigger — and more accessible — picture.
In fact, many feel that education is on the cusp of a major paradigm shift. Cloud applications, e-books, video conferencing and other such tools represent the dawn of a new era, all powered by the emerging Education Technology industry. “College is not affordable without crushing debt; K-12 is not serving us well,” says technology investor Mitchell Kapor. Kapor knows a thing or two about the bleeding edge of technology, having been involved in the successful launch of ventures ranging from Lotus 1-2-3 software in the 1980s to Second Life in the 2000s. “By having computers do what they are good at – individualized fashion; teachers can actually uplevel, be coaches, help do the kind of things that only people can do using technology. I’m a big ‘blended learning’ fan.”
Classroom technology has evolved greatly in the past two decades. In the 1990s, computers were used for highly specified purposes and basic communication. In the 2000s, online distribution of course materials and supplementary training materials emerged. Today, Education Technology leaders project a movement away from the old textbook/lecture model and a greater focus on dynamic learning. “What we are beginning to see is a huge shift in attitudes to education technology, which includes the openness of teachers and school administrators to embrace technology as well as the investment world seeing the value and profitability of EdTech,” says Liam Don, co-founder of ClassDojo.
That openness breaks down many of the previous hurdles experienced by innovative startups. Just a few years ago, the education industry was mired in the slow traditions held by a few major companies. Today, new methods for teaching and learning are being created by the hungry entrepreneurial minds behind Education Technology start-ups.
As teachers and administrators open up to the idea of new teaching methods and lessons through technology, bureaucratic roadblocks are being streamlined — sometimes because budget cuts demand creative solutions, sometimes because technology allows new ideas into the traditional teaching model, and sometimes because parents want better ways to supplement a child’s education. “With the current model, if you want to sell a product to a school it can take at least a year to go through the cycle, because of how school budgets…the good news is that new models are being developed to address and work around these issues.,” says Don. “Additionally, as organizations like Khan Academy have made clear, there is a demand for independent learning outside the traditional classroom setting. Technology is the driver behind this, and this ‘individualized’ approach to education will only continue to expand and grow in the coming years.”
Education Technology companies are working to satisfy all three key targets: administrators (who set budgets), teachers (who create curriculum), and students (who ultimately use the product). Some innovations target one group more than the other. In the case of digital textbooks, all three benefit. “The advent of the Ebook can revolutionize textbook accessibility,” says Osman Rashid, CEO/Co-Founder of Kno, Inc. “Digital textbooks minimize cost and streamline distribution. A tablet can carry hundreds of textbooks while bringing in smart features — and it won’t weigh down a student’s backpack.”
Digital textbooks provide the foundation, but what does the future hold for Education Technology? For starters, imagine WiFi in every classroom to power those tablets. “At a minimum, tablets will be adopted as a digital book,” says Zack Schuler, Founder & CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. “In some schools, higher- end tablets will take an all-inclusive role as a PC, digital book, communication device, and collaboration tool. In the middle, tablets like the iPad will play a key role in digital books, videos, and learning apps.”
Tablets and WiFi can come together in the classroom through cloud-based applications, supplementary materials, even virtual field trips. All of this can crunch sage statistics for teachers, creating student-by-student metadata to provide an overview of what’s working, what isn’t, and how to create more effective lessons.
The focus on curriculum and lessons presents the core of Education Technology. However, a bigger picture exists, one that helps to answer the age-old parent question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” One of Education Technology’s biggest trends stems from this very idea, as start-ups are investing in platforms to help students explore career aspirations and achieve critical milestones on the path there. In addition, the journey to that goal is easier than ever before — as online courses offer more robust opportunities, a greater selection of degree choices exists for students of all ages, backgrounds, and budgets while digital course materials enable access outside of the traditional classroom.
Greater access, more-focused materials, and innovative lessons; it’s all part of the emerging Education Technology industry — an industry that Mitchell Kapor predicts will be in the “billions and billions” of revenue dollars. Of course, tablets, WiFi, and apps are a means to an end, but there’s one thing that Education Technology can’t do: sorry parents, you’ll still have to figure out a way to motivate your kids to do their homework.
Ahmed Siddiqui, B.S., MBA grew up in Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota and completed his MBA at Babson College. He coordinates Startup Weekends in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also founder of Go Go Mongo! at GoGoMongo.com, a game company that inspires kids to eat healthier.