An “old school” attitude among some educational institutions isn’t holding app developers back. Anton Troynikov, cofounder of Geddit, a Berlin-based classroom communication startup, discusses the future of tech in the school system and how plummeting prices could open up a whole new market.
Education is undergoing unprecedented upheaval, with learning formats, curriculum design, teaching methods and classroom budgets under scrutiny throughout the world. There is a wide acknowledgement that new approaches are needed, but little consensus on what form they should take.
At a time when software is consuming the world and educators are concerned that the existing systems are failing to prepare students to successfully join the workforce, technology has paradoxically been almost completely absent from the classroom itself.
The education sector is a technological vacuum
The majority of tools used in classrooms and lecture halls today would be instantly recognisable to a secondary school headmaster or university provost from the industrial revolution – technology was, for a long time, relegated to computer labs, document management, timetabling and email.
Technology adoption in education has typically lagged behind consumer and enterprise trends, especially at the secondary and primary level. Conservative attitudes among administrators and some teachers are part of the reason, but the underlying issue is cost. The overheads in adopting new tools and their associated methodology, training staff in their use and ensuring student adoption, strains overstretched education budgets and overworked educator’s time.
While there have been attempts to develop technology specifically for education, these have been largely constrained to experimental environments away from real classrooms. The lack of feedback from educators on the “front lines” has resulted in many conference papers, several expensive false starts and many dead ends. As in any industry, education technology can’t progress without testing by real users in real environments.
Edtech – an evolution in education is needed
Technology adoption among consumers and the associated hardware and service commoditisation is working to reduce the costs of technology for educators. There is an increasing interest in technology at all levels, from nationwide systems down to individual teachers.
Educators are working to find new approaches that leverage cheaper access. Education products for the consumer market like massive open online courses (MOOCs) have sparked new approaches in teaching. Concepts such as the “flipped classroom” where class hours are reserved for discussion and practical work and content is delivered online are gaining traction, and early outcomes seem promising.
More recently, the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices and their app ecosystems has led to a proliferation of educational games, learning management systems, social/gamification ideas for education and similar mobile applications. Educators are examining how such apps might fit with existing curriculums to support students in targeted learning outcomes.
Cheaper, faster, more capital
The education market is starting to open up to innovation in ways that were never possible before. Smartphone adoption rates among student demographics are among the highest in the OECD – every year more and more students have an amazingly powerful device in their pockets when they go to class. Tablets are becoming a commodity: with Chinese Android tablets wholesaling for as little as $120, they are now entering price points where they become attractive to public school systems.
It’s no secret that education is a vastly fragmented market, particularly in the US but there are consistent early adopter segments that can drive the growth needed for startups to succeed in this space. These segments are geographically disjointed but share common traits – private secondary and tertiary education, and more autonomous public systems such as in Finland and Eastern Europe provide ample opportunity.
Capital is becoming readily available to companies in this sector, and several accelerators have emerged specifically targeting “edtech” – notably the Kaplan accelerator in New York, which is supported by TechStars, and Imagine K12 which is supported in part by partners at Y Combinator. In Europe, Balderton and other VCs have funded companies in the consumer education space, and seed stage investors are starting to get in on the act.
Building the future: “education is a necessity for everyone”
Education is a necessity for everyone, and there is an amazing scope to build sustainable businesses that have the potential to improve millions of lives in meaningful ways. The problems are big, but educators have the will to cooperate with entrepreneurs to solve them. A new generation of digital native teachers are now entering schools and bringing their knowledge with them.
The chance now exists to affect generational change and define the future of education. Bold ideas, smart approaches to design and big thinking are needed to bring smartphones out from desks and backpacks, and make them useful in the classroom.
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