The Rise of the “Teacher-preneur”

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

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.

This article appeared on EdTech Digest on 1st October 2018

To succeed, edtech companies must listen to teachers

Technology can revolutionise teaching – but only if its creators integrate learning or pedagogy, and consult with teachers first

Technology today has an unprecedented power to transform how we work and interact, from social media and Twitter politics to remote working and the digital economy.

But one area whose potential has not yet been explored to the full is technology in education – even though it could help us meet the serious educational challenges facing our world.

For decades it seems that governments and stakeholders have been discussing the lack of quality educational provision, particularly in the developing and emerging world. The damning statistics should be burned into our consciousness.

It is a scandal that in 2018, nearly 263 million children and young people are not in school, and of the 650 million primary school-age children that are, 250 million are not learning the basics. To meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of quality education for all, we will need to recruit 69 million more teachers by 2030.

With no realistic sign of politicians being able to solve these deep-rooted problems we have to hope that edtech can help bridge this education chasm. Teachers should be able to use technology to access hard-to-reach pupils as well as helping pupils access educational content for the very first time. Time is running short for another generation that are being denied their birthright: a quality education.

Even here in the UK, where pupils have good access to teachers, it is hoped that technology will play a role in improving the quality of education through personalised learning, smart feedback, and improved access to information, networks and resources. Celebrated apps such as Remind, ThingLink, Wonder Workshop and ClassTag for parents are all just the tip of the iceberg.

The growth in the global edtech market over the last few years should be enabling even bigger and better innovations. In 2015, funding of edtech startups reached $3.3 billion, and overall sector investment hit $9.5 billion in 2017; the market has been forecasted to grow 17 per cent year-on-year (20 per cent in China) to an overall value of $252 billion by 2020.

Importantly, this growth is also reflected in developing economies: for example, in the last decade India has become the second-largest edtech market in the world after the US, and an estimated eight-fold increase to $1.96 billion is predicted by 2021.

Despite this huge potential, however, there is a sense that edtech products are falling short. The recent failures of some edtech companies to deliver on projects are well documented: sometimes these occurred because the original aim was too ambitious – or not grounded in the real experience of students and teachers.

However, the problem is not merely individual companies “getting it wrong”. A 2015 OECD report found that even countries that had invested heavily in information and communication technology (ICT) for education had seen no noticeable improvement in their PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.

And in the US, only 33 per cent of parents surveyed by the Learning Assembly say that their child’s school did an “excellent” job of using technology to tailor instruction.

There are many reasons for these failures but three stand out for me. The first is that some edtech startups may not be fully integrating the science of learning or pedagogy into their products. Some companies even confuse market research with educational research.

There needs to be a much greater focus on bringing the education into edtech; in particular, there needs to be a deep research-based understanding of how edtech can usefully augment educators. One piece of meta-analytic research from 2014 showed that improved outcomes in edtech principally depended upon three factors: interactive learning, exploring and creating, and crucially, the right blend of teachers and technology. Edtech is most successful when teachers also play their unique roles as curators, mentors, and facilitators of meaningful peer interaction.

The second is a related issue about the economics of tech entrepreneurship. Some new entrants to the market hope to launch a product that will scale quickly and potentially allow them a lucrative exit.

But those who come to the education sector without an intimate understanding of its economies, timescales and ways of working will struggle – and many companies who have not been aware of this have failed to realise their value or become profitable.  

Edtech investors must have the mindset that they have a rare opportunity that transforms people’s lives. That is a complex task that can take many years of work before they will start to see any results.  

Thirdly, and most crucially, entrepreneurs need to understand that edtech is just as much about people as it is technology. Understanding how the different interest groups involved in education fit together – from governments to parents, policymakers, teachers, parents and students – is key to success or failure.

I have come to believe that we need to make research and consultation more central to the edtech debate. Student outcomes are most improved when innovations work as part of systems that have substantial educational research behind them.

We also need rigorous evaluations of how a new product actually works in the classroom. Furthermore, we have to bring teachers to the fore in everything we do. In all the conferences I have attended around the world, I have never once seen a teacher invited to be a part of the edtech discussion – which often revolve around policymakers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and investors.

It’s surprising that the sector hasn’t much consulted the teachers who are actually on the front line: in my own experience, the conversations I have with teachers are always the most productive ones.

To promote this approach, I will be guiding the setup of the Tmrw Institute that will look to answer some of the key questions about the role of technology in education. In particular, I want to look at how edtech can help provide a quality education to the billion-plus young people who are either not in school or have no access to a good teacher.

The institute will aim to infuse edtech entrepreneurs with an understanding of what it takes to shift those educational outcomes. And with a rigorous, evidence-based approach, we have reason to hope that technology can help bring a good education to young people wherever they are in the world.

Vikas Pota is the group chief executive of Tmrw Digital 

This article appeared in the TES on 17th August 2018

‘The “march of the machines” and the teacher recruitment crisis together make for a disastrous cocktail’

Today is World Teachers’ Day and in the coming years, we will rely on teachers more than ever. Without their guidance, the UK workforce will not be equipped to face their greatest challenge since the industrial revolution – the unrelenting march of the machines.

A recent review by Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane concluded that automation would threaten up to 15m British jobs the next few years – around half of the total. This could be solved – assuming that we could fill the resulting employment gaps with new or existing industries not susceptible to automation, such as technological or creative industries. Such restructuring can be a normal part of an economy’s evolution when carried out at a manageable pace. But this restructuring requires a workforce with a deep and flexible skills base. And unfortunately, our two methods of supplying such a workforce – education and immigration – are about to fracture.

Just at the time that we are reducing migration, we will need skilled workers more than ever before. The UK economy is reliant on immigration from healthcare and agriculture to the creative industries. EU citizens account for around 7 per cent of the workforce at both the high- and low-skilled end of the labour market. However, immigration figures for this year so far show a fall of 43,000, with a comparable rise in emigration. The resulting net migration total of 248,000 is a quarter lower than before the Brexit vote.

Net migration was just 5,000 for Eastern Europeans – the lowest since these countries entered the EU in 2004 – and many employers are already experiencing difficulty in filling vacancies. At a minimum, we will need to fill vacated jobs – and new roles – with qualified UK citizens if we are not to see a failure of the labour market in critical industries. But it is not just about the replacement of foreign-born workers. As more jobs become automated – from driving and manufacturing to previously immune professions like law and accountancy – new high-skilled jobs will be needed to replace them.

Not enough teachers

Politicians across the spectrum are united in proclaiming that education is the answer to automation, skills training, and retraining for those whose jobs will disappear. But new data suggests that we simply don’t have enough teachers to teach these new skills that the country will need. As the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported in their latest global report on education, released last month, UK teachers are facing stark pressures, leading to ever-increasing numbers leaving the profession.

This was echoed by a National Audit Office report, which showed that the total number of secondary school teachers fell by five per cent between 2010 and 2016, and that, compared to five years ago, more teachers are leaving the classroom for reasons other than retirement.

Meanwhile, acceptances for teacher training courses dropped by 10 per cent this year. Many new recruits into the profession are also giving up: 30 per cent of newly qualified teachers leave within the first five years, and nearly half of England’s teachers plan to leave teaching in the next five years. Perhaps this is unsurprising given a salary fall for teachers in real terms between 2010 and 2015 of around six percent. The Local Government Association claims these factors, along with a surge in pupils, are about to crash the secondary system.

The result is that while many countries face an ageing teacher population, the UK has the opposite issue. In 2005, 32 per cent of teachers were 50 or over. Today the figure is 20 per cent, reflecting a reduction of 37 per cent in this group, the largest such reduction in the OECD.

The UK is losing its more-experienced teachers. If these trends continue, our education system may be incapable of preparing its students for an uncertain economic future in which they will have to draw on a wide range of technical and creative skills. So what can be done to turn the situation around?

UK lagging behind

The reasons for poor teacher recruitment and retention are complex – from work-stress to onerous non-teaching duties – but one of the most important factors is the low status of teachers, both in the UK and worldwide. This, in turn, may mirror the gender imbalance within teaching: around seven out of 10 teachers are women, although this drops closer to 50 per cent at tertiary level (traditionally viewed as higher in status). Men, who are generally found to value the status of professions more, are not being drawn to school teaching.

All the international evidence – from Finland to South Korea – shows that it is impossible to create an excellent education system without well-motivated, well trained and fairly rewarded teachers. For Britain to succeed in an automated world post-Brexit we are going to need our human capital to rise to the challenge.

Unfortunately, the World Economic Forum Human Capital Index released last month shows that the UK is currently lagging behind many of its European counterparts, including Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Automation and a crisis in teacher numbers – together with Brexit – could converge in a way that will have a catastrophic effect. How well we treat our teachers may ultimately determine whether we can turn this human capital crisis around and emerge successfully through the most tumultuous period since the war.

Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the TES on 5th October 2017

Developing world education is failing, it’s time to open up to the private sector

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper on 25th September 2015 – on the day the Sustainable Development Goals were approved by all UN member states:

There have been some real achievements in global education following the establishment of the millennium development goals (MDGs) by the UN in 2000. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the proportion of children enrolled in primary school has risen from 52% in 1990 to 80% this year.

However, in the dash to get children into the classroom, there was too little focus on the quality of the education once they were there. UNESCO estimates that of the world’s 650 million primary school children, at least 250 million lack even basic literacy and numeracy skills.

The new sustainable development goals (SDGs), which will replace the MDGs at the end of this year, address this issue of standards, calling for “inclusive and quality education for all” by 2030. But these will remain empty conference room sentiments if the $16bn (£10.5bn) per year required to achieve good quality universal education throughout the world is not met.

However well-intentioned, governments in the developing world cannot raise the sums needed to provide high-quality education on their own. If they could, they would have done so decades ago. Education spending must be balanced against budgets for other essential infrastructures such as hospitals, roads and sanitation.

Too often government schools leave education in the hands of teachers who haven’t been adequately trained. Even worse, according to UNESCO, many countries – including Cameroon, Ethiopia and Senegal – are only meeting the goal of universal primary education by employing untrained teachers.

Low state teacher salaries, which are often paid sporadically, discourage people from entering (and staying in) the profession. In rural Zambia it can cost teachers up to half their wages to cover the costs of transport and accommodation needed to simply collect their pay from district offices each month. In Malawi, one in 10 teachers reported that they were often not in school because they were travelling to collect their salaries or make loan payments.

To build the schools and train the teachers needed to meet these new SDG targets, we cannot rely on governments alone. Parents in the developing world, even those on low incomes, are voting with their feet and opting for private education because of shortcomings in state provision.

World Bank data shows that the number of primary school pupils attending private schools is on the rise, with some costing as little as a dollar a week. In rural India in 2013, 29% of elementary school pupils were educated privately, up from 19% in 2006.

Though NGOs do vital work, only the private sector can provide the scale of investment necessary, unencumbered by political and bureaucratic obstacles. Bridge International Academies, a chain of low-cost private schools, for instance, has created 400 nursery and primary schools in Kenya and Uganda using standardised classrooms. Large-scale providers, with international reputations to nurture, can be better guarantors of quality and consistency than individual schools in the community that lack the deep pockets to invest over many years.

The notion that private business must be involved in this process has gone some way to being accepted. From the start of negotiations on the SDGs, UN officials have sought to formally bring the private sector into the dialogue, but some still see private sector involvement as a threat. Just last year the UN special rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, warned that the costs associated with private schools were exacerbating inequality and said that, “for-profit education should not be allowed in order to safeguard the noble cause of education”.

In my experience, the worlds of business and education too often speak entirely different languages. An ideological distaste for the private sector means that even where business could help philanthropically, it is rarely approached for help.

There are some notable exceptions. Aviva, through its Street to School community project, has helped more than one million children receive support and education in 17 countries. Deutsche Bank has helped more than five million school children through its support of literacy initiatives in Brazil and provided shipping container classrooms in China.

However, these great efforts pale in comparison to the scale of business philanthropy in global health. The Brookings Institution estimates that corporate giving to global health is 16 times the amount given to global education. Last year, a report by the Varkey Foundation found that the Fortune 500 companies spend just $2.6bn (13%) of their total annual CSR budget of $19.9bn on education-related projects. Fewer than half provide any spending on education-related CSR at all.

The cultural divide between business and education is particularly unnecessary given that business is deeply concerned about the impact of poor education on organisations and the future prosperity of markets. A PWC global survey of more than 1,200 CEOs found more than half were concerned that skills shortages would stunt growth, particularly in emerging economies. A better-educated population would add rocket fuel to economic growth in the developing world. According to the OECD, if all 15-year-olds achieved a basic level of education, Ghana could increase its GDP by 3,881% and South Africa by 2,624%.

As more than 150 world leaders meet in New York for the U N Sustainable Development Summit 2015, they must recognise that to have any chance of meeting the new SDGs on education, business must be seen as part of the solution.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

Teachers’ pay must be at the heart of global education reform

This piece was printed in the Guardian on 29th January 2014:

Progress in global education – especially in the poorest regions of the world – remains painfully slow. The latest Unesco Education for All global monitoring report, published Wednesday, underlines how far we still are from guaranteeing a good quality education for every child. While many pupils are now attending school, the quality of the education is often so poor that they are failing to learn the most elementary skills. Around 175 million young people in poor countries – equivalent to one quarter of the youth population – cannot read all or part of a sentence.

The situation for girls is particularly dire. If current trends continue, it will take until 2072 for all the poorest young women in developing countries to become literate. In other words, it will only be the grandchildren of today’s pupils in sub-Saharan Africa that can expect to learn the skills that the developed world takes for granted.

Though the subject of improving education in the region could keep conference organisers in business for years, the overwhelming problem outlined in the report is simple: the availability of teachers and the quality of teaching.

Over the last few years, there has been much excitable talk about Africa being on the cusp of an economic renaissance. But this will amount to another lost opportunity if the number of teachers is not increased to cope with the continent’s exploding young population. Worldwide, 8.2 million new teachers need to be recruited by 2015 (pdf). If they are not, then Sub-Saharan Africa will be the worst affected region.

The quality of teachers is equally important. In a third of countries analysed by the report, less than three-quarters of primary school teachers are trained to national standards. In West Africa, where the teaching of basic skills is particularly poor, over half the teachers have little formal training and are on low-paid temporary contracts.

Poor pay results in many teachers earning supplementary income through second jobs, or running family businesses, when they should be in the classroom. This culture has been allowed to develop because there is little accountability: independent observers do not regularly inspect schools, and teachers do not have to prove their competence in the classroom after they have been hired.
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There is, of course, no simple solution to this litany of problems. But the Education for All report is right that developing countries must attract the best candidates into teaching and incentivise them to stay. When governments have to choose whether to spend education budgets on new facilities or the salaries of teachers, there’s a good argument that spending on attracting teachers will yield the most tangible results. Peter Dolton from LSE has proven that there’s a clear link between the level of teachers pay and the quality of a country’s educational outcomes. Those countries that are in the upper-reaches of the Pisa rankings – South Korea, Finland, Singapore – all make an effort to recruit the best graduates and often demand that entrants to the profession have a second degree.

With many competing demands on fragile states – to build roads, provide healthcare and provide a welfare safety net – it’s unrealistic to expect that governments can provide the additional education provision required by Africa’s youth bulge alone. If managed well, partnerships with the private sector can bring in the investment to build schools quickly and import international expertise. For instance, entrepreneur James Tooley has pioneered school places in Ghana for 65 cents per day – including a school uniform, a hot lunch and work books – which is within reach of regular families.

Most importantly, we must raise the status of teaching. This isn’t just a problem in developing countries. In a survey in 21 different countries on which profession the public thought was comparable with teaching, it was only in China that people thought that the status of teachers was similar to that of doctors. Unsurprisingly, with such attitudes towards teachers, Shanghai topped the 2012 Pisa rankings. And it’s not just about teacher pay. We must culturally value teaching – seeing it not simply as a worthy vocation but as a job for the highly skilled that is essential to our future.

Without that, we will condemn more generations to leave school unable to read to the end of a sentence.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation