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

In Argentina, a Historic G20 Meeting Looks to Set a Global Education Agenda

In a first for the G20 in its nearly two-decade history, education ministers from G20 member countries will meet in Mendoza on Wednesday to discuss global education trends and policy challenges. The fact that education ministers will have a seat at the table under Argentina’s G20 presidency is an overdue recognition that education is inseparable from economic growth, trade and development.

Adding to the meeting’s significance will be the presence of some the world’s leading education-focused civil society organizations. This group will present the G20 ministers, including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos, with papers on critical education issues, such as 21st-century labor skills and the role of social media in education.

If taken advantage of, the meeting promises to be a momentous opportunity to better the futures of young people in G20 countries and around the world. 

The challenges at hand demand a concerted strategy. In 2018, it is a scandal that over 260 million children are out of school globally, and of the 650 million primary school-age children in school, some 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 teachers by 2030.

Latin America merits particular urgency. Yes, there have been some successes: The region has made huge leaps forward in the number of children enrolled in schools. Today, primary school attendance is over 90 percent, according to the World Bank. And since 1970, the rate of secondary school enrolment has more than tripled, surpassing 94 percent in 2016.

But in 2018, young people in the region are simply not learning enough when they are in the classroom.  With a few notable exceptions, Latin American countries languish near the bottom of the PISA education rankings for science, math and reading – and many are outperformed by other countries at a similar level of economic development.   

That education ministers are meeting to address these problems is a vital step in the right direction. However, they should listen to the insights of civil society education experts who will be coming to Wednesday’s meeting with an agenda aimed at keeping fewer students from falling through the cracks.

On their list is a call for the G20 to invest in improved national data systems to track children who are both in and out of school.  Hard data – organized by categories such as gender, age, ethnicity and migration status – is sorely lacking in many countries about where progress is being made, and where gaps in education provision remain. Another recommendation to the G20 borne from experience is their call for the voices of employers to be heard in curriculum design and teacher training. This could help tackle the huge number of young people who leave school without the skills they need to find a job. 

The institutional knowledge among civil society, often acquired over decades and from on-the-ground experience, can benefit ministers who are often constrained in their mission by short electoral cycles. As a result, many barely have the time to make an impact before they move to other jobs. The continuity these civil society groups have builds unmatched expertise decade-on decade.   

Such a long view is necessary: According to a Harvard Business Review analysis of 15 social-change movements – from polio eradication to the Fair Food Program – nearly 90 percent of historically successful social-change efforts were found to take more than 20 years.

Civil society organizations are invaluable because they have the practical knowledge to advise governments on what really works, and Wednesday’s meeting is a prime opportunity for them do so. As the chairs of the group of civil society representatives convening in Mendoza, we look forward to a productive meeting with the G20 education ministers. However, such meetings of education ministers should not be a once-a-decade occurrence. They should be a permanent fixture at the G20 and G7 every year. Next year, the presidencies of the G20 and G7 fall to Japan and France respectively. It would be welcome to see this format of discussion with education ministers continue.

Esteban Bullrich is a senator for the province of Buenos Aires and Argentina’s former minister of education. Vikas Pota is chairman of the Varkey Foundation. They are co-chairs of a new group of civil society organizations meeting alongside the G20 Education Ministers summit in Mendoza, Argentina.

This article appeared in America’s Quarterly on 4th September 2018

British parents are teachers’ biggest cheerleaders

It’s the UN’s Global Day of Parents, and research shows that British parents have an overwhelming faith in teachers

UN's Global Day of Parents

Today, we mark the UN’s Global Day of Parents, which encourages us to appreciate parents across the world for their selfless commitment to children. I’m sure that there will be innumerable multifaceted discussions around the changing role of parents, their biggest fears for their children and how best to support them in the rapidly changing world they’re entering into.

But our research shows if there’s one thing British parents can agree on, it’s that they think their children’s teachers are doing a fantastic job.

Our Global Parents’ Survey recently revealed that of all the 29 countries surveyed across the world, British parents are among the most positive about the quality of teaching at their children’s schools: almost nine out of ten rate it as “good” or “fairly good”.

What was striking about this overwhelming faith in the work teachers are doing is that it is far higher than the 67 per cent of British parents who view the quality of free to attend schools as good or very good. Therefore, support for teachers themselves outstrips support for the education system as a whole.

What’s more, when asked what they choose to spend additional funds for schools on, 70 per cent of parents said it would be more teachers or to better pay for existing teachers. That’s compared with 44 per cent who wanted to see funds spent on resources and 35 per cent who, even in our digital age, said they wanted to see it spent on technology. This data supports last year’s Ipsos MORI Veracity Index which, as has consistently been the case, showed teachers behind only nurses and doctors as the most trusted profession in the UK, with 87 per cent of respondents saying they trust teachers to tell the truth.

It’s clear there’s a lot of goodwill out there for teachers struggling to make a difference in children’s lives. You only have to look at the outpouring of support London teacher Andria Zafirakou received after she won this year’s Global Teacher Prize. The leading lights and institutions of the arts world in the UK and beyond rallied to her cause of showing the transformative power of the arts in helping prepare young people for the unpredictable world of tomorrow. The public and the media alike, including elite publications the world over, have celebrated her achievements and talked in glowing terms of the great work she’s doing.

But while these things are heartening to see, the unfortunate truth is that teachers are facing more pressure than ever before – and many are caving in the face of it. Department for Education figures out last month show that headteachers are resigning in their droves, with nearly a third quitting within three years of taking the top job. But it’s not just the pressures of command. Overall, in the 12 months to November 2016 over 50,000 teachers in England left the state sector, with one in ten quitting the profession. Many gave up before they even started, with figures showing 100,000 people have completed teacher training but have never taught a lesson. All of this has contributed to a teacher shortfall of 30,000. Fewer teachers mean bigger classes, which means more work and more stress for teachers, which is why many are leaving the profession in the first place.

Parents recognise the pressures teachers are under. The Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Status Index showed in 2013 that only a quarter of British people would encourage their children to become teachers. Moreover, British people recognise the harsh reality that teachers do not enjoy a high social standing. When asked which profession had equivalent status to teaching most UK parents likened teachers to nurses and social workers, unlike in China, where most people saw teachers’ status on par with doctors and where three-quarters would encourage their children to become teachers.

As our Parents’ Survey shows, British parents have many pressing concerns for their children, from bullying and mental health to growing up too soon under the influence of social media. None of these is easily solvable, despite the best will in the world from politicians. But if there is one thing the government can really focus on and find itself almost universally celebrated for doing so, it is supporting and investing in teachers.

On this occasion, politicians accustomed to coming under fire from all directions when formulating policy don’t have to calibrate whether the electorate is completely on their side. Gone are the bad old days when the teaching profession was a scapegoat for so many of society’s problems from anti-social behaviour to economic decline. Any politician or media outlet that tries it on wouldn’t find much traction amongst parents. The old tactic of pitting parents against teachers is yesterday’s politics. If politicians of every stripe were to be as fearless as possible in supporting teachers, then they would find parents fully behind them, united in support of the people who will inspire and skill the next generation.

Vikas Pota is Chairman of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the TES on 1st June 2018

Emerging market parents lead in education help

Attitudes to schoolwork diverge between developing countries and the west

In all the analysis of education in emerging economies, one large gap in our knowledge has been the views of those who have the greatest influence over young people: their parents. It’s common to speculate that for instance, Asian parents are unusually fixated on education or that parents in China might be sceptical of non-state involvement in education, but until now we’ve been guessing. There has been a lack of hard data.

That is why the Varkey Foundation conducted the most comprehensive global study of the hopes, fears and views of over 27,000 parents across 29 countries. We found that in their views on education, parents in emerging economies remain a world apart from parents in the west.

One of the most striking findings is that parents across the emerging world spend far greater amounts of time helping their children with their education than in developed countries. The stereotype is borne out: Indian parents spend more time helping their children with their education than parents of any other country surveyed, with 62 per cent reporting that they spend seven or more hours a week helping.

However, it’s also true in Vietnam – which ranked second highest on the survey – where half of parents devoted the same long hours on their children’s behalf, and in Colombia, where 39 per cent of parents spend seven or more hours helping.

This picture that could not be more different from European countries such as the UK and France, where in both cases only 11 per cent of parents spend seven or more hours a week helping, or Finland where the number is as low as 5 per cent.

A similar pattern emerges when we look at parents’ views on university. Around 90 per cent of parents in India, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico place a high importance on a university education of their child. Compare that to the UK, where only 32 per cent of parents place such importance on a degree. Here we see vast disparities between the emerging world, where university and education are seen as a pathway out of poverty, and Europe where, in some cases, higher education can be a pathway into debt with little perceived reward.

But it is not simply the case that education is revered by parents in emerging economies in a way that it is not by blasé parents in the west. If parents in countries such as Finland with high standards of living and high school performance scores appear more complacent, it’s perhaps because they can more or less trust their economies to offer relatively better life chances for their children and because the schools are rated highly.

The picture in most emerging economies is quite the reverse — in Peru, Mexico and Uganda the figure is as low as one in five or less.

In emerging economies necessity forces parents to be more pluralistic when it comes to who runs their child’s school. In Kenya, for example, 85 per cent of parents approve of charities running schools that are free, versus just 33 per cent in the UK and Spain. Seventy-eight per cent approve of parent groups running such schools in Kenya, versus a survey low of 20 per cent in Japan.

The picture is the same for religious institutions running free-to-attend schools. Eighty-eight per cent in Kenya approve compared to only 8 per cent in Japan. Equally, in India, 72 per cent approve of private companies running free-to-attend schools, but only 23 per cent in the UK. Again in India, 82 per cent approve of groups of teachers running such free-to attend schools, but only 28 per cent approve in Japan. Even in China, where one might expect a great deal of scepticism about non-state involvement in education, 71 per cent would support groups of teachers running these schools.

These are not just regional trends; the figures point to a chasm between emerging and established economies. Simply put, the stigma against non-state involvement in education that is prevalent in the west — and socially democratic Europe in particular — does not exist in emerging nations where parents tend to be grateful for a good school place in whatever form it comes.

Of course, there are exceptions. The US is generally much more open to private involvement in education than other established economies and American parents place greater importance on university than Europeans, despite the astronomical levels of US student debt. But that is not the norm in western economies, where parents’ expectations are that education is the domain of the state and that parents and private organisations should play a smaller role.

For all of us involved in education development, NGOs and governments alike, we have to recognise that we cannot look at emerging economies through western eyes. We cannot understand the hopes and fears of parents in these countries through the lens of western debates on education. We have to be open to new ideas and solutions.

Vikas Pota is Chairman of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the Financial Times on 6th June 2018