This isn’t about training children to give PowerPoint presentations – it’s about using technology to adapt teaching to student’s natural aptitudes and pace of development. It’s a truism that children learn in different ways – nevertheless, current teaching often fails to account for this difference. Many teachers continue to cater only to the dominant learning style, and pace of development, of the majority of their pupils. Technology has the potential to offer a truly bespoke education.
Although the full potential of edtech is still very much in the imagination of enthusiasts, there have already been some notable incarnations. The Khan Academy in the US is a not-for-profit created in 2006 by MIT graduate and former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan. Khan’s videos – which he started to teach his young cousin mathematics on the other side of the US – have become a phenomenon. Accompanying web-based exercises generate problems dependent on the student’s previous answers. Khan is a visionary: “This could be the DNA for a physical school where students spend 20 per cent of their day watching videos and doing self-paced exercises and the rest of the day building robots or painting pictures or composing music or whatever.”
Across the US, hundreds of innovative companies are exploring edtech’s potential. Archipelago Learning offers low-cost online learning, while OpenStudy and Einztein are innovative educational social networking tools. Muzzy Lane’s strategy games bridge the gap between gaming and the classroom.
Though slower in catching on, the UK has some great edtech companies too. Former Tesco chief executive Terry Leahy bought 47 per cent of stuckonhomework.com last year, which offers online maths tuition. Another example is BrightSpark, which built its reputation offering inexpensive one-to-one online maths tutoring – using the internet to put UK students in touch with highly qualified tutors in India. Next month it will upgrade its services, providing a global network of tutors and integrating data capture to track a student’s progress, identifying areas to target.
The power of ICT will reinvent the role of the teacher, a role which, as most people conceive of it, has evolved little since Victorian times. As the educationist James Tooley has foreseen, applications providing bespoke feedback on the progress of pupils’ learning will have a profound impact for the teacher as learning guide and pedagogical assistant. Wide adoption of such technology may incline teachers to think of themselves as inspirational figures instead.
To date, with the notable exception of the Swedish school chain Kunskapsskolan, few new school developers have engaged with the potential of edtech to enable this kind of specialisation, but the ideas and the entrepreneurs are out there. The classroom of the future will be a very different place.
Philip Salter is financial features writer for City A.M. and is writing a report to be published by the Centre for Market Reform of Education (CMRE).