A Name For Extra Intentional EdTech Innovation
A call for more targeted EdTech innovation
In South Africa, teachers spend only 66% of class time teaching (12% below the international average), and almost half of these classrooms are above the recommended student-to-teacher ratio of 40: 1. Growing up in South Africa and having the privilege of attending good schools, I have always been determined to devote my professional life to solving such problems. With this goal in mind, I came to Stanford in 2017 to study computer science, as I naively believed that a purely technology-based solution could solve these problems.
However, when I started learning about the state of education through books (like Poor Economics and Failure to Disrupt), along with my internship at Duolingo and the research I did for school and side projects, I got it it is unlikely that this technology on its own can repair a system that is broken in many places. Around the world, the gap between education inequality seems to be widening, even as breakthrough technologies continue to transform and transform other industries.
And I’m not the only one who thought technology had saved the day in education by now. EdTech evangelists have preached over the past few decades that we are on the verge of an educational revolution where technology-driven online learning has given more people quality education at rates that are orders of magnitude better than before. Put simply, this did not happen. The most promising EdTech innovations such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, eg Coursera, Udemy) did not have the massive effect we predicted; Global literacy rates and educational metrics remain stagnant or, at best, have improved nominally. But why?
At the macro level, it is clear that the “education system”, initially understood as a unit, is actually an incredibly complex system of actors that collectively does not respond well to new technology products that try to play with the status quo. The system is conservative. While there are exceptions, teachers who have access to new educational technology tend to simply expand them to expand the same way they taught in the past, and parents expect their children to be educated that looked like the ones they received 30 years ago (Oriji et al. speak of this in their research).
Based on the research of Justin Reich, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab and author of Failure to Disrupt, some of the key product-level problems are with the technologies that have tried to change (and go no further) our education, common to it). Here are a few of them:
Lack of motivation
As with MOOCs, students are only good at improving through freely available coursework if they are passionate about what they are learning. These platforms often fail to guide students through subjects like math and American history, as these subjects require a teacher who can provide the necessary extrinsic motivation to continue studying.
Because the training is incredibly multi-faceted, with students learning multiple subjects as part of a single training, we see a fragmented EdTech product landscape. We tried sending kids home from school with 15 different EdTech products and platforms to use, but it just doesn’t work, Reich says. The logistical overhead of each service as well as the poor interoperability between the services are mainly responsible for this.
But with these two pitfalls in mind, can EdTech innovators look anywhere for examples of how we 1) successfully motivated and re-engaged learners in a digital context and 2) a fragmented product landscape into a cohesive and synergetic product suite? Well, I want to suggest that one area worth looking into is one we’re all too familiar with: our favorite consumer technologies.
In the case of motivation and motivation to reintegrate
Popular consumer social apps (like TikTok and Snapchat) and games (like Fortnite and Clash Royale) have mastered the art of getting their users back to the app on a daily basis. We all know someone who regularly hops on Snapchat every day to save a streak or grind through levels on Clash Royale to climb the leaderboard. Of course, we are quick to point out how many of the methods that these products use to generate this commitment are ethically questionable. The increasing publicity surrounding addictive technologies has rightly made this clear. But can one argue in favor of using several well-tested, non-invasive intervention levers to encourage young students to learn?
Perhaps the Duolingo language learning app is leading the way when it comes to how this can be done effectively and responsibly. Duolingo, which makes all of its learning content available at its free tier, is experiencing user retention rates similar to those of mobile games. Part of this is due to the effective use of engagement levers that are common with consumer apps: leaderboards and smart notifications encourage healthy competition among users, and a daily streak counter lets learners be determined to take at least one every day Lesson to be completed.
In case of overcrowding
I dare say that we can take inspiration for effective interoperability and seamless integration in the consumer productivity sector. Products like Notion (“the all-in-one workspace”) and Shift (“the app to optimize your accounts”) both directly address overcrowding.
Notion does this for our notes, wikis, and tasks. In the past, these knowledge bases all lived across 5-10 different apps and platforms. With Notion, users can now create / import these knowledge bases in Notion and visualize them with Notion’s native databases; their API, now in public beta, welcomes the use of other services that integrate with your Notion workspace. Shift does a similar task when you connect your communication apps to a dashboard, creating a unified messaging experience.
Against this background, I am convinced that motivation and cross-product cohesion must be at the forefront in future EdTech offers and that the appreciation for what is successful in the field of consumer tech must flow into future projects. With this in mind, it would be ignorant for me to believe that technology ticking these boxes will alone solve the pressing problems facing the education system. A dazzling EdTech platform is useless if students don’t have access to devices or knowledge of how to use them. A far bigger issue beyond the capabilities of a single product is accessibility, and if we are to deliver products to the students who need it most, we must pay attention to this too.
Research discrediting the effects of EdTech has turned my dreams into reality. Although initially discouraged, I feel this is a call for more thoughtful innovation. I now consider myself an informed, but still excited, technologist. While I know that technology is not a magic wand replacement and that the road ahead is complex, my dream of improving education through technology continues.