Mark Griffiths - 04.03.2013
A new competition from IC Tomorrow (a Technology Strategy Board programme) and Nesta offers up to £48,000 to develop ideas that make great use of technology to support learning. The competition is now open to applicants.
Education is going digital. Or at least the old education publisher model is. For example, last Monday Pearson announced a restructuring that, in the words of its CEO, is "designed to strengthen dramatically Pearson's position in digital education services ... many of our traditional publishing activities are under pressure."
And it's not just FTSE 100 companies like Pearson that are recognising this trend - which is why we're seeing vast amounts of VC money going into the so-called EduTech sector. Unfortunately for UK plc, most of this money has a $ sign in front of it.
It's important to recognise the nature of this wave of innovation, which is about more than transposing paper books into e-formats. This trend is about using clever algorithms that can intelligently reshape the learning experience on the fly (think of spider webs of learning content, invisible to the learner, where the route through is driven by the only thing that really matters - how learning is going). It's about learners collaborating, creating audiences for the stuff that students make, and for students learning by asking (and answering) tough questions.
On the frontiers, it's about technology that can respond to a student's motivational state - imagine an animated character who can tell when you're bored, on the point of giving up, or confused, and responds appropriately with some encouraging words and helpful feedback. It's about using big data to leverage in the insights about learning that aren't available in smaller data sets.
All this is why one of the challenges in the IC Tomorrow competition is neatly entitled 'Beyond Digital Textbooks'. It's exciting stuff, and entrepreneurs should take note as this is the opportunity point.
Many of the barriers to entry are coming down, at least in the informal learning space, and I have a hunch that cool new products will be found by teachers even without the sales channels of the big publishers (think of how well the TeachMeet concept has been adopted). Education services are also one of the few markets which are expected to grow (driven globally by a rising middle class and the need to wrestle with more-for-less - or the new normal as the US's Secretary for education calls it).
And let's be frank, many of the products currently sold are not very good. I found BETT 2013 a dispiriting experience, dominated by kit, products that had a pretty tenuous claim to do anything for learning, and over-use of phrases like 'engagement' and 'collaboration'. (As an aside, a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) where students post their work is not collaborative learning. It's a shared document store.)
Given all this, it is timely that the Technology Strategy Board is running this competition. They have assembled a very impressive list of partners: the Open University, the Mozilla Foundation, Cambridge University Press, and Pearson. Each partner is sponsoring a challenge that, if met, is well placed to both sell and do good.
This is important for students and the UK economy - it's now time for technology to deliver on its promise that it can improve learning. With partners, here at Nesta we're pursuing this through our support for a new incubator programme, our Impact Investment Fund and our Digital Education programme.
Meanwhile, the Education Enowment Foundation is currently running a call on Digital Technology.
This important competition adds to these efforts. Take a look at it here: Digital Innovation Contest - Education.