By Eliza Erikson, Investment Partner at Omidyar Network and Ju-Ho Lee, Commissioner of The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity and former Minister of Education, Science and Technology in South Korea
Education is supposed to prepare children for the future, yet the current system is 100 years behind the times. Our system was created in the 19th century to build a workforce for the Industrial Revolution, and many schools today still churn out students like a factory assembly line — in a uniform manner, regardless of their cognitive and emotional development.
Today’s economy functions on the principle of mass customization, and so should our education systems. We use new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing and a constellation of data points to address everything from environmental concerns to customer service. Today’s employees thrive by collaborating on projects and solving problems creatively. To put this into digital-age terms: Our schools are overdue for an upgrade.
Still, this is not a job for computers alone. We need a learning environment that strikes a delicate balance uniting humans and machines. Omidyar Network believes that to make educational technology a true agent of change that empowers all learners, business leaders, policymakers and educators must unite to build an ecosystem for what we call Equitable Edtech.
Technology — when thoughtfully designed and implemented — can unleash teachers and accelerate student progress. This idea inspired Ju-Ho Lee’s High-Touch High-Tech Learning, a program designed and implemented by the Education Commission chaired by U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown.
High-Touch High-Tech Learning begins with figuring out what technology can do better than humans. For instance, evidence suggests artificial intelligence can be a highly effective tool for teaching information and allowing students to practice at their own pace and level. With that in mind, Arizona State University (ASU) introduced adaptive learning systems for introductory courses in algebra, using an applied algorithm known as Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces (ALEKS). The results are impressive: Students who used the algorithm are 20.5% more likely to complete the course.
ASU professors get extra time to adapt new teaching skills. They can test methods beyond the traditional lecture format, including peer-based projects or applying lessons to real-world problems. Instructors zero in on each student’s development and design experiences that incorporate teamwork and problem-solving. Imagine what would happen if all teachers had that freedom.
Beautiful as that vision is, it seems out of reach for many countries. For instance, Mexico spends one-quarter of what the United States does on each full-time primary and secondary school student. With resources scarce, Mexico’s school districts probably cannot afford to build a new educational infrastructure or buy corresponding equipment.
Even US school districts that can afford it can stumble. In 2012, the Los Angeles public school system introduced a $1.3 billion plan to provide 650,000 students with their own iPads. Some students hacked the iPads for entertainment purposes and, because the devices lacked keyboards, the iPads didn’t do much to enhance learning or increase productivity. Two years later, the program ended with little to show for it.
Impactful edtech is not as easy as flooding classrooms with cool gadgets. This work requires retraining teachers, choosing high-quality, aligned content and software, communicating changes to parents and, ideally, implementing well-planned government policy. Systemic change like that can be overwhelming to put into place.
Fortunately, strategic incremental changes can yield results for students here and abroad. For instance, teachers juggle a lot of administrative tasks. Every day, they set aside hours to take attendance, schedule and oversee assessments, and grade homework and tests. If they could outsource those time-consuming, repetitive tasks to, say, a computer, they could focus on more important goals such as inspiring their students to become lifelong learners.
Scaling Access and Impact: Realizing the Power of EdTech, a report by Omidyar Network, evaluated four countries that have successfully scaled edtech equitably, and found that in Chile — a country that has spent nearly 30 years promoting the use of digital education tools in its public schools through its ENLACES program — the use of technology has evolved to include more human and high-touch experiences. In the beginning, teachers used digital access to complete administrative tasks such as assigning homework or searching for content. Today, teachers in Chile use digital platforms to facilitate students’ collaboration on real-world projects and problems.
The Education Commission, chaired by U.N. Envoy Brown, recently worked with the Vietnamese government to pilot ASU’s ALEKS program in seventh-grade math classes at three urban schools. If all goes well, Vietnam hopes to roll out the program in rural schools. The Education Commission is also looking into partnerships with Latin American and African educational leaders.
While the project is still new, Vietnam schools already hit on a fascinating discovery: Because ALEKS lets students learn at their own pace, math teachers reported that some of advanced students finished the entire computer-administrated curriculum in two weeks. Instructors can now think creatively about how to use this newfound time. Perhaps teachers can shift more of their attention to help lagging students, or to create project-based lessons to enrich the existing curriculum for the advanced kids. Better yet, invite advanced students to collaborate with struggling classmates.
The clear takeaway is, the right balance of technology with a human touch is a win-win for our children, our schools and our societies.