How EdTech is enhancing a ‘traditional’ approach to learning

As students demand more personalized approaches to learning— the answer lies in technology.
3 September 2019

Jamboard, Google’s ideas collaboration tool. Source: Shutterstock

Technology is everywhere in our lives today— the workplace, in our homes, on our person and, now, in our schools. 

It figures that given the digital transformation of workplaces across industries— and the increasing automation of our businesses— the next generation of workers are early immersed in a culture of experimentation and innovation with emerging technologies and software.

But that’s not the sole aim of technology for education— a growing market more commonly referred to as EdTech. It also offers an alternative to ‘traditional’ classroom learning methods, engaging students which new, innovative formats, and the ability to tailor approaches to fit the individual student. 

According to a forecast laid out by Boclips’ (formerly Knowledgemotion) CEO David Bainbridge in Forbes, the EdTech industry will reach a global value of US$252 billion by 2020. In the UK, there are more than 1,000 startups focused on providing EdTech technology.

The EdTech landscape

Covering any digital technology that augments or facilitates learning, the landscape of this market is vast. EdTech can comprise custom learning experiences, using gadgets and interfaces to provide learning based on need, preference, and availability. It could be the use of cloud computing, allowing students to access course files and collaborate with one another wherever they are. It could be the use of voice assistants or VR to provide more novel, immerse, or practical methods of learning.  

“Technology is spreading throughout education primarily because schools are driven by what works– and technology works,” Kevin Schmidt, CTO of Century Tech told TechHQ

While tight budgets, nationwide curricula requirements— and, of course, a student’s education at stake— means schools have been more “careful and diligent” with tech purchases than any other type of institution, the booming EdTech market is a testament to the impact of technology now broadly accessible to schools willing to take a leap of faith. 

“Schools have historically been let down by poor IT, but we are seeing that change as the excellent tech enjoyed in other sectors starts to reach education,” said Schmidt. 

“Headteachers are increasingly being granted autonomy and freedom over how they approach education, rewarding those who take bold steps with areas like the use of technology.”

A personalized path

Century Tech uses AI to learn how a student best learns most effectively, providing tailored lessons and tests with a “personalized path to mastering each subject”, by playing off individuals’ strengths and weaknesses. 

But it also seeks to alleviate the burden of admin tasks from teachers themselves— like marking and planning— that swallows up teaching staff’s time in and outside of school hours. Teachers can also use the program to view detailed insights on each student’s performance, providing them rich information to perform better ad educators.

As a result, they can spend more time on more valuable activities, such as one-to-one feedback sessions with students.

Basingstoke College of Technology (BCOT) in the UK is one such institution that has taken the EdTech plunge, and that’s in no small part thanks to Charlie James, one of the further education college’s Learning Technologists— a role which has seen her shortlisted as a ‘Rising Star’ in the Women in IT Awards. 

An advocate of AI in education, James’s interest in EdTech stems from it as a solution for personalized learning, where traditional, molded teaching methods can be perfect for students of certain mindsets or backgrounds, and inappropriate for others, something James has first-hand experience of. 

On the need to break the mold with new approaches to learning at BCOT, James said: “It wasn’t going to happen unless someone stepped in and said, yes this is a big problem.

“When I started my apprenticeship at the college, I’d already tried my math exam three times – you can’t teach to different backgrounds. You need to be able to personalize the approach, whether it’s the first time of exam sitting, or the fifth time.”

Experimental and open

BCOT uses Century Tech which, James claims, has helped improve the math exam pass rate. But the college utilizes a range of technologies across its courses, with an experimental, almost playful mindset. 

“Our first meet with AI is definitely our use of Google Forms, almost every course across the college uses it. 

“Our main aim here is to save teachers time and support students in their way of learning. We have created a Dashboard that just makes it easier for both staff and students to see grades, what they need to do, their calendars— it’s all in one place,” said James.

While adoption of technology is experimental, it’s not to say James and her team just ‘see what sticks’. Created by BCOT’s MIS (Management Information Systems) team, the Dashboard was “student-designed”, based on surveys and conversations. Meanwhile, frequent catch-ups ensure solutions are still working for all users, and are tweaked accordingly. 

Ultimately, James said, “if it doesn’t help students, there’s no point in doing it.”

The success of the BCOT Learning Program is also down to introducing new technology and approaches in small measures, so as not to overwhelm users. There is one hour of e-learning for every single course, but nothing else is compulsory and failure is encouraged.

“We can take units and integrate VR [virtual reality] and other technologies. It’s a chance for students to do parts of their course with the technology they may not use every day,” said James. BCOT’s Motorsport and Automotive course, for example, uses a VR program called WrenchVR, to simulate a workshop, while the free Google Expeditions lets users take ‘field trips’ around the world. There is even one to teach health and safety working at heights. 

The end of traditional teaching?

Unsurprisingly, bringing new technologies and methods into established courses is not without some considerable challenges. 

While BCOT staff are now used to new technologies being introduced, some other tutors are reluctant to embrace it— concerned about the time needed to clue-up on it, disruption to their existing course plans and, in some cases, worried about the risk of being “replaced” by the technology.

James’ experience on the latter point is that while EdTech will enhance traditional learning methods, high-quality and effective education for most students will likely rely on a combination of new techniques, traditional approaches, and human interaction. 

“I don’t think I could do a whole three-year course online,” said James, “I need one-to-one, I need a tutor, I need to learn and I wouldn’t learn by just sending out assignments and waiting for a response.”

“There are so many different ways that people learn, that you will always have different methods suit different people. You can’t replace ‘traditional’ with ‘digital’.”

The fact is, that while some in the education industry may be reluctant to move away from old techniques, embracing a new wave of tools, models, and approaches may become less of a choice, as students demand education and courses that meet their personal requirements. 

“With rising fees, students are increasingly demanding more value for money and ultimately a more personalized experience,” said Schmidt. “With university lecturers each teaching up to hundreds of students, it becomes impossible for them to keep track of their students’ individual needs.”

While implementation and ensuring the adoption of new technology will always be a challenge— for any industry or sector— it doesn’t cost the bank for schools, colleges or even businesses to dip their toe in the water. 

“You can email and get free trials of things to experiment first. Don’t invest in them and waste money, use trials, and let students rip it apart,” James said. 

“Don’t buy into anything before you have tried it on students because, at the end of the day, it’s their education. We can’t ruin that purely because we want the new VR headset or a website has told us it can do x, y, and z, and it can’t.

“Most of the tools we use are free and license-free, available and to everyone— so they’re all free to use and experiment.”