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How to solve a problem like the EdTech pioneers

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by . Originally published on Pamoja Education on Oct 15, 2018

Having left the classroom last year to join an EdTech business, I was keen to listen to the experiences of two EdTech entrepreneurs at the inaugural community networking event organised by Tmrw Digital last month. The event, held one evening in a bar in central London, initially felt more ‘tech’ than some of the ‘ed’ meetings I attended as a teacher, but once the speakers began, it was clear that learning, students, and meeting real educational needs was the driving focus for these individuals.

The speakers, Emma Rogers, Co-Founder and CEO of Little Bridge, and Colin Hegarty, Founder of Hegarty Maths and Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize top 10 Finalist 2016, explored questions from Carla Aerts, Director of Tmrw Digital, as well as the audience, to provide an insight into their own journey and lessons learnt. Their experiences differed, as you might expect, but core similarities shone through. Both were inspired by their experiences and interactions with individual students and found this to be replicated across cohorts and schools. Both expressed frustration with the wider education system and spoke with passion about the individuals and demographic groups that this most keenly affects. Both referenced the hours, the collaboration, and the determination that, I would imagine, all entrepreneurs dedicate to creating a company or product. Through all of this, the resounding advice to the room was as follows.

Solve a real problem
Unless your idea, product or offering solves an actual problem felt and experienced by students, teachers, or parents, you are less likely to find success. The emphasis on the word problem demonstrates that in education, where student progress is the aim of the game, the stakes are high. I myself have wandered the aisles at Bett and seen a host of wonderful software applications and products that would certainly have an impact on student learning and possibly teacher workload but not always been able to see how it could be implemented where budget constraints and limited access to technology is pressing. The advice from the panel of asking oneself ‘what problem am I trying to solve?’ gives an absolute sense of purpose and focus that is evidenced in their ethos.

Know and use evidence-based studies and research
Emma and Colin have created companies and educational offerings that are grounded in pedagogy. They were unequivocally adamant that teachers and those in education should be too. Colin lamented that the nature of teaching means that those with most contact with students, are time-poor. Wading through the meta-language and terminology often used in pedagogical literature prevents the well-founded research from being absorbed and applied.

Yet, a solid and up-to-date grasp of how we learn, and continue to learn throughout adolescence and adulthood, has a real impact on how we teach. If shifting through, decoding, and breaking down relevant research for teaching teams is the challenge, can EdTech do some heavy lifting?

Access alone is not enough
Students who use high quality online resources, such as the Khan Academy, are a self-selecting group of students who, it is likely, would go on to make progress and improve regardless of the online resource. The driving force behind both Hegarty Maths and Little Bridge is that behind the resource accessed by students is accountability and tracking to ensure no child is without the support mechanism that many learners need. This mirrors my own experience in both face-to-face teaching, and in the online environment, that we can create excellent learning resources that deliver the high quality input that students require, but without the structures to assess and monitor in a rigorous and regular way, we risk students slipping through the gaps.

There is no EdTech – there is only Education
Finally, we heard a call from Emma to those who view education and technology as polarising competitors, at odds with one another, to look at the sector with a fresh pair of eyes. Yes, some EdTech offerings are better than others, but the same could be said about a significant number of educational initiatives and theories that, over time, demonstrate themselves to be founded on little evidence and without demonstrable impact. The Education sector is vast, with plenty of room for pioneers, debate, challenge and review. And maybe even, a bit of tech.

Hannah Senel-Walp, Global Vice Principal at Pamoja, has served as a curriculum leader in UK schools as well as the British International School of Houston. Hannah has demonstrated success in raising student attainment standards and developing teacher support structures for the delivery of A-Levels, GCSE and the IB Diploma Programme.