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Edtech forum shares US, UK innovation

Posted by Chad O'Connor  October 18, 2013 11:00 AM

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Politicians, investors, teachers, entrepreneurs, and students are all part of the growing edtech conversation, and the “Learning Technologies: Sharing US and UK innovation and practice” session organized by the British Consulate and hosted at Microsoft New England Research & Development Center shed light on both how far we’ve come and a glimpse of where we’re heading.

The stage was set by Mathew Hancock, UK Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise, Department of Education and Innovation and Skills. Coming from an innovative family, as well as one that prized education, Hancock is excited by technology’s potential to augment the teacher’s role as opposed to replacing it, as well as the breaking down of barriers that traditionally halted innovation. He sees technology as a way to make real sustainable change in how basic education is rendered, particularly in third world countries. One of the many reasons to be excited about edtech in the UK is the open-minded attitude the powers-that-be are adopting.

Photo courtesy Navah Fuchs
UK Minister Matthew Hancock
“I’m most excited about the innovations I haven’t even heard of yet and providing a forum for them to evolve into business propositions,” said Hancock.

When thinking of edtech, one almost always jumps to MOOCs. The flagship of all MOOC’s is edX, the brainchild of Dr. Anat Agarwal. As a serial entrepreneur, educator, and administrator of an educational institution, Agarwal’s perspective transcends the traditional silos that get in the way of collaboration. Agarwal sees MOOCs as playing three crucial roles in the future of education:


  • empowering students to actively engage with knowledge through instant feedback

  • enabling richer data on learning styles and habits, which will in turn inform future educational innovations

  • allowing for more cost effective and accessible knowledge.


Access runs at the heart of edX, from its programs that service tens of thousands per session, to the open source platform that influenced sister programs in China and France. Additionally, edX’s partnership with Google, MOOC.org, is set to service over 5000 universities who will leverage MOOCs as part of their programing.

MOOCs are finding success across age demographics as adoption and result are both on a steady incline. For instance, Andover High School is offering credit for MOOC students. Programs are of equal rigor and enable “educational tourism” (two-thirds of edX users are taking courses just to explore a subject). This shift enables self-directed and motivated learning..

“MOOCs like edX are the crucible for a new way of learning,” said Agarwal.

MOOCs are relatively new to the UK, and Ian Fordham and Ty Goddard, co-founders of the Education Foundation and incubator are excited to facilitate all advances in edtech. Trends are pointing to a stronger focus on gamification in education, as well as infusing entrepreneurial spirit into how students learn. Between the 35 entrepreneurial academies that have taken root, the increased focus from investors and politicians alike in edtech, and the openness to the evolution of the educational models, it’s clear the UK is ready to be a power player in the edtech space. Yet at the same time there’s still a lot of questions around the “moocsphere” and how it will influence the way students access information in a scalable way. Companies like Zondle and Class Dojo indicate that UK MOOC adoption relies on having a degree of gamification to it.

Goddard predicts, “Students will stop being consumers and start being creators.”

Microsoft’s Steve Ramsey, Director of Business Strategy, offered a glimpse of what Microsoft views as the future of education. There are two key elements to Microsoft’s vision: implementing gamification through the Xbox Kinect, and leveraging Microsoft Windows 8 software and hardware to provide universal access to educational content and content creation. Imagine a world where a teacher can see a student is missing from class, instant message them a get well note, while ensuring they get their homework through cloud computing accessed by the student’s tablet. Imagine a world where students see math as a game and get exercise while they solve equations. This is the world Microsoft is trying to build; an education system infused with technology and easy information access from day one of a child’s education.

“Digital literacy, learning hard and soft skills, and the magnitude of content delivery are at the heart of the edtech revolution, and Microsoft is proud to stand for anytime, anywhere, learning for everybody,” said Ramsey.

The evening ended with Jean Hammond, angel investor and co-founder of LearnLaunchX, shedding light on the edtech scene from an investment point of view. Ten years ago there was little to no investment or political support for advances in edtech. Contrast that with today: $25 billion and $22 billion invested respectively from investors and angels in the space, over 270 up and coming edtech start-ups, and a projected $168 billion market opportunity. She predicts that most edtech companies will be acquired or acquihired by an existing and evolving cohort of established publishers and producers of edtech.

“Expect to see the up and coming edtech companies making $10-40 million in revenue and adopting the freemium model.” Hammond explained.

The guests of the event were hand selected for what they could bring to the cross-pollination of UK and US edtech. Hakan Satiroglu, founder of Exponential Techspace, an entrepreneurial campus focusing on edtech, believes, “entrepreneurs, regardless of industry, can only be successful when all the pieces come together. I’m thrilled to see the steps the UK is taking to facilitate what I believe is the quintessential edtech environment.”

The edtech conversation is one of nonprofits and for-profits, seasoned voices, and upstarts. Most of all it’s one of breaking down perceptual and actual barriers to change. As Agarwal reminded the audience, the last great innovation in education was the blackboard (125 years ago) and before that, the printing press (550 years ago). To each of these innovations, there were strong objections because it would force deviation from the known and the comfortable.

We are living in a time of unprecedented openness to change, where politicians, innovators, educators, investors, and students are all coming to the table to discuss how education is rendered, assessed, and funded. Data and the human element are driving the conversation, ensuring education becomes optimized without feeling manufactured.

Navah Fuchs is the co-founder of Angel Ed. Join the conversation on Twitter @Angel_Ed_Grants.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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