It has become a truism that education is ripe for change. “The current system of education was designed in the Industrial Revolution,” says creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson. “We need technology in every classroom and in every student and teacher’s hand,” says educator David Warlick.
Education technology startups have been doing enormously well in recent years with record amounts of investment from venture capital and angel investors. Direct sales of technology into schools has never been higher and many edtech startups are being snapped up by large education organizations like Pearson as they watch their old business models crumble.
But a multi-trillion dollar market such as education is tough to change over night. One in every fifteen people employed in Canada works in the education industry. This inertia makes it hard to change behaviour, to transition teachers and students from paper and pens to screens and bits.
The Education Cluster at the MaRS Discovery District is home to around 60 education ventures that sell into or partner with the K-20 system in North America. They range from high-tech to low-tech, large to small, and for-profit to not-for-profit.
In our experience advising dozens of high-tech startups, the ones that succeed tend to have an eye on the future of ubiquitous computing in classrooms, but also sell their products and services with an appreciation of the realities of the low-tech infrastructure in North American classrooms.
What they offer are blended learning solutions: technological platforms that find an entry point with a low-tech “anchor” – something a teacher can use quickly and easily to engage students. Mimetics uses simple robots to open kids up to the world of programming and Bluetooth communication. One Plant uses the simple act of watering classroom plants to engage kids in communities through their smartphones devoted to green initiatives in their schools.
Figure 9: In Canada, there is approximately one computer for every five students compared to an average of 1:13 among OECD countries
Statistics bolster the claim that Canada is one of the leading education systems in the world for access to communications technology.
What the numbers hide, though, is the gap between teachers who are comfortable with technology and those teachers who are uncomfortable with technology in the classroom.
In 2009, Cisco embarked on a wide-ranging project to evaluate the use of technology ranging from educational games to calculators. It found many barriers to the practical use of technology in the classroom, consisting of a lack of any of the following: “vision; access to research; leadership; teacher proficiency in integrating technology in learning; professional development; innovative school culture; and/or resources.” As Mark Cuban puts it, computers in classrooms are “oversold and underused.”
Statistics can also be misleading, in that they are aggregate numbers and do not speak to the state of technological integration in a particular classroom. If an Ontario school has, on average, one computer per five students, it does not mean that students have access to those computers during the entire day. They might be collected in a computer lab, for example, that needs to be signed out, or statistics might include computers used in the library or teacher offices.
Figure 10: In 2006, Canadian 15-year-old students used computers more often than the combined OECD country average.
Stephen Morris, Vice Principal at York Mills Collegiate, runs a Twitter feed called Technology Today that comments on the usage of technology in education and shares innovations with a wide community of teachers, administrators and private companies. Morris has worked on getting access to Moodle, interactive whiteboards and wireless technologies for the TDSB, and on integrating the programming language C# and programs such as MarkBook at school levels.
For Morris, who was also the Tech Integration leader for the southeast family of schools in Toronto, the question of technology in the classroom is not based on the use of technology per se, but on challenges of integration, accessibility, training and pedagogical direction.
“You don’t want to buy a technology for the sake of the technology,” he says. “How will it help students and help the school?” Introducing MarkBook, for instance, spoke to the Toronto District School Board’s desire to make assessment of students as equitable and objective as possible.
MarkBook also enabled teachers to start thinking about different learning styles in assessment, as marks had to be categorized in different ways (e.g., distinguishing between “rote learning” as a “knowledge” assignment, evaluating a writing assignment designed to test “communication” skills). This led teachers to a valuable debate on equity and assessment and different styles of learning. “These aren’t technology issues; these are pedagogical assessment issues,” says Morris.
To successfully integrate technology into a school, you cannot foist it on teachers from above. “Teachers have to be on board,” says Morris. “You start with the ones who aren’t afraid of change, of risk. They share and promote for you, then you get the other teachers to follow them.”
A report released in 2009, which collected research from board trustees across Ontario, found that, “While there is innovative practice to support the integration of modern technology into the operations of the board, schools and classrooms, it is not because of a provincial vision or plan. It is because of leadership which is often teacher and board staff generated.”63
The goal is to build the use of technology into the school’s culture, which requires a concerted effort from the school administration that goes beyond buying gadgets and giving them to teachers.
The importance of not treating technology as a panacea to student achievement is not limited to Ontario. A recent OECD study of member countries found that because education policy-makers “could not see schools and teachers adopting technology at the desired pace and with the expected intensity or clear-cut evidence of the expected benefits, a certain discomfort, if not skepticism, began to silently propagate.”64
The report identifies teacher confidence in the use of technology as a major drawback to its implementation. Changing teacher confidence in technology is a long, complex undertaking, one that entrepreneurs cannot treat lightly.
In this feature are profiles of six education startups being incubated at the MaRS Discovery District who have strategies to balance their high-tech solutions with the often low-tech, risk-averse atmosphere of the 21st Century classroom. They each answer three questions on their strategy to capture a share of the education market in North America: