How to solve the great edtech challenge

John Fallon
By John Fallon | 14th Mar 2014
180520474

Earlier today our CEO John Fallon delivered the closing keynote address at Microsoft’s Global Learning Forum. He used the platform to describe the power that technology can have to transform global education standards, why it has so far failed to live up to its potential, and why the solution calls for the world’s technologists, entrepreneurs and educators to join together under a common purpose.

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It is very inspiring to have the privilege of spending some time with so many talented and committed people from so many countries all around the world – all focused on tackling one of the biggest challenges facing our societies and our economies. We may all describe that challenge a little differently but we all know what it is – can we apply technology to help us double the amount of really deep, high value learning in our societies at no greater cost?

That’s the challenge that all of us in education face, isn’t it? How can we do more – and better – and most often do it with less?

The doubling part may seem a little ambitious, but consider this. In most countries that participate in PISA – and I’d be pretty confident this applies to all those that don’t, too – if you could get all schools, with similar social demographics, even close to the highest performing comparable ones, you would comfortably achieve that goal of doubling learning outcomes. And, that, I think, is the challenge to all of us – how can technology help us to replicate educational excellence at scale? For, even in the most difficult of circumstances, it is relatively easy to find a good school or great teaching. The hard part is scaling that success across the whole school or the entire system. So, in the next few minutes, I want to try to synthesize an argument – to draw together a number of threads – that all of us are grappling with, in varying forms, around the world.

1. All members of our global society now require a higher level of educational attainment – a deeper learning – than at any point in human history.

2. That for all the great energy, investment and innovation – so much of which is on display at this event – we are not, yet, really, applying technology to meet that challenge effectively – certainly not consistently or at anything like global scale.

3. We can do it – and in some places, we are doing it. And it happens most often through some form of blended learning – where teachers, students and data work together to create an active learning environment.

4. For us to do it consistently, and at scale, requires all of us – governments, education authorities, educators, learners, their parents, learning companies like Pearson, global technology companies like Microsoft, edtech startups, not for profits, everybody involved – to rally around an agreed framework and a common purpose.

That framework, as Canadian educational researcher Michael Fullan and others argue, requires us to combine three trends that have emerged independently in education over the last forty years and which desperately need each other – technology, a new pedagogy, and systemic reform; and then to measure everything in terms of its efficacy – whether the learning activity really does enable us to achieve greater outcomes and a better return on our investment.

So, let’s start by agreeing how important it is that we meet this challenge.

In the 20th century we expected school systems to sort people – those who would go to university and those who wouldn’t; those who would do professional jobs; and those who would fill the semi-skilled and unskilled jobs for which minimal learning, more foundational skills, was required. In the 21st century, this isn’t good enough – morally, socially or economically. All young people need to be able to learn, to create and to do – to know important things and to be able to apply what they know in ways that are engaging and solve real-life problems.

And what’s striking from all the research into the highest performing school systems – in Singapore and Shanghai, for example – is that they do have high expectations for all their students. No excuses, no rationale for failure, but detailed strategies and plans to ensure all young people succeed.

What makes this more important than ever is that we are now in a second machine age, in which we all need to use our minds, our mental and our emotional intelligence, far more effectively. And the economic and social stakes are very high indeed. In the world’s richest country, the United States, we know that the median hourly wage of workers who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truths in written texts is 60 percent higher than the workers who can, at best, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information. And, in the world’s poorest countries, the stakes are even more fundamental – a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to live beyond the age of five.

So, our first point is that all young people now need the thinking skills, such as how you apply literacy, numeracy and scientific knowledge. They all need intrapersonal skills, like determination, a sense of responsibility and self-worth. And they also all need the interpersonal skills – to communicate, work collaboratively, and problem solve.

This leads directly to our second point, which we all know: technology is disrupting, to use the phrase of the moment, pretty much every other activity and industry. It is transforming the way children and young people play, access information, communicate with each other and learn – and yet so far it has largely failed to transform most schools or universities or most teaching and learning in many classrooms and lecture halls. We are failing to engage many young people. Research by academics at the MIT Media Lab, for example, suggests that students’ brain activity is nearly non-existent during lectures. As professor Eric Mazur of Harvard University’s Physics department puts it, “students are more asleep in lectures than they are in bed!”  Studies from many countries show that less than 40 percent of upper secondary students are intellectually engaged at school.

And we are also failing to apply technology – consistently or at anything like sufficient scale – to improve learning outcomes. John Hattie, professor of education and director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute found, in his meta analysis, a lower than average impact of technology on learning outcomes, relative to other teaching and learning strategies. Larry Cuban, too, has documented that technology has had little impact on learning outcomes over the last fifty years – as have a growing number of other studies.

Why is this the case? Perhaps it is because, as Andreas Schliecher of the OECD, puts it: “Technology can leverage great teaching; technology can’t displace poor teaching”

The research tells us that teachers are making basic uses of technology – to find information, practice routine skills, turn in homework; they are not – yet – using it to really analyse data or information, to collaborate with peers, to use simulations, animations and the like. At least, it is not yet happening systematically or at real scale.

Now, my Dad was a teacher, and then a head teacher, all his professional life. I never once heard him use the phrase ‘personalised learning’. And if he was alive today, and I started to lecture him on the power of big data to transform learning outcomes, then I know he would look at me with some surprise and no little skepticism. But he did talk about how, in a class of thirty kids, a teacher has to find ways to engage with each of them in their own way and on their terms. Or how, in a school of hundreds of kids, it was often very hard to see the patterns – or make the connections – as to why some classes were powering ahead in some subjects or even in mastering and applying some concepts and skills but were struggling with others. And how, as the head teacher, he owed it to every child in the school, to every teacher, to draw those patterns and make those connections. He also talked about how local education authorities find it really hard to help schools to share data and expertise, best practice and insights, in ways that enabled them to do what you would take for granted in pretty much any other sphere of life: replicating excellence at scale.

I’m sure many of you would recognise the same trends. The good news, of course – our third point – is that technology is now helping us to do all these things.

In classrooms as far apart as Denmark, Canada, England, Australia, Colombia and California and many other places, teachers are deploying technology to overcome the boredom of their students and their own professional frustration. They are developing a new pedagogy, which combines learning outcomes such as literacy and numeracy with less well defined outcomes such as problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, thinking in different ways, building effective relationships and teams. As Andreas Schliecher was arguing to me earlier this week, applying technology to really hone – often over some years and always with great rigour – and then share widely the very best pedagogic approaches is something all high performing school systems around the world do really well.

And, as I know from Pearson’s own experiences, in supporting the digital learning of 70 million users around the world, we do now have the ability to make a profound impact on practice at the student, institutional, and system-wide level in education. Whether that is, for example automating the marking of homework; reducing the time, friction and cost of teaching; supporting community colleges in America to make very significant learning gains in algebra and physics and many other subjects; or teaching a generation of young Chinese professionals – the masters of “silent English” as they are often known, with top marks in grammar and vocabulary – the speaking and listening skills they need to prosper in their careers.

What’s common in all these cases – and I would bet from each of your own experiences – is that technology and big data is effective when it combines with the new pedagogies – the very best teaching practices – and is applied to drive systemic change at real scale.

So our fourth point is we need an agreed and widely applied framework that combines these three trends to deliver, around the world, far greater learning outcomes at no greater cost. As you all know, this is not as easy as it sounds. Technology entrepreneurs will find it much easier to develop digital innovations than to grapple with pedagogical considerations. Likewise, educators may grasp the new pedagogy but often struggle to design, or specify, next generation products that are irresistibly engaging and intuitive to use for digital natives. And global technology and services companies often find schools and colleges to be difficult and ‘messy’ environments in which to deploy. As the largest learning company in the world, we, like all of you, grapple with these problems every day.

Today, we primarily provide inputs into the process of education, such as a textbook, an assessment, a learning technology or platform, a course, a qualification, a high-stakes test or professional development for teachers. We put all of those ‘inputs’ in the hands of an educational leader, an experienced teacher or an enthusiastic student, and off they go. We are rarely able to predict or measure the learning outcomes that this investment of time and resource will produce. We need to change that – and, indeed, over the last decade, powered by technology, we have started to change that, with very encouraging results. But we now need to do that, in a much more systematic way, across our whole company.

So we are making some big changes right across Pearson. Every action, every decision, every process, every investment we now make is driven by an Efficacy Framework that requires us to be able to answer four key questions: What learning outcome do you aim to achieve? What evidence – what data – will you collect to measure progress? Do you have a clear plan that gives us confidence you can implement effectively? And, as we’ll always be working in partnership with other stakeholders, do we, collectively, have the capacity to deliver the desired outcome?

We stress that we are on the path to efficacy – and that our guide is incomplete. But we are committed to provide audited learning outcomes data for all our products and services by 2018. And we look forward to working with all of you to achieve our goals.

This brings me to our final point – that shared sense of purpose. As the authors of a new book put it, this second machine age does have its limitations:

“We have yet to see a truly creative computer, or an innovative or entrepreneurial one. Nor have we seen a piece of digital gear that could unite people behind a common cause, or comfort a sick child, care for a frail or injured person…or repair a bridge or a furnace.”

It is learning that gives humans the capacity to do all these things. And the brightest future of education lies in enabling teachers to do far more effectively and on a far greater scale what the best of them have always done – being an agent of change and progression. Over the years, there’s been much glib talk about how technology would “flip” the classroom, transforming the teachers’ role from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” The data and the research tell us different. Technology is just a tool; a very powerful one, but a tool all the same. And it is at its most powerful in the hands of a teacher and her or his students, enabling them to learn from each other and do much more effectively what the best of them do each day and always have done – lighting that spark, making that connection, that unlocks a world of opportunity for their students.

And so if we can combine disruptive technology, new pedagogy and systemic change effectively, we really can aspire to achieve far greater learning outcomes – yes, even to double them – to the benefit of far more of our fellow citizens, all around the world. It does require all of us to rally around a common purpose* – but I can’t think of a better one, or one that is more widely shared than this: Applying technology to help far more of our fellow citizens to make progress in their lives through learning.

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* This need for collaboration is the reason we created our Catalyst accelerator programme, via which we’re working with bright startups to develop next generation edtech products. We’re inviting applications for the second cohort now; should you know any great startups, send them in the direction of catalyst.pearson.com

Comments

  1. I think your blog post is correct. I’m happy to announce that with the help of a prominent US Science and Technology Lab there are some new developments that can eliminate a lot of our concerns listed.

    Educational learning recommendation system!

  2. As a teacher’s assistant for 15 years, I love my career, as you can see by the length of time invested. It does not pay well at all, but I love what I do. I want to be more effective in the classroom. I current hold a BA in Sociology and would like to further my education. In today’s changing world, and not wanting to lose invested time or lose touch with today’s ever changing society. What would you suggest in the way of education, technology or education. I would really value your expert advise. Thank you in advance. Looking forward to your response.

    Sincerely,
    April Scott

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