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Joseph Mariathasan: Can technology alone transform education?

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After social security, health and education account for the two largest items in UK government expenditure – and figures are likely similar elsewhere.

Technology has the potential to be transformational in both cases. With healthcare, it is not just through the use of technology to make administration more efficient – with mixed success so far in the UK, which still lacks seamless access to medical records between doctors, hospitals and clinics. Excitingly, technology is also emerging in areas such as the use of artificial intelligence to better diagnose medical imagery. The metrics for success are clear in healthcare, although data protection remains a concern.

‘Edtech’ – the trendy term for technology applied to education – has the potential to radically change education in both developed and emerging countries. To what extent it will eventually do so is perhaps less obvious than in healthcare.

The EdTechX Europe 2018 summit, held last week in London, was full of exciting start-up companies led by dynamic management teams that saw themselves as providing transformational businesses.

However, as former UK minister for universities David Willetts declared in a speech at the conference, education is thankfully not going down the online monopoly route that we have seen with Facebook and social media.

Lecture hall

Could online courses replace university teaching?

Online university courses have been around for a number of years, and free massive open online courses (MOOCs) are available from eminent institutions such as Harvard, MIT and Microsoft. At EdTechX entrepreneurs were offering new variations on this theme, including the creation of at least one new online university.

Teacher-less teaching?

Technology is also arriving in the classroom throughout developed countries. However, some of the initiatives on show at EdTechX suggested that innovation was likely to be far more transformational for isolated communities in poor countries. For example, distributing tablets to provide access to specifically designed courses without school teacher involvement is likely to have far more of an impact than tweaking teaching aids in the developed world.

One presentation, for example, related to the Global Learning XPRIZE, a global competition with a $15m (€12.8m) prize purse provided by Tesla founder Elon Musk. It challenges teams around the world to develop open-source and scalable software to enable children with limited education access to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 15 months. Field testing of five finalists is already underway in villages in Tanzania.

At the other extreme, initiatives such as EtonX are subsidiaries of well-known institutions that leveraging their credibility to attract a worldwide audience.

For investors, there is a cornucopia of opportunities in edtech, but deciding what is likely to be a winner may be much more difficult than in healthcare.

With healthcare, it is clear that a technological solution that, for example, substantially improves detection of breast cancer from scans would have immediate applications and relevance, and the technology with the best performance would likely be the most successful.

Edtech offerings are more problematic. There are many competing offerings in the same space without necessarily any differentiator in terms of quality – and, in many cases, they may be competing with free offerings from highly regarded institutions.  

Challenging the traditional

The rise of online learning opportunities does raise the issue of how traditional universities should be structured in response. David Willetts argued that, unless they are able to meet the demand for more places, universities will be increasingly sidelined as educational institutions while remaining as research entities.

Oxford University

Oxford University, UK

Oxford and Cambridge, at the apex of the UK’s higher education system, offer courses that are expensive to create with individual or small group tuition together with lectures. The collegiate system also means there are physical limits to how many new places can be created.

On the other hand, MOOCs offered by such entities may address the issue of disseminating information and teaching – but online courses cannot reproduce the university experience, or indeed the prestige of being admitted to such institutions.

Yet there must be alternatives that can utilise the almost-free resource of online courses together with some minimal campus teaching that would not result in students facing large debts at the end of three years. The technology for such offerings is there already but, so far, there has not been a synthesis of online and campus teaching that produces radically cheaper but acceptable alternatives with mass appeal.

Edtech has immense potential, but the path to success requires much more than just technology.

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