Wednesday, 14 March 2018

#FutureSchool: How technology can help us educate the 263m children in the world who currently are not in education

The Challenge 

The greatest challenge in facing global education today is that there are an estimated 263 million children who are not in education (UNESCO Institute of Statistics Fact Sheet October 2016, No.39). Furthermore, the same report estimates that the world will need 3.3 million more primary school teachers and 5.1 million more lower secondary teachers by 2030 to meet future demand. 
The traditional model of one teacher taking a class of 20-30 pupils is unsustainable. 
What is clear from these projections that the traditional model of one teacher taking a class of 20-30 pupils is unsustainable – it is a luxury form of education which most societies cannot afford. We need to look for alternatives and, if we are to be successful, technology undoubtedly will have to have a large part to play. 

How Technology can make education more widely available 

Zero Marginal Cost 

One of the great advantages of digital technologies over traditional industrial models is that as a product becomes more widely available the marginal cost of producing additional units approaches zero. Compare, if you will, the costs associated with producing and distributing a print edition of a daily newspaper and a digital edition. For both formats there are a number of fixed costs (e.g. the salaries of the journalistic staff, the cost of running their offices etc.) However, for the print edition there are many more variable costs (e.g. more rolls of paper will be required to print more newspapers) which do not exist for the digital version. For the print edition there will always be an additional marginal cost of producing an additional newspaper; but it makes next to no difference if the newspaper distributes one digital copy or one million copies. We can apply the same principle to education: once a digital lesson has been produced, the marginal cost of distributing it around the world is almost zero. 

Online Learning Platforms 

Online learning programmes are becoming increasingly sophisticated. These platforms are driven by intelligent systems which promise to offer personalised learning experiences. Typically, the program ‘teaches’ a topic (through online videos and interactive exercises); then uses low-stakes testing to assess the student’s knowledge and understanding, high-lighting areas of strengths and weakness; before recommending which courses or units to do next. These platforms are still at a formative stage but there is no doubt that they have potential to be the true disruptor of education. As with all disruptive technologies they will initially be established at the margins of the educational sector, but, in time they will become accepted into the mainstream. 

Blended Learning Programmes 

There is little doubt that most Governments around the world will be attracted by online learning platforms in order to reduce the overall cost of education and to address concerns about teacher shortages. However, it must be recognised that schools fill other important social functions: they provide significant child care, thus releasing parents to participate in the work-force; they are places of socialisation, where young people learn to interact with each other and to become good citizens; and they ensure that all children within the system reach a minimum standard of education. It is very difficult to see how an education system that is wholly online will fulfil these functions at scale.
Blended Learning Programmes combine online learning with ‘brick-and-mortar’ education where the student attends a physical school with teachers so that there is a coherent programme of study. This combination of a traditional school experience with online learning has real potential to be the best of both worlds: providing a more cost-effective form of education which is more personalised than the present model, whilst maintaining the important social functions that schools fulfil. 

Remote Teaching and Virtual Reality Teaching 

One of the great benefits of the Internet is that we are now able to connect with people around the world typically through video-conferencing apps such as Skype or FaceTime. Communication technologies may also be harnessed by schools to allow ‘Remote Teaching’ i.e. live school lessons that taught by a teacher video-conferencing into the classroom. The problem with this is that it is difficult for a remote teacher to engage the pupils. 
360 Degree Camera in French Lesson
Virtual Reality Teaching
At JESS, Dubai we are taking this idea to the next level. ‘Virtual Reality Teaching’ (VRT) has the potential to allow children in Calcutta to feel as if they are in a classroom at JESS, Dubai. Earlier this year, we conducted a “proof-of-concept” test of VRT aiming to give students an immersive experience of being in a classroom, rather than passively watching a video-conferencing screen. This involved putting a 360-degree camera in the second row of a classroom and running a live stream to a classroom next door where three students wearing VR headsets ‘participated virtually’ in the lesson. The experience was so real that the pupils found themselves putting up their hand to answer the teacher’s questions! (A video of the experiment is on the JESS Digital YouTube Channel.) We are confident that it is only a matter of time before students will be able to attend class at JESS remotely via VTC. 

Robots and Supporting Personalised Learning 

Technology is doing to have its greatest impact in personalised learning by making highly specialised support more widely available. A great example of this is the way in which robots are being used to deliver lessons in a way that promotes engagement in learners with Autism. The Robots4Autism project which has built Milo, a humanoid robot, can walk, talk and even model human facial expressions; and never gets frustrated or tired. Milo helps these learners improve their social and behavioural skills and thus to gain the confidence to succeed academically and socially. 

Final Remarks 

New technology has promised for the past thirty years that it will entirely transform education and I suspect that it will be a number of years before it delivers on that promise. However, there is huge potential here to get much closer to educating those 263m children who presently are not able to go to school.

This article was written for the Edarabia Network

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