Schools and parents are turning to education technology – or EdTech, but is it safe and how exactly does it work? David Tait, CEO of EdTech firm Mandarin Matrix, answers these questions and more.
The Covid-19 outbreak has sparked an EdTech revolution the world over. Just in the US, for example, EdTech companies have managed to raise more than USD 803 million in venture capital funding within the very first half of 2020 – a number that’s only expected to increase exponentially over time.
In fact, it’s predicted that by the end of 2022, the e-learning industry will surpass USD 243 billion in revenue, thanks – in large part – to this pandemic-induced shift to remote learning.
Looking to get a slice of the pie is Mandarin Matrix, an award-winning online classroom that’s designed for children learning Mandarin as a foreign language. Established in Hong Kong in 2014, Mandarin Matrix is a customised, cloud-based guided reading solution that caters primarily to students aged 4 to 18. Like many of its contemporaries, the e-learning platform experienced an accelerated expansion both at home and in UK and US markets earlier this year, doubling its user base of paying subscribers over the course of five months.
We checked in with Mandarin Matrix’s founder and CEO, David Tait, to find out the answers to all your most pertinent EdTech questions, from its effectiveness and key limitations to his predictions on its future.
What exactly is EdTech?
EdTech is effectively known as “The Classroom in the Cloud”, and it involves multimedia content including video, in-time recorded lessons, interactive live classes, online labs, collaborative project works, and online classes. Its learning methods can be either synchronous (real-time) or asynchronous (self-paced).
EdTech can be used by anyone, ranging from preschool EdTech where kids are taught how to do crayon drawings on an iPad, all the way to professional development learning for lawyers or accountants.
Going back in time, education technology has actually been around for a while. For example, the Chinese abacus was invented in the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BC, and you also have the wax tablet during the Middle Ages. But it’s only recently that it’s been evolving more rapidly and taken on very different forms, especially since COVID.
How widespread is EdTech adoption currently?
A UNESCO study estimated that more than 90% of the world’s students had been in lockdown and stuck at home because of the pandemic. Since then, EdTech has been increasingly adopted and EdTech companies have been reporting exceptional usage and growth during the crisis. In fact, I think the rate of adoption at the moment is between 90% to 100%. Tertiary education establishments, for instance, are using technology very widely, with lots of undergraduate programmes being held entirely online at the moment.
When schools go back to a more normal environment, I think the adoption of EdTech will vary, depending on the subject and quality of technology available in schools. But, generally speaking, I think that schools will be adopting more and more EdTech, partly as a contingency against continued problems with COVID, but also as a contingency for schools not being able to operate normally. It’s made people realise that learners should be able to access lessons and information as easily and as readily as possible.
What’s the role of the teacher once EdTech is implemented?
We’re not trying to replace the role of the teacher. I believe that human teachers are ultimately the best option for learners, at least for now. In fact, I think any child who is doing online learning at the moment would say that they want to get back to school with their teachers.
So, I see tech acting as a supporting role. It acts as a management tool for teachers to run a more effective classroom environment. It gives them the ability to reach more pupils quicker, have access to content faster, and track the progress of their pupils more effectively. This is highly needed, especially when teachers are not able to be in the classroom with the students or there aren’t enough teachers. It also takes a lot of that repetitive labour work away. For instance, you may have children learning 500 characters; while teachers may spend time pointing at one character after the other, EdTech can take these repetitive, mechanical parts of the teacher’s workload away. However, it still doesn’t take away from the teacher’s function in explaining the meaning of the characters.
This may change over time as we embrace new technology, and I do think that tech will improve more and more over time, and eventually replace some of the functions that teachers have. But, for now, teachers are enablers of technology rather than a replacement.
How effective is EdTech?
EdTech provides an exciting framework for things like project work and communication. For instance, with technology, there’s nothing to stop a learner in Warwick from talking directly to another learner in Wuhan.
EdTech is also able to effectively measure the progress of kids through the use of technology and data. By collecting data about what an individual is learning, it is able to track progress effectively, allowing teachers to understand how the students are learning and give better direction for teaching.
For Mandarin Matrix, we are currently working on developing dynamic proficiency assessments to track the data even more effectively and predict the level of proficiency our learners have reached. This is important because it’s one thing to get an A* in a language exam, but it doesn’t mean you can speak the language in a normal setting. Proficiency is a lot more important – it shows what you can say and what you can do with the language.
How inclusive and individualised is EdTech?
EdTech is able to adapt to different learning styles and needs. Mandarin Matrix, for instance, personalises the experience for learning Mandarin so that every student can learn at their own rate. The data of their inputs and outcomes in the mini tests and exercises all add up to their individual learning journey. This is in contrast to a teacher trying to teach a modern foreign language to a class of 30 kids, who may be learning at different paces and require six subgroups to manage effectively.
As for children with special educational needs, it is very difficult to be absolute. The reason is simply that these students may not be studying specialist subjects like Mandarin as a second language or using these platforms anyway. However, for students with a physical need who cannot move in and out of the classroom as easily, EdTech is inclusive. In fact, we try to embrace as many individual needs as possible.
We firmly believe in the equity of education and that every child should have equal access to the tools that allow them to learn. Mandarin Matrix is priced at only USD 1.50 per child per week, so the platform is available to all learners, including those in poorer neighbourhoods, rural areas, and remote locations.
Does EdTech have any limitations?
I don’t think EdTech can do everything – just like any other thing in life. Most kids that use our platform actually still think that learning Mandarin is boring, which shows that EdTech is unable to replace the interactions students have with each other. This is why we designed our platform in a way that each of the units take between 12 to 16 minutes to complete online, so that they can take breaks and still do more interactive activities like playing soccer or swimming.
As a Mandarin EdTech company, interactive speaking plays an even more important role, which is why we need to do a huge amount of work to fill the gap in oral learning during remote learning. At the moment, we’re working with development partners at the Hong Kong Science Park to develop avatar technology where students can interact with fully responsive avatars, rehearse their pronunciation, and hold conversations.
Is EdTech harmful or dangerous? How do I protect kids from cybersecurity and data privacy issues?
This is a constant challenge for EdTech companies. Any access to the tech environment has the potential for harm if the right safeguards aren’t put in place, which is why we spend a huge amount of time looking into security issues. We work with schools, districts, and Microsoft – who host our platform – on the regular, to ensure that we are up-to-date with international norms.
This can be difficult from a legal point of view because there are so many different regulations in every single jurisdiction you move into. Also, this isn’t simply a question of what is bad out there on the Internet, but also making sure that the data we’re collecting is properly curated and encrypted on behalf of the user. We need to work hard to create an environment where each child owns their own account, and it is only them that own the data on the account.
User Progress Statistics on Mandarin Matrix
What can I do to make sure my kids are learning effectively at home and using EdTech properly?
Establish routines and make sure they adhere to school scheduling. Make sure they have enough water, take breaks, and enjoy a “break time cookie” – similar to what you would expect in the school environment. You also need good tech infrastructure in place, so make sure that your router is working and you have good broadband connection.
The most important thing is to be realistic and accept that things are going to be different for a while. Embrace the technology; don’t fight it.
What are currently the industry’s biggest barriers to adoption?
Access is an issue at the moment. We’re currently in the markets of Hong Kong, the US, and the UK, but if we look further afield, it’s ultimately developing economies like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand that will benefit from Mandarin. Yet, a lot of these countries have jumped the LAN network environment and are mobile only. There are also many remote, agrarian communities that do not have as much connectivity, and if you can’t connect a school to the Internet, you can’t really leverage these EdTech resources effectively to teach the kids. But, I think that these physical barriers can mostly be overcome over time. With the rollout of 5G, we’ll see an improved chance of connectivity, and the barriers that exist at the moment will then be overcome quite quickly.
The second thing is that schools have been slow to adopt EdTech. This is usually due to the belief that schools do not have the time to take on and adopt tech, or the notion that human teachers are the best. In fact, education is probably the slowest major sector to adopt technology. However, what we’ve seen with COVID is an enforced acceleration of the adoption of EdTech because they don’t really have a choice.
What do you think the future of EdTech will look like?
Education may be looking a lot like online universities and colleges for the next few years, and with increasingly new approaches, EdTech is going to continue to reshape many things and scale up education in unimaginable ways. Teachers might be able to manage 90 children across multiple locations, rather than 30 kids in the classroom. We already have great companies like Squirrel AI Learning in Shanghai that are coming up with AI tech to allow every single subject to be taught individually to every learner, and we will also have AI coming into the space of individual learning more and more. EdTech will also have the ability to make more people literate, more tech-savvy, and make the next generation smarter than ever before. And because of lockdown and COVID, what would have taken a decade is now going to take place in a year or two.
Over time, I think that we are also going to see a paradigm shift in the education sector. To the state education sector, you might find that technology will become a huge benefit because EdTech will drive the cost of education down and make education more efficient and accessible. In the private sector, however, there are fears that persist in schools about parents having too much access to learner progress.
Ultimately, if you’re paying for someone to go to university for USD 20,000 a year when they can actually do all of it online through EdTech and achieve the same results, then whatever the charge rate is at the moment is going to be seriously challenged and disrupted by technology.