Edtech is undergoing a technological revolution, maturing to develop tools including cloud-based management and VR-learning.
The Evolution of EdTech
The merger of modern technology with education has opened the floodgates to a fertile industry teeming with possibilities.
When most people think of EdTech, they probably think of education apps like Duolingo, podcasts and live-streamed lectures. However, the field of EdTech encompasses much, much more, from cloud-based management software, social networking platforms, and gaming to more technical areas like flight training simulators and VR-mediated lesson plans.
How did we get here?
Education is as old as humanity itself. Our ancestors were educated within the family or tribe on how to farm, use tools, make fire, and hunt. Eventually, education became confined within the various priesthoods of ancient civilisations until the Greeks established the likes of philosophical mentorship.
In the last 2,000 years, there have been an array of education options, such as tutorship, apprenticeship, and seminary school, up until the 19th century when the concept of K-12 (publicly-supported school grades prior to tertiary education) took hold, existing alongside private, higher education institutions to this day.
Now, with the advent of sophisticated digital technologies, EdTech is empowering educators to expand their reach, while also empowering students to be able to learn independently via educational software.
China’s Big Investment in EdTech
Asia, especially China, is leading the vanguard when it comes to EdTech innovation, in part due to their vibrant and optimistic economy, as well as their incentive to disrupt the US traditional education industry, or at least make a dent in that huge market.
China knows that there is a lot of money to be made in education. According to Business Insider, the US received USD 41 billion dollars in revenue from international students last year (mostly from countries like China and India), which is more than the amount made by their biggest export to China in soybeans. The international education industry is huge and China hopes to get a piece of the pie not via traditional institutions, but through education technology startups like Squirrel AI and NetDragon.
Both startups offer something unique to the EdTech landscape. Shanghai-based Squirrel AI, for example, uses an artificial intelligence technology called Intelligent Adaptive Learning System (IALS) to create a personalised one-on-one learning experience for K-12 students at an affordable price, enabling poor, rural communities to receive a quality education.
NetDragon, based in Fuzhou, was primarily known as an online game developer, but has recently branched out into the world of EdTech, offering a variety of services including online teaching, interactive classroom software, and cloud-based platforms. Their most ambitious venture is currently their classroom VR teaching modules, which aim to use augmented reality to maximise both children’s attention and knowledge retention. NetDragon is currently making major strides in the Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and Chinese markets – and has recently partnered with the University of North Texas to launch a digital research centre.
Spurred on by Covid19 and the increasing demand for alternative online education solutions, the industry continues to grow and currently ranks third in online industries in China, already amounting to nearly USD 40 billion in value.
Given the cultural respect China holds towards the education industry, with parents willing to spend upward of USD 30,000 dollars for college admissions consulting and paying full cost tuition to live overseas, these figures aren’t necessarily surprising, even if COVID-19 hadn’t taken place.
Bringing Learning Beyond the Classroom
Another exciting possibility that EdTech can bring to the table is to bridge the gap between theory and application by developing experiential learning technology – which is often lacking in a traditional classroom curriculum.
Singaporean company XSEED Education is attempting to do just that, using innovative learning tools such as mobile applications to teach the ‘5-step experiential learning method’ curriculum designed by professors from Harvard and MIT.
The ‘experiential learning cycle’ consists of 5 steps: experiencing, reporting, processing, generalising, and applying. XSEED’s goal is to create technology that can be utilised in the classroom using a simple projector to teach topics using real-life examples. They also aim to conduct hands-on classroom activities to drive the lesson home. XSEED’s software takes an analytics approach to understanding students’ assessment scores and their current level to make sure that the student gets all the help they need.
Of course, XSEED’s technology is mainly a supportive tool used to facilitate learning, but we can expect that it will tend towards a primary teaching role in the next coming years as the technology is further developed and investments continue to pour into the sector.
EdTech Companies to Keep an Eye On
1. Squirrel AI, based in Shanghai, is using AI adaptive education software to intelligently optimise and personalise students’ learning by identifying strengths and weaknesses in students’ performance, and by giving real-time support.
2. Fuzhou, China’s NetDragon is spreading across the South China coast with its useful online teaching software, EdModo, catered towards primary schoolers, as well as its classroom VR lesson plans with headsets and engaging VR content.
3. XSEED is an innovative EdTech company based in Singapore that aims to revolutionise the education experience by using technology to facilitate experiential learning.
4. 2U is a San Francisco-based EdTech company that partners with leading universities to create online degree programs, with live, interactive lectures, and the ability to interface with professors and other students at the same time to bring the university to you.
5. China’s YuanFuDao, which has raised a total of USD 1 billion dollars in funding led by TencentHoldings, offers online tutoring, exam prep materials, and an AI-generated virtual classroom.
6. iTutorGroup, also based in China, offers mainly online language tutoring and one-to-one consultations with qualified teachers on a variety of subjects. Its primary selling point is its ability to conveniently offer personalised teaching from real, professional humans within the comfort of the home.
7. Coursera is an online learning platform that offers courses and even degrees in a variety of subjects, issuing certificates upon completion. These courses are often developed by prestigious universities like Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, with some big names offering legitimate Master’s degrees.
8. San Fransisco’s Cerego offers cutting-edge, adaptive learning technology that relies on neuroscience and cognitive science principles to facilitate memory retention. Cerego offers a variety of courses, from more typical academic subjects to technical and corporate training. They currently are partnering with universities NYU and UT Austin to offer supplemental study materials for students.
9. Unity is a company that offers users the ability to create AR, VR, simulation, and gaming educational content. Unity also offers hands-on programmes for teaching computer science, laboratory exercises, and design.
The Future of EdTech
When it comes to higher education, EdTech is still lagging. In order to really encourage students to invest their time in online higher education, the rewards need to be there.
Currently, a US or UK degree is still the most widely respected and desired credential sought by students and employers, and this isn’t likely to change soon unless EdTech can partner with these behemoth universities to grant online degrees that are weighted with the same rigour and respect. Companies like 2U and Coursera are doing exactly this to offer online degree programs from prestigious universities like Harvard, John Hopkins University, and the London School of Economics, so there is potential for Chinese companies to do the same for students who cannot afford to study abroad, but are still looking to obtain a US/UK degree.
Hopefully, as distance learning technologies develop further, high-quality education will become increasingly affordable. Ultimately, the goal of EdTech should be to make superior education accessible to people of all backgrounds. If used correctly, it can be a powerful weapon for social equality. It’s encouraging to see that there is such eager investment into the industry, but only time will tell if the industry lives up to its expectations.