How Ed Tech May - and May Not - Help Close the Global Teacher Shortage

Thoughts from BETT London and LearnIT.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics indicates that 74 countries are facing a teacher shortage, and 69 million teachers will be required to achieve universal education access by 2030. This shortage is compounded by stark data on teacher burnout. For example, 40,000 teachers in the UK—or 9% of the teaching workforce—quit in 2016 alone. Likewise, 20% of secondary job vacancies in the UK are typically left unfilled on an annual basis.

When developed and deployed effectively, technology may hold some answers for addressing the global teacher shortage and teacher burnout. In January, I attended BETT and LearnIT in London with four key questions in mind focused on the future of teaching:

  1. How might new technologies and products support teachers as instructional leaders and coaches?

  2. How are digital solutions becoming more affordable, accessible, and scalable?

  3. What might blockchain, automation, and AI offer schools?

  4. How do we know what is working in our schools and for our students?

 LearnIT and BETT proved to be complementary events. While LearnIT was focused on the why and how of the future of education, BETT was focused more on the what. Conversations, talks, and meetings at both events provided some insights into these four key questions.

 Technology in Support of Teachers:

We know that technology cannot replace teachers; however, it will shape the future of the profession. Whether this is a positive or negative outcome depends largely on the technology and the vision of the organization in which it is being used. In this sense, I was reminded of the criteria for sustainable educational improvement identified in Millions Learning, a 2016 Brookings Institution Report. These included strategic purpose, defined outcomes, affordability, and elevating teaching. With this in mind, my colleagues at Mirai and I have identified the following criteria for sustainable ed tech interventions:

  1. Cost effectiveness: Ideally, edtech products should cost less than the resource they replace. I was impressed by the number of affordable solutions I found, including eMathsMaster and Get My Grades.

  2. Ease of use: Teachers should be focused on teaching, not setting up the IT infrastructure to do so.

  3. Agility: Products should be usable on different operating systems (and ideally across curricula). 

  4. Strategic value: Products should meet identified local or global academic needs, not create new needs.

Emerging Technology:

I recently had a conversation with an ed tech entrepreneur considering development of a new product. “And, it will be blockchain-based,” he told me. While the product concept was interesting, the requirement for blockchain wasn’t clear. Blockchain, AI, Big Data and other key digitization concepts are frequently referenced in product pitch decks, but the rationale for them is often ambiguous.

 This ambiguity, however, should not prompt us to give up on emerging technologies. I must say I entered both conferences with a bit of buzz-word ennui, feeling “blinded by blockchain.” Yet, I met two tech entrepreneurs with a profound purpose at BETT and LearnIT. One was Jacksón Smith of Learning Economy, and  the other was Bo Kristoffersson of Lexplore.

Learning Economy is a consortium of technologists and researchers dedicated to understanding the effect of learning experiences on performance. Learning Economy maps diverse, individual learning into a blockchain ledger, essentially quantifying hard and soft skills. This results in real-time data on human capital initiatives. Moreover, it begins to address the complex concept of impact on professional learning—and Learning Economy aspires to do so on a global level.

While Learning Economy addresses understanding lifespan and adult learning at large, Lexplore applies 30 years of research to improving the process of assessing reading skills. Using AI and eye tracking technology, Lexplore allows teachers to conduct diagnostic reading exams. Reading fluency is fundamental to most academic progress and comprehension across the curriculum. While the importance of reading is well-known, the complexity of reading as a skill is less understood. Early identification of reading difficulties supported by Lexplore allows children to receive intervention before their progress in school is impacted. Regular use of the Lexplore platform can also provide real-time data on the efficacy of these interventions.

Both products grew out of real needs that can be meaningfully addressed using technology.

Impact:

Although it has shown signs of improvement, the impact of education technology is limited. A 2017 EdWeek market brief indicates only 9% of American school districts felt their education technology met their goals, whereas 37% of purchased licenses went unused for the year and another 24% of licenses went unused.

This is bad for schools and ed tech companies alike, as schools are spending money without seeing impact. Ed tech companies are unlikely to renew licenses that have never been used. Not surprisingly, my conversations with both ed tech companies and schools suggests that both would like to know more about impact on school performance and student outcomes.

In many cases, data in schools still remains in silos. Advanced learning record stores, such as the Learning Economy or Kinteract may ultimately provide interesting solutions when combined with teacher performance data, student attainment records, parent satisfaction surveys, and less tangible factors such as character development inventories.

What 2019 Will Hold (I Hope):

From conversations at BETT and LearnIT, I believe that 2019 will be a year of focus— focusing on what students, teachers, and schools really need; focusing on affordability; and focusing on impact. Elevating and simplifying the roles of teachers may ultimate open the profession to more people – and retain those already in it. In this sense, the exciting technologies this year will come not in the form of VR content or robotics kits, but tools that enable those of us who work in education (K12 and beyond) to better understand and even predict what works and for whom.