Kriss Baird explains the TSB’s new £1.1m Learning for Impact competition

With some ten million people in the UK currently in full-time education, it’s no surprise that education is not only one of the most important, but also one of the largest sectors of the economy.  While the ‘business’ of education is unequivocally secondary to the practice and values of teaching and learning, the economics are impressive. The turnover of the UK’s education sector as a whole is in excess of £130 billion, equating approximately to 9% of GDP, while every year it accounts for almost £100 billion of government expenditure.

In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing amount of this spend dedicated towards technology. This includes specific education technologies as well as more generic ICT tools and platforms that are used in schools, colleges and universities. The modern classroom will often now include not just a PC, but also tablets, an interactive whiteboard and audio-visual equipment, while virtual learning platforms allow children and parents to view content and undertake further learning exercises back at home.

The UK is at the forefront of deploying technologies in education. Building on traditional strengths in teaching and educational publishing, particularly in English literature and language, UK businesses are developing learning products that are used around the world. In doing so, they are tapping into an enormous global customer base. There are thought to be more than a billion people currently learning English, while the global education market is worth well over four trillion dollars, with e-learning the fastest growing sub-sector within this. Public bodies have been important in this regard, with programmes supported by institutions such as the British Council, the Education Endownment Foundation and Nesta, among others, helping to unpack many of the challenges faced by technology-enhanced learning and to understand the steps needed to foster meaningful outcomes.

Despite the size and strength of the educational technology sector, however, there are still concerns that innovation isn’t taking place quickly or effectively enough. The market might be large, but it’s a fragmented one and difficult to access. With 25,000 schools in England (an increasing number of which are becoming independent from local authorities and have their own procurement budgets), the task of getting significant market uptake for a new product can be daunting. Teachers and educationalists are, unsurprisingly, reluctant to pay attention to new offerings, however innovative, unless there is credible evidence of improved learning outcomes. But the resources to undertake the necessary trials and to build the evidence base are considerable, will often require specialist academic expertise, and are beyond the reach of many SMEs.

At the same time, when it comes to the supply side, there are frequently expressed concerns that learning products are being developed with insufficient understanding of the context in which they are used. There may well be tremendous scope for computing devices to enhance the educational experience and impart skills in new ways but unless they are made to work with and support the learning process, and can be used intuitively by teachers and other front-line staff, then uptake will be a struggle. A friend of mine that teaches Maths recently illustrated this ground-level problem. She says she would happily use more technology in the classroom so long as it is fast to set up, simple to understand and use, and works every time. She needs to be able to hold the attention of her class and not lose credibility or the patience of the students should the tech awkwardly fail. At the heart of this, there needs to be a focus not so much on technological capabilities, but rather a broader approach encompassing educational expertise, contextual knowledge, user-centred design and the application of creative thinking to the development of digital learning tools.

In order to address these issues, the Technology Strategy Board and BIS are launching Learning technologies: design for impact, a competition to stimulate innovation in the application of technology in education. There will be up to £1.1m available for exploratory studies with projects welcome across a variety of fields, from interactive multimedia to adaptive learning journeys. The competition is intended to encourage businesses (especially SMEs), educational institutions, designers and academics to develop the kinds of prototypes and approaches that have the potential not only to succeed in the market place, but to improve the learning experience for millions of young people.

Kriss Baird, Lead Technologist for Education, Technology Strategy Board describes the latest developments, challenges and innovation funding in the education technology sector. @krissbaird

edtech entrepreneurs – Problem Finders, Mistake Makers, Risk Takers, Persistent and Resilient

Start ups are nothing new and buzz words like ‘pivot’ and ‘agile development’ are most often used by people with little experience or interest in history. The reality is every business was once a start up and the majority have always either failed or quietly faded away. In tech and edtech the only difference is perhaps the rate at which businesses come and go and the unrealistic expectations of so many founders and investors.

ed-invent is a start up and so far some of the things we have had to change because we got them wrong are:

  • our original name invent-ed – it was unGooglable
  • our Freelancer.com design competition – four weak entries from the UK (170 after we went international with 30 on the shortlist)
  • structure of our final competition – originally 2×5 days now 1x weekend
  • prizes – originally 2x £1,500 now 1x £3k (winner), 1x £1k (runner up) and internships
  • recruitment – getting educators to weekday non-CPD events doesn’t work
  • our communication with teachers

The first four were fairly simple to fix, but the recruitment, delivery and communication issues have been more challenging. Some of the solutions we will be implementing include:

  • flexible time structure – i.e. whole day (inc. Saturdays) or part-time and online formats
  • with partners – including with edtech companies and their networks or with educational organisations who can provide facilities and help with communication and recruiting
  • online – core content and in how participants work in teams and pitch their ideas

One of the biggest lessons has been that even when you have channels to market these may work for one thing not others. For example OCR ‘s e-alert system is great for communicating with schools and examiners but didn’t work for ed-invent recruitment. Similarly, email marketing has also been lacklustre. For Manchester we developed a pretty sophisticated campaign that was:

  • professionally copy written, edited and designed
  • had AB tested versions for the “To” line, strapline and text
  • delivered to a list of named teachers via the best UK educational email marketing service
  • had a click-through rate of almost 15%
  • generated only 10 signups – approx. £150 per sign up. Of these only 7 turned up making the cost per person was £214 – more than the cost of paying for a supply teacher!

So what has/is working?

  • we already have several great innovative ideas generated by educators
  • a growing demand from partners who would want to work with ed-invent (inc. internationally)
  • reaching out actively to the supply teacher community (more about this in another post)
  • the whole-day sessions structure has seen a very high-level of engagement from participants and exceptionally strong feedback
  • the core premise of ‘putting educators at the heart of edtech’ is valid and relevant
  • our case studies, videos and model for getting educators to develop their own ideas all work

At the end of each session I have been showing a Giles Pilbrow cartoon from The Sunday Times relating to the sale of one of my start ups Tutpup. It reads, ‘Will we pay £100m for your spelling website? Will we B…O…L…L…O……..’ Above it I have what I call the edtech entrepreneur’s motto – ‘Rooster one day, feather duster the next’. This is my way of trying to explain that for those who think they will get rich in edtech, the journey never has a continuous upward trajectory.

ed-invent’s goal isn’t to make educators into entrepreneurs: it’s to get their ideas at the heart of edtech. However, I believe that great educators and successful entrepreneurs share four common characteristics; they are all:

  1. Problem Finders
  2. Mistake Makers
  3. Risk Takers
  4. Persistent and Resilient.

Manchester here we come

It’s now less than a week until the very first ed-invent sessions in Manchester.

We ran a pilot version with OCR staff in Coventry last week and they gave us some very positive feedback.

Today our first 6 sample tee shirts were delivered from Spreadshirt and we will give a few of these away next week.