Flippin’ heck, how much?

Earlier today I tweeted an article which described EduTech as the new FinTech. For those of you not in the know FinTech has nothing to do with fish, it is the name given to technology development in the world of finance.

To give you a sense of the scale of what is happening in FinTech have a look at the Accenture report on FinTech investment growth. Global investment in FinTech ventures reached $5.3 BILLION in the first quarter of this year. That’s a total of over $20 billion annually being spent on new FinTech ventures, money from venture capitalists who are looking to reap the rewards of this investment further down the line. This is about a third of the annual UK education budget being spent to develop new financial technology in the hope of making a profit from it in future.

It is this level of investment that has allowed us to pay online, pay by phone (or by watch) and has also allowed the banks to reduce staffing levels by hundreds of thousands. It has two drivers. One is demand for convenience by the consumer. Another is demand for a higher rate of return by investors. With FinTech both these aims have been working together and to an extent have driven each other.

We know that banking is a large global industry and are used to levels of investment and profitability from it. We tend to see education as a smaller thing. More of a cottage industry. In fact many rebel against the use of the word industry in this context at all. So how big is the ‘industry’?

Estimates suggest that the world-wide market for EduTech will reach around $250 billion by the year 2020. So you can see that investment in companies preparing to exploit this market (and I don’t use that phrase as a pejorative, just a descriptor) at the levels of billions of dollars is not unreasonable.

In the UK there are a number of companies that you may not have heard of who have received millions of pounds of venture investment to help build their systems. They will be marketing to you soon!

This level of investment provides many opportunities and some dangers for schools.

The opportunities are obvious. If there is a technology solution to an educational issue that either helps learning, reduces workload for existing educators or reduces the level of workforce required then that is a good thing. For the teacher, reduction in workload is an imperative. If this does not start to happen we will continue losing teachers from the system at an unacceptable rate. For the government, every 1% saving in payroll costs is about £250million saved.

My take on this is simple. Keep it simple. Currently, technology is really good at replacing things that are repetitive and have limited options for user digression (it can do other, more complex things but this requires higher user and device capability, things that are often at a premium in schools). And like the situation with FinTech these capabilities would appear to be in tune with the assumed needs of the system.

It is clearly easier for a technological system to teach (and test) a student on, for example, times tables, or capitals of the world, or kings and queens, or spelling, or MFL vocabulary than it is teach them an understanding of the works of Shakespeare, or how to titrate acids, or how to play the recorder. These simpler tasks can be easily gamified and made attractive to learners.

If they stick to this, the area I call “rote-replacement”, then the investors will be happy as schools will use this kind of technology. And so should the teachers and the parents be happy as these underlying knowledge requirements are the rarely the ones that are everybody’s favourites to teach. There are many such systems out there being used by schools and their students to enhance their learning. The ones that work are the simplest, doing the least, for the greatest educational impact.

And the dangers? The dangers for the investors are when the application developers try to go beyond the areas I have outlined above. Yes, you can develop software to help teach an appreciation of Shakespeare, but trust me, you’ll lose money doing it. Such systems tend to be complex in their usability (thus locking out many potential purchasers) and they tend be harder to tailor to different ways of teaching. They also tend to be content heavy making them expensive to develop and update. A lot more of these systems are sold than are ever used which creates sustainability issues for the development companies. What seems like a good idea, and then sells, ultimately ends up not turning into a reliable income generator. The internet is littered with the unused debris of many such complex online learning environments.

Which leads nicely on to the risks for educators.

There is a lot of money being invested here. By people who like to get a return. By people who tend to be connected. I’m not suggesting anything illegal here, just that Education Ministers across the world have been known to have their head turned by shiny things (yes, Charles Clarke, you know EXACTLY what I mean). So you need to be aware of what is happening in this arena, not just to work out what you need to ban next, but preferably to work with developers (and even investors) to ensure that this expected wave of EduTech investment enhances your ability to teach rather than replaces you. You may not like it but those really are the alternatives you face.

And a final piece of advice for investors and developers. The company that cracks the ability to quickly and easily create online multiple choice quizzes wins. And wins big.

Oh, and finally finally – apps are a dead end. It’s all about the browser, stupid.