WRITTEN BY Geert Eichhorn
Innovation Director at MediaMonks
Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve been at the student’s end of a classroom, but I’d like to think I haven’t totally lost touch with my childhood education. And as much as I enjoyed being in school, my fondest memories—prior to discovering the internet—are probably those that were most hands-on.
Field trips and practical lessons gave me the chance to learn on my own terms. Rather than learning through the filter of others, these outings allowed me to create my own educational narrative and learn through first-hand experience—escaping the usual set up where you sat staring at a teacher as they talked at you from the front of the room.
However, since my earlier expeditions to the local science museum or treatment plant—yes, my school was very progressive—educational technology (edtech) has changed the game considerably. Smartboards (digital whiteboards), laptops, and smartphones have made their way into the classroom and the curriculum. And as with anything concerning children, this influx of technology in the classroom adds fuel to the fire of the helpful vs. harmful debate.
We have to deal with the fact that progress is inevitable. My parents for one, missed out on most of the digital revolution, leaving them oblivious to a lot of its benefits. Who would have expected that with just a smartphone and a selfie-stick, you can discover parts of life on earth that are otherwise invisible or out of reach? That’s the innovation that Google Expeditions, an educational tool launched in 2017, offers by showcasing the promising ways in which AR and VR can turn your average lesson into an extraordinary expedition.
While we might not be able to avoid progress, we can influence it by deciding how to expose future generations to innovative tech. What better place to start than by using innovative tech to take children to places beyond their wildest imagination—creating experiences that even field trips can’t match?
I’ve never met anyone who learned to play football just by reading about Cruijff’s biggest feats alone or could ride a bicycle after watching Peter Sagan pull-off a winning sprint. If we want to develop certain skills and learn valuable lessons, we have to live them. And even though offline teaching increasingly revolves around exploration, there’s still a gap between many areas of applied learning and everyday practice.
Why not close the gap by using technological advancements to our advantage? By giving children access to experiences that are quite literally out of this world, we can further encourage the development of real-world skills—without having to leave the classroom.
Others are taking note of this potential; investments dollars have risen in edtech over the years, with over $1.45 billion raised by US edtech startups in 2018—beating the $1.2 billion raised the year before. But that money is also going into fewer and fewer companies, demonstrating a need for edtech tools and startups to stand out with unique experiences and demonstrable educational results.
“There’s still a gap between many areas of applied learning and everyday practice.”
As this increasingly competitive environment matures, the winning edtech startups are those that provide differentiated experiences. They won’t use tech for tech’s sake, but will find the best medium for the message and iterate upon it. Sitting for hours on end scrolling through our feeds is not something you want to actively encourage, but exploring a virtual visualization of a DNA string is.
Designing these experiences requires educators to build an appetite to try new things and innovate—essentially, they must become students themselves, seeking out ways to innovate. A publisher can translate their book into a CD or internet portal, which might offer some interactivity and exploration, but that does little to make the lesson significantly more engaging or meaningful to a student. Instead, edtech requires an entirely new mentality around learning.
It’s not just earthly life that’s suddenly at our fingertips thanks to new technical interfaces. VR offers the first real means of making “space travel” possible for everyone. The SPACEBUZZ project is something particularly close to my heart. TLDR: a real-life rocket pulls up to schools, virtually launching students into orbit.
While working on SPACEBUZZ, I got to see first-hand how an interactive VR experience can leave a lasting impression on developing minds and encourage curiosity. Guided by real-life astronaut André Kuipers (who helped develop a fact-based script and serves as Mission Commander in the experience), kids get to gear up and produce in a 15-minute space flight.
What really makes a difference is giving children the hands-on experience to learn. While children who watched just the VR flyover film were impressed by the view of earth from space, the students who experienced the onboarding mission first got into the mindset to better investigate and understand what they were seeing from the stellar view—like the visible effects of deforestation, air pollution and more. Similarly, the Lockheed Martin initiative, Field Trip to Mars, shows just how much influence a positive application of technology can have on the appetite for learning, bolstering a positive perception of digital experiences.
By embedding practical technology in the everyday lives of the next generation, in the right setting, we’ll not only see a continuation of positive technological experiences but also provide access to a broader educational experience. In addition to giving children a new perspective on the world around them, these digital experiences could inspire deep engagement with their passions across a variety of subjects, helping cultivate the next generation of scientists, teachers, astronauts, manufacturers and more. We could tailor parts of these experiences to speak to individual needs, because who knew that according to one study girls learn better from a virtual teacher while boys prefer tutoring from a drone?
The above gets at the heart of what makes edtech such a powerful tool: teach students in a scalable way that’s personalized to their individual learning styles. In a Medium post that serves as a primer to the different styles of personalized learning, the Office of Educational Technology within the US Department of Education defines personalized learning as “instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner.” The key thing is that “learning activities are made available that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests and often self-initiated,” and edtech offers an excellent opportunity to prompt that sense of exploration in students.
"We’ll not only see a continuation of positive technological experiences, but provide access to a broader educational experience.”
With this potential for individual enrichment, edtech doesn’t have to be limited to education throughout the formative years. Imagine what we could do if we applied the same theory throughout the entire educational infrastructure? In supporting lifelong learning, edtech could play a key role in training across disciplines, including fields in which the stakes are high, like in the medical industry, combat training or of course: space travel.
From digital experiences that inspire to the possibility of personalized courses and expert guidance based on personal data, edtech can set students up for a lifetime of learning, helping them discover and apply their passions to benefit society as a whole.
I might not be in formal education anymore, but I’m definitely still learning—and look forward to continue paying that experience forward to help tech users of any age better explore and relate to the world around them.