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How might education be different 4 years from now?

In March 2022, I joined the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and spent a significant amount of time in a hall dedicated to exploring how things will be different 4 years from now (4YFN).  The hall was full of startups showcasing the latest products for urban mobility, healthcare, education, and more. 

4YFN invited me to moderate a fireside chat on the future of education. The speakers included Sanyu Karani (Funding Box), Luis Florit (Thinko), Verónica Sanchez (Innovamat), and Ricard Gras (edunexis). Together we discussed the potential of extended reality, platforms providing teachers the best education resources, as well as the importance of intentionally developing 21st-Century Skills in the classroom. 

Alice Carter moderating a fireside chat at the 4YFN 2022

It was a fun session and since then, I have been mulling on the question of the day: How will education be different 4 years from now?

Here’s how I imagine 2026. 

People have stopped complaining that their phones are listening to them and serving them tailored adverts. The metaverse and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are totally normal parts of life, not just buzzwords. Education though isn’t radically different. Children attend school, teachers teach groups of similar ability, assessment is done largely through exams.  However, the administration and operational processes that underpin the education systems are streamlined and more resilient to external shocks. Thanks to this we are seeing improvements in traditional learning outcomes for children, even in the poorest settings. 

Disappointed? This change will take a huge amount of effort and four years isn’t that long compared with how long the current education models have been in place.

Here’s what I think will need to happen: 

  1. Players will need to align

It’ll take a collective effort within countries and globally for things to really change in education. There are some brilliant examples of where people are already coming together. For example, Global Schools Forum whose members support schools across 51 countries, and European Schoolnet which brings together 33 European Ministries of Education to collectively influence education in the region. 

These groups will grow and connect more people from across professions and sectors, everyone from governments, to venture capital, to international aid will have to play a role. This will mean having honest conversations in order to find alignment. For many, the goal should be centred on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) but for others, this will resonate more meaningfully if it connects to the national government priorities which are often more about 21st skills and employability. We’ll also need clarity on the role of profit-making organisations in improving education for investors to come to the table. 

  1. Power will need to be flipped 

As I watched EdTech founders pitching their products at MWC, I was reminded of the story about Mark Zuckerberg presenting to the venture capital firm Sequioa in 2010. He arrived late, in his pyjamas, and presented a deck entitled ‘10 Reasons Not To Invest’. This story represents an inflection point in the tech sector where the power flipped, and after which founders were far more able to dictate the terms of investment, giving away a lot less equity to investors. 

Today the purse holders, typically grant-givers, dominate the direction setting in the sector. Real change will be possible when these power dynamics are flipped, when the education sector is led by local communities, EdTech founders, and school leaders. Those closest to the information, and with lived experience, need to be setting the agenda and dictating the terms as they are best positioned to make lasting change. 

  1. People will need to talk less about technology and more about digital services

EdTech will catch up with other sectors like financial services and government, instead of thinking of one-off deployment of technology it will be about development of digital services. 

This shift is important as it changes the way people think of resourcing EdTech, and what is needed to ensure ongoing and continued impact of these interventions. Services require careful consideration of the end-to-end experience of those using it, and need continuous delivery and improvement.  Digital services are those that take full advantage of the internet-enabled world and focus on meeting the needs of users. 

  1. The most impactful innovation will be invisible 

The EdTech start-up world is flooded with content platforms, and personalised and adaptive learning products taking advantage of the latest technology. These are really only aimed at the most expensive private schools, or at middle class children whose parents will pay for them to access these tools outside of school. 

While future crises resulting in children being out of school will be able to build on the foundations learnt during the Covid-19 pandemic, most children will return to school. Improving  education for the majority of children will be less sexy, and more operational. like:

  • managing distribution of teachers and supply teachers,
  • ensuring teachers get paid on time,
  • freeing up valuable time spent on school admin, 
  • connecting teachers in communities of learning, 
  • engaging parents.  
  1. Governments and schools will need to move faster and be more adaptable 

The route to scale for more impact-focused EdTech is either through government or through schools — depending on the nature of the education system and how much decision-making power is developed in each country. Many EdTech founders complain about slow government processes, and risk aversion of schools. 

We live in an increasingly complex and fast-changing world. Governments and schools will become used to moving quickly, if it’s in response to global crises like the Covid-19 pandemic or to the changing needs of students. We’ll see more schools volunteering to try new things, helping to test and refine interventions that might support them. Age-old concerns about the risks of experimenting with education will need to be replaced by a full understanding of the risk of choosing not to experiment. 

  1. A massive shift is needed in the way people fund EdTech 

The lack of adequate financing for education was already a concern before the pandemic and is getting worse. Private sector investors and grant-givers will need to combine forces and explore different kinds of financing to catalyse the market.

Funders will need to stop thinking of EdTech as just software. One of the characteristics of software is how little capital is needed, once you know software works you can scale relatively quickly. EdTech is more like hard tech when it comes to investment, as much longer time horizons and more funding are needed to de-risk and make sure the impact of intervention can be sustained. And for many parts of the world, a massive investment in connectivity and infrastructure will also be needed to be able to harness much of today’s technology.

If this type of approach to investing is taken, then we might see a real revolution in the way education is thought of by 2030. But for now, I’ll settle with streamlining the process we have and giving teachers more time to focus on actually teaching.  

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