Disruptive Technology in Education

DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGY: EDUCATION

Welcome to the first instalment of our Disruptive Technology blog series where we showcase technical innovations that could revolutionise the world. Each article features a selection of disruptive technologies relating to a specific industry. In this article, we take a look at the latest and greatest developments in education.

There are quite a few interesting videos embedded in this article, so to enjoy the full extent of this piece, we encourage you to take your time to read and watch this.


If ever there was an industry in need of disruptive technology, it would almost certainly be education. The kids are bored. The teachers are bored. And it’s not hard to see why. The public school system hasn’t really changed much since the late 1800’s when it was first created — heck, even the schools themselves are still structured like the factories they were originally developed to serve at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Whilst the “assembly line” approach to education may have served a useful purpose in the past, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see its relevance in the 21st century.

And let’s not forget… higher education isn’t cheap. With so many pressures on parents to give their children the best education possible to succeed in life, parents are often left forking out large sums of money to send their children to university, or the kids are forced to accept a hefty debt burden for an education that isn’t even guaranteed to secure them a job that pays enough to repay their student loans.

So is there any hope? Are there any technologies out there that can transform our outdated education system?

Adaptive learning

Perhaps the biggest obstacle that needs to be overcome is this idea of standardisation. Modern science has been telling us for decades that everyone learns differently. Some people learn better in groups, whilst others learn better on their own. Some people learn better during the day, whilst others are nocturnal knowledge sponges. People also differ wildly in their aptitudes for different subjects, and the list goes on and on.

This is where the dynamic duo of adaptive learning and big data comes in.

Thanks to ‘big data’ (a term used to describe the exponential growth and availability of data) and ‘adaptive learning’ (an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices), we can actually see how students interact with educational content. This information can then be collected via Content Management Systems (CMS) and Learning Management Systems (LMS) as well as social media. Knowing exactly how people learn allows for changes to be made to learning styles that can improve the way people are educated through various learning programs. Knewton and Civitas Learning are already using adaptive learning and big data to help students and learners, and they “envision a world where all students can reach their full potential.”

The idea is to stop standardised learning and to tailor education to each individual. We all learn in very different ways, so why shouldn’t our education be personalised to ensure that each of us reach our full potential?

Massive open online courses (MOOCs)

Online courses aren’t anything new. They’ve been around since 1987 when the University of Phoenix became the first private educational institution in the world to offer degree-granting programs exclusively online.

But now we have these things called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which are online courses aimed at large-scale participation and open (free) access via the Internet. They’re similar to university courses, but they don’t usually offer academic credit.

Coursera and edX are probably the two most well-known MOOC websites, offering hundreds of courses from some of the most respected universities in the world, including MIT, Harvard and Yale to name just a few.

There’s also Khan Academy, which is technically a MOOC except that instead of partnering with established educational institutions it provides more than 4,500 video lectures created by Salman Khan (the founder) and the Khan Academy community on subjects ranging from maths and science to economics and computer programming. Combining its own adaptive learning engine to help students track what they’ve learned and recommend what they can do next and a built-in gamification system where students can earn badges for completing tasks, Khan Academy is definitely a game changer.

Taking the idea of MOOCs to the next level is a new establishment called University of the People, which is the first tuition-free college where you can obtain a recognised degree. The university was launched by entrepreneur Shai Reshaf in 2009 because he wanted higher education to be available to everyone. When he says everyone, he means everyone. He believes that access to higher education could bring global economic development and world peace, and could transform the lives of people around the world.

[UPDATE: Whilst technically tuition-free, there are still costs involved if you want to attend the University of the People, including a $10-$50 application fee and $100 for each end-of-course exam. There are 40 exams required for an undergraduate degree, which would bring the total cost of that degree to roughly $4,000. However, students who can’t afford to pay the exam fees can apply for scholarships.]

The Open University was opened 50 years ago in 1969 as a distance learning platform mainly targeting part-time students. Many undergraduate and postgraduate students study off-campus, with some full-time postgraduate students using the university’s facilities in the main campus, based in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.

The Open University is seen as an alternative to ‘normal’ universities or higher eduction institutions because the courses are crafted in a way that emphases independent and proactive learning.

Unlike the Univeristy of the People, the Open University does not claim to be tuition-free. With conventional degrees, there is a blanket tuition fee of £9,250 paid to the university per year. At the Open University, tuition fees depend on the course and how long for. For example, a BA (Honours) Economics from the Open University in England costs £2,928 for half a year of study, £5,856 for a full year of study and £17,568 for a complete qualification.

South Korean Hagwon ‘Cram Schools’

Known widely for being a forerunner in technological advancements, South Korea continues to use disruptive tech in all sectors of its society, including education. Hagwons are after-school academies where students study extensively to work at improving their test scores. A majority of parents pay for their children to go to these supplementary academies, also known as ‘cram schools’, in order to help them keep up with the normal school curriculum and prepare them for going to college.

Many of these Hagwons have moved online in recent years, with students spending hours after a complete school day watching education videos on many specific subjects such as mathematics, foreign languages and science. The creators and presenters of these videos often turn into teaching megastars – one example of which is, Cha Kil-Yong. He has up to 300,000 online students, makes several million dollars a year and many brand endorsement contracts. All from making videos on how to answer maths test questions and preparing students for entrance exams. Hagwons are big money in South Korea, with the industry being estimated to be worth $20 billion.

South Korea consistently ranks highly on the world education rankings from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Education is hugely important to parents who believe that it is vital that children get into the right kindergarten, to ensure they get into the right elementary school, then middle school, then high school and finally college. This will eventually lead them to a good job and a good spouse and ultimately a good life. However, Korean children are statistically some of the most unhappy school children in the world.

This obsession with education seems to be detrimental to the social skills and creativity of the children. The BBC did a documentary comparing a Korean school to a Welsh school and as you might imagine, there were quite a few educational differences.

Minimally Invasive Education

There’s no doubt that adaptive learning and the MOOC movement are game changers. After all, personalised online education is way more efficient and effective than conventional education where there’s just a classroom with one teacher at the front and 20+ other students being taught the same subject at the same time, with little to no personalisation.

Despite all of their game-changing awesomeness, they still operate from the classic model of “teachers teach, students learn”.

But what if students could teach themselves?

If we asked you if it was possible for young children in primary school to teach themselves biochemistry (for example) with nothing more than a computer and an Internet connection, you would almost certainly answer in the negative — especially if we told you that these children had never even seen a computer before and that they would be virtually unsupervised throughout the duration of the course.

Well… it turns out that it’s not only possible, but almost inevitable, thanks to a new style of teaching called Minimally Invasive Education. In fact, to call it ‘teaching’ would be inaccurate because there isn’t really any teaching involved! A more accurate description would be ‘learning methodology’. But whatever you call it, the measure of its effectiveness has been nothing short of astonishing.

So here’s the basic premise… you take a bunch of kids, put them in a room with a computer, give them some educational task such as “Teach yourself biochemistry”, and then leave them to it, virtually unsupervised. Then, come back two months later, give them a biochemistry test and proceed to pick your jaw up from the floor after realising that they’ve passed the test!

Sound impossible? Watch this:

Final Thoughts from Jeremy

“The institution of education is undergoing a massive restructuring, in terms of both finance and delivery. While the MOOC movement is driving down the cost of education, the increased adoption of adaptive learning methods is improving its quality. Classrooms are beginning to operate more like collaborative learning environments and less like factory warehouses; students are beginning to be viewed more as individual learners and less like cogs in the wheel; and teachers are beginning to act more like facilitators of learning and less like administrators of standardised curriculum. The days of teaching students for the sole purpose of preparing them for a job are coming to an end, thanks in large part to the rapid advancement of technology, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the next five years will bring.”

Final Thoughts from Paula

“Education is such a vital part of life. It teaches us how to be a contributing member to our society and how to view and understand the world around us. Learning happens to everyone, everywhere, and is not confined to the four walls of the classroom. Spending money on improving public education is so important if we want equip the future generations with the skills and the desire to fix the problems and issues rampant in the world. Academia and thinking creatively are not opposing and must be seen as two sides of the same coin, especially in teaching, to ensure that children learn to think both critically and innovatively.”

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