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  • Brianna Welsh

Education 4.0? The Classroom Meets a Brave New World

As I described in my last post on the changing landscape of education, the world is going through another mega-change. The shift from local analog industrial economies, to a singular global digital information economy, is causing some real growing pains. And yet education, arguably the most important driver of future micro- and macro-economic success, remains predominantly modeled on an approach hundreds of years old. Rooted in a static philosophy of just-in-case teaching, the focus on learning hasn’t yet been adequately prioritized. We know the classroom has had an unfriendly history with high tech, and what’s become almost a caricature in modern media, governments can’t seem to make nice with the wrecking balls of technology. Progress is derisively reactive, with incumbents reluctantly following changes, dragging their feet like sullen, cantankerous teenagers. But like everything technology disrupts, this won’t be true for much longer. And like every major tech shift, it’s being driven by the new age consumer, who is increasingly demanding of more - faster, and better. Today we’re increasingly going to see a demand for just-in-time learning in more specialized areas including those that arise through experience, self-instruction, and informal education.

So how do we even write textbooks in a world where the pace of innovation is so rapid that information becomes redundant almost immediately after it’s printed? Where the old framework simply doesn’t suffice for application of new information? Tradition becomes obsolete, and a whole new paradigm of learning will result – consider a future where we have AIs teaching us Mandarin, where we will be taking virtual field trips to Mars, and learning will be unrestricted by local boundaries – you could be learning quantum physics while beachside with a margarita. No longer confined by our physical realities, the future is going to be out of this world. Literally!


A new breed of celebrity “Technocats” - who have made handsomely paid careers out of disrupting the status-quo – are especially eager to redesign the concept of “school” for their own children. They presciently recognize that traditional education is increasingly incongruent with demands of the modern economy, and like everything they do, they’re taking matters into their own hands. As with all things new, technology is the driving force that enables us to reimagine what it means to be both in school and to be educated. The 21st century learner doesn’t need a classroom or a teacher to consume knowledge and amass skills. Leveraging machines with computational power that us lowly humans can only dream of, the introduction of new tools will help catalyze an ideological shift from a teacher-centric classroom to a learner-centric one.

Despite filibuster from traditional academic institutions and most governments responding at a snail’s-pace, the overwhelming success of privatized direct-to-consumer models has revealed a demand for these changes. This is why we’ve seen investments in the space rise to a historical USD $9.5B in 2017 – with 62% of the $37.8B since 1997 occurring in the last 3 years. And as with most tech-related investments, China is taking the leads as the champion for the future of technology - if there’s any economy whose actions we should pay attention to, it’s the Chinese. Boasting an impressive profile of recent acquisitions and investments, they’re leading the EdTech space in a big way:

  1. VIPKID, an online video tutoring platform – and unicorn EdTech startup that teaches English online – has received backing from legendary Silicon Valley investors Sequoia Capital, along with a strategic investment by Tencent.

  2. Tencent is also teaming up with Los Angeles-based education unicorn Age of Learning to launch a gamification-based English education program for kids in China.

  3. And as recently as April 2018, Indian personalized learning and test-prep platform Byju raised another $40M from Tencent, which already counts the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, Sequoia Capital and Lightspeed Ventures as investors.

Other notable raises include online education startup Yuanfudao, which has also raised more than $120M in investment from Tencent and Private Equity firm Warburg Pincus, focuses on adaptive learning algorithms through an online tutor-matching program and livestream directly through the app. MOOCs such as EverFi for critical skills training and Coursera for adult supplemental learning have raised $190M and $64M respectively, are also gaining international notoriety, along with AI education platforms like Embibe focusing on personalized learning training raising more than $180M just last week.

But it’s all fair that the potential impact of EdTech cannot be measured by “deal volume, capital, monthly active users or quarterly cash flow”. Instead, this complex market must be subjected to more qualitative measurements that center around learner impact. It must establish new rules and metrics of its own. “The challenge for ‘scaling’ in EdTech is not fundamentally about new technology”, but about its people: faculty members, students, parents and community members. We are investing in human capital, the long-term development of intellectual capacity.


Long story short - a lot of hype in education and learning everywhere at the moment, due mostly to the very real challenges in the global education industry. The goals are now shifting to providing quality education at scale, ensuring accessibility in different markets despite geographic nuances, reducing the often debilitating and prohibitive cost of education, and offsetting the outsized teaching time spent with burdensome repetitive and low-yielding administration. AI promises a solution to all.

According to Stanford University, the future is going to include a “dual-teacher classroom”, using blending learning and eLearning tools to facilitate opportunities for remote, self-paced learning. Classrooms will be flipped: the theoretical lesson being learned outside the classroom, with the interactive period focusing on interactive questions and follow-ups. Laboratory schools, such as the Khan Lab School and AltSchool which promote education based on an individual’s capacity to work and learn adaptively and independently, will allow teachers to act predominantly as advisors. The 21st century school is going to behave more like a talent incubator than a knowledge factory.

Recent research predicts that the use of AI in the education sector - through the combination of interconnected technologies such as big data, machine learning, pattern recognition, predictive analytics and nanotechnology – will grow 47.5 percent through 2021. And for remote students, multi-sensory technology identifying speech, sight, and olfactory responses will enable effective comprehension analysis for remote students. Taking it even further, London-based start-up Century Tech has developed intelligent software that adapts to a pupil’s every mouse click or hesitation to better understand whether they have grasped a concept. Consider the rise in AI therapists – if a robot can be your shrink, surely it can be your teacher!

China – the world leader on AI research - has placed such an emphasis on AI, that a new training program supported by the Ministry of Education and Beijing incubator Innovation Works, has made it an official major in China’s major universities. According to the plan,100 special majors that combine AI and other subjects have been identified as core focus areas, and 50 AI colleges, research institutes or interdisciplinary centers will be set up by 2020. As defended by Zhu Guang, SVP at the world’s second largest internet company – Baidu – “we want AI technology to be deeply integrated in every industry.”

To that effect, Chinese-based TAL Education is using AI to improve online tutoring by monitoring students’ comprehension during online classes through face-and-voice recognition software. In collaboration with Stanford University’s AI lab, they are exploring applications in AI to assess students’ comprehension indicators immediately upon training to tailor programs to maximize retention. Can you imagine how this could tackle the systemic challenges of unequitable education programs across developed worlds like those profiled in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”? And just imagine when Chatbots become so effective that they can reprieve teachers from the administrative burdens they feel running a classroom, freeing their time for more consultative mentorship! With IBM’s Jill Watson (AI Watson’s sexy younger cousin) being designed to answer questions, remote learning will become the new gold standard for education.


Taking remote learning technologies a step further, virtual and augmented reality have the potential to bring learning to life, literally shifting our minds to a whole new, virtual environment. Incorporating simulated immersive environments into the classroom means immediate engagement with concepts and places never previously available to students. Capitalizing on visceral sensory experiences, users can personally feel a connection to the subject material, resulting in deeper retention and application of concepts. Informed by evidence that experiential and immersive learning techniques exponentially increase knowledge retention and cognitive memory, VR simulations can train people like never before.

An experiment carried out by Google’s Daydream labs found that recipients of VR training learned faster and deeper, informing major institutions like UCLA’s neurosurgery school’s implementation of training programs such as the “Surgical Theatre”, and virtual reality lectures used at University of British Columbia’s Law School. Stanford School of Business is already offering a certificate program delivered entirely through VR, and the Singaporean government recently announced a pilot program for social studies using VR in government-sponsored classrooms. Yale University is democratizing learning experiences through their “hybrid classroom” program that merges scientific technological innovation with the study of literature and humanities, which they champion as a crucial pedagogical tool for the 21st century learner. And the graduate-level research lab out of Columbia University – - has dedicated research to the study of games in educational spaces, with special emphasis on VR and AR.

A study conducted by Beijing’s Bluefocus revealed that students taught using VR scored an average of 90%on testing compared with only 68% in traditional offline learning programs. Training has even focused on teacher instruction, with a Mozilla Foundation Grant being created to develop improved teacher training programs through the use of VR technology, helping teachers navigate various learning styles including the handling students with learning or behavioral disabilities.

We know that higher education succeeds best when it has one foot in the library – encapsulating our heritage and history - and one foot in the street — the realities of the world are in which we live. And with the research consistently underscoring the efficacy of learning through virtual and augmented reality simulations by increasing student motivation and improving collaboration, we are going to continue to live in a hybrid world of learning. A myriad of companies are piloting programs to test these results: from Lockheed Martin’s “Magic School Bus” field trip through Mars, to Google’s Expeditions program allowing students to experience historical spaces referenced in textbooks, and Mission V explores recreating historic sites through 3D modeling software. Egyptian Mysteries allows students to connect with other students abroad to practice their language skills while playing games in a virtual world.

Even outside the classroom learning any new skill will eventually begin in VR – the University of Michigan is using VR to train hopeful football students, Public Speaking VR is using photorealistic environments to train for job interviews and presentations, and Cleanopolis is a new game to teach users about the importance of fighting climate change. Microsoft’s latest augmented reality-assisted surgery tool, helps to superimpose a computer-generated image into a surgeon’s view frame, providing a composite operate view of a patient mid-operation. And now it’s even easy to create your own VR space through Cospaces, a do-it-yourself VR creator that makes just about anything VR-able. Location-neutral learning is undoubtedly the way of the future!


As careers are adapting to the future freelance economy, students of today will need to learn to build skills constantly, in different locations, using different mediums. Open-education eLearning tools inspired by the open-source software movement facilitate opportunities for remote, self-paced learning, with little capital and minimal resources. The beauty of these MOOCs is that students can choose when and from where they wish to learn, and they’re empowered to focus on only content that appeals to their intellectual curiosity. Naturally, the challenge posed here is that learning must be driven by intrinsic motivation, requiring learners to take ownership for their future mastery; but for those who are, it’s utopia for them.

In fact, since MIT OpenCourseWare released almost all of MIT’s 1,400 on the web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world, they have seen more than 1.4 million visits per month from learners “in every single country on the planet.” OpenLearning offers a social media-modeled hub that allows students to present their assignments, carry out activities per course requirements, liaise with teachers, and among other things, mentor (or be mentored by) other students. With programs like Wikiversity from Wikipedia serving as a community for the creation of free learning materials and activities, democratized learning is truly a thing of the present. Thanks to the world-wide-web, the future is open, and it is geographically-agnostic.


For some enthusiastic learners, the revolution has already started: we’ve seen a rapid rise in apps and games that aim to help us effortlessly absorb new material. Duolingo – an app that teaches foreign languages through gamification – boasts around 40 million users, while programs like Cerego and Memrise aim to teach more general subjects, based on a growing understanding of the way the brain learns and forgets information. Using the moniker “edutainment”, these new games are simultaneously removing the boredom from studying, whilst improving “perceptual learning” – the kind of memory that allows you to learn a musical instrument, or a foreign language.

And for the more creative and hands on, Second Life, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) - basically a VR-upgrade to the popular early 2000s SIMS game - allows players to create avatars to undertake virtual activities such as building homes, earning degrees and contributing to society. They even conducted a study using the virtual world by developing collaborative activities to introduce exchange students to Chinese language and culture before they went abroad, helping prepare them for the idiosyncrasies of the foreign culture. Today we’re quite literally living in the future - it seems the only limit to the applications of technology is that of our imaginations. Ready Player One is now reality.


The world is moving fast. And our reliance on technology is only going to continue to grow, so we might as well embrace it. We will see a rise in programs like this “reverse pitch”, which turns the idea of venture pitching upside down by allowing students and teachers to pitch their current learning challenges to developers to propose areas where technology could enhance their learning experiences, and then having them build new products around their specific needs. The future will finally begin to see a happy marriage between education and technology.

This is not a short game however, and we anticipate seeing a lot more change in the future. Buckle your seat belts, we’re going for a ride!

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