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“The solutions we use in today’s classrooms can come from anyone, anywhere”

Maker's Red Box 2021. 11. 30. 09:05

Technology: something to teach or something to teach with? Social-emotional learning: the next frontier of disruption? Edtech innovation: the biggest question mark or the answer to all our education woes? We recently shared with you the great news that Maker’s Red Box got the seal of approval from Education Alliance Finland (EAF). Last week, we had the pleasure to sit down with EAF CEO Olli Vallo to talk about what’s now and what’s next in edtech. Here’s what he had to say.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background, as well as Education Alliance Finland? What’s EAF’s mission, and how are you working towards it?

Before graduating university, I taught music in schools in the Helsinki area. That’s when I first realized how boring learning can be without technology. I started bringing in more and more devices so my students could create their own songs in music class. This turned out to be my stepping stone into the world of educational technology.

The tools we used for music composition weren’t designed to be used in a classroom setting at all, so I came up with a solution that could work better in such an environment. Then I reached out to a local music technology company and ended up working for them, developing edtech tools for music education.

Suddenly I saw how often creators of edtech tools get asked about the efficiency of their products. This isn’t something schools would ask an education publisher, for example.

This got me and my former colleagues thinking: why not test edtech tools against known pedagogy principles?

There’s a plethora of studies explaining what effective learning looks like. We can take any solution and compare its design to tried-and-tested learning science principles and draw conclusions about its efficiency.

We first started doing evaluations just to give feedback to edtech developers and help them create better-quality products. But very early on they began asking us if there’s a way of communicating the results to users and potential buyers. That’s how our certificate came to be. So far, we’ve reviewed some 300 solutions from more than 30 countries and issued just south of 200 certificates. We’ve also developed a set of assessment criteria for digital learning environments for the Finnish National Agency for Education.

 

What are the main challenges K-12 education faces today, and how can edtech help schools to tackle them?

I’d say that the biggest one is the workload of learners and educators. For example, most kids living in rural areas have no access to quality education. They often have to walk several kilometres to school if their families can afford schooling at all. Then you have the teachers who have tons of assessment to do and way too many students to look after, which often leads to them feeling overworked and overstressed.

Edtech offers access to high-quality education content that can make life easier both for students and teachers. It also opens up new, more efficient ways of communication. If you’re a teacher, you’re constantly interacting with colleagues, head teachers, students, parents, and so on. Technology can take the hassle out of the equation, say, with a tool that makes it easier for teachers to update parents on their kids’ progress.

EAF CEO Olli Vallo

Assessments make up for another huge chunk of teachers’ workload and are crucial from the learners’ perspective. Data analytics tools can greatly improve assessment practices in terms of efficiency, objectivity and reliability.

Then there’s the issue of student engagement. With the rise of remote learning, creating engaging classroom activities has never been harder. But the more engaging the learning experience, the better the learning outcome. I’ve learned this the hard way while teaching. The minute my students got bored, something went awry. Interactive edtech solutions can help a great deal with that by providing instant feedback, gamifying the learning experience and boosting students’ motivation during activities.

Adaptability is also something edtech tools can enhance. There are tools to help teachers tailor classroom activities to students’ individual learning needs. If done manually, this is quite a labour-intensive task. But now we have applications that give students recommendations on what to do or read next based on where they left off.

Then there’s the creativity aspect, which hits close to home for me because of my background. Being able to create things and step away from passively consuming content is crucial for all of us. We have a natural tendency to mindlessly consume media and forget how good it feels when you create something to express yourself.

 

There’s a growing divide between the skills schools teach and what employers expect. What do you think education systems can do to close the gap?

Creative problem-solving and the ability to work in teams are the most in-demand skills right now. Technology offers plenty of opportunities to get better at both.

It allows students to create things together with their peers, even if they’re not in the same class. This is a huge opportunity for technology companies to make a positive impact for education.

Photo: XcitED, Elissa Jokela

What other forces do you think are influencing the edtech landscape today?

At the end of the day, it all comes down to who is willing and able to pay for your solution. Let’s take coding, for example. For years now, there’s been a huge demand for coding-related educational resources from industry players who are more than willing to pay for them. But this was a need that traditional education publishers simply couldn’t meet. So other companies stepped in to fill the vacuum.

I think the same thing is happening with social-emotional learning right now. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, social-emotional learning has become a priority for educators as many students struggle with mental health and schoolwork at the same time. But once again, there aren’t many suppliers out there to address this demand. This gives edtech developers a new opportunity to push forward.

Edtech is booming right now. How can schools keep up with the pace of innovation and make the most of it?

This might just be the biggest question mark for educators right now. Mostly because schools have no blueprint for buying and handling licence-based products. Consumers are very much used to that, thanks to subscription-based services such as Netflix or Spotify. But there’s a lack of best practices on how these licences should be handled, purchased and budgeted in the education space. I see the first baby steps being taken but there’s a long way to go.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the edtech market is very fragmented. If you look at education publishing in Europe, for example, you see that each country only has a handful of publishing giants to choose from. And these publishers only operate in the local market.

Today, the solutions we use in education can come from anyone, anywhere. It might not be the 200-year-old company schools are familiar with. It might not even be teachers who develop them.

What approach should schools take in integrating technology in the classroom? Should they teach it – or use it to teach?

Definitely the latter, although it’s something that I believe will happen organically over time. The problem is that traditional education is working against this. Disciplines are still taught in siloes, like mathematics, biology or history. Could there be value in teaching technology as a separate subject? Maybe. But the best way to benefit from technology is using it in learning mathematics, biology, history, and what have you. The same way we do it at work. We don’t just use our laptops in the first hour of the day, then write letters for an hour, and so on. We use technology whenever and wherever it helps us do things better.

 

What’s the next milestone for Education Alliance Finland?

Besides the assessments, we’re doing all kinds of activities to promote our mission, which is to help people understand the benefits of using technology in learning. We’re in the process of publishing an open framework for edtech design called OPUS, short for Objectives, Pedagogy, User experience and Support. We’ll publish a website with all the information and best practices that we’ve learned over the years in connection with designing educational technology solutions. Any edtech developer will be able to access this framework and find guidance and support to build innovations that drive change.

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