Nisha Rataria remembers the moment that she understood the power of technology to significantly improve a child’s learning and comprehension.
As a teacher at the public Vidhya Nagar Primary School in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, Rataria teaches students from across the spectrum — bright, struggling, poor and middle class. A few years ago, her school implemented an artificial-intelligence-based education program called EnglishHelper that provides a suite of tools to help children learn to speak, read and write English. Many of her students, who she says could not even recognize the alphabet, could now read English with some confidence. By the end of the 2019-2020 school year, EnglishHelper and ReadToMe could be used by nearly 20 million students worldwide.
Far away, in Philadelphia, Rich Culatta is walking the floor at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) annual conference. Over the last 20 years, the ISTE conference has grown to become the largest education conference in the country — the ed-tech equivalent of the Consumer Electronics Show, with a combination of large vendors like Microsoft and Cisco, lots of startups, and thousands of school-district technology directors, computer science teachers and school administrators. This year’s conference in Philadelphia attracted 17,000 people and 600 corporate exhibitors with products and services for the classroom, after school, school administration and home.
It’s a pivotal time for the education-technology sector and for school districts across America struggling to adapt ed tech, artificial intelligence and new models for blended learning. For the ed-tech sector, the pressure of expectations is only exceeded by a track record of disappointment. Education-technology companies have made great strides in building technology solutions to improve learning outcomes. There are now AI-driven learning programs that can be tailored to the individual student, analytics that provide important information to schools about their students’ performance, and enterprise-software solutions for the classroom and administration. Internationally, educators realized long ago that technology was the only means by which educational opportunities could be provided to nearly 1 billion young people within a generation.
And yet, the track record is mixed. There have been some great successes, such as Khan Academy, as well as the ubiquitous presence of Google Chromebooks and Google Docs across American schools. But most ed-tech startups have struggled to scale. Few seem able to figure out how to jump from one school district to another quickly, let alone scale globally.
EnglishHelper was founded in 2010 by Dr. Venkat Srinivasan, a social entrepreneur, to create an artificial-intelligence-based, multi-sensory technology platform that could be used to improve learning outcomes in English, reading, writing and other educational topics. Its leading product, ReadToMe, was launched in 100 government (public) schools in India in 2013. Spurred on by the encouraging results, the social enterprise has continued to grow in partnership with school districts around the world. And the end of the recently completed school year, EnglishHelper’s products were used by 2.5 million children, 50,000 teachers and 15,000 schools worldwide. For the 2019-2020 school year, EnglishHelper has the approvals and partnerships in place to reach a staggering 20 million students across 100,000 schools and 500,000 teachers. It recently launched in North America, South America, and, through a unique partnership with the Sri Lankan government, the program will be available to every child in Sri Lankan public schools this year.
EnglishHelper’s rapid scale is the result of traceable artificial intelligence algorithms, strong academic outcomes, and most important, an organizational model in which the state, region and school district are integral partners. The flagship product, ReadToMe, trains itself on the district-selected English textbook using a proprietary digitized format. By using approved textbooks, the platform can be used during the school day and data analytics collected across classrooms. In 2017, EnglishHelper conducted a randomized control trial of its interventions with several of its partners, including USAID, MIT and third-party evaluators. This RCT showed a 20-40% overall gain in learning outcomes for the group that used EnglishHelper.
Back at ISTE, Rich Culatta has been spending a lot of time thinking about the greater impact that ISTE can have on the education sector. Culatta was previously director of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Education Technology, and after leaving the Obama administration, served as chief innovation officer for the governor of Rhode Island, with a focus on revamping public education through technology and innovative practices.
Culatta sees a much larger role for ISTE to bridge this wide gap between ed-tech companies and school districts. He wants to replicate the success of organizations like EnglishHelper and help lots of districts find the ed-tech solutions that they need. At ISTE, Culatta and his team are moving forward in several areas, including tech-focused professional development and showcasing models for public-private collaboration to improve learning outcomes. Additionally, Culatta and his team are thinking about how to move the textbook market, valued at $8 billion annually, towards more blended learning. There has been little incentive to innovate, and to date, most vendors have missed the much bigger opportunity to make learning interactive, and use textbook content, combined with machine-learning, to dynamically improve outcomes.
ISTE has also launched an initiative to help implement best practices around data management in school districts. The lack of training that school districts have in data management is as big a problem, if not bigger, than the misuse of student data by private companies. Most districts don’t have the resources or training to protect, manage or analyze large data sets effectively.
Artificial intelligence is often discussed as a game-changer in education because of the success of programs like EnglishHelper. Yet Culatta and his leadership team want educators to think about a much bigger challenge — how to prepare students to live in an AI-driven world.
At this year’s conference, the ISTE program committee is pushing educators, and vendors, to think more broadly about the world today’s children will enter and to understand technology before it gets too far ahead. It is a common challenge in the public sector, where startups, with the support of limitless venture capital, can build market share and brand before educators (or regulators) can understand the ramifications of a technology — good and bad.
The breadth of solutions at this year’s ISTE conference is inspiring. Hundreds of startups and thousands of educators are thinking about how to improve learning outcomes for children around the world. While many will simply be looking for good technology to bring home to their classrooms, the bigger challenge of scale, academic impact and the policy implications of technology loom large over the sector.
The search for more EnglishHelpers, Teach for Americas and Khan Academys will only continue. And as Culatta hopes, ISTE will continue to grow in importance and relevance.