From online learning platforms to adaptive learning systems, edtech is transforming the way that teachers teach and students learn. As advances in technology continue apace, edtech will play a vital role in enhancing accessibility, engagement, and overall efficiency, shaping the future of education for generations.
What is the purpose of learning? Education means many things to many different people, and the only definitive answer to the question of its purpose seems to be an ambiguous one: it depends — on cultural and historical contexts, social and political factors, philosophical views, educational theories, individual preferences, and disciplines (STEM or the humanities, for example). Even linguistically, education is synonymous with a range of related notions — teaching, schooling, training, development, coaching, improvement, instruction — that differ in subtle ways.
In Classical Athens, for example, elementary education included the paidotribēs (athletics and fitness), the kitharistēs (music and lyric poetry), and the grammatistēs (reading, writing, and arithmetic), whereas mediaeval grammar schools combined Classical learning with a decidedly Christian dimension. Based on the ideas of Alexander von Humboldt, the eighteenth-century German notion of education (Bildung) emphasised lifelong self-development in contrast to skills training (Ausbildung).
Closer to our own time, education is no longer the privileged domain of the wealthy, no longer available only to (young) men, and no longer primarily associated with religion, but many challenges nevertheless remain in terms of aims, rationales, and accessibility, especially when we add the digital classroom and tech-enhanced learning into the mix. And yet, despite the challenges, education will continue to serve as a cornerstone for skilling and re-skilling, empowering individuals and societies to navigate the complexities of our rapidly changing world.
AI-powered learning in our post-COVID era, for example, underscores the complex intersection of education and technology, one that necessarily presents both challenges and opportunities for students, educators, and policymakers. In the following article, we’ll explore how emerging technologies, particularly the confluence of edtech and AI, are already re-shaping the future of learning, and, along the way, highlight a number of innovative European edtech startups taking the lead on the use of technology to enhance and support education.
Whilst the answer to the question of what constitutes edtech (educational technology) might seem to be a self-evident one (i.e., the use of technology within an educational context), the matter is rather more nuanced. Generally speaking, edtech refers to an approach to teaching and learning that is defined by hybridity, which is to say the combination of educational theory (or theories) and technological innovation. In keeping with this hybridity, edtech can also be applied to traditional classrooms, online learning environments or a combination of the two.
Many of edtech’s hallmarks are immediately obvious to us. Hardware devices such as computers, tablets, and whiteboards, along with the various types of software programmes that run on these devices, have become commonplace in classrooms and other learning environments. As we know, promoting digital literacy among the young is vital to their ability to use, understand, and critically evaluate information and communication technologies.
Whether in primary school classes or university-level courses, online learning platforms also proliferate, offering flexible options for delivering courses and content over the internet. Technology is also being used to tailor content to students and their individual learning needs. With adaptive learning systems, educators can deliver individualised learning paths that cater to each student. And learning analytics can be employed by teachers and administrators to analyse and monitor student engagement and performance, lending a data-driven hand to the classroom context.
The incorporation of technology into pedagogical practice also readies students for the world of digital content, which has come to define so many aspects of our lives (you are, after all, reading this online). From e-books and online articles to videos and other multimedia sources, today’s students must be prepared to navigate today’s interactive content landscape, often in collaboration with their peers, making collaborative online tools and platforms yet another component of edtech.
The European Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan (2021–2027) establishes “a policy initiative that sets out a common vision of high-quality, inclusive and accessible digital education in Europe, and aims to support the adaptation of the education and training systems of Member States to the digital age.” Among the initiative’s many goals are fostering the development of a high-performing digital education ecosystem and enhancing digital skills and competences for the digital transformation.
According to EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel,
“Europe was one of the fastest growing regions on the global Edtech scene [in 2021]. It was the year in which the first so-called Edtech unicorn emerged, a private company with a valuation exceeding $1bn. And by mid-2022, the total investment has reached more than $7.5bn. Edtech demands technical know-how but also creativity. And I am very proud that Europe is willing to lead in this field.”
As Commissioner Gabriel notes, increased public-private collaboration along with funding programmes will be necessary in order to ensure that these transformative developments continue apace.
As with medtech, agritech, fintech, and the various other portmanteaus that end in “tech,” edtech shows significant disruptive promise when it comes to transforming the landscape of education. Consider Greece’s Classter, a cloud-based platform that allows for the streamlining of administrative tasks, student assessment, general data management, scheduling, and operations — tasks that can be handled more efficiently with the aid of artificial intelligence.
Machine learning, on the other hand, is adept at analysing large datasets to identify patterns and draw conclusions, which can then be used to create adaptive learning platforms, tailoring the learning experience to individual student needs. Tallinn-based 99Math aims to increase maths fluency among children through interactive games that motivate rather put off students from what has traditionally been seen as a difficult subject.
Taking it one step further is virtual reality (VR), which creates immersive digital environments that simulate real-world experiences. Students can be transported, for example, to virtual field trips or historical events, providing an experiential layer of learning virtually impossible (no pun intended) within a traditional classroom or learning environment.
And then there are corporate organisations that are deploying edtech to enhance employee engagement, improve a range of skills and competencies, foster an institutional culture of continuous learning, and increase performance and productivity. Gone are the days of tedious training courses (well, almost), having been gradually replaced by interactive (video) games (read: gamification) that promote soft skills, compliance, and wellness. Founded in 2008, Spain’s Gamelearn is one such example, providing online corporate training courses using simulators and video games.
However, there is a tendency among some to view edtech as a panacea for the many issues facing contemporary education, a questionable assumption that crucially overlooks the deeply human process and social experience at the heart of the preservation and transmission of knowledge and skills. Teacher-student interaction is necessarily reduced when student-screen interaction is increased. There are, after all, only so many classroom hours in any given day. Adaptive learning systems are remarkably good, but teachers are better.
Technology should not be seen as a replacement of human-centric education, but rather as a supplement to it. At the grade school level, the socialisation of children takes place primarily within an educational setting in which they develop friendships, learn about themselves and the world, and build empathy, which is precisely why in-person learning is elemental to elementary education. Once students reach university, seminars allow them to probe issues and ideas in the spirit of open, tolerant enquiry amongst a community of their peers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, though, primary, secondary, and tertiary educators found themselves on the other side of the digital divide as they rushed to adapt in-person teaching methodologies to the online environment. Teachers in general can often find it challenging to integrate emerging technologies within a traditional educational setting. And then there are also the obvious disparities among students in terms of access to the latest devices or even internet connectivity (an especially acute problem in underprivileged communities and developing countries).
Whilst there is a tendency to think of edtech as a novel, revolutionary approach to education, the use of technology (understood broadly) within an educational context (or for educational purposes) has been commonplace for centuries. The abacus is a prime example, although anyone with a shorter memory span, particularly those over the age of forty who read history of art at university, might well remember overhead slide projectors.
The “newness” of contemporary edtech, then, is less about the distinctiveness of combining technology and education and more about the distinctive features of today’s technology (e.g., virtual, augmented and mixed reality, automation, machine learning) and the ways it is being used to transform how teachers teach, students learn, and school administrators administer (to say nothing of how we understand what education is or ought to be).
As Dr. Sarah Grant of Imperial College London has written,
“The goal of using this technology is to facilitate the development of precision education, allowing us to make better-informed, evidence-based decisions regarding school strategy, recruitment, resourcing and educational design. In turn, this means we can provide students with a more precise and tailored learning journey based on their individual skill sets and personal objectives, as well as develop sophisticated impact measurement tools.”
This seems a sensible approach — viewing emerging technology as complementary rather than incompatible with more traditional forms of classroom-based, teacher-student interaction.
So are we any closer to answering the initial question posed at the beginning of this post, namely, what is the purpose of education?
Perhaps not, but maybe an openness to uncertainty is precisely the point of learning, something the wisest person in Athens understood intuitively centuries ago.
What we can say with a degree of certainty, though, is that the European Commission in conjunction with a wide range of inventive European SMEs and committed teaching professionals will continue to foster skills in education as part of a broader vision to promote economic growth, social inclusion, and innovation across the European Union for generations to come.