Education in Transition: Using Simple Tech To Solve Classroom Problems

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My past two working days were filled with watching the live stream of the LAUNCH Education & Kids Conference. Jason Calacanis, former co-organizer of the TechCrunch 20/40/50 events created this special edition of the LAUNCH conference to focus on startups in education in the broadest sense. It was a mixed bag of very early stage startups to heavy weights like Kno, and the verticals ranged from early childhood games and language learning to K12 and higher ed.

GradeCam and Product Simplicity

More than 30 companies presented their products on stage, and it will probably take a while until I will have digested all the information and set up follow-up interviews with the most interesting ones. Nevertheless, one startup immediately resonated with me due to the simplicity of the product (I am a huge fan of simple solutions for big problems) and the obviously great execution. This startup is GradeCam.

Grading tests is probably one of the most tedious parts in any teacher’s life. The founder of GradeCam noted that his mother, a former 7th grade language arts teacher, had to grade over a thousand pieces of paperwork each week — and after grading the assignments she had to enter the grades manually into a gradebook which took her about four hours each Sunday. And in order to verify where each student in the class was standing, she noted the test results on a piece of paper so she could then teach concepts that students did not understand the next day. I am sure this is still true for most teachers out there.

With GradeCam, teachers can create quick tests on the fly during class to immediately test if the kids really understood what is being taught. The whole process takes under five minutes, scoring and analysis included. With these instant results, the teacher can immediately intervene and re-teach parts of the class that have not yet become clear. GradeCam also automatically adds the score into online gradebook platforms like LearnBoost. You can watch the presentation at the LAUNCH conference over here – just go to about 40 minutes into the recording.

This demo and the positive feedback from teachers and administrators in the audience made me once more think about the transition period we currently find ourselves in. While there are cutting-edge solutions available already today that have the power to transform education on a larger scale, it is still science fiction for the majority of teachers around the globe.

The Technology Gap

There is a growing gap between a rather small group of schools or school districts that are able to invest money in new technologies and those that simply cannot. Sure, this will change over time as technology gets cheaper, but no one knows the timeframe we’re talking about. And the same is, of course, true for individual students and teachers when we talk about BYOD. So once again the questions is: what can we do with the technology that already exists in the classroom?

As long as students don’t have iPads (or other tablet devices) on their desks, physical textbooks will still remain the weapon of choice. Hence we have to find ways to augment them in a way so that most, if not all, students and teachers can get a better, more connected experience out of them.

Augmenting Paper Textbooks with QR Codes

One possibility I can see here are QR codes. Most mobile phones, or so-called feature phones today, have an built-in camera — and most of these cameras are capable of reading QR codes. Same is true for iPod Touch devices, which are far cheaper than iPads.

What if the next generation of textbooks would feature QR codes that add an extra layer of information to the paper version, like links to Wikipedia, Khan Academy, YouTube or the publishers themselves? The publisher could even send out sticker sets for existing textbooks, which could simply be added to the pages, thus no need to throw old versions of one textbook away immediately.

I feel that we in the Western world can learn a lot from developing countries that tend to find great solutions based on low tech to solve existing problems (first world problems vs real problems). Most discussions we have are always with our head in the clouds, assuming that technology at the highest level will solve all the issues and be available to everyone in no time.

But taking a look into classrooms around the world shows that this way of thinking is far from reality and, as I said, we don’t know how long it will take us to bring top of the shelf technology into the hands of most students. And this does not take into consideration that today’s high tech is the “bar of soap.”

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