Interview | EDUKWEST’s Kirsten Winkler

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Kirsten Winkler

EdCetera spoke with Kirsten Winkler, one of our newest bloggers on EdCetera and founder of EDUKWEST, a video interview series covering promising startups and companies in education 2.0. In this Q&A, Kirsten talks about her history with education startups, the companies that she finds most promising, redefining the role of the teacher, and why big data is the key to the future of education.

What shaped your interested in education technology? Why did you start the E-Teachers Academy and EDUKWEST?

Probably convenience. When I relocated to France I spent a lot of time on the road, commuting between my different clients. So I thought, there must be a better way to do this language teaching. I started looking around in late 2007, which was about the time that Skype got reliable enough to have longer conversations with people around the globe. This way, I got in touch with the first startups in that space, for example eduFire, Myngle or italki, that had built online marketplaces to connect students with learners.

I became quite successful on the different platforms, which led of course to questions from fellow online teachers and later on the startup founders themselves on how I did it. Instead of answering all those questions one by one, I decided to start blogging about my experiences. And the rest is history, as they say.

EDUKWEST to me was the next logic step, as I thought it might be interesting for my readers to get first-hand insights from the different startup founders representing the different segments of online education we have today. As I talked with them on a regular basis anyway, I might as well push the record button. And so EDUKWEST was born in August 2009.

The E-Teachers Academy is another project I have been working on since early 2009. The underlying idea is a business school for online teachers, or “edupreneurs” as I like to call them. With an increasing number of educators being a one-person business by teaching online, I have identified a need to teach these people the basics of online marketing, social media, video editing, and so on. For now, the E-Teachers Academy is still in stealth mode, but we hope to go in public beta before summer.

On EDUKWEST, you’ve interviewed many education technology startups and entrepreneurs. Over the past few months, which companies have you found most promising, and why?

A general qualifier for me is having an actual business model. Unfortunately, startups with an actual plan to earn money from day one are a rare species, especially since getting funding for an idea in a hot market like education has become far easier these days. I regularly hear the statement that the founders are concentrating on building their user base and think about the business model at a later point.

It might sound a bit deprecative when I talk about “smaller ideas,” but in most cases I happen to find them much more interesting than the big plans to overthrow the existing system and reinvent education. Smaller ideas usually tackle a very specific problem and offer great solutions. They have also generally figured out a way to make money from the start.

What still excites me today is the education ecosystem that is flourishing on the iPad. Apps like ShowMe, educreations, iTunes U, MindSnacks or Voxy show that touch UI is definitely the most natural and engaging way to work with educational content. The form factor of a tablet also proves itself to be right.

There’s a lot of innovation in the edtech industry, especially coming out of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. But what about coming from higher education institutions? Have you heard of any universities or colleges that have implemented cool technology solutions on campus?

I think universities know that times are changing, but they also know that we are still in the early days. We must not forget that those institutions have been around for a long time now, in many cases for hundreds of years. The digital revolution is just a footnote in their history.

Hence they are probably a bit more conservative when it comes to implementing new ways of delivering content or lessons which does not mean that they are not interested in bringing their campus online. But of course they also have a reputation they need to take care of.

I think 2tor is a good example in this space. Partnering with only one campus per subject matter and really aiming to bring the best experience possible to online students is probably the only way that makes sense when you charge for these courses.

If you think about the possibilities the Internet offers for free or almost free education, University of the People comes to mind. They are thinking less about turning the existing model of a university upside down, and instead are building a model of a peer-driven campus that allows students to obtain a degree who would otherwise not have had the chance to attend any institution in higher education. Hopefully, this example is going to be adopted by other universities and implemented in their own institutions.

Having had experience as a teacher, what do you think the biggest challenge is to improving the way educators teach?

First of all, we need to redefine the role of the teacher. This means that we need to get rid of all the “extras” society added to the definition of a teacher, and also need to define a new place for them in the educational landscape. Right now teachers are mostly threatened by technology, in terms of “if you don’t do it right, you’ll be replaced by a computer one day.”

That might be one reason why still many teachers are still somewhat scared of the flipped classroom model, e.g. being replaced by a YouTube video. Instead they should see the opportunities of class time being is freed up, and what they could do with it instead.

Which means, of course, that we need to prepare teachers for new kind of lessons, where hands-on and project-based learning are the focal points.

When you hear the phrase “future of education,” what comes to mind?

To me it means getting rid of tests and replace those with ongoing evaluations of all aspects that lead to learning. Big data is the key here, and even today schools and colleges already possess a huge amount of quality data about their students.

If we see learning as an ongoing process that takes place over our entire life, it makes no sense to take decisions about a student’s future based on some isolated points in time. What we need is a personal learning profile, or Knowledge Graph, as I call it. This profile would constantly be updated with the latest items one has learned, may it be in a formal or informal setting.

Social networks and search engines already built multi-billion dollar businesses based on personal data mining, so it’s safe to say that personal data is a valuable item. That also means that the general public needs to become aware of this and use this data for their own benefit.

Informal accreditation like badges are another important part of the puzzle. As soon as employers will start to recognize them as real qualifications and hire people based on these, universities and public education will have to follow suit.

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