This past Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend an event at the School of International Public Affairs titled Democratizing Education: The Future of Global EdTech. 5 entrepreneurs from across four continents gave their unique perspectives on challenges and opportunities in EdTech.
Most of the companies at the panel build intelligent software for e-learners targeting mainly those that live in remote or poor regions of the world. A common hurdle most panelists mentioned was getting their learners set up with their software.
Take Khan Academy for example. A charismatic Yin Lu, head of International Market Development at the organization gave a fascinating keynote at the event. Khan Academy is already doing remarkable work in India and South America, delivering high quality lessons to students who lack access to education. And its international user base is rapidly growing. However the biggest challenge especially for those in remote areas remains internet access. Videos need downloading, apps need installing. Lu admits the overhead continues to bog down progress even with offline options.
Pranav Kothari of Mind Spark and recent guest at the EdLab cited similar challenges. The company’s adaptive tool is generating valuable data. The software adapts to each learner in a way no single teacher can manage. The major hurdle to mass adoption is expense and logistics. Schools still need PCs and they need to install, learn and maintain the software.
One company at the event gets around the infrastructure overhead simply by delivering content over SMS. I had a quick chat with Mr. Kagichiri, one of the panelists and CEO of Eneza Education. Eneza provides students with a platform to connect with teachers for lessons and Q&A sessions. But the platform operates entirely via SMS. Cellular internet access is scant and expensive in Kenya where Eneza started so the company is adapting well. It even goes so far as to take payments via mobile SMS. Students, or rather their parents, pay Eneza via MPESA, a popular mobile payment platform in Kenya.
I was intrigued by Eneza’s simplicity. SMS based lessons require almost no additional resources to get started. Cell phones are ubiquitous even in sub-saharan Africa. The trade off is that the learning experience is not as rich. No fancy animations, audio or video. No buttons or navigation. Everything is a conversation. And there has to be an instructor on the other end who is limited to conversing to a handful of students at a time.
These deficiencies none-withstanding, I believe text based learning is not as limited as we think. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it has great potential. Its biggest advantage is probably how natural it is. It’s a conversation. As long as the learner is literate anything can be communicated, including pictures. And the natural flow can prompt the learner to ask more questions.
In fact there's no reason "text based" e-learning can't replace apps. Recent developments in AI have made chat bots much smarter than they used to be. Soon there might not need to be another person at the other end of the lesson. Facebook messenger bots, Google home, Amazon’s Alexa and the entire industry behind voice assistants all rely on promising developments in Natural Language Processing. Bots can now understand and respond to complex requests, understand sentiment and consider context. Learners can take entire lessons just by text messaging with a bot. The bots themselves can lead and guide lessons.
And importantly these AI models are available open source and wrapped in APIs and cloud platforms that a regular developer can understand and program (e.g. tensorflow, amazon lex, openAI). Growth in the field is certain.
In light of these advancements, I’m wondering if apps(web or mobile) should remain the primary media for e-learning especially for bandwidth constrained users. It might be prudent to turn to conversation based e-learning platforms that come with a single text box instead of the usual pages, buttons and streaming videos.