Machine learning and the personalisation of education.

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David Langridge, Microsoft’s Worldwide Education Senior Partner Development Director, discusses the future of edtech.

Read my exclusive my interview with David for Publishing Perspectives in full below or the original by following this link.

David Langridge is Microsoft’s Worldwide Education Senior Partner Development Director, Worldwide Microsoft Education Industry Group. Publishing Perspectives caught up with him to hear his thoughts on the future of edtech.

You left school at 16, went into software development when you realized that the future was computers and moved into the ‘education business’ only in 2003. Do you think your unconventional background helps you in your role?

Yes: it has given me a different perspective on education, and my wide range of experiences has given me a real appreciation of the importance of life-long learning as well as – of course – a wide range of skills in product development!

Why is Microsoft interested in education?

It was clear before Bill Gates started Microsoft that he was interested in education, and it was a natural fit for Microsoft as it developed. Bill has carried his interest on and now his foundation focuses on education as well as health.

Our belief in the importance of education is clear in that we give a lot of our software away free to schools and colleges – and where we don’t, we take about 80–90% off the commercial prices.

In a way our commercial products are helping to subsidize our education products.

One of the big issues in edtech is the continued popularity of printed textbooks. Why do you think this is the case?

They are popular because many teachers like the way a book is laid out, since publishers take great care of the way they are laid out to make sure it matches their pedagogy. The problem with digital at the moment is making the content work the same way whether it’s on a mobile, a phablet or a 7, 10 or 12 inch tablet. Of course there are tools within digital to address this, but it does present a challenge to publishers.

Books also have the added advantage of being readily accessible for a fixed cost and when they become outdated it is simple procedure to buy a new set of books. However, with digital it is not a simple black-and-white answer.

There is the cost of the hardware, for example; manufacturers have tried to reduce the cost of the devices to make them more accessible, but for many schools these still come at a high cost. Cutting costs can also mean cutting corners such as with the quality of the screen display – which isn’t so good for young eyes.

Publishers do need to evolve their business models and shift to the cloud. With the cloud you can have a perpetually updated model where for a regular subscription fee the digital textbooks are always kept up to date. Some publishers look at this model and see it as the future.

Won’t this model be much more expensive for the publisher?

I have had a number of conversations with political and education leaders looking at going digital to reduce costs; however, for publishers it might not save money and it may even be more expensive. Putting textbooks behind glass by simply taking the text of a printed book and pasting it into a pdf doesn’t work as it doesn’t give you the advantages of digital.

Teachers and students expect a multimedia experience from a digital textbook just like they are getting from all the other content they are consuming on their phones, and high-quality videos and simulations all come at a cost.

Will this situation change?

Yes. Most governments across the world are saying that they want to shift to digital.

One of the most important aspects of digital is differentiation. Students learn at different paces and with different styles of learning – and teachers play an important role in a book-based environment assessing each individual student’s needs. However, teachers just don’t have the time to help all the students all the time.

What digital allows you to do is to deliver personalized education. Thirty students may have completed a digital test in the classroom and 25 may clearly have “got it” straight away. However, the test might show that five need some more help, and what digital can do is to to suggest to the teachers what other pieces of content might help the penny to drop for each individual student.

However, the personalization of education will mean that publishers have to change what they are doing.

So we are talking about machine learning?

Yes. Machine learning will help assist teachers in the future to personalize education. It will never be able to replace the educator as they are always such an essential part of the process, but it will be able to give the teacher better information and make suggestions.

The software will be able to build a profile of each individual student’s learning styles over the time they are at school or university. In higher education, where the lecturers are more facilitators, it will enable students to learn at their own pace – less so when they are younger as the teacher plays a more important role.

At the Web Summit in Dublin in November, Palmer Luckey, the inventor of Oculus Rift head-mounted virtual reality headsets, said that virtual reality is the future of education as “classrooms are broken. Kids don’t learn the best by reading books.” Is he right that the future of education is VR?

The danger with technology is that you can have lots of great tools to use – but the challenge is to find the right tool for the job.

The Microsoft HoloLens [billed as the world’s first fully untethered, holographic computer] will provide great simulations for students, but at extra cost. I can certainly see it being used to give students experience of dangerous chemical experiments or trainee mechanics an understanding of a Ferrari engine which they are unlikely ever to see in real life.

Of course, if the teacher can take them to explore the trees in an actual forest than that would be better than just a VR simulation.

What is the role of teachers in this shift to digital?

Teachers also have to be equipped with the right skills to use the technology with confidence, and we – and our partners – run courses that do precisely that.

In the past, schools often used to rely on a single enthusiastic member of staff to manage the technology. Now many schools are hiring their own specialist IT managers to do this, which will also help, so that all the teacher has to do is to press the ON button at the start of the day.

In the end, what is this all about? Why does it matter if teachers use tech in their classrooms or not?

On one level, the use of technology outside of the classroom is now pervasive, so technology really does need to be used throughout teaching if we want students to leave school with the right skills for success in 21st century skills rather than just a knowledge of maths and English, or even formal IT skills.

On another level, companies like Microsoft need to be able to hire young people with the right skills as well if we want our GDP to continue to grow.

David Langridge will be delivering one of the keynote speeches at the International Publishers Association (IPA) and The London Book Fair (LBF) What Works? Successful Education Policies, Resources and Technologies, which will take place on Thursday 10 April 2014 in London.

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