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Innovation: tech-based learning solutions and the transformation of education

Digital classroom
Digital classroomPhoto by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

We've been teaching students the same way for over 150 years. It worked well for a while, but the world is changing. Education needs to change with it in order to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in a globalised world. Enter the technology-based classroom and other online solutions.

Education is a promising field for innovative minds and companies. The ambition of investors and innovators? To transform the education world. “We believe that technology will become a powerful tool when trying to free ourselves from geography. Technology based education platforms are allowing for the emergence of a genuine “education without borders” paradigm, granting expanded access to high level education for students of all ages and socio-economic levels worldwide,” says Kamal Bahmadan, CEO of Safanad Limited, a global principal investment firm which recently launched a new company in the edtech world, Pansophic Learning. “Today you no longer have to leave your country and go to the US or Europe for a high quality education. That is the beauty of technology based education solutions. They can be integrated into local schools and curriculums, raising standards of education and efficiency and doing so in a cost effective way."

We already see technology transforming classrooms and learning in the US. Consider the Amplify tablet, an Android powered device that is designed to be kid-tough, teacher and student friendly, and loaded with all of the tools each student needs. A product of Amplify Education, Inc, the company was launched when Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation scooped up an education startup called Wireless Generation. The transformation of some lucky New York City classrooms was nothing short of miraculous when Amplify tablets arrived.

Equipped with the tablets, students could read at their own pace, stopping to review if something didn't click. They answered questions, took tests, interacted with game-like scenarios and read up-to-the-minute information. They truly experienced a personalized instruction system, tailored to their individual needs. No more hanging back when someone doesn't understand something, or speeding ahead, leaving another in the dust to wonder what just happened.

With this tablet, teachers can control what students see, monitor responses in real time, and intervene when the need arises, allowing the students to move on to the next lesson when they are ready. Teachers get a clear picture of where each student stands on a moment to moment basis.

The computers are constructed for rugged, backpack and playground use, even enduring occasional splashes of liquid. They've got Corning Gorilla Glass screens, HDMI and micro USB ports, front and rear cameras, dual core processors, and a touch screen display. They also enable every student to have access to the internet, even if they don't have a WiFi connection at home, leveling the playing field for the haves and have-nots.

Stephen Smyth, President of the Access Division of Amplify responsible for developing the Amplify tablet system, emphasizes: "We're committed to giving teachers and students both world class devices and cutting edge instructional tools." Smyth cites intensive collaboration with Intel Education as an important factor in delivering this innovative product that lights the way for excellence in educational, creative, and physical performance of Amplify students.

As Amplify CEO Joel Klein explains in an interview with Buzzfeed: “I see ourselves as being at the intersection of technology and education.” Once the chancellor of New York City schools, Klein understands the imminent need for revolutionizing the educational system, noting an significant difference in the Amplify approach: “Unlike the great tech companies, we have a very heavy strand of educational DNA, and unlike the older ed companies, we have a strong focus on tech."

The Khan Academy is another group that has developed a revolutionary education model, giving students material to review outside of class, then engaging with teacher/coaches in the classroom. Students can attend from all over the world, and coaches can create their own classrooms, giving them access to a bevy of stats and reports to monitor student progress accurately. A non-profit providing a world class education anywhere internet access is available, the Khan Academy currently does not confer degrees. While founder, Sal Khan, does not necessarily rule that out, indications are that the school might consider creating a different kind of diploma.

The Minerva Project, an "online ivy" education organization, believes that most things can be learned online, but that social interaction isn't one of them. The school is registering students for the first class in 2015, requiring them to all live in a dormitory-like setting, learning to live together, get along, form study groups, and order pizza for late night study sessions, just like students at a brick and mortar campus with one exception: their campus will move to different locations during the four-year degree program. That sort of immersion into foreign countries encourages students to learn about language, culture, history, and art, alongside fellow students, providing a portable, prestigious, Ivy League education unlike any other.

Ben Nelson, Minerva’s CEO, explained his vision: “The general edtech world has a dual focus, neither of which is ours. One is the focus on the individual student: adaptive learning, competency-based learning, for single consumption. The other is mass broadcast: MOOCs and the Khan Academies of the world, the lectures. We aren’t interested in those either. We are glad they exist, and our students will take advantage of them to cover material we don’t teach them. But what we are focused on is taking the 19-person seminar, and making it run better than it can be run offline.

Another startup, Degreed, wants to give students credit for just about everything they have ever learned. From books, classes, conferences, online research, and everyday life, Degreed will create a composite that gives a complete picture of a student's educational experience. There is intense interest in improving educational systems. Making them more effective, more efficient, more enjoyable, and changing the experience from simply sitting in a seat, to one that engages, empowers, and inspires.

The payback from these educational programs is not only in the form of grateful students, relieved teachers, and improved performance overall, but also in the form of profitable financial investments. Smart investors have been watching as companies form alliances and create important new resources that give educators options for online or hybrid, technology-based learning.

For instance, the mission of Pansophic Learning (the company recently launched by Safanad’s CEO Kamal Bahamdan) is to provide access to a high quality education to students worldwide. Central to this mission will be the introduction of technology based education solutions in global markets. Pansophic Learning upon launch immediately completed a strategic acquisition from K12 Inc., a leading US provider of online education, for licenses to curriculum and technology. The portfolio includes 550 different courses and titles covering every core subject. All are offered in four different levels of academic rigor for high school, embracing AP and Honors coursework as well as extensive STEM course offerings. The company also acquired several other assets in the deal, including an international brick and mortar private school, a higher education platform business and the K12 business in the Middle East.

Leading the new venture for Safanad is the online education industry veteran Ron Packard, K12 Inc. founder and former CEO. Bahamdan is keen to see Pansophic Learning and its holding company, Safanad Education, make additional education investments both in the United States and globally. Talking about technology in the classroom, Bahamdan says: “We don’t believe that technology will or should replace teachers. On the contrary, we also support what we call a “blended education or hybrid” method, mixing technology based education and traditional models. We take the view, and it has been proven, that technology can help to make learning more engaging for students, while also making teachers more effective and, maybe even, making their jobs more appealing.” Pansophic Learning is said to be considering investments not only in the K12 market, but also in post-secondary and early childhood education.

According to Information Week Magazine, investments in technology-based education exceeded $1 billion in the year 2012 alone, tripling in the last decade. Additional players taking a significant position on technology-based education include NewSchools Venture Fund, Learn Capital, Benchmark Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Buyers with interest and resources that are positioned to acquire some of the education groups include Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Apple, Texas Instruments, Devry, and The Washington Post, News Corp, and Google. As technology gains and objections dissipate, look for a number of transactions to occur, creating some powerful new ways to learn or earn a degree while giving investors something to smile about.