For those of us who haven't been living under a rock for the past few months, I'm sure we all know by now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced students across all grade levels and nations to migrate to online learning. (For those who have indeed been living under a rock - hello and welcome!). Seemingly overnight, every student had to leave behind hallway banter, classroom debates, and lunches with friends. In its place, students began a several-months long (and counting) routine of staring at bland 'talking heads' on video-conference virtual backgrounds.

However necessary this digital education shift is, it is clear to all of us that something has been missing. Furthermore - and this bit is important - no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that taking a learning approach research-proven to be subpar for learning (didactics), and making it even more impersonal (streaming them via videoconferencing) is a good idea, it's clear that we cannot stick with this method.

Making matters worse: the various softwares used by schools - however well-intentioned - appear to be particularly designed to confuse and bore students. Given the unique, evolving situation, this could be due to the lack of preparation lead-time for institutions, and absolutely full credit to the wonderful educators trying their hardest to make this work for students. But that certainly shouldn't cloud the much bigger, much more important question:

"Why, in 2020, is it so difficult to put together a decent online learning experience?"

Ultimately, the ask here is simple, but the execution is hard. Students need to feel looked after and engaged by their institutions, and teachers need to feel like their lives aren't made overly difficult by the transition. The pandemic has thus created a pivotal time for education. Now is the time to engage students and provide better learning using the cutting-edge learning experiences afforded by modern technology, or they will drop out, take gap years, or barrack to pay less tuition. Can you blame them? Now is the time to show educators that their hard work is valued, or they will find other careers. This isn't opinion - this is simple cost:benefit math.

I can hear you asking, "Okay then, wise owl - what's the solution?" We'd love to tell you that there was a magical solution to fix all of these problems. In fact, we've had our Magic Department at Sophya working overtime for the past few months trying to conjure up solutions, but they keep running out of mana and can't restock because supply chains are disrupted. (Aside: making matters worse for our Magic Department, if you think wizards normally have long hair, wait 'til you see them during COVID-19. They look like yaks, the whole lot of them. We keep them in the back of the office.) In sum, we're not holding out for a magical solution, because clearly there isn't one.

So, before we jump into solutions (we'll save that for future posts), let's begin by sketching out 5 major problems with current education technology +/- its relevance to the pandemic situation.

1. ๐ŸŒŽ 'EdTech' is still in World 1.0 when it should be in World 2.0.

Technology has advanced SO far in the past 10 years that there is truly no reason why education hasn't massively improved or changed. Take any student or teacher's phone and look at their apps - what do you see? Spotify. Uber. Maps. Slack. Every one of these apps takes advantage of new technologies or approaches including data science, machine learning techniques, user experience research, and the like to create immersive experiences that people love engaging with. Guess what industry would massively benefit from engaging user experiences? You get one guess.

We should NOT be simply recording lectures and putting them online. We should be dismantling core concepts that we discovered in the old world, and bringing them together with students and new technologies in the new world.

2. ๐Ÿ“šEdTech focuses on content overload rather than optimized learning.

Khan Academy. Coursera. PluralSight. Wikipedia. edX. Content.

Tired yet?

CourseHero. Lynda. Udacity. Udemy. CodeSchool. Codecademy. Content.

Stop, you say?

FutureLearn. Skillshare. Teachable. Kahoot. Cengage. Content.

SAY UNCLE! (You: "Uncle!"). Okay, I'll begrudgingly stop. You get the point.

Every one of these platforms serve up content to learners - some do a great job - but none really connect the dots between what a learner knows and needs to know in a personalized, student-centric way. Contrast that with your experience on Amazon, Pinterest, or Spotify. Bet you five bucks that those systems often seem to know you better than you know yourself. A similar new-tech enabled 'personalized' approach can be extraordinarily powerful in education.

But that's not currently what happens. If you type 'learn economics' into Google, you'll end up scrolling through thousands of non-personalized results, most of which are not right for you. That's the current state of the digital learning space. Tons of content, but no organization or personalization to you, making for a painful learning experience. You can spend hours, days, or even months searching and never find what you're looking for. In fact, what you're looking for is probably out there somewhere, hidden in a dark hole you can't reach. And if you ever do find it, you'll still need to figure out where it fits in in the bigger picture of your learning.

3. ๐Ÿ˜ข Learning online is a lonely experience.

Let's face it - learning is a team sport. In K-12, there's important chatter, note-passing, paper airplanes, hopscotch, and confidence-building that take place in and out of classrooms at school. In college, there are labs, small-group sessions, parties, and on any given day, the small chance to meet your soulmate (I assure you this is not happening on Zoom). And, underlining all of the above in-person dynamics, there is the important influence of body language and other non-verbal communication cues that help us to understand each other, concepts, and the world around us.


Education technology cannot (and by Jove, should not) attempt to replace the above with fancy gadgets or widgets. But, it sure as heck should aim to make online learning a more social and collaborative space. More on this in a further post.

4. ๐Ÿ”ƒ Important feedback loops are missing.

In business, we often talk about the concept of a 'build-measure-learn' loop, written about extensively by Eric Ries in 'The Lean Startup'. Students and teachers actually intuitively try to do this while learning and teaching. For students:

  • They actively learn concepts (build),
  • They're assessed in some way, either by testing or by teachers seeing their confused looks (measure),
  • They remediate (learn).

In the current digital learning shift, teachers have no way of knowing if students are engaging with content, confused, or 'getting it', apart from the occasional head-nod, complaint, or question from a student. In fact, students could be sleeping through lectures, or worse, playing Fortnite, and no one would find out (and no, eye tracking surveillance is not the answer. You stop that right now and take a time out for even thinking it).

It's amazing that this is still a problem in an era of data and great technology. In 2020, teachers should be able to get constant feedback on student engagement and learning. They should be able to constantly adapt and revise content. They should be able to constantly know who to help and how to help them. We need to take a page out of the business playbook, and build-measure-learn. It has served many others very, very well.

5. ๐Ÿคท๐Ÿฝโ€โ™€๏ธIt's just not that engaging.

Here's our biggest problem. Have we ever stopped to consider why students might be snoozing, Facebooking, 'Gramming, or Fortniting through lectures to begin with?

Because... It. Is. Boring. It's boring. Sitting alone in a room, headphones in, listening to a person talk for an hour while battling WiFi issues, maybe in the opposite timezone as you (international students watching live lectures at 3:30am say hello ๐Ÿ‘‹๐Ÿฝ) is just plain boring. When technology has revolutionized how we communicate with each other, game, and generally consume information - we need to step up and make learning as engaging and interactive as possible.

Yes, there are startups and companies aiming to do just this, which is wonderful, validating, and overall beneficial for students. But these are generally niche companies, with specific use cases limited to students between the ages of 21 and a half to 21 and three-quarters, who have 3 cats, live in the Northern Hemisphere, have seen up to (but not including) Season 3 of Game of Thrones, and who brush their hair no less than twice a day. In other words, they're pretty darn specific, with limited applicability to the broader learning community. But we can and should learn lessons about engagement from them to apply for the benefit of every student.

What comes next?

Within the span of a few weeks, 1.6 billion students were told by schools that they'd need to scram, fly back home, and make this online learning thing work. We've all seen how that's panned out so far. Students are now in a bit of a quandary. And schools, too: facing billions in tuition revenue loss due to an upcoming, inevitable, and arguably justified drop-out wave.

A significant part of this unfortunate state of affairs can be attributed to the lack of engaging edtech software that are simply not solving student needs. It would behoove us all to remember who the real stakeholders are here. Imagine a healthcare system that optimized for what was best for doctors and nurses instead of what was best for patients. Would that fly? No, and it shouldn't fly in education either. We need to optimize for learner needs.

Our world has changed, how students learn has changed, and what technology can do in service of this has changed. World 1.0 systems need to go, and we need to shift to World 2.0 - and embrace it. We can only solve these problems and build a better world if we free ourselves from historical perspectives of learning systems, and start to think in new and creative ways. We need to use the magic of the internet, software, data science, and robust user experience research to create a space where students want to learn - no - where students can't wait to learn.

See you next week! ๐Ÿš€

Want to continue the conversation on making all of this better, and more?

About the authors:

Vishal Punwani is the CEO of Sophya, the world's first Learner Optimization platform. He is a resident physician, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs, and a mentor for startups at Harvard and Oxford Universities. He loves animals, worldly adventures, and extreme sass. Follow him on Twitter @Vishy_vish.

Sehr Taneja is studying Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She lives for the magic of conversations that change her perspective, books that allow her to dream, and ideas that ย transform the world. Her survival kit includes chocolates, tea, and puppies. Follow her on Twitter @sehrtaneja6.

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