The rise of the EdTech revolution – an interview with Olli Vallo
2017 will be remembered as the year of the ‘EdTech rebound’. After a sluggish 2016 in terms of investments, the global EdTech market has fought back with more than 500 deals expected by the end of the year. One region which is performing exceptionally well is the Nordics. The region is flourishing with many promising EdTech startups making their way up the ladder.
So, who better to get a further insight into the Nordic EdTech scene (in particular Finland) than Olli Vallo from Kokoa Agency. We recently caught up with him at Setapp’s inaugural Significant Hackathon, where he was invited to speak and mentor.
How did you start your journey with EdTech?
When I was a primary school teacher, I felt that there wasn’t enough content in the teacher’s manual and student exercise books to cover an entire lesson. This prompted me to come up with the idea of ‘active assignments‘ which would keep the kids more active and motivated during lessons.
However, planning these assignments required a lot of time and effort from my side. I was spending over two hours on just lesson planning, while the class lasted only forty-five minutes. As I wasn’t ready to use my personal time to plan the lessons, I just went with the flow during the classes!
The ‘going with the flow’ approach didn’t really create anything special. The kids were getting frustrated and anxious, and started bullying each other. This made me very nervous as it was a challenge to keep the kids together and motivated to learn.
Then I thought maybe technology could help me. I could use it to give meaningful and activating tasks to the students, as well as track their progress and have them create things using technology.
Since I was a musician, I had the idea for a music app which students can use during their lessons to compose music. I pitched it to some government organisations with my friend and found out that a similar solution already existed. I contacted the company and started to do my PhD research on composing music with computers by using their app to collect data from students.
After publishing my first research article, the company offered me a job and that’s how I ended up working in the field of EdTech.
How has EdTech changed education in Finland in the last 5 years?
EdTech hasn’t really changed education or the school system in Finland. In fact, we are still waiting for the ‘big education revolution’. Apps like Shapes is changing the way students understand geometry. It has the potential to take mathematics learning to the next level.
Like the Stanford professor of maths once said: ” The invention of numbers caused a big revolution in maths.” The invention and use of tablets should be causing a similar revolution in learning maths. Having said that I’m optimistic that the big change is coming soon!
Do you think exposing kids to too much tech at an early age is good for their development?
I’d say too much of anything is bad. Even too much sport isn’t good for kids. It’s all about finding the right balance between using technology and doing other things.
I used to spend a lot of time in front of the computer, making music when I was a kid. For me ‘my computer’ was my instrument instead of a guitar or a piano!
You can’t artificially limit kids ‘screen-time’ and force them to go outside. You need to make them understand why it’s essential to go and play outside and engage in “offline activities”. They need to understand why it’s not good to spend too much time in front of the screen.
What are the most significant changes you’ve witnessed in the EdTech community in the Nordics?
I’m happy to see the progress made in EdTech in the last five years. Companies have started to realise the true potential of their business by focusing on ‘the value’ their product will give to the customer rather than just aiming to maximise profits.
They are thinking along the lines of “maybe this could be used in schools” rather than solely planning the product on the thinking “I want to make $’XYZ’ money”. When you base your product on these values then the quality of the product increases.
Also, I’ve noticed increased cooperation among the Nordic countries. Initiatives like xEdu, the Nordic EdTech Awards and the Nordic Edtech Network are playing a pivotal role to strengthen this bond further.
How does Kokoa Agency verify EdTech products?
We compare the product against the ‘learning sciences’. I’ve been using this analogy to describe what we do:
“If you are building an aeroplane you will probably look at the laws of aerodynamics and laws of physics to design it, so that it will stay in the air.”
Similarly, if you build a learning app, you should be looking at the laws of learning and the learning theories to make learning applications efficient.
Is it crucial for an EdTech company to verify their product in the Nordics through Kokoa Agency?
I’d say that having a Kokoa Agency certificate is not that crucial. What’s important is to provide the evidence that your product offers tangible outcomes in learning.
One way or another you can get the evidence. For instance, you can run long pilots and write a solid case study. This approach works just as well as our certification.
What are some of the most common mistakes made by EdTech startups?
- Niche offering – The app is too niche! It’s nice to have it, but it doesn’t change the situation that much.
- Value for money – If you want to introduce an app to replace books at schools, then it has to as comprehensive as the books (if not more). Why would a school pay 5 euros extra for your app if the books do as good a job as the app?
- Quality of the application – The learning goals and the purpose for the users are unclear. Often what happens is that startups focus too much on the ‘mechanics’ of the app rather than focusing on its learning objectives. This is very much evident in the language learning apps where sometimes the emphasis is put too much on ‘gamifying‘ the experience rather than creating content which will actually improve their vocabulary.
What are your thoughts on VR/AR in EdTech?
Immersive technologies like VR and AR bring additional value to the learning experience. You have a whole new dimension on how you can present your content and make learning an exciting experience.
Emotions are essential too! We know that emotional engagement can be a useful way of teaching. You learn a lot while watching a movie as it engages your emotions. So, if the emotional engagement is high in VR/AR, you can definitely use them to enhance learning.
Where is EdTech heading in the next five years?
Here are my top 3 predictions for the next five years:
- Publishers will start producing good quality EdTech solutions for schools.
- We will see an increase in Startup – Publisher cooperation.
- The level of digitalisation in the Education sector is expected to rise from the current 2% to 5% during the next five years.
Finally, How was your experience at the Significant Hackathon?
It was awesome! The atmosphere was great and I really liked how Setapp focused on making the event fun for everyone. You often see a super serious competition where no one sleeps and everybody is stressed to win the contest. Which was not the case at the Significant Hackathon.
Many of the participating teams had a good understanding of the learning process. I believe you’ll see the teams producing high-quality pedagogical products in the near future.