Digital Learning Could Save Traditional Education

D/SRUPTION talks to Tom Hooper Founder & CEO of Third Space

Academia is synonymous with innovation, and as well as enabling innovation, education has also benefited from it. A third of Britain’s schools now ask students to bring their own tablets and laptops to class, and coding has been part of the national curriculum since 2013. Despite positive disruption, the education sector faces serious challenges. In the UK, a shortage of teachers (especially in STEM subjects) corresponds with growing class sizes. Third Space, an EdTech company launched in London in 2013, could have the answer.

In 2015, the company received £1.5 million in funding, and now works with more than 500 English schools. By recruiting STEM graduates across India and Sri Lanka, they have built a technology platform which provides tutors to thousands of children in UK schools. Third Space’s ultimate aim is to create a global network of qualified online tutors to make one-to-one learning more effective and accessible. D/SRUPTION spoke to Tom Hooper, company founder and CEO.

Supplementing schools
According to Tom, school will always be the critical education system in any country, but the traditional bricks and mortar model is under strain. In response, Third Space aims to supplement education with online teaching. “There are two particular themes that we focus on,” he says, “One is the opportunity across emerging markets – 70% of the world’s university graduates will come from emerging markets by 2030, and 64% of the world’s workforce will come from India and China alone. Secondly, we focus on the data that flows between tutor and student, and how it can help us understand interactions. The role of tech in connectivity and in optimising these interactions is critical to our vision of the future.”

So, once a school expresses an interest in the platform, how easy is it to use? Tom says there have been barriers to adoption, but online communication is completely normal for children today and therefore works well.
“Getting 6,000 children every week to turn up and plug their headsets in, often using poor hardware, is not easy. Trying to deal with fairly weak networks in schools is not easy. We are certainly far from perfect, but I think we do a very good job of supporting schools.”

Why are STEM skills so important?
In order to solve some of the problems faced in terms of teaching, Third Space couples talent from emerging markets with connective tech. But why STEM, and maths in particular? “Maths is a critical subject area for personal and academic development. Research suggests that the core numeracy costs the UK economy £20 billion a year, so it’s a significant hurdle in terms of professional and therefore social development. Maths is very, very important. It’s a global language – two plus two is four in any country in the world. You can have a different curriculum and you can have different ways of explaining things, but as I said, two plus two is four.”

Despite the clear importance of STEM skills, these academic subjects are severely lacking in teaching specialists. According to Tom, under 2% of primary school teachers specialise in maths. “It’s a vicious circle. As children leave primary school at the required level of maths skills and go into secondary school, this feeds into our economy. If you don’t have confident adults, then your workforce of teachers is unlikely to solve that problem at its primary source.”

With this fundamental lack of confidence, it’s easy to see how the situation can deteriorate. As well as this, Tom says that it’s become acceptable to be bad at maths, which is a huge problem. So how do you address these issues?
“You’ve got to have systems and structures to help to train your tutor base, which is the work we’re doing on the AI and augmentation side of our technology.”

Disruption in education
It’s routinely argued that traditional bricks and mortar education is outdated, and whilst the sector could undoubtedly benefit from innovation, Tom is adamant that tech – specifically AI – will not replace the classroom.
“So much of it is based around emotion, interaction, feedback and encouragement. The general consensus is that it would be incredibly difficult for Artificial Intelligence to replicate. When we think of our role, it’s how can we support and assist teachers. Fundamentally, the very fabric of what we do is not a replacement, it’s a supplement.”

Technologists have often debated whether or not AI will replace humans, but Third Space sees the technology as a supportive tool. To avoid the often negative stigma associated with AI, the company refers to their technology as an ‘augmented tutor model’. As well as machine learning techniques, Third Space is a data powerhouse. “We deliver and record 6,000 hours of interactions a week. That will be 350,000 hours by the end of this year. It’s a huge and very well structured data set.”

In order to develop cutting-edge technology able to deal with a high volume of user data, Third Space has partnered with machine learning specialists at UCL. “To have highly intelligent technology, you need leaders in the field to help to develop that. We’re involved in a research collaboration where members of UCL are embedded in our team to effectively commercialise the research. They’re probably, if not, one of the best machine learning universities in Europe, so we’re very lucky to have that relationship.”

Working with a globally acclaimed research facility is clearly advantageous for the company, but will their impressive datasets be available to external organisations? “Open-sourcing is one of the things we’ve looked at. Right now, we’re a long way off making that decision. The priority right now is to think about the best way to scale our model from a commercial point of view, and reach as many students as we can.”

Third Space has clearly taken on a key role in educational innovation, but should this responsibility lie squarely on the shoulders of innovators? Government involvement in technology is becoming an increasingly debated topic, but somewhat surprisingly, Tom believes that governing bodies shouldn’t be tasked with solving educational problems.
“It’s on us, it’s our priority. But what I think the government did do which was helpful to startups was provide tax incentives to help access money. . . and I can’t speak highly enough of UCL and their approach to working with startups and bigger tech companies. My feeling is that we’ve got some of the world’s best universities that are really starting to accelerate the relationships they have with commercial entities, which I think will be an incredibly important driver of innovation.”

Of course, a by-product of government involvement in technology is the creation of regulations. Will guidelines on data and AI impact Third Space?
“The children we work with are eight, nine and ten, so we’ve got to be very careful about how we store data. We don’t capture personal or payment data, but it is very important how we capture, store and share information. I don’t know what changes might come that will impact us, but I do know how important it is to us that we be very conscious of various regulations that are in place.”

So, in short, Third Space is using alternative talent pools, machine learning, connectivity and data analysis to improve the experiences of thousands of teachers and students alike. Looking forward, the EdTech startup is optimistic about future expansion. “We’ll never get to 100%,” says Tom, “But we can get closer to that, and have a model that we are really confident will deliver positive learning outcomes and is highly scalable.”

Can online tutoring solve the issue of teacher shortages? How will innovative technology change the classroom as we know it? Should the government take more of an initiative in the education sector? Share your thoughts and opinions.

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