Tag Archives: Learning

Paper – where efficacy meets equity

I was excited to read about this $270M Series D round for Canadian-based ubiquitous tutoring solution Paper – where efficacy meets equity.

A thousand blossoms blooming

Bloom’s seminal work on the 2 Sigma Problem, carried out in the early 1980’s is a classic must-read for edtech ventures today. The outcomes of the research are startling, showing that an average student under tutoring performs about two standard deviations above the average performance of a conventional class. 

Or put another way, an average student following a tutoring program outperforms 98% of students in a conventional classroom!

Since then, the private tutoring market has grown significantly, although new regulations in China last year driven by concerns around equity and student well-being did have a significant negative impact on that market. 

Efficacy AND equity

The good thing about the private tutoring market is its efficacy – it raises learner outcomes.  The disadvantage however is that the rich tend to benefit disproportionately, because they can afford it. The resulting inequity can’t be a good design principle for the provision of education.

Since Bloom, the search has been on to provide solutions that yield similar efficacy at scale.  Paper is potentially such a solution.  For a fixed price, Paper sells licenses to schools and districts to make its online tutoring support available to every student, around the clock, with no cap on usage. Students can connect with a trained tutor for homework help, writing feedback and study support across all K-12 subject areas. Teachers at schools can access these sessions, see which students need support, and adjust their instruction accordingly.

I’m enthusiastic about this approach because it enables both efficacy and equity in education. The risk of inequity isn’t completed removed of course because richer schools might be more likely to adopt the solution than poorer.  Yet with most K-12 education systems funded publicly, that risk could be mitigated by policy. A second risk could be increased competition between schools and tutoring companies for teachers.  Yet the deployment of university students and new/re-entrants into the profession could also work to increase the overall talent pool of teachers available.

Looking forward >>

I’m very interested to see how Paper will grow in the coming years and believe there could be international potential for this type of solution.

DeepMind uses AI to understand life.

Life at the molecular level that is.

Last week saw the breakthrough news that Google has essentially solved the protein folding problem with AlphaFold from DeepMind. I was especially interested in this since this was the area of my PhD.

Function follows structure

Proteins carry out a variety of functions from DNA replication to catalysis to structuring the cytoskeleton.  Each protein is built up from a unique sequence formed from 20 different amino acids. Some 200M sequences are currently known, growing by about 30M per year. The chain of amino acids folds into a unique 3D structure.  This structure determines its functionality.

Prediction: the shape of things to come

Some 170,000 protein structures have been determined to date, and DeepMind has used this dataset to create an algorithm which can predict the 3D structure of a protein based only on its sequence of amino acids, to the same level of accuracy as if actually measured using a technique such as X-ray crystallography.  A reasonably sized protein might take as many as 10300 different shapes, so that’s quite a prediction!

This is relevant because understanding the 3D structure of a protein can inform its function and arguably mis-function, thereby potentially accelerating the rational design of interventions such as drugs against disease states for example.  With 200M proteins in scope, the potential for scientific discovery is massive.

Now we can look to Google not only in search of pizza, but also for the elixir of life.

Determined structures

25 years ago I calculated the 3D structure of a protein essentially by hand (serine proteinase human stefin A, see below) – with a simulated annealing protocol using distance and angle constraints obtained from high-resolution Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy.  This took 2.5 years! Multiplied by 200M proteins, it would take quite some effort to map the universe of proteins. The task has now been reduced from years to hours!

Family of 17 solution structures showing the backbone atoms of serine proteinase human stefin A. The protein has a well-defined global fold consisting of five anti-parallel β-strands wrapped around a central five-turn α-helix. There are two flexible regions in this structure which are two of the components of the “tripartite wedge” that docks into the active site of the target proteinase. These regions, which are shown to be mobile in solution, are the five N-terminal residues and the second binding loop. In the bound conformation they form a turn and a short helix, respectively.

The Future of Work in Europe: Back to School

Double dose of disruption

New research from McKinsey suggests that automation and the coronavirus crisis are likely to disrupt many occupations in Europe. They estimate some 51m jobs are at risk due to automation and 59m from COVID-19 to 2030, with a sizeable overlap of 24m jobs exposed to both developments.

Large overlap between jobs at risk from coronavirus crisis short term, and automation long term. @ McKinsey Global Institute

Jobs at risk of being done for

The wholesale & retail, manufacturing, accommodation & food services and construction sectors appear to be particularly exposed, with some 15m jobs at risk.

Jobs at risk by sector @ McKinsey Global Institute

Learn to earn: growth expected in high skills jobs

Some occupations are expected to show significant net job growth in the coming years, with STEM professionals (+4.0m net job growth to 2030), business and legal professionals (+3.9m), health professionals (+2.9m), managers (+2.3m) and education (+2.2m) showing significant potential. These occupations employ a relatively large share of highly educated workers.

Much of the pain is expected to sit in office support, production work and customer service & sales. The great majority of employees in these occupations have not completed tertiary education. 80% of the jobs flagged to be at risk (46m) are carried out by people not holding a tertiary degree.

Europe needs to create more training and career pathways

Education and training have a pivotal role to play in addressing the economic and social impact of this changing job market. Skills are likely to be a key factor in determining recovery from the coronovirus crisis and future prosperity.

Good quality schools, good access to tertiary (particularly STEM) and further education, and the commitment of governments, companies and individuals to ongoing skills development can all contribute to positive employment outcomes.

Re-design for the future

We have rightly seen emergency measures implemented across the World to keep our societies and economies afloat in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. This has come at a huge financial cost. With good reason, the emphasis so far has been to maintain the status quo, to minimise the economic and social chaos.

In the coming period we need to look critically at what the next generation of work will look like and to design interventions that prepare us for that future. This will likely be a job market demanding higher levels of education and skills, and where large numbers of people will need to transition from offices and shops to hospitals and schools for example. How do we organise ourselves for this change?

Best practices

I’m especially interested to learn about initiatives and best practices from institutions preparing for this transformation:

  • organisations that are re-skilling their workforce
  • schools and post-secondary institutions that are adjusting their offerings
  • successful companies that are offering services to close the skills gap
  • new education policies from governments that are intended to enable the transition to new work post-corona.

Feel free to reach out if you know of any great examples!

Looking forward >>

Teachers Want to Go Digital Where it Brings Most Benefits

In the fifth annual Sanoma Learning Impact Framework (SLIF), we decided to focus on the main tasks the teacher performs in her profession. In total 7075 teachers responded to the survey, which was again carried out in all of the markets in which we operate: Belgium, Finland, The Netherlands, Poland and Sweden.

Core activities

The main tasks for teacher are: lesson planning, teaching the whole class, exercising, testing, assessment and giving guidance personally or in small groups. Of course there are other tasks too, such as administrative work and professional development, but these are the most frequently repeated activities.

Figure 1 depicts the amount of time teachers estimate they spend on each activity. Teaching the whole study group takes most of the teachers’ time, but still only less than a third.


Figure 1. Percentage of time spent on different tasks

As part of the digital transformation, we are as an educational publisher very interested in whether teachers prefer print or digital materials to support them in their work. Our experience so far is that they value both, and in last year’s SLIF we came to the conclusion that blended learning is the way to go.

As-is/to-be: medium vs activity

This time we decided to be more specific and map the print vs. digital axis with the activities a teacher carries out. This provided us with revealing results, as depicted in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Materials and tools offered by publishers: Current use vs. Willingness to use

First of all, teachers would like to use more digital materials in all tasks than at present. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, the gap between current and desired state is the greatest in tasks where pupils/students have a relatively more active role, namely exercising, testing, and assessment.

Currently 65% of teachers are using printed tests/exams. 28% say they use half & half or primarily digital tests/exams. Contrasting this with the desired state is staggering and the percentages get flipped: only 28% would like to use primarily print and 68% half or primarily digital. A similar phenomenon can be seen in exercising and assessment.

Digital where it makes most impact

What to make of this? We think the answer is simple. Both exercising and testing generate a lot of new content and insights for the teacher to go through. This makes assessment time-consuming for the teacher. With both questions and answers in a digital form, time is saved, insights are increased and pupil/student engagement is enhanced. Teachers are selectively looking to use digital for maximum impact.

Santtu Toivonen, Lead Insight Manager, Sanoma Pro

John Martin, CEO, Sanoma Learning

Scaling European Edtech

I recently came across this interesting report from Navitas Ventures – Global Edtech Ecosystems 1.0: Connecting the World of Education Technology.  Navitas analysed 20 cities with leading edtech ecosystems representing about 40% of global edtech.  Beijing, the Bay Area and New York are top of the class, with Boston, London and Shanghai challenging.  They also assessed a further 14 emerging ecosystems at different states of maturity.  It’s clear that edtech is thriving across the globe!

Scale is essential to success in digital and you can see that in edtech too, with the predominance of China and the USA.  In addition, given the demography and emerging status of the edtech ecosystems in India and Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s likely that together these four regions will give birth to a generation of edtech giants.  Edtech could significantly improve the life chances of hundreds of millions of people in these regions by increasing access, participation and engagement in education.  It’s a powerful promise!


Source: HolonIQ

What about Europe?

Europe has some natural advantages in the edtech space.  We are home to many world-class education systems such as Finland. There’s a rich start-up scene in a number of European cities with London leading (but will Brexit make us BETT-sick?). Paris, Stockholm, Berlin, Helsinki and Amsterdam are vibrant and promising too, in fact there are more than 3000 edtech ventures across Europe today. Furthermore, there is significant and reliable spending on education through governments and ready access to venture and growth funding privately.

However, we lack scale

A lack of scale probably results in us under-serving our own customers.  It restricts our ability to expand to international markets. And it potentially exposes us to competitors grown in the big markets.  A lack of scale is restricting our potential.

European Champions

To address this, I think we need to create a European edtech network with strong go-to-market capabilities so we can effectively scale successful concepts across the continent.  I believe this network would be well served if it includes a handful of Champions to acts as magnets to talent, ideas and capital.

Learning organisation

I am interested in your ideas about how we could bring more scale to European edtech and what you think about the idea of building a European network with Champions.  How could we make that happen?  I’m also curious to learn from some of the challenger and emerging edtech ecosystems: how are they approaching this, what’s working and what’s not?  Learning is in our DNA, we need to put those skills to work if we are to bring this potential to life.