AI In Education — Show Me The Money!

Why EdTech needs to attract a bigger slice of the AI investment pie & why that’s a greater challenge than it may seem

Photo by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash

a year when outdoor festivals are on hiatus, I was excited to attend my first virtual festival. And it was indeed a true AI-fest. Guests at the AI Festival 2021 were treated to scores of thought-provoking insights from speakers in academia, politics, and industry — with Facebook, Google, and MIT just a few of the most notable organisations there.

I especially loved hearing from UK experts, such as the Alan Turing Institute, Babylon Health, BT, and UCL, who showed that UK AI talent can compete with its more renowned counterparts elsewhere in the world. I was quite surprised by the breadth of local AI experience in Suffolk Council and Tiptree Jam, but this really just emphasized the prevalence of AI.

One particular presentation made me sit up and take notice, not because of what the speaker said, but on the strength of what he didn’t say. Alex McCracken, Managing Director of Venture Services at Silicon Valley Bank, spoke about UK AI investment. Venture capitalists, he noted, have poured £4 billion into diverse areas in UK AI since 2015.

The largest chunks went to cybersecurity and health, but surprisingly only a tiny portion was spent on education. Funding for EdTech startups in the UK is especially low, which is unfortunate given that these are the firms most committed to producing the best AI education products possible.

This piqued my interest because I have education on the brain at present. And that’s for two main reasons: first, home-schooling has made us realise our kids can be taught in so many ways, including remotely using EdTech; and second, Covid-related job-losses have meant swathes of workers need to retrain. So, we’re really looking at education on a few levels here: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Speaking of primary and secondary education, I’ve come to understand that home-schooling is no mean feat. I’ve never admired teachers more — they’re literal heroes! EdTech has been invaluable over the past year, giving me the tools required to teach my children as best I can.

It can do the same for anyone, which not only helps parents like me, but opens up the profession to a wider range of people too. And that’s excellent news because it could plug the gap left by the UK’s teacher shortage — one that persists even if the pandemic has seen a surge in trainee teacher applications and an increase in the number of parents interested in teaching as a career (count me out, by the way). Many solutions to the shortage have been put forward, but AI is strangely rarely one of them.

With regards to tertiary education, we have an ironic situation on our hands. Rapid progress in automation has pushed workers to develop new skills to remain in employment, but post-pandemic, workers may rely on AI for retraining. As in schools, higher education institutions and private organizations use AI-based systems to help learners in various ways, which could be incredibly useful for those who haven’t studied for a while.

Here’s the stinger though: we’ll never reap the benefits of EdTech at any level without further investment in AI education companies. The trouble is this could be tricky to secure, given that relatively little evidence exists on the advantages of AI-powered systems in education. Even in the AI boom, trying to find investors who will plough money into a project without the right numbers is nigh impossible.

On top of this, education is less straightforward than other sectors attracting a lot of AI investment, like finance and retail, often depending on how technology is used by teachers and students. EdTech companies struggle to sell to governments or schools, which have set-curriculums already bursting at the seams and little spare cash to spend. Their success must be possible though, as China has eight EdTech unicorns worth over $1 billion, and at least two are heavily AI-oriented.

It seems, then, that AI education firms in the UK must learn a thing or two before investors will flash the cash. Perhaps they need AI to teach them?

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position.

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