Ireland poised to exploit expansion in education technology

Lack of digital strategy for schools is opportunity for growth in sector that already employs 2,500

Ireland has been leading in elearning going back about 30 years

Ireland has been leading in elearning going back about 30 years

 

Ireland is poised to take advantage of the expected growth in the educational technology industry, with the potential to create jobs and boost the economy.

That’s according to those working in the industry, which could be worth more than $250 billion (€220 billion) globally by 2017.

“Most people don’t realise Ireland has been leading in elearning going back about 30 years,” said Dr Martyn Farrows, director of the Learnovate Centre

That benefit is not only expected for large companies competing in the sector, but smaller indigenous firms too.

The Learnovate Centre is a key part of that plan. The institution is an industry-led centre of excellence for research and innovation in learning technologies, funded by Enterprise Ireland and hosted by Trinity College Dublin.

“The overall mission of this centre is to make Ireland a centre of excellence in edtech. We do a lot of work travelling to the US, India, talking about the work we do here, talking about the eco system,” said Dr Farrows.

There are almost 60 industry partners for the centre, ranging from large ones such as Microsoft and Intel to SMEs such as Wriggle.

“The notion is that we try on a macro level to increase business expenditure on R&D,” he said. “If you can increase business expenditure on R&D you will hopefully drive competitiveness, which will drive job creation and growth. It’s done very much on a collaborative basis.”

Current figures estimate there are about 2,500 jobs in the sector in 150 companies in Ireland, which between them generate about €230 million in revenues, with €170 million in exports. But it’s not just about the money and jobs figures; edtech has a societal impact as well.

The centre is tasked with exploring how technology can be used to support learning innovation, whether it is commercial learning or learning in Ireland’s schools and colleges.

“It’s not technology innovation, it’s learning innovation supported by technology,” explains Farrows. “We don’t do any research projects unless there is a very identifiable piece of innovation around learning. That’s the starting point of everything.”

The commercial learning world seems to have embraced technology more readily, but with a lack of a digital strategy for schools, the opportunity for growth in that sector is ripe. Some schools have begun bringing technology to the classroom in a more meaningful way, with tablets and ‘one-to-one’ devices being trialled. At present, it’s more down to individual innovators than a coordinated strategy.

Business model

The centre undertakes the research projects, but its industry partners can licence the resulting technology and tailor it to their needs. For example, Learnovate has developed a piece of technology that Farrows says could be a game-changer, known as Almanac.

The software allows students to take a search term and criteria that are personal to their needs and compose an article around that, drawing information form several sources. For example, a student searching for information on rivers and their origins will be presented with a magazine-style article dynamically generated from a number of different sources, including academic, online and even multimedia files.

It’s moving away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ textbook, Farrows says, towards a more personalised approach that he described as the ‘Holy Grail’ of learning technology.

The centre is currently working on Almanac with Microsoft and Wriggle, trialling it with a school in Galway. Without the centre, Farrows acknowledges, the chances of such a project promoting collaboration between an SME of Wriggle’s size and a multinational such as Microsoft would have been less likely.

Although the focus of the project has been on schools, Almanac can be applied in the commercial learning world too, with on-demand learning and personalised content relevant to more corporate needs.

Immersive learning

“If you think about the landscape in total, the Holy Grail is the personalised learning notion, that you as an individual can have content or tools or interventions delivered to you on a device that’s personal to you and your requirements in context at that point in time,” said Dr Farrows.

In the three years the centre has been working, it has licenced one piece of technology commercially, with four evaluation licences issued – the first step towards a commercial agreement.

Development lab

Already it’s starting to pay off. At the start of June it was announced that Brazilian elearning company Affero was locating its research and development lab in Ireland, creating 40 jobs initially.

“We would expect more to that to happen as IDA client companies start to be attracted to Dublin,” said Dr Farrows.

If the centre’s strategy pays off, it will attract high-value jobs to the economy.

“If we can get even a small proportion of that compared to where we’re at at the moment, based on those EI figures, you could very easily see that 2,500 jobs double or treble in the next couple of years,” said Farrows.

“There are people out there saying this is this is ripe for disruption and what we’re saying is where better to do that than here?”

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