Edtech companies are flat out at the moment. All over the world students are sitting at home because schools are closed owing to the risk of infection with the coronavirus. But in the meantime, kids still need to study. But how? That appeared to be the main question. The solution had already been around for several years. Except it just hadn’t yet been accepted by school teachers and vocational educators, says Klaas Lameijer. He is the director of the US-based Symbaloo, which offers online learning methods for primary and secondary schools. “In the first instance, most just wanted to keep on teaching by the book.”

But that apprehension for new ways of learning has disappeared like snow in the sun now that the need for it has suddenly arisen. Before the corona crisis, 300,000 teachers were connected to the Symbaloo online learning pathways in the US, Lameijer states. That attracted about 10 million individual visitors per month. Most of these are students from Symbaloo’s affiliated teachers’ classes.

Millions more online US students have been added

In the meantime, there are so many more students. Symbaloo has made the teaching materials available free of charge to schools (70 % have closed down in the US) that are now unable to teach because they lack the tools to do so.

“Since we now offer the software for free, we won’t earn any money directly from it. We even lose out a bit,” Lameijer explains. Nevertheless, so many teachers have meanwhile joined and even districts looking to sign a contract with Symbaloo for all the schools in their areas, that sales will most likely skyrocket after the crisis. “We are in talks with the Los Angeles district. If they also sign a contract for all their schools, 17 million users will be added to our platform.”

That contract alone would therefore almost double. Profits would surge from US$350,000 per year to US$1.4 million.

AI analyzes how a child learns

Interestingly, the product offered by Lameijer and his associates, even without a crisis, offers a solution to children who learn faster than the teacher allows them to when they just stick to the usual textbooks. AI uses Symbaloo’s tools to analyze how fast and how well a child reacts to specific learning methods. If a particular method works well, the child is automatically offered new educational material in a form that also works best for the child. This means that children are not all offered the same educational methods. However, they all learn what they need to learn, according to Lameijer.

Apparently it takes a crisis to steer schools off the beaten track and get them to use innovative learning products. This is evident from the experiences of Anouk Binckhuysen at the start-up company Faqta based in Utrecht, The Netherlands. She and her colleagues developed online teaching methods for subjects other than arithmetic and language. Like technology, history, programming, economics and nutrition.

Utrecht start-up is all of a sudden supplying three times as many schools

One of the reasons she did this was because primary schools do not have any vocational teachers, which means that there is less emphasis on these kinds of specialized subjects, even when children do benefit a lot from learning about them. However, now that the children are at home as a result of the corona crisis, the schools do want to make use of these online teaching packages, Binckhuysen states. Before the corona crisis, 170 schools used the online lessons provided by Faqta. But that number has grown to 500 in just ten days. The new schools can use the licence free of charge, says Binckhuysen. When the crisis is over, they can decide whether or not to sign a contract for these services.

“It’s a good solution for now for the parents who are presently teaching their children themselves. The children can follow the lessons via an iPad, for instance. The parents only have to coach the children.”

The nice thing about this method is that children are able to work on their own. They don’t really need the teacher to explain anything. “Teachers would also act more like a coach in these kinds of subjects,” says Binckhuysen.

Breakthrough for online learning?

Who knows, the corona crisis might mean a breakthrough for online learning for children. Regardless of whether or not this is the case, Lameijer firmly believes in the concept. “Why should children have to sit in the classroom all day? Children who finish their work quickly have to wait a long time before they can carry on with something else. Now a teacher can see via the remote platform what the child is doing, how quickly they finish an assignment, or whether they get stuck somewhere. The teacher is able to start a chat if they think it’s not going so well. Or give an extra fun assignment if a child completes something really quickly. It’s not like you aren’t in control when you’re not in the classroom.”

If the innovative learning methods for children do in fact take off after the corona crisis, this means that education may become cheaper, Lameijer thinks. “Then you don’t have to have any more of those huge buildings. They cost a lot of money.”

But where are they supposed to go then? “All kinds of things are conceivable,” he thinks. “Maybe children will learn in groups close to home under the supervision of a parent, and go to school fewer days per week.”

Better scores for university

The main reason to proceed further is that online learning paths in primary and secondary schools prepare children better for university, says Lameijer. “Those are very expensive in the US. If you’re very good, you get awarded a scholarship. So if they achieve better results through online learning methods, teachers will invest in that.”