AI, Big Data and the Future of Your Classroom- In Conversation with Priya Lakhani, founder of CENTURY

Ashoka UK’s Meera Patel sat down with Priya Lakhani Founder and CEO of Century Tech to discuss what education looks like from the perspective of a tech startup.

Meera Patel:How do you view the education system today?

Priya Lakhani: I think it works for some but it’s very broken for many people, it’s a system based on the industrial revolution. There are significant pain points in the system: at its core the one size fits all delivery of education is simply inadequate, it isn’t working. So why do we do it? In a class when you’ve got an average of 30 individuals, a year group of 180, and on average 939 in an entire secondary school and you have to teach a curriculum in one academic year you are time pressured, and it’s limiting teachers enormously. The truth is that we know this system doesn’t suit the needs of every individual, we have children who fall behind and children who are challenged. The other big issue that is really prevalent at the moment is teacher retention. On the front line nearly 75% of teachers are considering leaving their jobs and the majority of those, 82%, consider workload to be the biggest issues and that simply has to be addressed.

MP: So who is affected by these pain points?

PL: The pain points are in the school system, I’m talking about the delivery of education in both primary and secondary schools. The statistics I’ve just mentioned are for the UK but the idea of one size fits all education affects every child and every learner in every school. The children most adversely affected by this are in the state school sector where resources are more pressed. In terms of the workload crisis, the primary effects are upon the teachers but overworked, under-resourced and underpaid teachers ultimately impact learners too. Teachers are simply unable to do what they are meant to do. When we asked teachers why they came to teaching their answers included: to impart knowledge of a subject that they really enjoy, to work with young people and to inspire young people. In the present circumstances this is impossible, and if as our research suggests that 60% of their week is spent on admin then they’re not able to fulfil any of these goals. This disconnect has a huge impact on them and we’re now in a position where the most talented individuals are leaving their professions and leaving classrooms that need them and the children are directly affected.

MP: And how can we respond to that ?

PL: There are several ways to respond to that, there’s obviously a lot of talk in politics at a ministerial level about addressing teacher shortages and changing education. We have to be really clear about this, do I think that’s going to happen tomorrow? The answer is no. Whilst this is happening we have teachers, we have unions, we have head teacher associations crying out for change.

The way in which I’m trying to address these problems is through technology, it’s influenced every single sector in this world, but education is still slow to adopt. I’m interested in using artificial intelligence and big data technology combined with neuroscience and robust pedagogical methods to remove the one size fits all element of education and to lessen the admin workload for teachers.

The project I’ve been working on over the last two years, that we’ve just launched in September, has been overwhelming in terms of the results that we’ve been seeing in secondary schools. Century is a platform, designed to learn how the individual student learns. It’s content agnostic, so a student could log in to access anything from mathematics to the happiness curriculum. A student will learn their strengths, their weaknesses and the way that they learn, and the platform will make smart recommendations for the student all by itself. The machine learning in the platform means that the platform will constantly learn how to make smarter and smarter recommendations every nanosecond that a user is on the platform anywhere in the world. It then takes that data and provides it in realtime to the teacher. This doesn’t mean lots of bar charts and spreadsheets, we analyse the data to offer actionable insights to teachers. Usually when a teacher walks into a classroom they are required to micro-assess, micro-mark to get the data from a student that they then need to enter into a spreadsheet to enter into the management information system, so that someone can eventually review it to find out if an intervention was necessary. In some great schools I’ve seen this happen in a day, in most schools this happens in a term and in some schools I’ve been in this happens on an annual basis. A child needed an intervention a year ago, because they didn’t understand the common denominator in fractions and it got lost through cumbersome management systems. With the use of the century platform that won’t happen any more. The purpose of Century is to reduce the admin overload on a teacher, it does not replace a teacher, it supplements a teacher. We believe we’ve built a product which allows the teacher to prioritise the human elements of their work.

MP: Some people would say that what underfunded and resourced schools need is more capacity to invest in human contact rather than machine contact, how would you respond?

PL: I was in Kent recently and saw that there were 1400 vacancies for teachers currently and that those vacancies aren’t being filled. If we could have a world where every student had a full time teacher that would be great. I hope that engaging with artificial intelligence enables and big data enables us to incentivise teachers not to leave by changing the balance of their workload. But even if we did have enough teachers we still need to figure a different way of structuring workloads in schools, because 60% of their time is still going to be admin.

MP: Do you think a private company is the best vehicle to do this? Many people would argue that education should be completely neutral

PL: Artificial intelligence and big data technology is innovative and it’s expensive, it’s really expensive to build. To build a platform like this you need to hire the best engineers, the best data scientists and the most outstanding cognitive neuroscientists and most brilliant teachers. Can a not-for-profit bring in that kind of talent and build an agile platform? I don’t believe we can. I think that working with angel investors is one of the things that has enabled us to do this.

MP: And so what does an ideal education look like?

PL: I think an ideal education is centred around a student, a system of personalised education can have an enormous impact on an individual. This system wouldn’t just be about what a child needs to know today, but rather the way in which they need to know it. If that individual also had access to teachers every day who could pinpoint where they were struggling and provide them with the pastoral care that they need, if the student also had access to collaborative learning it could be a really fertile for an amazing education. There are some really incredible schools from ones that focus on project based learning too technology focussed schools and we musn’t forget them whilst examining the holes in the system. For me it comes down to this: I want children to leave school with a wholesome education, it teaches them know and the skills they need for this century, they are well cared for and they leave inspired.