The $4 Indian Smart Phone and the challenge of scale in numeracy and literacy

By Martyn Farrows

We were in India again this week securing a number of key strategic relationships for Learnovate and our partners. Again, the recurring theme for our visit has been the astonishing numbers and sheer scale of the education challenges here – and the ambitious plans to provide innovative solutions, supported by technology.

There are somewhere around 300 million students in education, of which 100 million are under the age of 10. Imagine the challenge of delivering a personalized learning experience at that scale to primary school students? That’s the challenge that the founders of EK Step have set themselves – and they are well on the way to achieving their vision.

The EK Step approach is to build a connected ecosystem for all stakeholders to engage – underpinned by an adaptive platform that will deliver a personalized experience for learners. The project had only just started when we first met them in June 2015 – but 8 months later and some core components of the ecosystem are already in place.

The team are already trialling with over 100,000 students, many in remote locations with no connectivity (and only 2 hours of electricity supply per day). Working offline on shared devices supplied as part of the project, the students have been able to engage with digital resources supporting numeracy and literacy – the student data being uploaded back to the EK Step platform when a connection can be found.

Scale will be achieved as more stakeholders engage with the ecosystem – fundamental infrastructural changes will also need to happen, but the natural assumption is that these (content, connectivity, devices) will come in time. We are looking forward to seeing the team at EK Step achieve their vision.

At the other end of the scale – and totally unrelated to the philanthropic efforts of EK Step – another remarkable event happened this week.

The director of Ringing Bells – Mohit Goel – announced the Freedom 251 smart phone, remarkable in that the ‘251’ in the title refers to the cost of the device in Rupees. That’s less than $4. For a smart phone.


Whilst the launch has been greeted with widespread skepticism (and visits from the police and tax officals!), the underlying narrative is compelling when related to the scale of building capacity in the education system.

Particularly when you look at the specs for the device:

“The dual SIM Freedom 251 device carries a 4-inch display, 1 GB RAM, 8GB internal memory with a 1.3 GHZ quad-core processor, dual cameras and comes with a charger, headphone and one-year warranty. “

Ringing Bells have already received 70 million registrations on their website and 2.5 million orders. Whether or not the orders will be fulfilled is a moot point and we will only know in time.

However, what we do know is that another important piece of the ‘scale’ equation may be within reach. If the cost of a device capable of delivering engaging, personalised digital content is coming down to this level, real impact can be achieved with global numeracy and literacy challenges.

5 Keys To Dublin EdTech Success

A recent article in the Dublin Globe looked at the Edtech scene in Dublin and identified 5 unique attributes to drive success for Dublin as an EdTech Hub.

  • Commercial Savvy, the rich mix of associations between smart thinking entrepreneurs and established companies to progress ideas into the commercial arena.
  • Noble Passions, Dublin has research legacy in EdTech, research in Dublin has been focused on EdTech for decades.
  • Legacy, aligned to noble passions is legacy, Dublin has competed on the global EdTech scene for over thirty years, with a lot of those same companies still there and innovating the EdTech scene today.
  • International Relations, As an island nation we are no strangers to looking abroad for markets, alliances have been formed with EdTech associations in the US, the UK and elsewhere to promote Dublin as a hub of EdTech innovation and ease the path for emerging players.
  • A Culture of Giving, if you need some advice, just ask! The Edtech scene in Dublin is tight knit and has an attitude of ‘raise all boats’.

We are very pleased to be a part of this community and see so many of our partners referred to in the article.
Of course, Learnovate is focused on the Island of Ireland, but a large proportion of our members are Dublin based.
The article contains a lot more detail and is well worth a read.

Learning Technologies 2016

By Mirjam Neelan

The Learnovate Centre is a regular guest at the Learning Technologies conference, both as a visitor and as a speaker. This year, Learnovate’s Centre Director Dr. Martyn Farrows and Johny Parkes, founding Partner at Versari Partners and Chairman of Learnovate’s Industry Steering Committee spoke on the API economy and specifically how the explosion in ‘EdTech’ APIs will have a profound impact on how we manage and deliver learning.

Data Science

The challenge of data science was another trend that clearly came to the surface in the various sessions. There is a lot of buzz about big data, collecting data, using data, and so on. However, in many instances or contexts we don’t seem to know what to do with all these data, how to use them in a meaningful way, how to gain insight in learners, the way they learn, and the impact of their behaviour on business results, just to name a few.

Technology and Jobs

It was also pointed out several times that “Software is eating the world”, for example in Rudy de Waele’s session on new technologies, new ways of working and learning “ Complexity is brought down to ones and zeros, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to revolutionise everything.”


In his excellent keynote on Thursday, Ben Hammersley pointed out the exact same by discussing how technology is destroying jobs. Although it might sound science fictiony, Hammersley says it’s a fact that, when things are digital, you can change their capabilities. They can learn. For example, AI will change the way professionals work. If we can design a junior lawyer robot now, we might have an experienced one in the next couple of years.
This future creates problems as well as a certain type of people who Hammersley calls ‘meatpuppets’. These are the people that keep the seat warm and wait for AI to take over their job. Taxi Drivers, GPs, Secretaries, be aware. And although it won’t happen at the same time for everyone, it will happen eventually, so Hammersley says. Is this necessarily a bad thing? In the Star Trek version of science fiction this is seen as a good thing, leaving humans the time to develop and self-actualise.

Technology, Culture and us!

Our intense use of technology is not only about systems, it also comes with socially embedded cultures and even new syndromes, such as the phantom vibration syndrome, which refers to reaching for your phone in your pocket because you feel it vibrate, only to find out that your phone is not even in your pocket. Is this real? No. But the reality is that we show different behaviours because of our relationship with technology.

It is crystal clear that technology is advancing exponentially and fundamentally changing the ways we work and learn. Other things don’t seem to be so crystal clear and seem to be very much up for debate. For example, many argue that people should no longer learn facts because ‘everything is on Google and knowledge constantly changes.’ It was very refreshing to hear De Waele challenging this by saying that “knowledge increase is questionable”. Some seem to confuse information and knowledge. The amounts of information overwhelmingly increase but that doesn’t necessarily mean that knowledge increases at the same pace.

Stephan Thomas, former Global L&D Director at Google, and Jeff Turner, EMEA L&D Leader Facebook challenged the current focus on skills and competencies in the organisations. According to Thomas and Turner, skills and competencies are only base level; there is a much stronger need to focus on high level capabilities and culture drivers as that is what really matters to organisations. Thomas strongly emphasised that front line managers have a huge impact on culture and hence if you need a culture shift, you should start with the microcultures. Change can trickle through bottom-up but doesn’t work when driven from the top down.

This required culture shift has everything to do with how the role of L&D needs to change. The discussion on how L&D needs to brand itself and go after learning and performance stuff that has never been done before is still alive and kicking. Move away from the focus on formal learning and training, focus on performance support on the job, on changing behaviours, on informal social learning, user-generated curated content, and always keep the business in mind; that’s it in a nutshell.
It’s obviously not easy to accomplish that shift as the discussion has been going on for a while now. It might even become more challenging to fill the gap between the resilience in organisations and L&D departments to change the way we support learning and performance in an organisation and the learning technologies that continue to change at the speed of light.
Keep your priorities straight though. As Marshall Goldsmith encourages us:
Be happy
Go for It
Be kind.

3 key factors when designing APIs for Learning

By: Dr Martyn Farrows & Jonny Parkes

We wrote a blog recently about APIs and their potential to disrupt learning and the key ingredients required for success. This blog seeks to build on that and share with you our experiences from two years research on the three key components to consider when developing APIs in for learning.

On the demand side, there is a growing acceptance of the value of data to deliver strategic business and organizational gains. However, embracing the strategic value of data also requires the acquisition of core skills in data science and data analytics – skills and competences that are not traditionally embedded within many organizations, let alone HR or L&D teams. The capacity to create and maintain a viable data model that supports human resources whilst delivering against core organizational goals is central to unlocking and analyzing the strategic value of data about learners.


3 Key factors

On the supply side, for APIs to be implemented effectively there are three fundamental aspects that any organization needs to consider:

  1. Data Mobility – the data itself has to be mobile – and it has to be meaningful and understandable. xAPI has a role to play here, by helping to determine a common ‘language’ that can be used to describe rich learning experiences. The ability to communicate and infer meaning from the data is paramount;
  2. Privacy by Design – learner data is, by definition, personal. It therefore demands an appropriate level of privacy – adopting the principles of privacy by design with APIs ensures that privacy is taken into account throughout the entire process. Trust is a necessary and valuable commodity;
  3. API Usability – the attraction of APIs is their convenience, they can be used to effectively deploy new functionality and features for learners at the drop of a hat. But adoption will only happen if the APIs are well designed, documented and supported.

Over the next few years, the demand for the ‘consumerisation’ of technologies to support learning in the workplace will inevitably grow stronger. Consumer-like digital experiences require effective APIs – there is no question, therefore, that the API economy matters for learners and for organizations that value their employees’ growth.

Applied to learning technologies, APIs have the potential to fundamentally change the way that we think about our learners simply because we will have more information about them. What we do with that information is key: whether it is to empower learners to take more control of their learning, or whether it is for organisations to better understand learning needs and design more personalized interventions.

This blog is the second of two blogs looking at APIs in the learning technologies environment, The Blog is leveraged from the presentation by Learnovate’s Dr Martyn Farrows (Centre Director) and Jonny Parkes (Chairman) at Learning Technologies 2016.

APIs can disrupt Edtech – 2 key ingredients for success

By: Dr Martyn Farrows & Jonny Parkes

As consumers in today’s world we take for granted that the internet will deliver personalized and relevant information that will enrich our lives in two or three clicks of a mouse, or taps of a screen. Yet all the time, we hope that our data will be secure, or we’re prepared to offset the risk with the convenience that these web services offer to us.

Most of us don’t see – and don’t care – what’s happening under the surface to make these experiences seamless, personalized and secure. Driving many of these seamless online experiences are APIs (or Application Programming Interfaces). APIs are a means to enable different technology platforms or systems to interface with each other – normally, with the intention of sharing data for a specific purpose. Think of a virtual handshake.

APIs open up the possibility of endless data interactions and have the potential to deliver a richer and more meaningful user experience. The phrase “API Economy” has been coined to capture the value (commercial or otherwise) of all those interactions.

APIs in Learning

Key ingredients: Big Data and Open API’s

At the heart of the discussion about APIs and learning is ‘data about learners’ – and how that data can be used to design more effective learning experiences. Think about the potential number (and value) of data points that a learner generates during their interactions with devices. If a learner reads something, shares something or interacts with someone in the workplace, outside an LMS, is it recorded as a usable data point?

However, there’s a catch. The API economy requires an open ecosystem to be fully realised. Open API ecosystems are a key driver of innovation – enabling niche providers of web services to enrich our online experiences based on open access to data. Generally speaking – and for good reason – the corporate learning world has been slow to embrace the ‘open’ principles behind the API economy – for example, open data exchange about learners and their learning experiences. There are commercial and practical reasons why this is the case – from data privacy, confidentiality and data protection through to centralised procurement and vendor lock-in.

But, as web-based applications start to dominate the learning technology market, generating Big Data about learners, the explosion in ‘Learning Tech’ APIs has the potential to have a profound impact on how we manage and deliver learning. Simply put, there are enormous implications in terms of being able to better understand our learners – and what we do with the information that we gather.

What might this look like in practice?

Imagine a scenario where hundreds of thousands of data points – from many different, divergent yet interconnected sources – are available for each individual learner in your organization. What does that mean in terms of performance and talent management?

And imagine if you had a data model which enabled you to not only profile each individual’s learning needs, but also to simultaneously track and tweak the interventions required based on the organization’s core competences? Whilst it may sound futuristic and in the machine learning space, it is a technique that is already being used to great effect in many other consumer spheres, for example profiling online consumers and targeted digital content marketing.

So an API-driven approach – one that will generate innovative, agile and user-centric solutions – has the potential to disrupt the learning technology space. At the Learnovate Centre (, we have spent the last couple of years researching the prerequisites for a functioning API economy in learning technologies.

This blog is the first of two blogs looking at APIs in the learning technologies environment, The Blog is leveraged from the presentation by Learnovate’s Dr Martyn Farrows (Centre Director) and Jonny Parkes (Chairman) at Learning Technologies 2016.