Rebels in the Classroom — Accelerating Education Technology & Learning in Zürich

After a successful initial year in Lausanne,  Kickstart’s EdTech & Learning Vertical comes to Zurich with a three year vision to help build a world-class education, technology and innovation eco-system in Switzerland. Up to 10 later-stage EdTech startups will accelerate their deep tech innovations with our Kickstart partners: corporates, universities, foundations, and public institutions. Our EdTech & Learning Lead Tim Lehmann shares his personal view of launching the EdTech Vertical in Zurich.

 I’m about to cycle Zurich’s Stauffacherbrücke. It’s an early fresh morning. Spring has melted away the layers of ice of a crystal clear Sihl river. My new office at the innovation and collaboration space, Kraftwerk, appears right next to her. Like every morning at the crossing, while waiting on my bike, after just having passed a big stack of Zurich’s Google offices (Google’s 2nd largest after the US), I spot the construction site of Zurich’s former main stock exchange building. The scaffolding in front of the impressive portal-like entrance hides behind a head-high temporary structure. Painted in blue and white letters it reads, “Education First — The World Leaders in International Education”. By the end of 2018, one of the world’s largest education companies will have taken over the famous landmark building, completely restructuring its inner core. One of Switzerland’s biggest newspapers, Tagesanzeiger, with its publisher’s view right across the Sihl, titled the ‘take over’, “Zurich’s stock exchange becomes a school”.

Zurich’s former main stock exchange building.

 

From computerised finance to education

The finance world’s early computerisation in the 1990s is literally arriving in the education and learning sector. The first wave of digital transformation of finance ended not only in its collapse in 2008, but an ever more aggressive und unequal flow of capital into all parts of industries and our lives. The digitisation of the education and learning landscape could mark a turning point for the new technologies to do better for thinking the relation between technological innovation and political, economic and social inventiveness.

Accelerating partnerships between startups and established players

In our team at Impact Hub Zürich‘s Kickstart Accelerator, we work on both –  the tech in finance and education right across the street from the ‘Neue Börse’ at Kraftwerk Innovation Space. Just recently, we launched into our third program year with a variety of partners, ready to pose their challenges to scout national and international startups that would help them tackle these challenges. In 2018, we opt into such new fields that we care about, like the technologies of education and learning — and keep what we like and has been proven key industries (what we call ‘verticals’) for the Swiss innovation space: finance, smart cities and food tech. We shift towards even more piloting between startups and established companies and institutions, such as multinationals, SMEs, foundations, cities, universities, schools, and federal and local governments. This requires Kickstart’s focus to change from startups to scale-ups — more mature startups that are capable of partnering with the established players.

 

Kickstart’s Kanban practice ‘Launch 2018’.

 

Governing a technological and market society

Kickstart’s EdTech focus, in addition to the Impact Hub Zurich’s collaboration and local eco-system approach, merges the tech and impact focus. (Impact Hub Zurich is a Google for Entrepreneurs partner and member of 100 globally connected and locally embedded Impact Hubs around the world). Our EdTech impact focus signals Government Councillor Dr. Silvia Steiner’s patronage of the EdTech Vertical launch in Zurich in 2018. If we consider impact and scale in the education industries serious, it requires close partnering with the government. Yet, similar to what happens at Zurich’s Europaallee, a central area owned by the government’s train service provider SBB — large tech companies, like Google, overtaking government ground — there will be new players venturing and pushing the boundaries of a resilient, often times stiff education sector. With Swisscom, Switzerland’s largest telco corporation, and Google as EdTech partners, we help to facilitate a thin line between the state and the market.

The cross-sector association digitalswitzerland raised initial industry momentum for EdTech in Switzerland with the Kickstart Accelerator EdTech Vertical in Lausanne in 2017 and its education and talent initiative. We are now expecting Swiss firms to see education and learning not only as a politically poisoned, low-revenue business, but EdTech as a field of innovation for new technologies, new markets and society at large. I personally look forward to having Education First setting up its 1000 employees in 2018 right in front of our office space. I hope that EF will be opening up its ‘portal’ and not be as much of a black box like the emerging tech and information industry has become. Akin to the Spotify and iTunes models in an analogy to the music industry, the education sector rightly fears a Napster moment. Yet, industry players will need to be prepared for carefully riding the long rising tide of the education and learning sector, especially in a social democratic Europe.

Contexts of learning as a social and technological practice

Impact driven tech in education and learning means better and simpler tech. Kickstart’s integration of science and engineering driven technologies (Deep Tech Nation Switzerland) is an important step we do into this direction in 2018. Yet, simpler tech does not mean less techie, but more driven by the contextual complexity and human-centred processes of learning as a social practice (and technological, think of your old school’s blackboard). Constructivist learning sciences experts like Dr. Dominik Petko, Vice president of the University of Teacher Education Schwyz, speak of Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD). In today’s light of digitising and technologically equipping the learner’s pathway, the ZPD theory considers an individual learner’s limits within these developments. Dr. Petko’s publicly funded work as an academic, like Learningview.org — an AI optimised learning schedule that identifies a student’s overload within flexible learning environments — could inspire (more) solid pedagogic concepts for EdTech business models in what industry experts sometimes describe as frustrating product driven business landscape.

Building science and engineering momentum in EdTech

In this vein, we will build on EPFL ‘s experience in EdTech, particularly its 2017 launched EdTech Collider, as well as our new partners ETH Zürich and the University of Zürich. (EPFL and ETH are the two Swiss universities funded by the Swiss federal government — both focus on science and technology driven basic research and education; ETH is among the world’s top 3 ranked publicly funded universities). If we look at the leading EdTech innovation clusters around the world in China, Scandinavia, the UK and the US, Switzerland needs to use today’s momentum in order to make its mark in what Switzerland should be strong in as a knowledge and technology-based society. Mercator Foundation Switzerland’s three-year support of the EdTech vertical acknowledges our vision to help build momentum for an EdTech cluster in Switzerland. More momentum will join if the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research and the Federal Council will approve the EdTech proposal of its National Research Program on digital transformation.

 

Kickstart’s Co-Lead Katka Letzing organizing the Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange week for international Machine Learning / AI startups.

 

Momentum for ‘transition skills’

What [as entrepreneurs] do we take from this momentum on a personal level? At Impact Hub Zürich, our education spin-off STRIDE Unschool for Entrepreneurial Leadership constantly challenges our learning approach as a leading startup eco-system provider. In the global Impact Hub Network, we boldly say, “The world is changing, and we are on the transition team”. Yet, what kind of competences are required in this transition team? And, are we, even as entrepreneurial explorers of our contexts, not also damned to reflexively learn from our hacking and breaking of things?

Many of us were rebels at school. I personally was one ‘without a cause’— breaking things not for the better. I respect the skills of our community of founders and starters. However, I truly believe that it’s not (only) through the startup experience that we capture all aspects of life(-long learning). A proactive approach for founders to take learning serious — and to combine it with startup success — could be to become educators and instructors ourselves. There is an armada of young people and talents (backed by a political agenda in Switzerland) waiting to learn from the startups’ way of hustling ourselves into a structurally different future.

 

A version of this piece originally appeared on the Impact Hub Zürich website on 09. April 2018, https://zurich.impacthub.ch/rebels-in-the-classroom-transforming-education-with-edtech/