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How Edtech Entrepreneurs Can Make College More Accessible To All Students

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In November 2018, Michael R. Bloomberg announced a donation of $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University to create a fund that would help low and moderate-income group students complete their college degrees. Without a doubt, this is an incredibly meaningful initiative. However, it led me to start wondering if monetary support alone is enough for students with special accessibility needs or students who come from a variety of marginalized backgrounds.

When we think of college, the first question that often comes to mind is affordability. But affordability is not the only factor. Most educational institutions provide financial support to a few selected students in the form of scholarships and loans. However, students require much more than just financial support to survive four years of college and develop the skills and confidence they need to begin successful careers.

How Edtech Entrepreneurs Can Make College More Accessible To All Students

Most colleges fall short here. There are far more inequalities and biases embedded in the fibers of our society than what financial aid for tuition can bridge. I believe that real college access should open doors for students irrespective of race, gender, immigrant status, family income or physical mobility. A recent study revealed that at some of the best colleges across the United States, more students were from the top 1% than from the bottom 60% of income groups. 

Entrepreneurs building companies of the future should be concerned. The workforce, comprising of millennials driven by intellectual curiosity, moral obligation and exposure to humanitarian causes, is inquisitive about freedom, equality and inclusivity. An employer is judged by its commitment to society and causes. Especially in tech startups, graduating students have begun to consider the brand image of a future employer before saying yes to an offer. Therefore, it will be increasingly beneficial for entrepreneurs if they build brands that nurture an ecosystem where students are provided opportunities based on their merit and not simply their elite pedigree.

As part of their measures to diversify their student bodies, colleges often claim to support students by providing them with tuition fee waivers. But free tuition is helpful only when one is able to get an offer of admission. Moreover, there are indirect costs beyond tuition fee that financial aid doesn’t cover, such as food, housing, and supplementary course material. This forces many students to earn money during the time that they should be studying. Some incur large personal debt, others skip classes to work odd jobs, while a few succumb to financial stress and drop out.

The problem becomes even more complex when dealing with learners from diverse backgrounds who have special needs such as students who require accessibility considerations and students with learning disabilities.


Having worked closely with various state public schools with students from mid- to low-income families as well as accessibility services at various colleges, I’ve observed that students require a lot of support beyond classroom lectures. Unlike students from affluent families who get mentoring and support right from the start, less privileged students struggle to balance classes with part-time jobs. That’s where edtech entrepreneurs such as myself come in, by building systems that enable students to have access to higher education and study materials. Here’s how we can provide support beyond financial aid.

1. Increased Accessibility To Higher Education Even Before College

Tech entrepreneurs are in a position to influence change at the grassroots level. The pyramid leading to success in college is built on the cornerstone of early education in high school. Edtech entrepreneurs can help in two ways:

• Provide technology training for teachers in low-income neighborhoods. According to the Education Week Research Center, teachers in under-funded schools are less likely to receive technological training for teaching when compared to their counterparts in wealthier schools. Edtech companies can provide skills training for teachers on their platforms.

• Provide high school students with summer jobs/internships that give them access to an environment with technology and give them an opportunity to work in the tech-startup landscape once they graduate.

2. Corporate Network Support Circles

College is where the blueprint of the business world is laid down, and it’s important to inculcate diversity at this grassroots level. Change doesn’t start from top-down leadership; it happens from the bottom up. Currently, about 72% of CEO’s in top Fortune 500 companies are white males, and less than 1% are African-American females.

One of the key hindrances in diversity at the top level is that people tend to hire or favor candidates similar to themselves -- usually from the same schools. Students with special learning needs bear the brunt of this even more. Even if they manage to steer through their financial constraints, it is incredibly difficult to break through the glass ceiling without a supporting network.

Colleges should aid in creating corporate networks where diverse groups of students can get the right introductions. Tech entrepreneurs can help further by promoting diversity initiatives in their organizations that call for meritorious students from lower socioeconomic standing. Such initiatives should begin at the high-school level. Entrepreneurs can also support non-Ivey, state schools and community colleges that hold job fairs and employment drives.

3. Subsidized, Affordable Textbooks And Study Materials

The rising costs of textbooks add a significant burden on students who struggle to make ends meet on their limited financial aid. Even though there are a lot of services that provide secondhand books or online books, a college student still ends up spending over $1,200 on average, according to the College Board. Edtech entrepreneurs and colleges should join forces to provide subsidized books and online notes for a nominal fee. 

It’s easy to get access to reading lists of various subjects and provide materials to students accordingly in the form of study guides, notes, homework help, etc. In fact, many startups, including my own, are already doing that.

Edtech companies currently exist in their bubbles -- creating products that are redefining education. However, it is becoming increasingly important that policymakers and entrepreneurs work together to steer the discourse of higher education. It surely will be a long journey to effect change, but it will be worth starting today. 

posted Feb 11 by Khean

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Earning a degree takes a lot of hard work and focus, but getting through college in one piece is all about finding shortcuts to maximize and manage one’s time effectively. Edtech life hacks let clever applications and websites do the technical work, allowing students more time for learning and studying.

From scheduling and reminders, to study and presentation tools, there’s an edtech solution to almost any college assignment. To start your school year off smart, here are ten tools you just have to use to make your life easier.

10 Edtech Life Hacks for College Students

1. Quizlet

This site makes cramming for midterms and finals easier, with millions of searchable study guides, flashcards and games. If you can’t find a topic you need, you can customize your own study tools. Quizlet is also a great resource for teachers and can be an engaging alternative to paper study guides.

2. Google Voice Typing

Regardless of your major, every college student can use a reliable voice typing app. From drafting an essay to outlining notes, letting a computer do the typing can alleviate carpal-tunnel-inducing assignments. There are a lot of expensive and flawed transcription and voice recognition services online, but Google’s voice typing function within Google Documents is perhaps the most accurate one you can access for free. To use it, you must open a Google Document in the Chrome web browser. Then, you’ll find “voice typing” under the “tools” drop-down menu.

3. If This Then That(IFTTT)

Have you ever wished you had a genie who could schedule an event, remind you to do your laundry, or organize your email with one command? IFTTT connects multiple devices and applications through a free command, or “recipe,” service. For example, if your FitBit records a sleepless night, Google Calendar will remind you to go to bed earlier. Other recipes connect social media accounts, update you on news alerts, and track online sales.

4. Canva

Unless you’re in art school, the design is probably not your forte. But that doesn’t mean your class presentations and Facebook event invites have to be drab. Canva gives you all the graphic materials you need to create appealing visuals, including free stock photos, filters, icons, fonts, and layouts.

5. Doodle

Between-group assignments, student government meetings, work shifts, volunteer hours and coffee breaks with friends, college students have a knack for filling up their agendas. Doodle is a handy website that helps you find the best time for everyone and schedule meetings without conflicts. It also easily integrates with Google Calendar so all of your appointments are coordinated in one schedule.

6. Top Documentary Films

When studying notes doesn’t seem to sink deep enough into your brain, watching educational documentaries can be an effective method to prepare for an exam. This blog-turned-community houses over 3,000 documentaries to watch for free, most available in full-length. With 25 categories to browse, this can also be a useful site to search if your professor assigns a documentary for homework.

7. Flipboard

Switching tabs between the news, social media and academic articles take up a lot of time. Not to mention, it slows your computer down. Flipboard simplifies your media consumption, so you can quickly access your favourite outlets and save stories for later.

8. ZoomNotes

If you prefer taking notes on your tablet or laptop, ZoomNotes is a great application that’s full of comprehensive tools. Sketch with eight different pens and draw diagrams with unlimited zoom capability. You can import and write over PDFs, photos, videos and other documents.


This site collects data quickly for easy spreadsheets and charts. Simply copy and paste a URL that contains a data set (search results and Wikipedia charts work well) and will turn it into an organized table. You can then export the table as a CSV file, saving hours of pasting and rearranging figures into your own spreadsheet.

10. Kiosko

View the front pages and headlines on major international newspapers dating as far back as 1945. Use this historical archive as a starting point for research and fact checking or download the images for more creative projects and presentations.

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I’m often asked, “What value does Virtual Reality (VR) bring to education?”

To which I typically reply, “Equity.” While most, including my immediate peers, usually squint and ask, “How so?” there is currently a myriad of VR experiences that can bring equity to education where no other tool has been able to.

Research completed at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, led by Professor Sean Reardon, largely addressed the inequities in education that challenge students daily.

“The socioeconomic profile of a district is a powerful predictor of the average test score performance of students in that district,” said Reardon. “Nonetheless, poverty is not destiny: There are districts with similarly low-income student populations where academic performance is higher than others. We can—and should—learn from such places to guide community and school improvement efforts in other communities.”

So, how can VR bring equity to education?

Regarding virtual reality in education, most educators have heard of Google Expeditions by now. At just over three years old, Google Expeditions has paved the way for immersive education in schools. Using mobile VR technology, three degrees of freedom (3DOF), students are guided through a virtual tour. The tour includes teacher resources in the form of discussion points, and the ability for the teacher to control what the students are seeing while the students still have control over the angle and direction of their focus in the 360, VR virtual field trip.

Is this low tech? Sort of. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t such a huge fan of “virtual field trips” initially. It wasn’t because I’m a hater, it was because I was narrow-minded and enthusiastic about all of the other amazing immersive VR experiences coming out.

However, earlier this year, I had the pleasure of watching a recording of Jeremy Bailenson speaking about his book, Experience on Demand (which is amazing, by the way). He stated four reasons why we should use VR and those were:

  1. It’s impossible
  2. It’s counterproductive
  3. It’s expensive/rare
  4. It’s dangerous

It immediately clicked for me. Depending on the situation, Virtual Reality can add tremendous value and even provide equity where there once was none.

When does VR provide benefits for students?

Say, for example, in your situation, which includes cost and proximity, you have easy access to go to the zoo. In this case, a virtual field trip might not be a worthy use case for VR. Instead, you can physically take a field trip to the zoo. If your situation is such that it’s cost prohibitive, far, etc., then a virtual field trip to a zoo is a worthwhile experience.

Generally speaking, access to a zoo falls largely into the category of funding. If a school felt there was value in taking students to a zoo and money was no object, they could fly a class to their zoo of choice. If the research that Reardon conducted is true, then this lack of funding results in a lack of experiences for students and would likely translate into lower test scores within that school.

What about the impossible?

It’s not possible for us to revisit World War II and speak to Holocaust victims. Yes, there are museums, and there are still some schools who have access to survivors that visit and share their first-hand accounts. But this invaluable experience isn’t something that every school has access to. Programs like New Dimensions in Testimony (NDT) exist to archive and bring Holocaust survivor testimony to people, most importantly schools. This brings equity by creating this experience.

Lastly, explaining the benefits of the counterproductive.

I love the idea of bringing the best of the best to everyone, anywhere, anytime. Programs like Engage and Rumii offer educator-focused collaborative VR learning environments. Imagine a lecture hall where all of the participants and the presenter are in VR. Think back to “Ready Player One,” a futuristic novel set in 2045, where nearly everyone constantly lives in VR. In the book, there is a planet within VR called Ludus, where all of the schools are located.

In the book, Ernest Cline describes in detail what the educational system on Ludus looks like. He describes a flexible and customizable learning environment, one that I think could bring equity to learning, whether you’re connecting from an affluent or impoverished neighbourhood. He describes that teachers can instantly take students on interactive virtual field trips, which provide high levels of immersion translating into a better understanding of the subject.

The counterproductive involves learning a powerful lesson that you wouldn’t want to do out in the real world. For example, seeing the effects climate change up close, or learning about the mistakes of the past by seeing them unfold in front of you. From the example of “Ready Player One,” we can also imagine that students had access to visit historical events in high fidelity and full immersion. Imagine too, the ppossibilityof constructing new outcomes with “artificially intelligent virtual interaction,” an experience that would place you in a historic place and time. You could interact with and examine how different choices might have changed the outcome of history.

Hopefully, you can see why I’m so excited for Virtual Reality in Education.

Dropping into VR provides a real world, immersive experience that links key critical core senses together. When hearing, sight, and touch are linked, the subconscious mind cannot distinguish the experience as fake and thus strong memories are created. This ability to create memories from experiences that are typically impossible is the power that VR yields. So with VR experiences like NDT, virtual field trips to zoos, and collaborative learning environments like Engage and Rumii, we can bring equitable experiences to education that could ultimately provide not just higher test scores, but increased opportunity, knowledge, and most importantly, an inspiration to all students.

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If your students knew how much more money they could earn if they studied hard, went on to further education and got good grades, do you think it would make a difference to them? 

That was part of a question posed in a new paper published in the Journal of Development Economics and featured in the January edition of the Centre for Education Economics’ (CfEE) Monthly Research Digest

Ciro Avitabile and Rafael De Hoyos ran a randomised controlled trial in Mexico designed to address whether or not providing students with better information about the earning returns of education – and the options available to them – led to greater effort and learning. 

The experiment involved about 4,000 Mexican Year 10 students, across 111 classrooms in 54 schools. They first asked students how much they thought they could earn if they progressed to different stages of education. 

Both boys and girls underestimated the average earnings of adults with a high-school degree and overestimated the earnings of adults with a university degree. 

Want to motivate students? Tell them learning boosts earning power

Setting the exercise

They then started the trial: 26 schools were randomly allocated to receive the intervention and 28 schools were randomly allocated to the control group.

The intervention consisted of an exercise that provided the following information through specially designed interactive computer software: 

1. The benefits: average wages of workers with different levels of schooling.

2. The costs: details of a government scholarship for higher education.

3. How long the benefits might last: average life expectancy.

The educational outcomes analysed were obtained largely from the results of the Enlace examination, which students sit at the end of Year 12. This is a low-stakes test with no bearing on graduation, university admissions or school funding, but is highly predictive of future academic and labour-market outcomes.

For various reasons, examination data was available for only 61 per cent of the students in the trial.

A second set of outcome measures were derived from a university placement exam used by a subset of universities.

Mixed picture

So what were the results? 

First, the intervention increased students’ expectations of how their future earnings might increase if they committed to education, with associated positive effects on the level of effort they reported putting into it. 

However, the information provided had no effect on the probability of students taking the Enlace low-stakes test. 

For those that did take the test, there was a large, positive effect on maths scores, but only a statistically insignificant positive effect on Spanish scores. 

The impact size in maths was almost large enough to close the gender gap between boys and girls – and larger than the effect of coming from a high-income family. 

Difference in outcomes

Unfortunately this did not follow through to any statistically significant effect on the probability of sitting the university placement exam, nor on scores in that examination.

Effects on the low-stakes test were slightly larger for girls than boys, which appears to be due to the fact that the information intervention improved the aspirations of girls in particular. 

Consistent with this explanation, the information intervention increased the likelihood that girls (but not boys) chose to study economics in high school, and made them less likely to have married at ages 18-20 – an indication of their desire to go to university. 

Equity issues

Effects were also larger, however, for children from wealthier households – suggesting the intervention had equity implications that must be considered.

From a policy perspective, the fact that the intervention costs next to nothing and is inherently scalable makes it attractive. 

Of course, it doesn’t solve the core challenge of improving the quality of teaching in low-to-middle-income countries, and it’s important to take equity implications seriously. 

But free interventions that raise pupil achievement are rare and this one certainly warrants further exploration in other settings.

Lee Crawfurd is a fellow of the CfEE and deputy editor of its Monthly Research Digest. This blog is based on his selection for the January issue of the digest. You can view a flipbook version, download a pdf copy and subscribe to receive copies of the digest free of charge here

The CfEE is an independent thinktank working to improve policy and practice in education through impartial economic research