Education Technology Trends for 2017: An Interview With Martin McKay.

Martin McKay is  the Chief Technology officer and one of the founders of Texthelp Inc. He directs all research and development at Texthelp with a focus on developing new technologies to assist people who struggle with reading and writing.

Martin also serves in working groups to advise the US Department of Education on the accessibility of education materials, and Universal Design for Learning.


  • What do you think the year ahead has in store in terms of Educational Technology?


I think 2017 is going to be an exciting year, there’s going to be a lot more cloud based technology than there was before and when classes and content are delivered in the cloud and via browsers, it means kids can access the same experience and content at home as they can in the classroom.

We’re also going to see the continued drop in the price of computing and there’ll be more outsourcing of infrastructure. This is already happening a lot in the US and Canada but we’ll see a move towards this throughout the rest of the markets Texthelp operate in as well, where people will move to outsourced storage, provisioning by Google and so on.

I also expect to see a lot more robotics and makerspaces in schools. I think school leaders now realise that the jobs of the future are being replaced by robots and if we’re not teaching kids how to build, programme and control robots to do the things we do then they’re not going to have a great future.


  • What are Disruptive Innovations and how do you see them making a big impact on Education this year?


The way I think of Disruptive Innovation is when a new inexpensive technology comes along and makes something which used to be very expensive, much more affordable. One example of this in education would be instead of having a $3000 interactive whiteboard, a teacher can plug a $30 chromecast into a projector and everyone in the classroom can collaborate on an assignment. Similarly, you can replace individual classroom response units with a Bring your Own Device initiative and each kid in the classroom can work on a device which is familiar to them.

Another example of this is smartphones. Most kids in the markets Texthelp operate in have a phone in their pocket, and it’s becoming more and more acceptable for them to use these in the classroom. These phones can be used as input devices, and all have cameras and microphones. This means students can use them for the creation of digital media, which they can turn in as part of their homework.

Also, I think a really cool thing which is allowing kids to travel all over the world, and out of this world is Google Expeditions. Pupils can use a $5 Google Cardboard, put their own smartphone in there and their teacher can take them to the Moon or Mars, or to an art exhibition in Paris.

Collaboration has almost become free! They can hop on a Google Hangout and work on joint projects with students around the world. You can have a kid in Australia working on a Google diagram at the same time as a kid in Belfast or Singapore and it’s all free. I think that’s incredible.


  • How do you think Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality will affect the future of Education?  What benefits do you think it can bring to the classroom?


Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are going to be huge in Education – the technology allows us to superimpose a layer of intelligence over the real world. So for example, you can now get a Lenovo Tango device which will sense the room in 3D and create a 3D map of the same room. So imagine using this in the classroom,  to map out every surface and give students the equation to calculate the area or volume of object.

Augmented Reality could also be plugged into microscopes so that when students are looking at a cell it would automatically label the mitochondria, the cell membranes and the nucleus. We already know that this is happening in advanced microscopes so it’s not unreasonable that this could make its way into school microscopes, or we could have a phone app, to look at the image of a cell and augment the image with labels.

  • What about Machine Learning? How big a role will this have to play in the year ahead?


Machine learning is incredible. In medicine, a Doctor who is looking at medical imaging, like biopsies, can become relatively good at identifying cancer cells during their lifetime. If you add machine learning to that space, the computer learns from all the doctors across the globe and they become incredibly expert, in an incredibly short space of time.

In Education, this means that we can take the collective intelligence of teachers worldwide and apply it to scoring oral reading fluency or scoring writing. At Texthelp, we’re working on two of these initiatives right now and we believe that in the future we can take a recording of a kid’s reading and give them an accurate score for words correct per minute which means that teachers will be able to free up some of their time, as we will be able to pre-score lots of content and allow kids to practice on their own, in their own time, and get independent feedback from a computer.

We’re also working on the same kind of thing for writing by looking at assessing the quality and maturity of writing as well as developing an AI to give teachers pre-scored documents which will save them on average around 60% of their time which is spent counting spelling and grammar errors; we’ll be able to automate a lot of that manual work away.


  • Will Learning analytics have a major impact upon Education this year? How can teachers use data / learning analytics to make informed decisions?


Learning analytics and big data are huge. However the problem with big data is that it’s so huge, it’s difficult for teachers to get a good view of the data. So one of the things that we can do is filter the data to make it intelligent for teachers.

In the spaces where Texthelp operates, there are two or three things that we’re interested in. One is looking at how kids use the tools that we create like text-to-speech and talking dictionaries and word prediction tools; do they materially improve their learning outcomes? For example, when a pupil uses text-to-speech, does it improve their comprehension score? Do kids who have access to Text-to-speech voluntarily choose to read higher level or more advanced content?  Do pupils who use word prediction learn to write fast and better than those without it? Take, for example a seven year old learning to read. By giving them access to a word prediction tool which provides real time, all the time guidance on word choice, grammar and spelling, will they learn to write better and faster than kids a generation ago who didn’t have that technology? I think they will and I think data’s going to prove that.


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