Exploring EdTech Episode 1
01/11/2023 Hosted by Tim Lavery & Dr Daithí O'Murchú
November 1 2023
Tim and Daithí discuss the evolution of education technology during their careers as educators and Daithí introduces some exemplar European edtech projects.
Tim is joined by Sophie Cacoualt and her colleague Bahia Fahmi, from the French digital penpal platform called BEEGUP. They share perspectives on how technology can connect students globally and expand their horizons, while helping them develop their language skills in a friendly and safe environment.
BEEGUP Website: https://www.beegup.com
Learning from the Extremes: https://learningfromtheextremes.eu/
Tim: It's great to kick off with a chat. We both describe ourselves, primarily as educators, with our tech credentials, glued, taped, and bolted on over the years. But before we delve into the world of education technology and the future, I thought we'd have a look at how things have shaped the present. I worked in post-primary and you in primary from classroom teacher to principal. To what extent has your teaching changed over the years, from when you were first trained?
Daithí: With, I suppose, over 40 years and retired, and some of the greatest days and inspiration of my life have been an educator, someone who led, and most often Tim, led myself into learning.
In my time there were no colleges of education, they were called training colleges. And therein we were trained how to be teachers. And basically, showed me all the things I didn't want to know about education. As in, you [00:01:00] go in there and you teach. And if you teach, they will learn. And if they don't learn, it's because they can't learn. And why can't they learn? It's because they can't learn. It's not about the fact that maybe you weren't teaching in an inclusive, equitable way.
I can say it has been the greatest privilege of my life to be an educator, and somehow or other I end up here today, and it is a combination of many different decisions and many different pathways.
Tim: I guess educators are a measure of the sum of all their experiences and training. I know that when I finished teaching back in 2000, I felt that education and in particular, teaching was changing, on the cusp of enormous change, driven by the rapid advances in technology, which at that stage began to creep into Irish classrooms. But 23 years later, although the mindset of teachers may have moved with the times Daithí, I still feel where yet to get a solid handle on education technology in classrooms for teaching and learning. [00:02:00] But we are getting there.
How has the landscape of educational technology evolved Daithí? What do you think was the most significant catalyst for change?
Daithí: At this moment in time for education, because I come from the era where the only technology that was available was a piece of chalk and a blackboard. And then came the greatest revolution of all times, Tim, coloured markers and paper. Today, I have the privilege of going into schools all over the world and what do I see? Technology enhanced teaching and learning, and what was the greatest thing that made that difference? Apart from a mindset jump of educators and integrating it into what we now refer to as 21st century teaching and learning in technology enhanced environments, it actually, Tim, was the computer.
A computer that allowed education for the [00:03:00] first time to realise children could interact with this machine to give them a different perspective on how something could be presented. So, it began with things like phonics in English, mathematics, games and they were having this fun. So that computer for the want of a better way of putting it, Ríomhaire in Irish actually changed where we are today.
We have computers in schools that are million times more powerful, dare I say more cognizant? Whoops, AI Daithí Ooh, stay off that one for a while. They have now allowed what Gardner perceived to be the multiple intelligences.
The child who is the unique genius who didn't need to just verbally regurgitate what that child was being taught. Now, we're in a situation and environment where children of [00:04:00] all abilities, multiple abilities, differently abled geniuses, can now interact with technology, the same computer, but now much faster.
But that computer in itself, and what it can do now with the applications, and the tools that one can use with that computer, are now the single greatest change that has come into education.
Tim: COVID 19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of EdTech in schools. Educators faced significant challenges during this period, a huge amount of education technology applications were thrown into teaching and learning, some great, some not so, and it must be said that not all were fit for purpose. What lessons have been learned do you think Daithí.
Daithí: I suppose, Tim, to answer that question, and you're looking at EdTech, COVID, and its effect on technology, and how that [00:05:00] has changed the whole landscape within education. If I can take specific examples, that myself and my colleagues in Dublin West Education Centre. We were in charge of the Digital Schools Award. And the Digital Schools Award were based upon the school's capacity to present a policy, or an acceptable usage policy on a digital strategy, which laid down clearly how schools were engaging with, through, and in technology to provide technology enhanced teaching and learning.
And we would go to the schools, see the children, the teachers, the whole school community engaging with these technologies as exemplars, as lighthouses, as schools of authentic, symbiotic, synergistic learning, where there was an equity of opportunity for all children to engage with technology.
Tim: Okay. Fair enough Daithí, but these are exemplars or lighthouses [00:06:00] as you call them. What about the average school and the non-tech savvy teachers. How did they fare?
Daithí: During COVID, teachers in schools were basically asked to go into, well, you know, if a child is at home, can you provide some extra books for them? Well, I can give them maybe a little thing I'll record, it's a kind of a hybrid learning, a little bit of... blended learning, what's that? Well, you add a little bit of that, and at the end of the day you get a lovely smoothie of learning.
Principals, leaders, school leaders came together to redesign, refocus, re-envision, and there was this huge acceleration on an incredible global level where people were catapulted, whether they liked it or not, into an environment where everything changed.
And now with AI, there is such a pathway forward, but not as difficult as they think.
Tim: EdTech without pedagogical practice and [00:07:00] without training can face resistance and rightly so from educators and stakeholders. Definitely we saw a complete redirection and refocus of schools and teachers towards the online learning sphere. But what about now? Where are we positioned in terms of the balance of in-class hybrid and remote learning?
Daithí: Now we're in a world where, funnily enough, Tim, I have to say this.
In schools right now, it's as if COVID never happened, and in society, it's as if it never happened. And people don't want to talk about this. And it's as if we want to forget about all the way we've gone forward. We even have situations where certain countries around Europe and the world are banning the use of certain technologies.
Take away the technologies from the children. That which saved them, which allowed them to engage, enable and empower learning and teaching through COVID is now we don't use that anymore in the school. Get rid of mobile phone connectivity. Get rid of tablets and now it seems as if we're going back.
We're in that area of emerging [00:08:00] technologies of continuous evolution of technologies. Which again, we need to embrace, to enhance teaching and learning. And I'll give you one good reason Tim Lavery why we should do that, because those children are hashtag next generation EU, hashtag next generation global, and they're going to pay your darn pension.
Tim: It's interesting to hear your perspective on how, in some cases we seem to be stepping back from the technological advancement that were crucial during the pandemic. As we consider the importance of these evolving technologies, can you highlight some specific EdTech solutions that you believe have already demonstrated their potential to enhance education? And perhaps share your thoughts on how these technologies can ensure a brighter future for the next generation of learners, who you aptly described as the next generation EU and next generation global?
Daithí: If you're differently abled today, Tim, in education, 50 years ago you were thrown to the side and you [00:09:00] were just, look, life will do what it does. We're now at a stage where assistive technologies can actually change the life of any child in school, and indeed any educator, who would otherwise have been considered to be, in the past they were called disabled. I prefer to call them differently abled. So assistive technologies, and there are a million different types of assistive technologies out there.
Whether its voice activated, AI driven technologies, whether it's the practical hardware of these technologies. So, they're the first ones I'd look at.
Number two, without a doubt, we're at the worst iteration of artificial intelligence. People go, we've now got chat GPT 4 V, which is billions of permutations and combinations per second. This is allowing, empowering people to now use artificial intelligence. And I'm not even going to go to the AI, which is... [00:10:00] Luke Skywalker, I am your father and I'm from the dark side as opposed to Luke going, hello daddy I'm here with a lightsabre and I'm here for the light and you know we go over there to the light because the force be with you, and that's how AI is looked upon right now, the reality is we choose but if we choose in a responsible ethical way to use AI in education and edtech then the sky is the limit. AI, and everything it brings with it, is the second thing.
And the third thing, those platforms that help us whether it's coding or robotics, indeed, a colleague of mine, Marco Neves, in Portugal, from Interact Ideas, we led teams in Europe to design DigiUpskills, which are allowing all European citizens and others to go and up skill themselves in technology .
Platforms for meaningful, mindful, conscious teaching and learning in a responsible, ethical way. And there is a [00:11:00] million platforms out there, so I'm not going to even say this one, that one, this one.
Tim: Definitely the importance of embracing these evolving technologies cannot be overstated. Daithí, given your expertise in working on European- wide education and technology projects, could you share your insights and let's just pick a few EdTech projects you're currently working on and how they're contributing to the advancement of education and learning.
Daithí: AI4EDU, ASTRONOMINE, Learning from the Extremes and SYNAPSES are just four of the many European projects we're in right now.
AI4EDU is a European consortium of universities, research centres, designers, education centres in our particular case, Drumcondra Education Centre here in Dublin, whereby we are looking to provide an ethical chatbot language assistant.
Which by the way we've named Chomsky. [00:12:00] After the famous Naom Chomsky. Where schools, teachers, students and parents can go in a secure, ethically passed environment. And University of Luleå in Sweden have already had this passed by their ethics board.
So, we've designed this chatbot assistant and into that we have for example, the data sets of the biology program, all over Europe, and that which is to do with sustainability citizenship. By putting in the data sets of all the books and the curricula, students and teachers are able to go in there and ask the right questions, which is what it's all about in, in AI and get the correct answers that will empower them step by step and scaffold their learning. So, it brings them on stage by stage.
In summary, Chomsky is a language assistant chatbot, which has a nanny algorithm running around the main OpenAI to ensure that what you're getting is not the negative, the fake news, the false information, the [00:13:00] rubbish sometimes that you do get from OpenAI, which is not cited, or correct, or which has not been checked.
It takes care of that in a responsible, ethical way. And gives you the option of connecting initially with the various curricula around the world in a safe environment. And it's the beginning.
We're all coming together to do this and we're doing it with teachers, with schools, as partners, as co designers. When it comes to... Astronomine we've decided to actually work with game-based learning to bring in an awareness to astronomy in primary schools and education.
Because astronomy, to infinity and beyond, said Buzz Lightyear. We're talking here about bringing an awareness to astronomy because many people think as our astronomy is like for the older people who go to university become astronomers.
Well astronomy is about creativity, it's about art, it's about [00:14:00] understanding, it's about exploration, it's about opening our minds. So we are developing again, in Drumcondra Education Centre, exemplar lessons with Minecraft worlds to build on these lessons, to give children the opportunity and teachers to co-design and re-design their own Minecraft worlds with expert astronomers in the consortium, universities, research centres, game designers and ourselves, all again, inspired by the children who have chosen the topics.
We also have projects running in Dublin West Education Centre called Learning from the Extremes, where we're utilising AI and technologies in rural environments all over Europe to enhance rural schools capacity to bridge the divide, to connect, to utilise assistive technologies, the AI technologies, and the industry 4 robotics gadgets technologies, in [00:15:00] tiny schools, that allowed them to access the big world.
Learning from the Extremes has done that through Dublin West Education Centre. And the last one there is SYNAPSES. SYNAPSES is teachers' academies and that again is allowing us to utilize AI to create teacher academies to upskill, to encourage, to look at the competences and give the necessary e-credentials to teachers.
All we are as educators, are co-creators of learning environments. And our role is to inspire, encourage, engage, enable, empower meaningful, mindful, and soulful 21st century teaching and learning.
That's what we do each day and that's the challenge.
Tim: It certainly is Daithí, and it is [00:16:00] important to remember that EdTech, isn't just about the gadgets and gizmos. It's about the technology, delivering meaningful transformative experiences in education. Up next, I catch up with Sophie Cacouault from the French startup, BEEGUP.
Sophie Cacouault is the co-founder of the French EdTech, BEEGUP. A unique language practice platform that connects second level students with teachers and peers from other countries to improve their oral language skills in English, French, Spanish, and German. The platform allows teachers to create virtual language classes, which can connect with teachers and classes anywhere in the world, building a digital pen pal network.
Welcome to Exploring EdTech Sophie. It's very exciting to have an educator and founder with us today. Can you tell us how you and your co-founder came up with the idea for BEEGUP.
Sophie: Yes, it was during the COVID experience, and we were all locked down and it was very complicated for our pupils to see our children, to see them [00:17:00] working in a digital way, and there was no such digital tool for foreign languages.
So, with my associate Sophie Marieux, we thought that it would be very interesting to find a way to create a digital resource for practicing foreign languages for secondary school students. And implement a way for them to practice oral and comprehension skills and progress more rapidly. So, the idea came from experience when I was a teenager. The best way to progress in foreign languages is to speak with pen pals, or to get in touch with pen pals. So, we just decided to digitalize the old school system.
Tim: And your colleague Sophie, did not speak a second language at this time.
Sophie: Sophie doesn't speak any other languages; she just speaks French. [00:18:00] She was learning Spanish and English. So, it was also motivation for us to create BEEGUP.
Tim: How difficult was it to start from scratch with this concept of building a digital pen pal platform, as a non-technical founder?
Sophie: We contacted the French Ministry of Education, and they were working on different propositions for foreign languages. Because in France, one out of four of the high school graduates do not reach a B1 or B2 level which is really a bad score. We had to get the didactical and pedagogical approach approved. So, we had a Neuroscientists Committee who works with us and a Teachers Committee to work with us to conceptualize the idea and the French Ministry of Education validates this approach. So, it was one of the first steps for BEEGUP.
And after we start to work with the French Ministry of Education to [00:19:00] develop the platform and all the tools and all the functions, and then we worked with the Youth Committee, composed of students, and the Teachers Committee, for example, for teachers, it was very important to get a platform that is very easy and simple to use.
They have so many sources to work with, that, we sought BEEGUP as an all-in platform, contents, placement test, community, and conversational tools. That was the very important functions for BEEGUP.
Tim: It is very interesting to see, Sophie, that BEEGUP developed with student and teacher led involvement from the very beginning. What were the key needs identified by these groups?
Sophie: Before developing anything. We did a lot of work with them. What do you expect for teachers? What do you expect from BEEGUP? What do you want to do with the platform and for student? What did you do you expect from the platform and [00:20:00] what do you want to do with it?
So that's why, for example, we are available on desktop, mobile, and tablets. Mobile was very important for the students because, and every student. doesn't have a desktop at home, personal one. So, it was very important for them to get access to BEEGUP by mobile. For teachers, for example, it was really important to get, uh, the possibility to create virtual classrooms, have relevant contents to work with students with, contents that could be subject of conversations for the students.
Also, it was important to monitor. The progress of the students, so that's why we integrate placement tests and also the most important thing was easy to get in touch and very secured platform to get in touch with the community of the foreign language teachers all around the world. And also, for the students, a very safe environment to exchange [00:21:00] with pen pals.
We didn't use an open source or a partner for that. So, it's a very safe environment.
Tim: The BEEGUP platform is live and gaining support among language teachers across France, Spain, Germany, UK and Ireland. A very important part of the platform is the international press review section, which is provided by AFP.
We are joined by Bahia Fahmi, a member of the BEEGUP youth committee who has worked on the development of BEEGUP from the very beginning. Bahia, can you fill us in on how the news section adds value to the student experience of the platform?
Bahia: So basically the thing is that as a member of the youth committee, I approach BEEGUP in a way that I hoped and I wished that in high school I could have had something like that to practice foreign languages and to learn foreign languages and not only a platform where you can exchange with people from abroad, but also platforms that allows everyone to have the same equality in this area.
Trying to build a platform that was really going to be [00:22:00] interesting for people in high school. We decided to work with the French Press Agency because when you go on the platform you have text, you have Press articles, you have videos, you have press review from all over the world that are not some old news that you probably have already seen in class with your professor. They are up to date articles that are about what's happening right now in the world. So not only it keeps you aware of what's happening in the world while also practicing, but it also allows you to create a discussion with your pen pal because you For example, if you were working with someone that lives in Madrid or Barcelona, and you read an article about Madrid or Barcelona in Spanish, then you can talk about it.
And you have this connection that goes beyond just a pen pal system with assigned homework from a professor. Like you can really learn about the culture of your pen pal. And you can really learn about what's happening [00:23:00] in the world while practicing your language.
Sophie: That's why teachers were very happy about the proposal of the students. And it was a way also to be in immersion in the language you're studying.
Tim: Sophie, what kind of response is BEEGUP getting among teachers regarding the engagement of students on the platform?
Sophie: We had feedback from the teachers, and they were really happy about this platform, because it was not easy for them to get in touch with pen pals, and it was easy to start a conversation, and they had no fear to do it, because they are the same age. We have the same age. I'm going to make mistakes, but, uh, he's going also to make mistakes because, uh, I'm learning French, he's learning English, I'm English native speaker, he's a native French speaker, we are the same level.
Tim: Bahia, BEEGUP is unlike most other language learning platforms, it doesn't follow a curriculum or offer courses, but am I right in thinking that it [00:24:00] manages to raise the level of self-motivated learning among students?
Bahia: The platform, it also allows for a form of independence for the students so that they can feel free, and they can feel safe to go and find other pen pals that they might have common interest with.
So that's what's really different with BEEGUP is that students can go further than just what's assigned by their teacher. And it's not something like they can read press review from the world, and they can find other pen pals and they can really experiment in it. Complete safe environment.
Tim: Thanks, Bahia.
Are there any new features or developments coming to BEEGUP in the near future, Sophie?
Sophie: Yeah, the future one, we are getting partnerships. It's more for the teacher. We are getting partnership with editors. So, you will have, for example, the French eBook plus BEEGUP. This summer, some developments. Students were not able to record themselves to send any recording to their teachers. So now [00:25:00] they can do it. And I think the next step of development would be an assistant during the conversation.
Tim: I will be watching out for these. The partnerships with educational eBook publishers are certainly a great way to extend your presence in schools. Finally, Sophie, before we wrap up, as you know, I have a very great interest in EdTech start-ups and I would love to hear what advice would you give as a founder, and particularly as a female co-founder in the EdTech space, to aspiring EdTech start-ups looking to make a meaningful impact in education.
Sophie: Yes, uh, to be patient, which be the, the first one, uh, and after, I think what is the most important, important, uh, to get your beta test very early, uh, because it makes you gain a lot of time. You have to be very close to your users because you're going faster. [00:26:00] It's very important because sometimes you think it can be something that can be interesting, and it will not. And some other functions that you thought not very relevant would be. And you really learn when you have the possibility to put in the hands of the users, your head tech, your solution, your resource. To find support from an educational institution.
This is really important. That could be a university or professor. For example, we were part of the CY EdTech Labs sessions. That helps us very much. They are internationally connected with a lot of universities, and they have teachers, researchers, and it's very interesting to exchange with them.
Tim: Thank you, Sophie and Bahia, for sharing the incredible story of BEEGUP with us.
We've learned about how your platform is not only addressing the challenges of language learning, but also fostering global connections among K 12 school students and teachers.
Sophie and Bahia: Thank you very much for your time Tim.