Smart Education

5 min

Smart Education: catching up with the digital revolution

Imec’s newest research program, Smart Education, will unlock the full potential of educational technology (EdTech).

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The emergence of chip and digital technology has changed our daily lives. Our communication has become faster, our healthcare more personalized and efficient, and our jobs more flexible: we can work (together) anywhere and at any time. But technology also offers new opportunities in education, e.g. by integrating educational games, language apps, interactive learning platforms, etc. However, to unlock the full potential of educational technology (EdTech), cooperation between teachers, researchers and the EdTech industry is essential. Imec’s newest research program, Smart Education, provides the framework to make this happen. The central question that imec researchers will answer in the next five years is: how can we use of the latest technological developments to make education more efficient, interactive and personalized?

Education tailored to the modern student

Differentiation has become a key concept in education: offering all learners the exact same content at the same time is a thing of the past. Technology offers us the tools to provide more efficient, personalized training. Thus, with its Smart Education program imec wants to contribute to education that caters to the needs of the so-called digital natives, both at school and in the workplace. The aim is to use educational technology to stimulate interactive and collaborative learning and to enable customized learning solutions.

The project focuses on four key components:

  • Research on individual learning behavior, which should lead to the creation of tailor-made learning solutions enabling learners to acquire knowledge in an optimal, personalized way.
  • The development of smart education technologies – from sensors that capture neurological data, to data analysis software and visualization and gamification technology.
  • Living Lab research featuring real users in authentic learning environments – enabling new educational technologies to be extensively tested and fine-tuned.
  • Socio-economic valorization – not only by implementing smart education technology and know-how in Flemish schools and training centers, but also by exporting the technology. 

The aim is not to develop one specific solution, but a series of components (sensors, algorithms, learning insights, etc.) that industrial partners can then use to design and market concrete tools. These partners can either be established players or EdTech start-ups (supported through the imec.istart program).

Interactive and collaborative learning

On April 18, KU Leuven launched the Edulab test environment on its campus in Kortrijk (KULAK). This interactive test environment is the result of a collaboration between Imec – ITEC - KU Leuven and two industry partners, i.e. Televic (multimedia and e-learning solutions) and Barco (display systems). KU Leuven’s KULAK campus functions as a unique living lab in which educational technologies can be tested on a large scale.

The Edulab test environment focuses on interactive and collaborative learning and is therefore an important driver for the Smart Education story. For example, in the Edulab students can share their screen with their peers and/or teacher during practice sessions or group work. This way they can give each other specific feedback, ask more focused questions, and work together more efficiently. There is also an interactive learning platform which includes an app to make lectures more interactive. For instance, lecturers can create a poll or quiz that students can answer on their smartphones during class. The results are visible right away, so lecturers can adapt their approach to the answers given by the students. Because students often find it difficult to ask questions in big lecture halls, the app also offers the opportunity to ask anonymous questions (‘silent questions’) via their smartphones. They can also 'like' each other's questions to indicate that several students struggle with the same issue. In this way, lecturers get real-time feedback from their students, even when teaching large groups.

In addition, the Edulab provides opportunities for distance learning, both in the form of remote classrooms (in which a second group of students in another classroom – or even another country – can become actively involved) and virtual classrooms (in which multiple individuals attend the same lesson from different locations). Due to the growing number of working students and international students, flexible education will become increasingly important in the future. Therefore, it is essential to make distance learning more efficient and interactive.

Adaptive learning: the next step in e-learning

Another focal point of the Smart Education project is adaptive learning. Blended learning, which is a combination of face-to-face learning and e-learning, is already an established method in many professional training courses, including imec.academy. But today learners usually still receive the same input, with only limited possibilities for differentiation. One of the objectives of the Smart Education program is to develop the supporting technology for advanced e-learning platforms that enable adaptive learning; i.e. e-learning in which content is automatically adjusted to the individual student’s needs and interests. During the e-learning session, students will be asked a number of questions to evaluate how they are coping with the material provided. This score will then be used to determine whether more basic or more advanced learning input is required. In this way, each individual can learn at his/her own pace.

This kind of platform is also interesting from a teacher’s point of view. Teachers can track their students’ progress in real time and can use this data to optimize their e-learning content. For instance, they can see when students pause or rewind an e-learning video: where do they lose interest? What do they find difficult? This data offers unique insight into the learning process and enables teachers to continuously monitor and enhance the quality of e-learning materials.

Tracking individual learning trajectories also offers possibilities for professional training. Companies spend a lot of money on training employees, but often have no idea how effective these courses really are. By collecting real-time feedback during the learning process, the return on investment is immediately visible and measurable, without the need for tests or exams.

Inside the learner’s head

Another way to analyze individual learning behavior is through sensors that measure learners’ attention spans and stress levels. Imec already has the basic technology to do this. One potential project is to equip a mobile learning environment (i.e. a bus) with sensors that track students’ attention and stress levels in real time. This way, we can truly get inside learners’ heads. When do they become distracted? What can a teacher do to regain their attention? What creates stress? These insights can be then translated into concrete recommendations for schools and teachers.

Within Flanders: creating a unique ecosystem for collaboration

One of the strengths of the Smart Education program is that it is a collaborative effort. The project is supported by the Flemish government and brings together researchers from across imec (including research groups at KU Leuven, Ghent University and VUB), schools, teachers and the EdTech industry. Imec functions as the binding agent that makes this unique ecosystem work. Hans De Canck (imec HR Business Partner): “We are the hub in which all elements are brought together. As a result, we can work on various levels and relate them to each other. For example, we do not only do strategic basic research, but we also validate the results in a real-life setting. We also communicate feedback from the industry to the researchers. This way we can strengthen and accelerate the loop between basic research on the one hand and the actual implementation of EdTech in schools on the other hand.”

Implementing new EdTech developments in Flemish education is one of the key aims of the Smart Education project. Therefore, close collaboration with the educational field is essential. As of September, schools can participate in imec.icon projects for the first time. This means that budget has been made available to set up research and living lab projects in schools, making it easier for teachers to experiment with technology.

To further lower the threshold for teachers to use these newly developed EdTech tools, guidelines and recommendations on how to integrate them in the classroom will be formulated. Moreover, within the Smart Education program, short-term collaborative projects will be set up that should lead to fast and visible improvements in the educational field.

Preview: imec.academy

Of course, the results and findings of the Smart Education project will also be implemented within imec itself. Imec.academy already offers a wide variety of professional training courses on nanoelectronics and digital technology. These courses also attract international students and are offered abroad, but as the number of specialized teachers is limited, so is the number of courses that can be offered. Lisbeth Decneut: ““If we only offer offline courses that require teachers to travel to other locations, then we cannot adequately disseminate our expertise internationally. By using smart educational technology and by expanding our current blended learning modules, we can develop efficient and customized learning solutions that enable us to spread our knowledge internationally.”

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