Jan Buytaert is chief information officer at GO!, the public body for state schools in the Flanders region of Belgium. His role is to initiate new IT projects and prove their value to the business, with the hope that business decision makers and policymakers give them the green light. The projects can have huge implications for education in Belgium, as the region has around 750 schools and institutions, and 210,000 students.
“There wasn’t always a lot of digital innovation so I had to work hard trying to convince management and policymakers that we should invest in tech and digital education, and change the way of teaching and learning,” Buytaert tells NS Tech.
In 2016, Buytaert and his team analysed the way teaching was carried out in several schools, working alongside teachers, students and principals.
“We were looking at ways new tools could support new ways of teaching, and we made a proof of concept which was successful in 20 schools,” he explains.
GO! wanted to also work on a project around artificial intelligence (AI), but this was rejected as it did not have any funding to do so. It put out a tender to find a partner to get the proof of concept scaled up. This was published in 2018, and two vendors – British start-up Century Tech and a local company from Flanders put themselves forward to be the partner.
“The local company didn’t introduce AI, but Century Tech really presented our dreams – we were ready to wait five years but they said why do this when you can have it now,” Buytaert states.
By fusing Century Tech’s AI capabilities with GO!’s initial platform, teachers will be able to better understand how well students are learning from the materials they have at hand, and they can therefore provide a more personalised approach to each student. For example, the AI will be able to pick up areas the students have not fully understood, how they feel about different types of work, and how long it takes them to store information in their long-term memory.
“Without AI, teachers wouldn’t be able to do this as it would be very time-consuming. Now, they can focus on advising and coaching the student,” Buytaert explains.
In addition, he believes that after a few years, by aggregating all of the data, policymakers and principals will be able to make better decisions on how they organise the schools, curriculum, and how they recruit the right teachers.
The aim is to put the technology in 25 per cent of Flanders’ schools by the end of 2020 and to get 75 per cent of the region’s schools using Century Tech in four to five years.
For Buytaert, this is less of a “customer-vendor” deal – he sees it as a partnership as they’ve combined their tools together into one platform, while Century Tech has asked GO! to participate in conversations around their future roadmap, ensuring they can work together to enrich the platform further. There has also been early conversations about incorporating blockchain technology into the platform, but Buytaert didn’t explain how.
Century Tech was founded four years ago and has spent $7m developing its platform. A number of UK schools, including Beacon Hill Academy in Birmingham, are using the technology.