APIs are bringing a new face to EdTech

Education, APIs, and the Changing Face of EdTech

APIs are bringing a new face to EdTechEducation is a space that many would argue is in dire need of disruption. With the average college degree in the USA costing tens of thousands of dollars per year, the ivory tower of academia is one that’s only available to those who are lucky enough to get a scholarship, willing to take on plenty of personal debt or have very prepared (and generous) parents. At any rate, it’s one that’s still completely out of reach for the vast majority of young people in poorer countries.

Even in countries where education is accessible, campuses are often plagued by inefficiency and a lack of defined standards that mean it can be very difficult for institutions to interface properly. That goes for everything from transferring college credits between a community college and a University to researchers collaborating on similar projects in different places.

As online education becomes more common, we’re starting to see a paradigm shift with APIs playing a key role in EdTech. Of course there’s increased accessibility and affordability for those who may not otherwise get the chance to partake, but there are also plenty of other ways in which APIs are streamlining the process of education itself, both within the context of academic organizations like schools and universities as well as in the act of research and beyond.

APIs and Accessibility

Online, programmable universities decrease the bar of entry.

Online, programmable universities decrease the bar of entry.

It’s difficult to talk about the accessibility of education without thinking of Khan Academy, the non-profit founded by Sal Khan to create “free, world-class education for everyone, anywhere.”

As you’d probably expect, Khan Academy has an API that provides programmatic access to thousands of videos, enabling developers to incorporate everything from finance to modern art instruction within their apps. There are a few useful tools out there that make use of the API, like mind maps and playlists, but unfortunately there’s nothing quite as special as Khan Academy itself … at least not that we could find anyway.

Still, the point remains that Khan Academy’s API suggests extraordinary potential for EdTech reform. As Sasha Kamenetska writes for Mashery:

This means others can take the library of content that Khan Academy has built up and include it in their site, app, etc. Perhaps someone will have a better idea of how to test student knowledge. Or maybe someone else can create a better gamification … of the exercises that Khan Academy currently has. Either way, the possibilities are greater because these resources are open through an API.

Khan Academy is one of the first educational bodies to expose so much of their course material via API but, since Khan Academy is totally free, they have nothing to lose by doing so. Unfortunately, profit-driven universities and colleges may not be quite so quick to embrace easy access to their teachings…

That said, there are some out there defying the odds. The University of British Columbia’s powerful Open Collection Library grants access to almost 200,000 videos, newspapers, theses, and photos. Education may be seen as a notoriously closed space, but institutions keen to open things up like UBC are slowly changing that fact.

Banks are another monolith also undergoing reform through open data and open APIs. Read our last post on the PSD2 banking initiative

APIs and Academic Research

Standardizing academic data accessibility could empower research scientists.

Standardizing academic data accessibility could empower research scientists.

Accessibility isn’t the only way in which APIs are disrupting education. Even within the confines of the typical academic institution, APIs are improving efficiency and collaboration.

Last year IBM showcased a few interesting EdTech APIs, one of which is called Mendeley. While the app itself is used primarily as a reference management system, the API can be used in the creation of apps that do everything from providing programmatic access to a warehouse of data repositories to aggregating mentions of scholarly articles from different sources. In short, it’s a hugely valuable tool for scientists, researchers, information technologists and anyone else in academia looking to make good use of open data.

This is a far cry from the days when the results of experiments were kept in large physical files in a dank university basement, and instead speaks to a wider culture of knowledge sharing. That shouldn’t be surprising, since it could be argued that such a culture is central to college education as we know it: the foundations of the Internet in its earliest form came in the shape of MIT students working with folks in California to get their computers to “talk” to each other over a dial up telephone connection.

It’s easy to see how APIs could be useful in pushing and pulling data relating to outsourced experiments — the emergence of Science as a Service in the Biotech sphere has proven this works. It’s also worth noting that the potential to make extra cash by running experiments in otherwise unused laboratories is one that’s bound to be very appealing to both Universities, who are always eager to raise extra funding, and cash-stricken grad students alike.

Explore the Cloud Laboratory: Advances in Biotech & Science-as-a-Service

APIs and Academic Connectedness

In academic institutions, the technology used is often outdated and clunky. It wasn’t all that long ago that most college students had to connect to their dorm room Internet using Ethernet cables and could only log into certain databases using on-campus computers.

This isn’t because the schools in question weren’t capable of providing remote database access or WiFi over such a large space – office buildings do it all the time – or because they couldn’t afford it, but simply because so much time and effort had already been spent on setting up the preceding infrastructure that upgrading wasn’t seen as being “worth it.”


Open infrastructure for online course catalogues

The problem with this attitude is that it encourages using outdated methods behind the guise of cost-effectiveness but, in reality, it accomplishes neither. Fortunately, there are API projects out there designed to bring necessary applications and programs together in a more streamlined way. For example, Google Classroom and Canvas are two Learning Management Systems (LMS) that have been widely adopted, the latter of which is already operating on a statewide level in North Carolina.

Both of these services allow students – and teachers/lecturers – to access everything they need to via the cloud, without installing lots of extra software or logging on from a particular location.

The obvious advantage of using services like these is that the maintenance and addition of newer products no longer falls with the academic institution, but with a third party such as Google or Canvas. “Infrastructure as a Service” certainly involves relinquishing an element of control but has clear advantages in that it eliminates the need for teachers, lecturers, professors, department heads, and so on to make IT-related decisions that they may not feel qualified to do so.

APIs In Education

Here’s something from Jay Manciocchi, writing for Mashery, that we mentioned in a previous piece on APIs and healthcare:

Modern APIs also offer the standardization of data. Each field must use consistent units and terminology, which can be challenging, given the information found in most healthcare records…Clinical decision support, public health, and research depend on quantifiable data, which APIs lead to.

Though Manciocchi is actually referring to the usefulness of healthcare APIs in this quote, there are many parallels with the education space. While standardizing all data is not likely possible for the arts – there are plenty of applications in the sciences. Using APIs to push and pull standardized information and experiment results provides the most up to date information available for further research, allowing more rapid progress.

Opening the power of academic research to the public is the ongoing goal of Seattle-based Algorithmia. There are also smartphone apps crowdsourcing large amounts of research tasks to both beat cancer and stop malaria. These use input from the public in the hope of crowdsourcing cures for disease; making the jump to the next level and introducing scientists and students is a little trickier – who gets the credit for discoveries, and where does the funding come from? Nevertheless, the potential is certainly there.

The Future of APIs in Education

The world of education and academia is a strange one to those located outside it – things seem to move slowly, technical processes are less smooth than they could be, and a staunchly tenured bureaucracy impedes momentum.

The online and physical college education experience could be made more efficient. Any lecturer who’s ever had to present to a 300 capacity hall containing 6 students, or research associate who’s had to write a 4,000 word outline for a 15,000 word dissertation, or student who’s ever found that all six of their lecturers have their office hours during the same two hour window on Wednesdays will tell you that there are plenty of improvements to be made.

But how can APIs help to shape the future of ed-tech? If you’ll excuse the cliché, the possibilities are endless. We’ve already seen the ways in which APIs foster collaboration and open things up. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine a future in which truly digital colleges/universities exist. In fact, there are already examples of early versions around, like the UK’s distance learning Open University, which shares its course materials with 2/3 of UK Universities.


Forecasting into the future of EdTech

Plus, let’s not forget that the role of APIs in EdTech is also something that the government is directly involved with: the wide range of educational datasets that exist mean that it’s possible to create apps/websites that filter universities by everything from cost of tuition to the number of degrees conferred based on race or gender.

Better integration of APIs could allow students to pick and choose their own modules, learn the relevant material using standardized apps, and take tests composed of different elements that “snap together” to create truly bespoke degrees. This idea already has a certain amount of traction, particularly in some alternative universities, in that students are often able to select different modules from within the umbrella of a single degree.

Obviously, we aren’t there yet. Moreover, it’s difficult to imagine that traditional colleges and universities will be happy with such radical changes to the status quo. Maybe there’s a future in which they become hubs for education and knowledge without the need for in-person lectures and seminars. A bold dream, certainly, but one that many lecturers and students would surely find more rewarding than the flawed system that’s currently in place.