DFID Director-General for Policy, Research and Humanitarian Richard Clarke at EdTechX Europe 2019. Photo by: @DFID_Education

LONDON — The U.K. Department for International Development announced the launch of an EdTech Hub on Tuesday, bringing together 11 global education researchers and experts from around the world to figure out how to harness the potential of education technology to improve learning outcomes in low-income countries.

DFID is putting £20 million ($25 million) into the eight-year project in partnership with the World Bank, which is contributing technical support and staff time.

“Technology use has to be adapted to the cultural context and one-size-fits-all solutions simply don’t work.”

— Sara Hennessy, reader, University of Cambridge Faculty of Education

The hub was launched at the EdTechXEurope summit in London, United Kingdom, this week, in a bid to find “innovative ways to address the global learning crisis through education technology,” according to a press release.

More than 380 million children worldwide are expected to finish primary school without being able to read or do basic math. Hundreds of millions more are out of school entirely, according to UNESCO.

Digital technologies and artificial intelligence were once seen as the answer to these enduring education challenges, particularly for marginalized children and those living in poverty. But ed tech experiments have so far failed to deliver, and some experts have warned that they risk exacerbating education inequalities in low-income countries.

A key failing is that interventions have tended to focus on hardware — most infamously the “One Laptop Per Child” program — at the expense of issues such as adapting technology to local contexts, usability, and sustainability. Most research on ed tech has also been gleaned from high-income countries.

The EdTech Hub seeks to redress this by doing more research into which solutions are working in low-income settings and why, and how these lessons can be replicated and scaled.

“Educational technology can transform how children learn, but in many developing countries it is often only available in the wrong language or schools do not have the right tools to keep their software in working order,” Harriett Baldwin, DFID’s minister for Africa, said in a press release.

For the first time, the hub will offer teachers and governments a “substantial amount of practical research” to draw from when choosing the “right technology for their classrooms,” Baldwin added.

It will carry out research to develop new digital tools to improve learning, test, and tailor technologies in classrooms, and offer technical assistance to governments on how to integrate the tools.

Partners in the project include the University of Cambridge, which will lead the research work, and British technology company Brink, which will work with governments and educators to scale promising technologies.

“Technology use has to be adapted to the cultural context and one-size-fits-all solutions simply don’t work. Rather than hoping for the best, we have to carefully review and iterate, generating insights from rigorous research and applying them in practice,” said Sara Hennessy, from the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.

However, some education experts expressed doubts. Susannah Hares, who co-leads the Center for Global Development’s education work, said she hoped the hub’s research would extend beyond pilots and apps.

“The big challenge is to generate evidence on whether ed tech can be effectively integrated into large, capacity-constrained public education systems. This isn't a software problem that a new app can solve: It's about how to get complex systems to procure and contract tech suppliers effectively, and to monitor their performance in terms of outcomes for children,” Hares said.

“Politics and people will be as important as products, and I hope that the research conducted by the new hub starts to fill some of those gaps,” she added.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.