How to get education technology right

Students use laptops at the library of the Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco. The demand for education technology is greater than ever, but how can one tell which existing and emerging edutech innovations are the wisest investments? Photo by: Arne Hoel / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Technology and education are colliding like never before, and educators and policymakers are struggling to make sense of what it all means for the future of learning.

Increasingly, donors recognize education technology — or “edutech” — is an important tool for promoting quality education, and governments are asking for more and more donor support to help them adopt technology that leads to better learning.

Devex spoke with several key edutech donors who revealed that the demand for education technology is greater than ever, while policymakers and educators often find themselves overwhelmed by the number of edutech innovations available, and unsure how to identify the wisest investments.

High demand and high confusion

The demand for — and “confusion about” — education technology is greater than ever, Michael Trucano, the World Bank’s senior education and technology policy specialist and global lead for innovation in education, told Devex.

The United States, China and Europe witnessed an “explosion in investments,” but now that consumer growth has leveled off, investors see middle and low income countries as edutech’s “great emerging market,” Trucano said.

As computers and mobile devices proliferate, more and more private sector companies are approaching education ministries with the next influential gadget or technology-assisted program.

With so many innovations out there, “people aren’t sure what to do,” Trucano said.

The diversity of approaches is impressive. Math teachers like Julio Rios Gallego in Colombia are taking their lessons to YouTube, while in India, innovators are working to tackle low literacy rates by adding same language subtitling to Bollywood music videos — “karaoke on television for mass literacy,” according to Brij Kothari, president of the nonprofit PlanetRead.

Some education professionals say the promise of edutech is its ability to make classrooms virtual and allow for greater personalized learning. Online platforms like Knewton allow students to learn online at their own pace, individually interact with the subject matter and receive detailed explanations of their mistakes and errors. Programs like these can provide teachers detailed information about how each of their students learns best and where they fall in relation to their peers.

“[Personalized learning] is a direction I think that the industry is convinced that we’re all going to go,” Trucano said.

But the World Bank official added that online personalized learning is still fairly new to teachers, and many are not used to getting detailed data on every student and then incorporating that information into lesson plans. One result is that the data goes unused and ignored, Trucano explained.

The edutech sector has seen expectations outpace outcomes before. Five years ago, education technology professionals focused on getting tech — computers, tablets, phones —  to parts of the world that lacked it. Education technology was driven by the hardware — the technology itself — without adequate consideration for the content housed within the technology and what would or would not catch on in certain contexts, Christopher Fabian, co-founder and co-lead of UNICEF’s innovation unit told Devex.

One Laptop per Child, a nonprofit founded in 2005 to distribute laptops to children in developing countries, has been widely criticized as a U.S.-driven effort that failed to take into consideration country context, to provide adequate training for teachers, and to demonstrate significant results on learning.

Now, Fabian said, there is a growing recognition that policy makers and development professionals cannot just dump hardware into communities. Instead, there has to be a greater focus on prototypes, models and measurement.

Donor roles amid rapid growth

Despite a confusing abundance of new edutech initiatives, policymakers are working to create environments that are receptive to new technology — even if they might not know which technology to adopt or how to adopt it.

In Kenya for example, ministers have pledged to connect every school to electricity “in preparation for deployment of ICT.” By the end of 2016, 1 million Kenyan students will have “technology gadgets that will help them begin the process of digital learning,” according William Ruto, deputy president of Kenya and former minister for higher education, who spoke at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March.

It can be difficult to pinpoint precisely how big the education technology sector is or how much any single donor is currently contributing, since general education and “edutech” investments often overlap. But what is clear, according to Trucano, is that demand for donor support is on the rise.

Donors, through their investments, have a role to play in alleviating at least some of the confusion around education technology by addressing this demand and helping to bring to scale initiatives that have potential and warn against distracting gimmicks. Donors can separate “the hope from the hype,” Trucano said.

Some ministries of education will adopt technology without first considering its content, and what is practical or realistic to implement, explained Anthony Bloome, senior education technology specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Donors can help policymakers answer some basic questions before they choose to adopt new gadgets, Bloome said. For instance, donors can help policy makers clarify their objectives, what content and technology they already have in place, and how the impacts of new technology could be measured.

Education donors have so far been hesitant to invest in education technology initiatives because of a perceived lack of evidence as to what works and why. “The evidence that does exist is mixed and nuanced and from developed country experiences,” according to Trucano.

There is no one recipe for effective edutech, acknowledged Cristina Pombo, senior specialist in the Office of External Relations at the Inter-American Development Bank.

In recent years however, a number of donor-driven programs have emerged — many of them at the behest of partner governments.

In 2011, USAID, World Vision and the Australian government launched a $25 million initiative called All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development — a science and technology competition designed to improve literacy in developing countries.

In 2013, UNICEF launched its Child Friendly Technology Framework to guide organizations and entrepreneurs in the creation of an education project with a technology component. And in that same year, the International Finance Corporation — the arm of the World Bank focused on private sector development — invested $5 million in Coursera, a free platform for online classes, as part of an effort to expand free online education in emerging markets.

The Inter-American Development Bank, with support from the Korean government, launched the initiative Graduate XXI, designed to scout out high potential edutech entrepreneurs throughout Latin America and create a “map of educational innovations” that can be used by policymakers and governments in the region. IDB is also investing in a widespread broadband initiative to improve internet connectivity, which includes a $50 million loan to Nicaragua.

The World Bank is supporting three pilots with the Foundation for Learning Equality, an NGO working to bring Khan Academy content to offline environments, Trucano said.

USAID, the World Bank, IADB, UNICEF and 15 other partners have come together to create Mobiles for Education Alliance — a group of foundations, multilateral and bilateral organizations committed to pursuing low-cost mobile technologies to improve learning. And to date, UNICEF has raised $9 million for open source technologies for children through its innovation fund.

The future of edutech

In the coming years, education technology is going to become increasingly fundamental to how development professionals think about global education as a whole, according to Trucano of the World Bank and Bloome of USAID.

“[Education technology] will just be part and parcel of the education program instead of being seen as ‘in addition,’” Bloome said.

And that likely means more funding for edutech as the development community races to ensure quality education for all by 2030 — a commitment included among the Sustainable Development Goals.

“I think it’s inevitable that we’ll be asked for more and more assistance in these sorts of areas, because it will be more integral to the way education systems function, for better and for worse,” Trucano said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Varkey Foundation financially and logistically supported the reporter’s travel to Dubai to attend the Global Education and Skills Forum. Nonetheless, Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.