The primary goal of any education system should be to support learners. EdTech is about leveraging technology and innovation to enable and augment teaching and learning, and to enhance the coverage, quality and transparency of education systems. Done right, this should improve outcomes and the quality of experience for students and teachers.
EdTech is broad but can be organised into a small set of big ideas:
- Personalising the education experience for learners at scale: For the longest time, tailored learning programmes and personalised tuition were the preserve of the wealthy. Technology can scale this beyond what is possible in a traditional system.
- Augmenting traditional learning resources: The near-infinite amount of content available over the Internet at no marginal cost opens up all sorts of resources to complement existing teaching materials. Where books are in short supply, innovative use of tech can ease the pressure, but digitising content alone does not yield significant impact. Platforms that augment the model of learning, in particular applications that create digital spaces for collaborative learning, have far greater potential to revolutionise education.
- Increasing the support available to teachers: Teaching is a high-intensity profession, in which demands on people’s time often outstrip what they can give. In the classroom, technology can help teachers save time and enable more learner-centric teaching. Outside the classroom, technology can help teachers complete administrative tasks more efficiently, maximising the time they can spend on other things.
- Enabling global education and citizenship: Technology can add a new, global dimension to education by linking teachers, schools and communities across the world. This can help support the exchange of ideas and best practice between classrooms regardless of what country they are in, introduce new collaborative learning opportunities, and facilitate the connection of students across different cultures.
All of these matter because education is a central priority for every country, and global education systems urgently need new solutions. Today, nine in ten children in low-income countries are projected to reach adulthood without the skills they need. On current trends it will take more than a century for this gap to be closed. Technology is the best hope for averting a crisis and ensuring that all learners can reach their potential.
There are tens of thousands of companies involved in EdTech, along with academics, technologists, teachers, and pioneering schools and universities. Some tackle specific points in one of the big ideas above. For example:
- Personalising education: One of the greatest opportunities that machine learning has to offer, personalised tuition has expanded beyond language-learning apps (e.g. Duolingo, China-based Liulishuo and Africa-based LangBot) to focus on basic numeracy and literacy for the developing world (e.g. Mindspark in India and M-Shule in Kenya). Personalised tutoring has also moved into advanced science, technology, engineering and mathematics (e.g. Byju’s, the largest EdTech company in the world, is valued at $3.6 billion).
- Augmenting traditional learning resources: Digitising content has had significant traction in Africa to overcome a lack of content such as textbooks, with particular growth in Kenya including eLimu, Digischool and eKitabu. The plethora of massive open online courses for tertiary education are based on this model. The more innovative applications begin to reshape learning. Eneza provides digitally enabled content and student access to live teachers, tailored to the digital context. The more impactful solutions augment how learning happens. Lightbulb Education’s learning-management system in South Africa has an online platform where educators, schools and institutions engage students, enabling collaborative learning through any device with Internet access.
- Optimising teacher support: This has had some success in Africa, for example with BlueBic in South Africa, which offers a management system for teachers and administrators, from tracking attendance to managing finances. Often teacher management support has been developed as part of a wider model. US-based MindTap helped teachers plan lessons, interact with students and monitor attainment within its wider digital-content provision.
Others have taken a range of innovations and incorporated them into more holistic approaches. An example of this is the School of One programme in New York, where individualised programmes optimise a child’s learning preferences with real-time data, continuously recalibrating the best learning method for each child.
Such holistic approaches in developing countries are nascent, though some EdTech providers are beginning to address the challenges students face. Syafunda in South Africa provides digital content for high-school students and installs servers in schools and community centres to overcome connectivity challenges. It then assesses students in maths and science, and matches them with relevant university bursaries to support their progress into tertiary education.
Although the EdTech market is still in its early days, experience suggests some broad outlines to guide the public and political debate. It can be said with reasonable certainty that EdTech:
- Cannot be a straight substitute for teachers. The interaction between teachers and learners is central to education. Although automation has come a long way, technology is far from achieving the emotional intelligence and empathy that comes naturally to people. Focusing on teaching and using technology to amplify this is far more effective than replacing teaching with tech alone.
- Can augment existing approaches without being too disruptive. Hardware and software shoehorned into classrooms for the sake of it appears to have little meaningful impact. Learner-centric approaches are essential, and often the most effective innovations are those that use existing technologies to respond to tried-and-tested teaching methods. However, the right application of appropriate technologies can bolster traditional approaches, for example complementing text with video.
- May be a springboard for modifying how learning happens. There are new ways of learning and teaching that were impossible before modern technology, such as video links between classrooms, self-directed learning and flipped classrooms. These may yet presage larger changes.
- Has yet to redefine education beyond what people currently recognise. There have been few attempts to use technology to completely reinvent education and educational institutions. Those that have been tried have ultimately been more evolution than revolution.
- Requires technology to be built into teacher training. For the full potential of EdTech to be achieved there is a need to ensure teachers, and other school officials, are trained and supported to deliver new ways of teaching. They must understand how to use technology appropriately in pedagogy and context, and be alive to any risks that might be associated with bringing more technology into a school setting.
- Requires context, even as algorithms get more advanced. Although the application of machine learning offers an opportunity to tailor education interventions at scale, it is still essential to contextualise such applications and modify the algorithms and content accordingly. Squirrel AI Learning is a successful adaptive education provider in China, but it responds specifically to China’s culture, norms and teaching and would be ill suited if applied in its current form elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the scale of the EdTech opportunity is significant. The massive demand for innovation in education systems is reflected in the rapid growth of the marketplace gearing up to serve them. In 2017, the global EdTech market was valued at between $8 billion and $17 billion, and some estimates expect it to grow to $250 billion just by 2020. This is heavily skewed towards the biggest markets, namely China, India and the US, which have large domestic markets with common languages, large or growing middle classes with high demand for education and significant government support.
While a Western view of EdTech often focuses on the application of technology to personalise learning, expand content and support teachers, this usually assumes some basic preconditions in terms of connectivity and access to devices. In a global policy view, these cannot be taken for granted. Many developing countries face additional constraints: many technologies have limited use without reliable power, connectivity or enough teachers and support staff.
For the global EdTech debate, there are two big challenges that policymakers need to grapple with: bringing government capabilities to bear and supporting teachers. Aspects of these are relevant around the world, but they have particular salience in developing countries.
Bringing Government Capabilities to Bear
This is about the role governments should play in leveraging technology in national education systems. Education will always be a national priority, and the strategic stance that governments take will shape the evolution of these systems. Important dimensions of this challenge include:
- Setting the degree of central control: For some governments, a view of education as a national priority leads to a desire for highly centralised control of standards, budgeting and procurement. In other cases, a more decentralised approach can accelerate innovation by allowing people at the front line to move more quickly in adopting what will work for their local circumstances.
- Getting the right balance of public and private: Markets can be a powerful force to catalyse investment and focus innovators on solving problems. But education is an arena in which all of society has a stake and private incentives and the public interest need to align. Policymakers need to establish the right frameworks to ensure learners come first.
- Encouraging innovation while managing risk: The most ambitious projects in tech often seek out tenfold improvements rather than 10 per cent ones. This can unlock radical innovation but is a high-risk strategy for founders, investors and partners. Policymakers need to understand whether the system they manage is better suited to investing in proven solutions or to pioneering new approaches.
- Sharing of best practice globally: As different ideas and approaches to EdTech develop and have impact in different contexts, so best practice should be shared in a globally accessible and open format. This will enable policy and practical solutions to be exported and replicated around the world.
Supporting and Enabling Teachers
This is about forging the right partnerships between technologists and teachers, so teachers can do their best work. The relationship between tech and teachers is critical to making this work. Important dimensions of this challenge include:
- Determining the pace of change in the classroom: Technologies that change activities and dynamics in the classroom affect teachers as well as learners. Some education professionals will be more comfortable with the status quo, while others will have an appetite for change and experimentation. Finding the right environment for different EdTech solutions will be critical.
- Helping existing teachers do more or helping more people teach: Technology can support teachers to maximise their time in the classroom and prioritise what they cover with which students. Technology can also be harnessed to help a broader range of people participate in teaching, both by widening the activities involved and by enabling people to specialise in what they do best. In practice, many systems will need both.
- Rethinking how teachers are seen: In the past, teachers were often the masters of domain knowledge. But an explosion in online content means this is true now only for topics at the cutting edge of our understanding. A transition to teachers as guides who can critically evaluate a near-infinite supply of learning materials will demand new mindsets as well as new technology.
- Finding the right balance between teacher judgement and algorithms: Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning are enabling new forms of personalisation and data-driven insights into learning. Technologists must be mindful of the context in which teachers operate; finding the right way to blend human judgement and intuition with algorithmic support will be an important question for all sides to engage with.
Education is one of the most important arenas of public policy, and technology has significant potential to deliver positive change for both learners and teachers alike. Although there is a lot of private sector energy and capital moving into the market, a gap remains around the creation and implementation of EdTech policy by governments.
Getting this right will require leaders to develop a contemporary vision and politically actionable strategy for reform, as well as fostering a greater global dialogue between those pioneering the use of EdTech around the world.