Investments in EdTech: Looking beyond the COVID-19 lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruption to education globally, forcing school systems across the world to close. According to UNESCO, over 91% of the world’s student population has been impacted. As mitigation measures are considered to preserve education outcomes, the discussion has largely revolved around the role that education technology (EdTech) can play in enabling remote learning.

There is optimism in the EdTech community that the tools adopted during the crisis will live on in the post-COVID world, becoming a critical component in school systems the world over. The uptake and mainstreaming of EdTech could increase the resilience of the education sector to future shocks, and even in stable times it could improve learning outcomes and reduce costs. There is particular optimism about the long-term opportunities for many African countries, where the indirect costs of accessing brick-and-mortar schools (such as transport and uniforms) can be significant financial barriers for poorer parents.

This article aims to temper this optimism with a note of caution. While we do require remote learning, and EdTech offers a possible solution, Africa’s experiences with large-scale EdTech programmes warn against silver-bullet solutions. There is limited evidence that demonstrates EdTech programmes have had a meaningful impact on improving learning outcomes. Initiatives, such as the global non-profit One Laptop per Child, have been criticised for their high costs and inapplicability in African contexts. Equity is also a concern since access and use of technology trace other dimensions of inequality closely, and those who have access will benefit most. Before governments choose to invest their increasingly scarce fiscal resources in responses to the COVID-19 crisis, it is crucial to consider equity, establish cost-effectiveness, and ensure initiatives are technically viable in local contexts.

Owning a mobile phone and having access to m-learning is not the same thing

EdTech, particularly m-learning, is assumed to be easily replicated in African countries, many of which are renowned for widespread recent uptake of mobile phones. Indeed, advocates hail that more Africans have access to a mobile phone than to electricity.

While this may be true, mobile-phone ownership across the continent still stands at only 44% (GSMA, 2019). Furthermore, m-learning requires more than access to a mobile phone; multiple enabling conditions need to be in place. Mobile phones, like all digital tech, are only effective tools when paired with reliable basic infrastructure, like electricity and stable data connections. M-learning resources rely on the internet and mobile internet adoption stands at only 24% on average.

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This map indicates the geographical spread of internet-enabled devices (Shodan, 2016). The lack of connections in Africa relative to richer regions is striking. Aside from digital infrastructure, a key reason for this disparity is affordability since the cheapest internet-enabled device costs over two-thirds of the average African monthly income, whereas 1GB of mobile data costs another 6.8% of monthly income (GSMA, 2019). A lack of digital skills also holds back effective adoption.

Considering all these factors together, a rapid movement towards EdTech may not have the broad reach required to benefit students system-wide, with those households who are already better off more likely to benefit. Furthermore, women are 41% less likely than men to use mobile internet and rural populations are 58% less likely to use mobile internet than urban populations (GSMA, 2019). Thus, a multitude of inequalities are likely to be exacerbated in education systems, which already suffer from high levels of inequality.

The importance of local solutions and managing risk

Instead of hailing EdTech as a game-changer based on its applicability in richer countries, policymakers should turn to COVID-19 responses that have local problems in mind. Several African countries have responded innovatively to the crisis, designing solutions for the particular constraints posed by remote learning in their specific contexts.

  • Kenya has combined the design of online resources with material delivered via radio and television, which have the potential to be far more inclusive than online resources alone, particularly for younger children and households without access to internet-enabled devices.
  • Orange in Liberia has announced that students and teachers will be granted access to online educational resources without charging for mobile data use, so all students with an internet-enabled device can access the content.
  • In South Africa, COVID-19 health information is transmitted through old-tech solutions, such as SMS messaging, and there is a movement to apply this to remote learning to include children who have “feature phones” but no access to the internet.

These solutions demonstrate how some countries are using delivery modes that keep equity in mind and are relatively risk-averse, given the low cost of such adaptations. This stands in starks contrast to the level of investment that would be needed to make EdTech solutions work at scale for the entire student population, particularly given the large number of Africans who are not yet connected to the internet. Obtaining sufficient infrastructure is the primary hurdle to overcome, but challenges also involve supporting teachers (and therefore students) to adapt to digital learning environments.

Furthermore, there have been instances of EdTech initiatives being rolled out without a base of rigorous evidence and experimentation, leading to failures such as the One Laptop per Child initiative. Risk management has since gained more prominence because the EdTech community has learnt from previous failures. Processes such as 'experimental innovation' have helped to ensure that evidence of impact and cost-effectiveness are now commonplace.

However, the immediacy of school closures during the outbreak brings pressure to scale EdTech initiatives as quickly as possible. The concern is that the rigorous processes needed to demonstrate impact and cost-effectiveness will be swept aside in the name of expediency and momentum, and countries will end up with costly EdTech solutions that do not have systems in place to manage risk and do not represent the true potential of EdTech to support learning.

Ask how tech can help, not how we can use tech

Policymakers should think twice before investing scare fiscal resources in EdTech solutions that may not benefit the most vulnerable in their society. Avoiding the danger of asking “how can we use technology?” and instead asking “how can technology help us to solve the problem?” will stand policymakers in good stead regarding their responses to the challenges posed by school closures.

While EdTech may be an important part of the COVID-19 response for African education systems, non-technological solutions are also likely to play their part in making remote learning work, as demonstrated by the effective local responses already mentioned. The importance of keeping equity and medium-term cost-effectiveness in mind will ensure that tightly constrained government budgets will be used to safeguard the progress made in human development outcomes on the continent and ensure that scarce resources are not wasted on unproven solutions.

Ed Dyson is a consultant in our Human Development practice