EdTech and the global learning crisis: Building an evidence-driven future

We call for an evidence-based future for EdTech in low-income countries, explain how EdTech Hub contributes to this, and pose five key questions that everyone working in EdTech should be obsessed with asking and answering!

July 06, 2022 by Verna Lalbeharie, EdTech Hub, and David Hollow, EdTech Hub
5 minutes read
Deborah, 10, reads lesson notes from the television as her father, Franklyn explains and helps her understand better. Credit: UNICEF/UNI342044/
Deborah, 10, reads lesson notes from the television as her father, Franklyn explains and helps her understand better.
Credit: UNICEF/UNI342044/

It is widely recognized that the potential for technologies to help address the global learning crisis has not yet been realized. We believe this is due to a lack of evidence in EdTech and a lack of use of evidence in EdTech.

When we say “EdTech,” we mean technologies—including hardware, software and digital content—that have been designed for, or can be used for, educational purposes.

This deliberately broad definition includes low-tech and non-digital modalities, such as radio, television and SMS, as they are often most available to marginalized learners.

One driving factor behind the global learning crisis is the long-term financing gap in education for low-income countries. Alongside this, the proportion of education finance—public and private, domestic and international—that is allocated to EdTech is anticipated to increase dramatically in the years ahead. The “market” is expanding fast for a range of reasons: political, economic and educational.

This represents a significant challenge: at present, EdTech procurements and wider decision making are rarely driven by rigorous evidence and are often not informed by accepted good practices in education, and interventions rarely have the anticipated positive impact on student learning.

But it is also an opportunity to catalyze a culture of evidence-based decision making on how technology is used within the education sector and ensure money is allocated to the EdTech interventions that will have the biggest impact on student learning.

EdTech needs an evidence-driven future

We built EdTech Hub—with the backing of partners including the FCDO, the World Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and, most recently, UNICEF—as a global research and evidence-to-action partnership to address this challenge.

We exist to help shape a world where decisions are informed by evidence, so EdTech implementations can help improve learning outcomes for children, at scale, in cost-effective ways.

To make a significant contribution to addressing the global learning crisis and build a critical mass of EdTech evidence in specific areas, EdTech Hub has launched our first primary research portfolio: a GBP 5.5 million investment in 13 studies.

All the studies are located in one of six lower-middle income countries (LMICs) and focus on one or more of our five priority areas: teacher continuous professional development (TCPD), digital personalized learning, participation and messaging, data for decisions, and girls’ education.

Catalyzing a culture change of evidence-use in EdTech

Impact in education rarely occurs through simply generating more evidence, however rigorous it may be. If EdTech research is to influence decision-making, this requires dedicated work on application within specific education systems.

That is why EdTech Hub combines our research with in-depth collaboration with governments and implementers, supporting them to translate evidence into action in all our priority areas through technical assistance, sandboxes, and our helpdesk.

In Tanzania, for example, we provide technical assistance alongside the Tanzania Institute of Education (TIE) on technology for TCPD to bring evidence into the design of the school-based model, test assumptions about design and usability through a sandbox, and run a large-scale longitudinal study to assess the impact of the TIE TCPD model on student learning outcomes. To inform our work in Tanzania, we draw on our understanding of the existing research on technology use for TCPD.

Existing evidence supports several promising ways of using technology in teacher professional development.

These include virtual coaching and messaging, which are most effective when combined with in-person visits; SMS text messages to offer reminders, nudges or teaching strategies; structured observation tools or feedback guides for pedagogical leaders; using WhatsApp, Facebook and other tools to foster communities of practice; and supporting self- and peer-reflection activities, such as through watching and analyzing video recordings of lessons.

The Hub focuses on areas where there is clear need for more research on the role of technology in TCPD—such as in community school and informal contexts—and to better understand the impact not only on teacher practices but also on student learning outcomes.

In applying EdTech to data, we ask how technology can improve the availability and use of data for effective decision making in education (EdTech Hub strategy). It is well recognized that education data are often scattered, outdated, not available when needed and lacking in quality (Unlocking Data), yet decision makers care deeply about timeliness and accessibility of data (AidData).

The Hub’s research on data is based on the hypothesis that, if used thoughtfully, technology has potential to support multiple aspects of data collection, consolidation and use to support evidence-informed decision making in education.

In Sierra Leone, we are testing a version of this hypothesis with the Teaching Service Commission, supporting them to use technology to increase the use of data in decisions on teacher deployment. We provide technical assistance to inform the new GIS-supported preference model for teacher allocation, run a sandbox to understand the usability of the digital recruitment portal for teachers, and are running a large-scale longitudinal study to assess the impact of the initiative on improving teacher retention and attendance.

We are already gaining insight on teacher preferences, including the importance of basic facilities and working conditions at schools, and of school and community relationships.

These are just two of the many contexts in which we work to generate and use evidence in EdTech. We collaborate closely with more than 20 leading organizations committed to evidence-driven implementation, like the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP), EIDU and Worldreader in Kenya, Haki Elimu in Tanzania, and Craft Education in Ghana.

A call to action: Five key questions to shift the sector

Achieving culture change in use of evidence in EdTech requires a sector-wide effort, to which everyone can contribute. We think a culture of evidence building in EdTech can happen if everyone becomes obsessed with asking, and answering, five key questions. This applies whether you are involved in procuring, selling, implementing or researching EdTech.

Will this use of technology…:

  1. Lead to a sustained impact on learning outcomes?
  2. Work for the most marginalized children and enhance equity?
  3. Be able to scale in a cost-effective manner that is affordable for the context?
  4. Be effective in the specific implementation context (how and why)?
  5. Align with government priorities and lead to the strengthening of national education systems?

If everyone involved in EdTech asked these five questions as a default—and demanded rigorous answers to them before making decisions—then we would take a big step toward an evidence-based future where technology can help us to address the global learning crisis.

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