Three reasons why the boost EdTech got from the COVID-19 pandemic may be short-lived

While the pandemic could have been a catalyst to help children leverage technology to help them avoid common challenges associated with interrupted schooling, here's why the boost EdTech got from the COVID-19 pandemic may be short-lived.

April 29, 2022 by Dr Ronda Železný-Green
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5 minutes read
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Yvette Marie, 18, studying online from home during school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Rwanda. Credit: UNICEF Rwanda/2020/Saleh
Yvette Marie, 18, studying online from home during school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Rwanda.
Credit: UNICEF Rwanda/2020/Saleh

For more than a decade, I have engaged in all things related to technology’s role in addressing education challenges, including the successes, the excesses, the flops and the transformations.

I recognized immediately that the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic was a once-in-a-lifetime event that could be a catalyst to help children leverage technology to help them avoid common challenges associated with interrupted schooling.

Technology for supporting education outcomes is a growing field, and the rapid interest spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on many new and interchangeable phrases. Here, I am largely referring to “edtech” as the use of information and communication technologies in education systems. This can range from low-tech solutions such as radio and TV in poor connectivity to higher-tech online solutions.

Learning loss, school dropouts, mental health challenges, huge gender and inequity divides in access to resources and increased gender-based violence (including in digital spaces) are some of the challenges that can occur during periods of schooling interruption.

In theory, technology can help mitigate and eliminate these education challenges if—and only if—the intervention is well implemented, well resourced, and in line with guidance from academic and practitioner research and overarching frameworks related to duty of care, such as the Digital Impact Alliance’s Principles for Digital Development.

For a few months, it seemed that locally relevant edtech interventions were flourishing—and broadly being welcomed by parents who became teachers overnight—with the support of multilateral organizations within the United Nations sphere. Governments and the private sector were pairing up to help address school interruption.

However, what was observed during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the early months, was far from the edtech utopia I thought possible.

Reflecting on what I have observed and researched since the pandemic began, I see three reasons why the boost edtech got from the pandemic may be short-lived.

1. As classes resume in person under the “new normal,” I see a risk that edtech is sidelined. If so, we may lose the opportunity to embrace all the opportunities technology can offer when it is embedded and in support of more resilient education systems.

At the start of the pandemic, governments worked rapidly to put in place multimodal solutions (or edtech approaches involving more than one form of digital and/or analog technology) to support learning continuity as school closures were implemented and persisted.

Solutions involving technology were flexible and made clear suggested approaches for reaching the neediest or most vulnerable learners within a nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic was for many an awakening that edtech could be a useful solution for any form of school interruption (natural disasters, forced displacement, menstrual poverty and more).

However, as in-person school attendance returns to being the norm, there’s a risk to lower the emphasis on technology to support education systems.

If we do not remain proactive about developing an edtech ecosystem as a buffer when interrupted schooling is a reality for some or all learners, they will remain unprepared when future instances of interrupted schooling occur. The cost in terms of the potential of the citizenry is incalculable.

2. Teachers (and parents!) are still being left without sufficient support, resources and guidance on acquiring and implementing the skills to help make them effective digital facilitators.

Perhaps more than any other group during the pandemic, teachers were handed a demonstrably difficult challenge in establishing learning continuity at a distance with less than a few days or hours’ notice.

The sudden pivot to digital facilitation and/or remote learning meant that an entirely new repertoire and approach to pedagogy was required—and it was often implemented through a space (digital devices) that was quite often completely new to teachers.

The intense pressures faced, along with the unfortunate and unexpected attrition when teachers were themselves negatively impacted by the coronavirus, meant that both teacher performance and morale were at all-time lows.

As the new normal picks up pace, teachers’ demands to be effectively trained, resourced and guided on how to make continual improvements to their digital and remote pedagogy cannot go unheard.

The resilience of our education ecosystem greatly depends on teachers’ ability to be strong digital/remote learning facilitators, and we cannot let teachers’ needs be ignored since doing so jeopardizes the entire ecosystem.

3. The private sector has a stronger role to play, especially where the provision of meaningful connectivity is concerned.

Just as every person and sector was thrown into disarray when the pandemic hit, so too was the wider telecommunications sector as demand for services skyrocketed.

Never before had the need for meaningful connectivity been stronger1, yet the ability to affordably and quickly connect to the internet on a device for which the know-how is readily available to leverage edtech was still so far out of reach for millions.

This is a failure not simply of government but also of the private sector to give back following the pandemic lockdown–driven telecoms boom.

There is a need for greater alignment and cooperation between governments and the private sector.

The private sector can bring not only financial/in-kind resources like zero-rating educational websites and small-scale edtech interventions and device giveaways, but also the expertise and technical know-how to support the provision of meaningful connectivity, linking back to a stronger role beyond just money that the private sector can and must bring to the fore. However, the pandemic illustrated that the global needs by governments, schools, teachers and students go far beyond this.

Opportunities for digital learning are only as strong as the reach of meaningful connectivity and infrastructure to learners, no matter where they may be found. We witnessed the devastation of the education sector in 2020, and it can easily be repeated without concrete action to bridge the digital divide now.

Given the above, I remain hopeful we can learn from the mistakes made during the pandemic that dampened the potential of edtech at a time when it was sorely needed.

Because the return to the new normal is not a foregone conclusion (Shanghai just closed its schools in March 2022 because of a new coronavirus outbreak), it is key that conversations are held and action plans are developed to extend the edtech pandemic boost move to ensure greater government action to support edtech, supply more and better support to teachers to strategically execute edtech, and encourage more consistent and tangible action by the private sector to fully establish and sustain edtech for the long term.

  1. A4AI (Alliance for Affordable Internet) defines meaningful connectivity as when we can use the internet every day using an appropriate device with enough data and a fast connection.
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