Beyond edtech investment: global instructional shifts

Julia Freeland Fisher of the Christensen Institute looks at instructional shifts in teaching as a result of the growing edtech landscape

Edtech is undeniably on the rise. In 2012, IBIS Capital estimated that the global edtech market (including both K–12 and higher education) was worth $90.9 billion USD. In its more recent 2016 report, IBIS projected that number to more than double to $252 billion by 2020.

These staggering numbers could spell a very different future for school. But if the past decade of U.S. edtech has taught us one thing, it’s that watching the booming supply of technology tools is not a perfect bellwether for actual changes in instruction. What’s more interesting – and frankly harder to measure – than growing markets, is the new models of teaching and learning that these investments are or aren’t unlocking on the ground.

The Christensen Institute has spent nearly a decade tracking such emerging instructional shifts. We have studied the rise of blended learning within schools and classrooms in the U.S, and the promising outcomes that some models are beginning to yield. In our latest report, Blended Beyond Borders, we look at how blended learning is taking root in three other countries. In partnership with the WISE Initiative, and with the help of many in-country partners, we surveyed a subset of schools in Brazil, Malaysia, and South Africa to learn more about how technology is reshaping their approach to instruction.

From access to outcomes

It bears noting that conversations about the role of technology in expanding and improving education globally are by no means new. Over the past decades, advances in consumer technology focused most nations’ edtech efforts on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) initiatives. By and large, ICT goals aimed to ensure greater access to technology in schools. In some countries, access has dramatically increased. For example, through its 1997 Smart Schools Initiative, Malaysia aimed to add a computer lab to all public schools. Today, all 10,000 of the country’s public schools now have access to desktops or netbooks.

As edtech investments continue to surge, policymakers and practitioners need to keep their eyes squarely focused on student outcomes.

An international focus on ICT access, however, has not always yielded improved student outcomes. A 2015 OECD report, for example, found scant evidence that ICT investments in OECD countries were leading to greater student achievement. As the report’s authors concluded: “The connections among students, computers, and learning are neither simple nor hardwired; and the real contributions ICT can make to teaching and learning have yet to be fully realized and exploited.” 

It turns out that investing in access to technology is not enough. Access, after all, is just an output. Adding computers and other technology to classrooms is a good start, but as edtech investments continue to surge, policymakers and practitioners need to keep their eyes squarely focused on student outcomes. To do so, they should place greater emphasis on how schools can leverage infrastructure and technology investments to actually drive learning. They must capture and understand the new instructional models that technology can enable. 

Our latest project supports these efforts. Rather than walking the well-worn path of measuring the mere presence of technology, we designed a survey aimed at gauging the shifts that were – or were not – occurring in schools’ instructional models themselves. Our surveys did not capture nationally representative data. Rather, in combination with school site visits in all three countries, the data offers a glimpse into how a smaller subset of schools that have invested in technology tools and are now using that technology in their day-to-day instructional efforts. 

What we heard: models, vision, and challenges

The survey primarily aimed to capture the balance of various instructional models present in classrooms and schools. For example, we asked educators in all three countries what instructional models their students engage with during a typical week. The responses were revealing: in most cases, traditional teacher-led whole class instruction remained the dominant instructional modality. In Brazil, a little over half (58%) of respondents said that their students use online learning on a weekly basis, while almost three quarters (72%) say that students still receive teacher-led whole-class instruction. In South Africa, 50% of respondents reported using online learning and 88% reported maintaining traditional teacher-led whole class instruction.

One real risk is that technology tools end up merely digitizing our old models of teaching and learning rather than actually transforming them to reach more students more effectively.

We also wanted to begin to understand why schools that were implementing online learning had opted to do so. We probed here because one real risk – true both here in the U.S. and abroad – is that technology tools end up merely digitizing our old models of teaching and learning rather than actually transforming them to reach more students more effectively. This would, in part, explain weak correlations between the presence of technology and breakthrough outcomes.

But in our surveys, respondents’ vision behind why they were using technology suggested a notable focus beyond technology for technology’s sake. Encouragingly, across all three countries the majority of respondents reported that they used technology in the hope of increasing academic outcomes. Brazilian teachers and leaders surveyed serve as a promising example of a mindset shift toward driving individual student mastery: the majority of respondents reported pursuing technology programs in order to facilitate personalized learning (72%), or promote competency-based learning (67%).

Of course, realizing this vision will not come overnight. Respondents hailing from all three countries noted similar challenges in putting edtech to work in their schools. Seventy-nine percent of Brazilian respondents reported professional development to be the most challenging aspect of their programs. Internet access (63%) and infrastructure (42%) followed closely behind. In Malaysia and South Africa, educators reported that internet access remained their greatest challenge, though infrastructure and professional development were close behind. These findings suggest that investments in education technology cannot occur in a vacuum: enabling factors like infrastructure and human capital remain key drivers of success.

Looking ahead, the global education technology conversation will need to double down on talking about instructional shifts. As education technology investments soar, we need to keep a close eye not just on dollars and cents going towards new technology – but on emerging tech-enabled school models that promise to drive learning.