Roundtable – Developing edtech with Sarah Pouezevara

In the last in our series, Steve Wright finds out how edtech in the developing world is advancing and driving educational change.

Sarah Pouezevara is Senior research education analyst and eLearning specialist at RTI International.

Q. Which developing countries are benefiting most from edtech?

We should be cautious about how we define ‘developing country’. We have found that some of the most low-income ‘developing’ nations like Nigeria have pockets of innovation and technology hubs in major cities that would hardly resemble those of a typical developing country. Conversely, countries like Jordan or the Philippines, which are probably officially classified as ‘middle-income’ nations, still have major income inequalities and rural areas that are very under-developed or are struggling with humanitarian crises caused by migration or natural disasters.

Even in the USA, edtech has been used to address educational challenges for some of the most poverty-stricken, rural areas. I like to think of edtech ‘for development’ as the application of technology to persistent educational challenges that have not otherwise been addressed through traditional means. Also, the ‘benefits’ of technology depend, to a great extent, on what stage of technological familiarity a given population starts out with. Technology is often described as an ‘amplifier’, meaning that those who benefit are often those who already had an advantage in terms of literacy, infrastructure, trained teachers, etc. This is also why the Omidyar Network Ecosystems Framework that I co-authored emphasises ‘equitable’ edtech.

In terms of non-OECD countries, which is where I tend to work most often, in Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa come to mind as countries that are making strides with edtech. Nigeria has a thriving startup culture and many app developers focusing on education apps, which are also used in the country.

In Kenya, through a combination of government-driven policy and support and local entrepreneurship, edtech is spreading in multiple ways. Coaches support teachers through instructional coaching made more powerful through tablet-based guidance and data collection; the government is gradually introducing a one-laptop-per-child ‘DigiSchool’ model in certain schools, and local edtech startups like Eneza, eLimu, eKitabu and mSchule are gaining ground. Similar digital apps (and even some of the same companies) are also present in Tanzania, where, in addition, the country is rolling out a digital school information system consisting of tablets for every head teacher in a coordinated manner across three different donor-funded projects under government direction. Tanzania also has a long history of open and distance learning at the university level, and higher education programmes supporting IT infrastructure and innovations through research and development. A human development innovation fund is also active in Tanzania, supporting the scale-up of digital innovations.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan have also made important strides.

This region is increasingly developing digital resources for the Arab-speaking world, including apps for learning basic literacy and numeracy in Arabic. Jordan has a strong grassroots education innovation community, strong local education support from the Queen Rania Foundation and a history of planning in the edtech sector, beginning with the Jordan Education Initiative and continuing with the World Bank’s Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy programme. The country is actively using its own MOOC platform, Edraak, for accessing content for higher education and in-service teacher training. Moreover, Jordan is hosting a significant proportion of Syrian refugees, and many programmes are actively using technology to support education for these populations – for example, EduApps for Syria, No Lost Generation and Can’t Wait to Learn. The latter has transformed the curriculum into digital game-based content.

Egypt and Morocco both have ambitious programmes to reform education through ebooks and tablets in the hands of students.

The BRIC countries (Brazil, China and India) are another interesting case. They are all emerging global economic powerhouses, with large populations and significant income inequalities. I think these countries are all benefiting from technology through local startups, support from local and international NGOs and strong government direction. India, with an active edtech startup culture, has been in the spotlight for programmes like MindSpark that have been achieving important basic education gains using digital, personalised learning.

Edtech adoption seems to come and go in waves, and measuring its success is always a challenge. Sarah Pouezevara

Q. What kinds of edtech are being employed in developing countries? And which are proving successful?

Edtech adoption seems to come and go in waves, and measuring its success is always a challenge.

I’d say, though, that the first stage of edtech adoption in the most low-resource environments remains the computer centre. This is often designed as a first step towards basic computer literacy for students and teachers, and can be an important gateway for use of technology for more transformative learning.

Basic PC connectivity can also be a starting point for school administration to improve school management through data collection platforms, access to professional development opportunities, communication with parents or other school administration software.

As mobile phone technology has proliferated, some of the fastest-growing apps are those used outside of school – when it comes to homework help, test prep, subject-specific virtual tutoring, or courseware to share lesson notes, platforms that allow questions and feedback between teacher and student, or peer-to-peer, are very common. These are seen at all levels but especially middle, secondary and higher education.

Static and interactive ebooks are also gaining traction, both as extracurricular supplementary resources and through government-directed programmes to replace paper textbooks with digital equivalents.

In lower grades, some of the most successful edtech adoptions are interactive educational software distributed on tablets designed for basic literacy, numeracy and social-emotional learning. The ease with which children pick up and use tablets has practically eliminated a major barrier to scaling of older, PC-based models, since there is so little hardware and so few accessories to learn. The recent Global Learning XPRIZE challenge tested this model in Tanzania, and found that children were able to learn far more than in control groups with no external pedagogical support (only hardware provision and solar charging stations) [see link at end of feature]. Programmes like Ubongo – also in Tanzania – work across platforms, from TV to tablet to SMS and printables, to achieve maximum impact.

Q. What do educators in developing countries want most from edtech suppliers?

This is a difficult question: I’m not sure that they have really been asked! From my perspective, educators in the most challenging circumstances are struggling to teach in the absence of basic classroom resources like books, paper and writing instruments. Even where such resources are available, teachers may not have been adequately trained on basic content mastery (for example, maths or science skills) or pedagogical content knowledge (how to teach maths, how to teach science).

In my experience, teachers want connection to other teachers for professional development and to reduce isolation; they also want multimedia technology to support lessons in STEM subjects, or even basic vocabulary building in multilingual environments.

In general teachers want products that make their jobs easier, not harder, so edtech suppliers need to build products that can integrate rapidly into existing educational frameworks, and to offer opportunities for technical and pedagogical support. 

Q. What are the biggest challenges facing different countries around the implementation of edtech?

Infrastructure and human resources are the biggest barriers. Adequate electricity and internet connectivity come at the top of the list, followed by – in fact, probably alongside – the ongoing budgets to pay for these facilities, and for the individuals with the skills to maintain them.

It has been noted repeatedly that the introduction of technology (hardware, software, connectivity) alone will not change education outcomes for the better. Nonetheless, for edtech to have any chance of impact, there has to be basic infrastructure. Even apps and programmes that are designed primarily for use offline still need periodic electricity connection and will be rendered more impactful through frequent updates or teacher support made available over the internet. Conditions in most developing-world schools leave edtech vulnerable to dust, humidity, insects, and theft. A balance needs to be struck between protecting the equipment and making it convenient to use. There are innovators working to adapt hardware to the conditions of low-resource classrooms – see BRCK and CyberSmart Senegal to name just two. However, because of the niche markets they serve (which are, by definition, those that do not have large budgets for purchase of hardware), these startups have trouble scaling and being sustained despite their commendably user-centred design and the clear market gap they are filling.

Going beyond the challenges posed by infrastructure, human resources remain an important barrier. This refers to individuals who can maintain the equipment, troubleshoot failures, and make updates, as well as people who know how to make use of technology for pedagogical purposes. The Omidyar Network study describes an Edtech Scaling Maturity Model that, according to the four countries studied, is increasingly dependent upon human resources to move from simple access to transformative use of technology.

Further reading

Building Learning Foundations programme, Rwanda:

Rwanda hosts 2018 international conference on ICT for development, education & skills:

Omidyar Network Ecosystems Framework:

Technology-supported CPD for teachers – lessons from developing countries:

RTI Global Learning XPRIZE Data Summary:

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