Edtech — hardware, software and content designed to improve the quality of and access to learning, as well as linkages to lasting employment — can revolutionise education.
Such innovations can reduce costs and tailor learning to the individual in unprecedented ways. Solutions such as Edmodo, ClassDojo and Knewton boast millions of users, and funding has poured into the sector — in 2017, venture capital funding for edtech startups in the United States reached about $1.4-billion, and the K-12 edtech segment (kindergarten to grade 12) is valued at $15.2-billion globally.
Better-off schools in South Africa have picked up on these technologies, and an industry has arisen to meet the needs of private and fee-paying public schools that can afford such tech. But these school only account for 25% of the nearly 26 000 schools in South Africa, leaving the other 75% unserved.
Edtech risks exacerbating the digital divide by widening the chasm at a time when the country desperately needs a workforce that is ready for the digital era.
Why aren’t we seeing these technologies reaching the pupils who need them the most? And what can be done to ensure the education system is truly leveraging edtech to strengthen opportunities for learning?
There are five core challenges to address: cost of access; teacher support; alignment of edtech solutions with the most pressing educational challenges; responsive regulation (procurement and policy); and, most importantly, proof of effectiveness.
Issues of infrastructure and connectivity are the first problems to overcome — costs are prohibitively high for schools struggling to provide basic services. With almost 20% of schools still lacking proper toilets, it’s no surprise that edtech is not a priority. Moreover, despite certain provisions that mandate network operators to connect schools, few schools are connected — less than 30% have access to computers, and internet penetration in the country is still only about 40%. Even fewer have the resources for the bandwidth and storage capacity that’s required to run cloud-based software applications for hundreds of pupils on any given day.
To prepare schools to embrace the edtech revolution, there are key structural issues in the education system than need to be fixed. Teacher support can help. As it stands, teachers fear technology partly because many did not grow up with it and thus feel uncomfortable using it, especially around digitally native learners. Tech is often introduced with little training and even less ongoing support. This is especially true when resource-strapped district- or provincial-level eLearning specialists must monitor its implementation, and where unions wield powerful influence over teachers in and outside the classroom.
Moreover, teachers rightly see tech as a long-term move towards their eventual replacement. Technology is an enabler for the existing education system, not a way of replacing its core assets, and edtech will never take off without willing and able teachers to support its implementation and ongoing growth.
For their part, edtech companies can do more to make sure their products and services respond to the needs of the public education system. If a solution does not address immediate needs such as curriculum coverage, test scores and language, it will not be a priority. Edtech is focused on the well-off segments that can afford to pay, and is often developed by those who are a product of those same affluent schools.
But for solutions to reach scale in the public system they must be developed in close collaboration with their end users, not merely with them in mind. Too many solutions are sold or donated to poorer schools in poorer areas, only to fail over time. For cash-strapped edtechs, scaling solutions in a diverse and decentralised public education system lamentably means tailoring your product and your sales approach across schools, districts and provinces.
Procurement is also a problem. The reality of public procurement for many small edtech companies is one of complexity. Edtech firms propose pilots in the hope that, once schools and governments use their products and see the value, they will invest.
But for government, pilot projects rarely translate into larger investments. Companies burn time and resources, only to find that there is either no clear path to financing the solution at scale, or that procurement rules drive an unrelenting focus on cost, which makes it difficult to meaningfully assess value for money.
Buyers, on the other hand, whether at the school level or in government, struggle to make informed decisions about which complex technology is right for them, and are often inundated with purchasing decisions and vendor choices.
Relevant regulation and policy is also needed. The white paper on e-education — the main guiding document for the use of technology in education — has not been updated since 2004. Although there are guidelines about how districts must spend their pupil-teacher support material allocations, there are no rules to govern whether that money can be used to buy digital products and services. Guidance on which curriculum-aligned content and software schools can buy, and how to buy it, could unlock real growth in the industry.
In recent years the government has been trying to address some of these issues. The Western Cape government’s eLearning Game Changer seeks to cut through red tape to find ways of connecting schools. The Gauteng provincial government has also made sizeable investments in promoting connectivity and technology in classrooms. The department of education is seeking ways of using technology to circumvent the cost of printing textbooks, most notably with the rollout of the department’s Cloud.
Following the lead of other developing countries could also help. In India, the government of Chhattisgarh addressed procurement by establishing the Chhattisgarh Infotech Promotion Society (CHiPS) to manage all ICT-related programming and procurement. CHiPS procures within government guidelines but is able to be flexible about contracting staff at junior levels. They employ a varied team that shapes the procurement process, bringing together public sector knowledge and technical expertise, which results in well-specified requests for proposals and an increased appetite for innovation. Moreover, CHiPS reaches out to industry to seek feedback on draft tenders to improve tender design and reduce risk of legal action following supplier assignment.
In Brazil, the government is developing supportive edtech policy. The ministry of education recently launched its national policy for connected education, which promotes and supports edtech purchases at the local level by decentralising financial resources and providing technical assistance to select technologies.
But even if South Africa addresses all these issues, a major question remains: Does edtech warrant its prioritisation over the other, more immediate issues facing the education system?
Existing evidence on edtech is mixed at best. We now know that technology alone will exacerbate the digital divide, and that tech-enabled after-school programmes, accompanied by instructors, can have a discernible effect on outcomes. But we also know that simpler, often less-costly, interventions can yield big benefits: merit-based scholarships, school feeding schemes, extra time in school and remedial education are all low-tech solutions with data to back them up.
For governments to adopt a new solution at scale, the solution must be able to prove that investing in it is a better bet than investing in something less novel but more established. Until edtech companies, with the help of government, donors and others, can prove that to the world, the revolution will remain out of reach of the masses.
Robin Miller is a partner at Dalberg Advisors’ Johannesburg office; Diptesh Soni is a consultant at the firm