Edtech flops provide lessons for future success
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In the early 2000s, interactive whiteboards were set to transform education. These internet-connected computer screens replaced old wipe-clean boards, and allowed teachers to show videos, demonstrate problems, or work on tasks with the class. By the end of the decade, they were commonplace in classrooms around the world.
There was just one problem with the new devices: they didn’t really work. Study after study has shown that the ‘smartboards’ were frequently ignored by teachers, led to less creative learning, or had no impact on pupils’ achievement.
“Teachers were basically using them like expensive chalkboards,” says Will Millard, head of engagement at the UK’s Centre for Education and Youth.
In the pandemic era, interactive whiteboards are an apt cautionary tale. With remote learning now mainstream, investors are hungry for opportunities in edtech, and educators are enthusiastic about its potential to boost learning around the world. But some experts stress that edtech is no magic bullet, and warn that it could risk damaging educational outcomes and entrenching inequality.
“Tech has not necessarily improved the quality,” says Andreas Schleicher, the head of the OECD’s directorate of education and skills.
In fact, he acknowledges that, in many cases, it has done the opposite. In the OECD’s 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), children who used edtech — for tasks such as posting work on school websites, using learning apps, or playing simulations — had in almost all instances lower scores in reading than those who did not.
“It’s not a surprise — a lot of learning technology makes learning not richer but more scripted . . . it’s a disempowering tool,” Schleicher says. “I probably see more negative outcomes than positive.”
According to Millard, edtech can become a distraction from learning, prompting teachers to adopt activities for the sake of using technology rather than complementing learning.
“Rather than thinking about how edtech can complement what human teachers do well, we end up asking how we can reshape classroom activity around the iPad,” he says.
That is not to say technology has nothing to offer, however. Most education researchers believe properly regulated, accessible and appropriate edtech — with teachers and students at its heart — is a big opportunity.
Barclays estimates that the edtech market is likely to grow by between 14.5 and 16.4 per cent, to a total value of $368bn-$406bn by 2025. But a relatively small proportion of that money is expected to go to school children in lower-income communities.
The bank believes the biggest opportunities for edtech are in supplemental education for children, via tutoring apps, higher education and corporate training.
Daniel Rodriguez-Segura, a researcher at the Centre on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness at the University of Virginia, argues that edtech has the same potential to transform education as interventions that are not guided by technology. It just depends on how they are used.
He lists personalised learning apps, tools that track teacher attendance or programmes that share pupils’ work or results with parents among the most exciting uses of tech. He also thinks that radio has big potential as a medium, because of its accessibility.
But Rodriguez-Segura says private edtech providers are more likely to develop products for lucrative wealthier markets, further concentrating the advantages of technology among those already better off.
“A company will have a lot more of an incentive to develop an app in English than in a local language that only has a few speakers,” he says.
In India, such market incentives direct edtech investment away from the poorest, notes Bikkrama Daulet Singh, co-managing director of Central Square Foundation (CSF), a charity working to “unlock” edtech for the lower-income majority.
Although there are some 5,000 for-profit edtech companies in India, he says that most offer products that charge high subscription rates, are only in English and require relatively sophisticated technology — and so mostly serve the wealthiest 20m-25m of the population. “They are investors who do not necessarily have that low-income lens.”
As a result, it is charities, foundations such as CSF, and social enterprises that are among the most effective investors in poorer communities. WhatsApp has emerged as a “ubiquitous channel”, and Daulet Singh names Rocket Learning, a non-profit organisation backed by CSF, as one of the best at using it to improve outcomes for children.
Rocket Learning creates WhatsApp groups to share education activities, games and homework assignments for parents to work on with their children, and then send back to the teacher — encouraging families to get more involved in students’ learning.
“We’ve tried to keep the content simple . . . focusing on concepts, making children learn through doing and having fun,” says Utsav Kheria, co-founder of Rocket Learning.
Using an accessible platform such as WhatsApp, creating tools in local languages, and having parents engage with teachers is crucial to success, he argues. “The teachers are involved throughout.”
Rodriguez-Segura says edtech investors should follow similar principles, work within the constraints of learners, and consider which problems edtech might solve. Edtech can, he says, make as big a difference to learning as any other initiative — if it avoids becoming a flashy distraction or entrenching inequality.
“Ultimately, an edtech intervention is no better than a no-tech intervention . . . it’s just another tool in the toolkit.”