Any regular reader of the Economist will have read the hype about "edtech".
It is a well worn tale. Converts believe edtech has potential to transform the lives of millions of poor children. By contrast, sceptics think edtech is not learning focused, rather, it is driven by an industry more concerned with making money than enhancing children’s life chances.
I'm Rosalind Gater. I've been involved in the teaching profession for 6 years, teaching English in challenging classrooms in London, Kigali and Johannesburg and working for education focused NGOs, most recently in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.
I'll be asking: Should DFID be involved in this field? What does the evidence say about the impact of edtech, particularly on raising learning outcomes, reaching the hardest to reach and empowering marginalised girls?
But first things first. I begin by asking: what is it?
Edtech isn't easy to define. The number of devices, applications and programs which could potentially be described as edtech is huge. Lumping all this into one definition is problematic, potentially undermining the differences between different technologies.
At the same time, for work in this area to be meaningful, there must be some parameters. The definition below is a work in progress, subject to challenge and comment. I invite both:
"Educational technology (edtech) is that technology which intends to improve teaching practice, raise learning outcomes or enhance school management systems. Educational technology is used by a wide variety of different stakeholders at national, district and school level but is ultimately intended to positively benefit students by increasing access to or quality of education. Examples include but are not limited to computers, radios, the internet, tablets, cameras and mobile phones."
Suffering from pilotitus?
As we approach 2015 and the next set of Millennium Development Goals, the narrative of access to education has been replaced by access plus learning, in recognition of the on-going learning crisis – the fact that, despite spending four years in school, 250 million children worldwide still cannot read or count. With this in mind, it is now more important than ever to determine what works to raise learning outcomes in developing countries.
While for some aid agencies, edtech is not central to their policy and programming, there is a lot going on in the field. The dizzying number of small scale edtech initiatives has led some commentators to describe the field as suffering from pilotitus.
Understanding what’s going on and distilling that into a series of evidence-based recommendations is a mammoth task, exacerbated by limited, inconclusive evidence and commercial hype. Fortunately, policy experts such as Mike Trucano at the World Bank have already contributed a great deal to stimulating this discussion.
That said, as governments, NGOs and aid agencies are assailed by edtech offerings from the private sector, there is still demand for engaging, robust and updateable information.
In particular, there is demand for evidence – we want to know what is working, what isn’t and what are the necessary conditions for edtech to add most value?
Difficult to define
Another reason edtech is hard to define is because there isn’t robust evidence that categorically proves which (if any) types of edtech work and are cost effective. In that vacuum, stakeholders can define edtech differently to suit their purpose. Moreover, the dynamism of the field makes edtech hard to pin down as new innovations regularly emerge.
Understanding what people believe about edtech is less onerous task than defining it. To some extent, the discussion among has been polarised by ideologues at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Converts and sceptics aside, the facts speak for themselves. There are more than 6.8 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide and 40% of the world’s population are online. More than 2.4 million children have received laptops thanks to the controversial One Laptop Per Child initiative and Worldreader has distributed over 721,129 digital books in nine African countries. Edtech has now been incorporated into education programs in many, if not most developing countries.
So what's next? In my next post, I will explore why it is important that DFID have a policy on edtech. Meanwhile, please do leave a comment or get in touch.
I leave you with this question to ponder. Should the definition of edtech go further than what’s written above? Should it say "that technology which has been proven through rigorous evaluation to improve teaching practice…."?