Skip to main content

Riddle me this: what is educational technology?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Digital for Development, Education

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As we approach 2015 and the next set of Millennium Development Goals, the narrative of access to education has been replaced by access plus learning, in recognition of the on-going learning crisis – the fact that, despite spending four years in school, 250 million children worldwide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…."?

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Prakash Deo posted on

    In my view, the DFID should enter the vast field of educational technology. Before entering in the field, the concept and scope of educational technology needs to be understood. Pl. do't be limited to ICT hardware and its supplies to schools or providing tablets or OLPC like of things. Although these devices can not be ruled out, still other components of educational technology, such as message designing, learning models, learner evaluation and systems approach in solving learning problems needs to be focused. If there is requirement of any ICT component then only, such things needs to be incorporated.
    Prakash Deo, Bhopal, India

  2. Comment by Wayan posted on

    I am surprised at the focus on hardware in your definition. Educational technology is much greater than computers, radios, the internet, tablets, cameras and mobile phones.

    At the minimum I would include different forms of electronic content (text, audio, pictures, video, etc) and the efforts around its distribution, especially Open Educational Resources. I would also include pedagogy, as new technologies allow for (and dare we say, require!) new forms of teaching, from Constructionist to "flipped" classrooms.

  3. Comment by Wayan posted on

    You may also want to direct folks to which Mike Trucano co-founded (and I edited) around many topics of debate.

    We've had four years of discussions around what "edutech" means to different people:

  4. Comment by Denis Akwar posted on

    It is good to talk about educational technology, but how much time do teachers and learners spend in using the technology for learning? I am a Ugandan teacher enrolled in one of the American universities currently. For the 8 weeks I have been here, it looks like most students devote more time in collaborating with friends and family members on mobile devices than learning. Anyway, I need to explore possibilities of how best to use technology as a tool for teaching and learning when I finally get back to Uganda. I hope to visit some classrooms here and get some practical experiences. African teachers need adequate training before introducung technology.

  5. Comment by Rosalind Gater posted on

    Prakash and Wayan - thank you for your useful critques. I appreciate that you've both flagged up that my definition is lacking. To make it clear that edtech is not limited to hardware, do you think I could change it to: 'Examples include hardware and digital innovations, including but not limited to mobile phones, tablets and cameras on the hardware side and Open Educational Resources and electronic data collection software on the digital side', or something similar?

    Wayan - in terms of your pedagogy point, I would argue that while pedagogy is a critical part of making edtech impactful, it's not strictly an example of edtech. I could however include a reference to the centrality of pedagogy at the beginning of the definition: 'Educational technology is that technology which, in conjunction with appropraite pedagogy, intends to....' What do you think?

  6. Comment by Rosalind Gater posted on

    Denis - thank you for your useful comment. I agree with you that it often seems that young people use technology primarily for social networking, which certainly has its benefits. But I also agree that we need to harnass the potential of technology to raise learning outcomes, which may in fact include some social networking!

    I'm sure it will be fascinating to learn more about how technology is being used in Ugandan classrooms. Perhaps you could blog about your experiences?

  7. Comment by Mike Trucano posted on

    Hi Rosalind,

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post (and the flattering reference 🙂 ).

    For what it's worth, my personal working (and rather elastic) definition considers the "use of digital and electronic technologies, and the approaches that such technologies help enable, to support teaching and learning". In other words, it is about the tools, and the application of those tools, as part of the process of discovery that we label 'education', which occurs inside and outside of classrooms, in settings formal and informal, in ways that are mediated and/or directed (for example by teachers, but not only by them), which are collaborative (as when 'students' learn together) and/or which are individual or self-directed.

    I would recommend caution when trying to color your definition with value judgments, e.g. with notions of what can be 'proven'. It is the application of certain technology-enabled approaches in certain ways in certain contexts that can be shown to be effective (or not) -- the technologies themselves are what they are.

    As for the question of whether or not Dfid should be involved in this field ... this query is largely rhetorical, I would assume. Like it or not (and there is a lot to like ... and a lot not to like too!), Dfid is involved already, and can't afford not to be, in this field, whether or not it has an official or unofficial related strategy or guidance. Even where development assistance monies from the UK do not support 'edtech' efforts directly, Dfid (like other donors, including the one for which I work) will be operating in places where edtech is increasingly available, and this availability (and hopefully usage) changes the calculus of what is possible, what is affordable, and what is advisable. Indeed, we already are.

    In some cases, this may mean that Dfid may be involved in efforts to help salvage 'failed' investments in edtech of various sorts. In others it may mean that edtech options may be quite relevant when considering how to help improve situations where failure has been achieved absent the utilization of any educational technologies at all. Where countries have deficits of tens of thousands of teachers, where a good percentage of children in the fifth grade can not read a single sentence, where half of girls are out of school (all unfortunately examples of current realities in some individual countries where Dfid and other donors work) --> such circumstances represent failures of fundamental and unacceptable sorts.

    For such situations to be 'fixed' (and I recognize that this terminology is problematic, although deploying it here allows me to utilize the folowing metaphor), we shouldn't restrict the potential tools we have at our disposal based on whether or not their use requires a battery or power cable.

    Pronouncements (including those masquerading as 'research') from technology vendors and various techno-utopian visionaries should be questioned, of course -- but so should those from the Luddite ('we tried that before and it didn't work and so nothing will work') camp.

    Success in this field is achieved as a result of iteration. I would argue that success in all fields is a result of iteration, from trying things and learning from what you do, with lots of mistakes made along the way -- but the requirement to iterate to success seems especially acute in the edtech field. This is one reason that I am often dismayed about declarations of 'pilotitus'. In my mind, we actually have *too few* pilot projects in this field. We have lots of things that are self-labelled as pilots, but which are in reality just small projects that are small not because people are trying to learn from them in a rigorous way before applying lessons from this learning more broadly, but rather because there are only a limited amounts of funding available, typically for a limited amount of time. A pilot project should be testing hypotheses and approaches -- and then feeding what is learned as a result into the re-design of projects, or the design of new ones. Whether something is rigorously evaluated and then labelled a success or failure after the fact is often a worthy academic exercise, but even more valuable would be the light application of our increasingly powerful analytical tools to help evaluate what is happening *right now* so we can make changes *right now* -- or, more practically, *as soon as possible* (in other words, long before a project is 'completed'). One nice thing about edtech projects in this regard is that they tend to throw off a lot of data! You just have to figure out what to do with it, or at a minimum make the commitment to do so as part of a process of piloting and learning.

    Good luck with your work! I look forward to your next post.


  8. Comment by Wayan Vota posted on

    Pedagodical change is key. ICTs enable a redesign of the learning experience, from rote memorization and regurgitation to self-directed learning and content creation where the educator can track and diagnose interventions in real time.

    Using computers to move from chalk & talk to power point & talk is a waste of ICT & young minds, but too often that's the outcome if changing pedagogy isn't an explicit part/goal of the project.

    In fact, I'd rather see pedagodical change w/o tech than tech w/o new pedagogy.

  9. Comment by Wayan posted on

    As to social media and learning, here are 7 reasons Facebook is an educational tool:

  10. Comment by Rosalind Gater posted on

    Mike - thank you for your constructive and detailed response. A lot to chew on here.

    First, the definition - I agree that my version is too specific and focuses too heavily on the technology in question and not its application. A revision is underway!

    Second, in pondering the question of proof, I suppose what I am really asking is whether we should be aiming eventually for some sort of minimum standard for educational technology. Just as in many countries there are minimum norms and standards for classroom infrastructure, textbooks and school sanitation, shouldn't we insist that educational technologies also pass a test of quality assurance? Which begs the question, what might be the criteria?

    Third, I agree that participation in this field is a non-negotiable. As you say, DFID is already participating, both deliberately as as a natural result of the rapid spread of low cost technology. The question is, how can DFID and other donors ensure they are informed and using that knowledge, be sensible and strategic about investing in programs, research and evaluation?

    Finally, pilotitis. As someone new to this field I have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of devices, programs and pilots out there, but as you say, all this activity isn't necessarily a bad thing! Undoubtedly, the process of trying things out, evaluating impact and iterating serives or devices based on findings is critical. My question is about communication; are these results readily available? How can donors stay informed as implementers move through the process?

    Thanks again for your great comments - you've given me a lot to think about!

  11. Comment by Tonee Ndungu posted on

    Thanks for pointing me to the blog Rosalind.

    I am in edTech and even as an innovation architect, the people I have had the pleasure of meeting in edtech still don't really know what that is. It is a lot like social media. We think we know what that is, but we really don't. We immediately think Facebook or Twitter but that would be because they are largely successful. An analysis of the term social media has grown to include extranet as well as intranet solutions that hardly anyone knows about but that are used in massive companies like TNT and Hyatt.

    My point is, in my opinion, edtech is more a space rather than a solution. A lot of us in tech are in fact very inclined to just call it 'innovation that supports education' simply because there are some thing edtech definitions will never cover like the solar led pen. A simple pen, with a small solar panel on it that charges a little led light on the top of the pen that lights the book at night for the students to read and can then make notes using the same pen.

    I think, to find real success in edtech, let's keep trying. Something, following the laws of probability, will eventually stick. And even when it does, it may not stick everywhere and something else would have to work there. But as Mike said, there is a stark reality in education that has consumed countries in many parts of the world that edtech might be able to change and affect.

    Then there is the training issue that is another point of contention in edtech that I was in a conversation about at a recent TechCruch event in Berlin. Think of all the successful applications in most social media spaces and try find out how many had a training budget. Not that it is not important to do so, but with 750 million users on social media daily, they had nothing for training. They had a user adaptive approach and the training budget was spent on design. There is an excellent TED talk in design ( that clearly specifies that if edtech is going to be a central point of interest, the design must be too.

    From my point of view, if you are to do a policy on edtech, then you have to incorporate the murky waters of user centric design.

    On everything else, I think Mike's points are valid and the direction in which the global edtch conversation is heading.

  12. Comment by zeeshan Danish posted on

  13. Comment by CDL posted on

    Virtual education is the education technology of the future, and it is just now beginning to take off. Case in point. Some truck driving schools are using virtual trucks to teach students how to operate a Class A or Class B commercial vehicle instead of using a real truck.. The virtual truck is a truck cab with a huge video screen and has a clutch, brake pedal, gas pedal, and steering wheel just like a real truck, but without the maintenance, fuel costs, and road related dangers of a real truck. Seems to be a much safer and more cost-effective way to teach students how to operate a CMV.