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All for one and one for all: a call to unite to promote research in educational technology

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

Question: What word inspires fear in companies that sell educational technology?
Answer: Research.

Why? Because snazzy as edtech 'solutions' may seem, research to prove a positive relationship between edtech initiatives and improved learning in the developing world is limited, inconsistent and inconclusive.

Brothers Faisal (left, 6 yrs) and Amir (right, 7 yrs) at their primary school in Muzaffargarh, Sindh. Picture: Victoria Francis/DFID
Brothers Faisal (left, 6 yrs) and Amir (right, 7 yrs) at their primary school in Muzaffargarh, Sindh. Picture: Victoria Francis/DFID

We all want the silver bullet to immediately solve the global learning crisis. With pressure on developing country governments to improve school enrolment and enhance learning outcomes in the run-up to 2015, edtech is sold as a quick-fix way to get more children in school and benefitting from  a '21st century education'. Whether forging partnerships or meeting targets, it can seem a ‘quick win’ for donors, technology companies and governments alike.

But there's a problem. Delving further into the use of edtech in developing countries, it's clear that there is a distinct lack of rigorous research to show the impact edtech programs have on learning. Although it might seem to be a rapid solution, without systematic evaluation of edtech initiatives, investments are unlikely to lead to a long-term, sustainable improvement in student learning.

Further, there have been few attempts to appraise, synthesise and summarise the evidence that does exist. Over the next 3 months, education advisors, lead academics and members of the Health & Education Advice and Resource Team (HEART) - a consortium of leading organisations in education, health, development and nutrition - will work together to compile an edtech topic guide. The topic guide aims to explore the relationship between educational technology and improved teaching and learning in developing countries, and will include a strong emphasis on value for money, to inform and guide decision making.

The evidence (or lack thereof) for edtech initiatives

The Education Policy Team at DFID recently held an internal reading event for education advisers to explore the evidence around edtech and learning, led by David Hollow of Jigsaw Consult. We looked at several evaluations: the 'One Laptop Per Child' programme in Peru, evidence released last year on the impact of computer assisted learning and the DFID funded 'English in Action' program in Bangladesh. Unsurprisingly, 1 of the key conclusions we reached was that more independent research is needed to understand the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of edtech interventions for learning.

There are only a handful of really credible and rigorous studies of edtech initiatives in developing countries, a situation criticised by many. According to Global e-Schools and Communities Initiative (GESCI), on average only 70 research articles on edtech, ICT or computing in education came out annually between 2006 - 2010. Of these, about 52 were published in specialist edtech journals, and only around 18 were published in non-ICT specialist journals. This suggests that edtech research is still emergent in mainstream educational policy and practice. Most edtech initiatives are going ahead without credible evidence base behind them.

Just as disturbing as the number of studies available is the scope of the studies. Most evidence that exists focuses on quantitative measures to evaluate the number of devices distributed, or sometimes changed attitudes to schooling as a result of edtech. The majority of evidence does not focus on the relationship between edtech and learning outcomes. While clearly complex to achieve, the few studies that do exist show that exploring this relationship is possible.

A final concern is around the use of research: once credible research in a certain area exists, to what extent is it used in relevant program design and implementation? While perhaps not the sole objective of the project, the IDB's evaluation of the 'One Laptop per Child' project in Peru found that the intervention had little measurable impact on learning outcomes, and yet, national laptop roll out programs are springing up everywhere. How can we ensure research is accessible, engaging and most importantly, used?

Why is edtech adopted without an evidence-base?

There are several reasons for the rapid adoption of edtech products without a credible evidence base:

  • edtech is often seen to be 'too new' to have evidence
  • it is trusted to 'just work', even if the reason why it works is not known
  • much of the evidence that exists is anecdotal and often taken from exceptional beneficiaries

The ideal future of edtech: investment in research

Research is essential if we are to have a relevant and credible knowledge base to make effective decisions.

Research is essential if we are to have a relevant and credible knowledge base to make effective decisions and advise government on which edtech interventions – if any – are cost effective and likely to make a difference to learning outcomes.

Although edtech is relatively new, we need to rigorously evaluate programmes in different locations and different contexts, in order to learn from what we are doing and apply interventions that work in other situations. To understand the minutiae of exactly which component of an intervention works is more valuable than simply concluding that it does work, as it may not be the technology itself which is making the difference, but the comprehensive package of training, management and resources around it.

We also need to ensure that the impact of edtech interventions is evaluated on the basis of its original objectives, and not on improvements in other areas which may not have occurred as a direct result of the intervention. In the long run, a stronger evidence base is likely to lead to increased support for investments in edtech and most importantly, improved learning outcomes for the children who need them.

DFID, along with other donors, developing country governments, the private sector, NGOs and technology companies large and small, need to prioritise research, and set aside funds to do it properly. We need to move from anecdotal evidence to outcome-based evidence. Ultimately, we all have a moral imperative to promote the research agenda, so we can collaborate to improve education for all children across the globe.

This post was co-authored by Grace Wood, Education Policy Officer at DFID and Rosalind Gater.


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  1. Comment by andrew posted on

    Think your doing a great job