EdTech call for ideas: What have we learned from the applications?

This is part of our coronavirus (COVID-19) and EdTech series.

On 21st April, we launched a call for ideas for EdTech in responses to coronavirus and the lockdown of schools around the world. 

Three weeks later, we’ve taken a slice of the first 100 responses and analysed the data. Combining this with conversations our team is having every day with technologists and innovators around the world, we’ve sought to answer: what do these innovators need right now? In future blogs, we’ll cut the data in different ways to answer other questions.

Nearly 20% of the world’s population is now in need of an alternative way to learn. Not just learners, but teachers, parents, education authorities and ecosystems are all having to adapt to a new normal. At the EdTech Hub, we believe technologies have something to offer in this context for low and middle income countries. 

Below we talk about the different sources of support EdTech innovators need. Spoiler alert: funding is top. More surprising perhaps, are some of the other themes and insights once you dig deeper into the data. 

Funding: 88 applications. 
Trusted partnerships: 40 applications. 
Education expertise: 25 applications
Technology expertise: 11 applications
Technical partnership: 7 applications
Marketing: 7 applications
Research support: 5 applications
Themes drawn from answer to the question: What kind of support are you in most need of in order to make your EdTech initiative successful?

Funding – boldness and flexibility

Funding is the top need highlighted by EdTech innovators. ‘Bottom up’ initiatives, often sprung up directly in response to COVID-19, have tended to request US$10,000 to $50,000. More mature innovations seeking to scale up have requested US$500,000 to $1 million. Un short: there are opportunities for cheques of all sizes to catalyse impact.

What innovators say they’ll spend the money on can be split into four major themes: hiring people; investing in tech (for example hardware); working capital and operational costs; and marketing and distribution channels.

From conversations with innovators, we’ve also heard the need for existing funders (whether donors or private investors) to be flexible – with targets, milestones, and disbursement patterns. 

For EdTech innovators, COVID-19 represents a challenge and an opportunity. Alongside more demand for what they build, innovators also face massive disruptions in adapting their supply chains, ways of working, and any in-person components to their product or service.

The trusted partnership: stuff money can’t buy

Besides funding, we’re consistently hearing that the number one need for EdTech innovators is trusted partnerships, to help get the product or innovation into the communities that need it most. 

“How do we catch those who aren’t online? In other words, students in public schools and children from low or even middle income families?”

Founder of an EdTech startup, Nigeria

Innovators like the one quoted above understand that people from low-income or marginalised contexts won’t just stumble across what they’re offering. They need a partner – whether it’s government at local or national level, NGOs, a school(s) or education authority, or other local organisation – to distribute or implement the innovation. This could mean taking it to communities affected by the global learning crisis, contextualising the product, on-boarding users, navigating local customs and intricacies, and so on.

A good example of the kinds of support an EdTech innovator needed is summed up in one quote from the Founder of an EdTech startup in Myanmar:

“I need to import my hardware – but there’s regulation against importing comms devices. I know we must be able to work through and around this – but how?”

Five times as many innovators sought this trusted partnership over “marketing” support. Truly, they perceived the local knowledge and connections a partner could bring as something money can’t buy.  

In return, it was striking to read how many EdTech innovators were willing to work as partners – rather than ‘suppliers’ – and tailor their work based on the wisdom of potential trusted partners.

If you work with students, teachers, parents or communities affected by the global learning crisis, know that there is a talented pool of innovators eager to work with you!

I know the technology, but need education know-how

Next in the list of innovator needs was education know-how. This took several forms. Most straightforward was the need to create high-quality content. In the words of the CEO of a startup building an online platform in Malawi: 

“We need to create more content, cover more subjects, create more classes. The global COVID pandemic means we have to shift from secondary to primary education. We need more qualified teachers, more illustrators”

We found two interesting variations on this. Firstly, many EdTech innovators wanted support ‘localising’ content, translating it or making it suitable for particular communities. We suspect that in a global pandemic, where an innovator once served a particular country, their innovation now has global relevance – and so needs content relevant for communities around the world. Linked to this, EdTech innovators also sought more general pedagogy expertise, particularly on the interface of tech and education. 

“A lot of our users, although they are refugees or internally displaced, have Whatsapp or access to Whatsapp. But it’s not really well set up for remote learning? How do you effectively use pedagogy with it?”

Founder of an EdTech startup, UK (operating in Jordan) 

Meeting communities where they are – and trying to get them a good-quality of education – requires know-how in ‘what works’ with different tools and technologies. But there’s a research gap, and where it exists it isn’t always accessible or practically applicable for innovators. 

Bringing the ‘tech’ in EdTech

Further down the list, we saw innovators request both technology expertise and technical partnerships. 

That this was (relatively) low down the list of priority needs for EdTech innovators reflects the importance of pedagogy, policy, and place-based factors – beyond the tech itself – in scaling EdTech for impact. 

It might also reflect that our acceleration call and day-to-day engagement targets EdTech innovators working in low-income settings, and therefore working with ‘low tech – radio, TV, SMS, voice call. Technology expertise wanted by EdTech innovators was generally related to design, user experience (UX), and app or software development. These functions are mostly only relevant when building for communities with smartphones or laptops – a small subset of those not able to go to school.

“I need capable developers, capable designers – but I can’t find them in Myanmar. I can’t keep doing all this myself”

Founder of an EdTech startup, Myanmar

Technical partnerships sought by EdTech innovators aimed to accelerate scale: for example, cloud hosting partnerships with large service providers, or data provision partnerships with telecoms giants. Generally, startups didn’t have the connections with power players in the large corporates, but were eager to get access and capitalise on the sentiment to support those affected by COVID19.

Does this sound like you?

The EdTech Hub is eager to connect those who are willing and able to support with the innovators that could use it most. If that sounds like you, drop us a note at COVIDcall@edtechhub.org

If you are an EdTech innovator looking to pitch to funders, our call for ideas is still open

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