Supporting innovation in the time of COVID: What we’ve done and what we’ll do next

When COVID-19 emerged as a clear and present danger, we in the Hub innovation team were forced to rethink our plans for 2020. We previously told you about our work and how it looks to support and scale innovation with real people in real life. Now we had to reassess what this would look like and how it could be most effective in responding to global school closures. 

Our colleagues quickly surfaced the best evidence on how to deliver education content to children at home in low-resource settings —  we recommend reading these insightful blogs on TV and radio

Meanwhile, in the innovation team, we have been thinking about how to spot the most promising interventions and help them to scale faster. COVID-19 provides a new, crystal clear focus on interventions that consider how to reduce the impact of school closures on learning and how to strengthen education systems for the longer term.

Our approach to achieving this is to:

  1. Identify promising ideas through an open call 
  2. Act as a Hub for action by inviting others in the sector to hear from the most promising ideas at our EdTech Pitch Days 
  3. Fund and support implementation of ideas through sandboxes (we’ll be writing more on this in future posts)

What we’ve done so far 

Identifying promising ideas 

We closed our call for ideas with over 370 applications from over 50 countries, focused on everything from early childhood development to STEM, and leveraging technology from radio to mobile applications. We’ll analyse this long list to spot trends and better understand the EdTech landscape. You can read our analysis of the first 100 applications we received here.

We know the value of this dataset we have built up. That’s why we’ve worked to design openness into our process, to ensure all this hard work can benefit others. After being rigorously reviewed by education experts from across our partnership, the most promising ideas are included in the databases of both the Global Innovation Exchange and the EdTech Hub

This gives greater exposure to all the ideas even if they don’t make it through to the Pitch Day, while also adding to the collective and public understanding of what’s out there. 

Acting as a Hub 

In May, we invited 6 organisations from the first 50 applications to pitch their ideas at our virtual EdTech Pitch Day. At the end of this blog, you can read an overview of each organisation and their idea. 

We designed this call so that it would support and coordinate action across the sector rather than just serve our own pipeline of work. The Pitch Day gave applicants exposure to education donors and investors, facilitated connections to world-leading experts, and identified opportunities for collaboration.

We invited people from across the education sector to be in the audience and hear the pitches. But more than that, we invited them to join as part of an Action Committee. This meant taking part in a conversation with the EdTech Hub and mEducation Alliance right after the ideas had been pitched to discuss whether to, and ways to, support each initiative. 

These are some of the other organisations that were present in the Action Committee. 

Huge thanks to our partners – mEducation Alliance, Global Innovation Exchange, Afrilabs, Centre for Education Innovations, VC4A and UNHCR for supporting the call and spreading the word across their networks as well. 

How this is informing our next steps 

This is some of what we’ve learnt so far which is informing our thinking about the future, and how we can maximise our impact. 

  1. There aren’t many opportunities like this to talk openly about what they’d need to see in order to support an initiative. We were delighted by the range of participants that contributed to a discussion about the strengths of each initiative, as well as being frank about what was missing for them to be considered for funding and support. 
  2. Players in the sector have similar concerns with different priorities within the COVID response (for example early learning or refugees). Many felt this was still a useful opportunity to collaborate and coordinate efforts, and being in the same (virtual) room allowed people to hear what each other were grappling with.  
  3. As we expected, the Pitch Day is only the beginning. People can’t commit to supporting an initiative in the moment but gave thorough and useful feedback and expressed interest in follow-on conversations. 

What we’re doing next: 

  • Thematic Pitch Days and Action Committees: Due to the incredible numbers of applications, we have decided to postpone the next Pitch Day until mid-June. This will give us more time to review the applications carefully and consider the best way to structure the events around themes of interest. 
  • Double down focus on refugee support: We are running a short call to identify more initiatives that support refugees with UNHCR. Any refugee-related applications we have already received will be considered for that specific Pitch Day. 
  • Link up with upcoming events: We’re linking up with the upcoming mEducation Alliance events on games and play in learning and opportunities for selected applicants to get exposure. 
  • Extend the community: We want to explore a more ongoing community so that the opportunity to engage is not a one-off but a continued conversation. 
  • You’re invited: We are always looking for more partners in this process. If you are interested in being part of the Action Committee for future events or have other partnership ideas, then please contact us at

The first six successful applicants 

Educators International has developed Phonics by Phone to provide teacher training in basic literacy (phonics method), basic mathematics and accurate student assessment – using digital technology via the teacher’s own mobile phone.
Kytabu’s goal during COVID-19 is to support all schools in their transition to an online management system. This includes managing a virtual team of teachers, digital learning resources on the web and on mobile, reaching parents/caregivers to share a calendar of activities, and collect school fees virtually. 
Tap Tap Read (by AutoCognita) is a literacy learning platform that helps organizations to rapidly and economically create literacy apps in local languages for mobile devices. Learners can teach themselves foundational reading skills via lessons that are engaging, interactive, and self-checking. Because lessons can be accessed offline, users can learn anytime and anywhere. No teacher or school required.
Edkasa exists to make quality teachers accessible to students in the most marginalized sections of Pakistani society. Unlike formal education, access to high speed internet is growing and is already available to millions of Pakistani households. Edkasa employs, trains, and equips highly qualified teachers to teach online across Pakistan in a one to many classroom model.
eduvidNG  is a digital mobile pedagogical intervention, for out of school students in emerging economies. Seeking to leverage on a scalable mobile video technology which uses an algorithm that reduces the file sizes of Khan Academy style videos to 1MB/hr without any loss of quality, which enables online video based education at low costs.
Curious Learning curates, localizes, and distributes free smartphone applications that allow everyone to learn to read, they promote self-learning so the youngest children can learn without direction. The apps are an effective support for children both in and out of school.
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