Old and New School: Understanding non-structural barriers to achieving equity in education through EdTech

This guest post from The Busara Center for Behavioral Economics team members focuses on understanding non-structural barriers to achieving equity in education through EdTech.

Classical economists put forward that “more is always better,” suggesting that having more options should always improve your situation (or at least keep it the same) no matter what the additional choice is, or when the information about additional options reaches you. Think of it like being at a new restaurant, you peruse the menu and decide what you want to eat. As you’re placing your order, you notice an additional page on the menu with more delicious alternatives. Now you are doubting yourself, potentially unable to make a new choice, and maybe annoyed at having to re-think your pick. Rational choice further posits that access to something should primarily be predicted by structural factors, like owning the necessary hardware or living in a place connected to the electricity network. 

While expanding opportunities and providing structural basics is necessary, it is likely not sufficient to achieve equity in EdTech. Behavioural economists have proven that people can get confused both about their general preferences, as well as about the ranking of choices when options become too many or societal attitudes and norms alter one’s own value judgement. These are called non-structural barriers to access, and these were elicited when schools were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to a lower than expected adoption of EdTech.

In partnership with Busara Center for Behavioral Economics and Ubongo, EdTech Hub conducted a study to understand the barriers to access and use of EdTech in low-income settings in Kenya for girls aged 7–14 years.

For context, the Covid-19 pandemic caused the closure of 90,000 schools in Kenya, disrupting the education of 18 million learners. This disruption exacerbates an already existing gender learning gap in Kenya, which has put girls at a disadvantage with their education. As such, parents and students sought ways to continue learning from home. As soon as it was clear that schools would not reopen for a while, a multitude of educational technology companies started a wider push of their content and products, in many cases, for free. Parents and students were faced with an unexpected amount of freedom and choice around how to organise learning and education.

We found that EdTech offers weren’t taken up as much as expected, and only textbooks and printed materials were considered sufficient for at-home learning. While definite causal conclusions would require a larger research effort, our quantitative and qualitative findings hint at the following most probable storyline as the reason why.

  • Perceptions Caregivers think the only way to provide learning materials is through textbooks, which can be costly. Thus, their perceived ability to support their children’s education is limited by their impression of the affordability of educational resources. Respondents often construed this dilemma as a tradeoff between providing their children with basic needs versus providing for their education.
  • Knowledge and information processing Given the above situation, caregivers concluded that there are not enough learning materials available. This is not necessarily because the information about new learning opportunities didn’t reach people; one question in our survey asked about which EdTech services caregivers had heard about, and the most popular ones — Akili and Me, Ubongo Kids, and Shupavu (Eneza) — were known by 96%, 93%, and 46% of caregivers respectively. Instead, it could be that caregivers do not consider EdTech content to be ‘proper’ learning material. Although it is unclear why caregivers do not consider EdTech content as an alternative to textbooks, the results of the study suggest it is because the link between EdTech materials and the national curriculum is not obvious. This was the number one priority in choosing learning materials for almost half of the respondents in our survey, and the second most important priority for another 25%, and this hindered caregivers from seeing the full value of the products available.
  • Ability and need for guidance Lack of mental processing space is also likely, many caregivers spoke about the need for guidance. They often did not feel qualified nor did they have the time and energy to take the information they read and pass judgement themselves. Instead, they sought professional advice regarding lesson planning, what materials to use, and someone to direct their children’s questions to, and were thus more likely to default to what they already know (‘the familiar’). 
  • Behaviour. The Intention-Action Gap (the gap between respondents’ self-reported intentions / attitudes and behaviour) In many cases, ‘the familiar’ wasn’t affordable. Even though respondents expressed approval of technological innovations in education, their concerns about EdTech content often outweighed its perceived benefits. Caregivers’ concerns included the easier access EdTech provides to inappropriate or adult content, a child’s lack of responsibility, and the risk of technology dependence. 
  • Norm dissonance While respondents value and intend to educate their children equally, regardless of gender, reports of behaviour in the wider community indicated otherwise. Caregivers described their communities as prioritising boys’ education over that of girls’. This suggests that although individual norms may have shifted, community norms prevent families from acting in accordance with their individual norms.

In short, more is not always better as uptake depends on structural (i.e. hardware / software) access or the theoretical ability to use EdTech, as well as the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour around choosing to embrace and use EdTech resources. Service providers should ideally take preferences (i.e., links to curriculum), concerns (i.e., can free online services be trusted or will they negatively affect one’s children?), and information flows (i.e., who should ideally recommend a service for people to consider the advice; messenger effect) into account. Additionally, policymakers can make a difference by signalling their approval of EdTech resources, and by providing teacher training to improve guidance to caregivers and learners, thus enabling an environment that uses old and new school techniques to achieve equity in education.

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