Our Strategy, Part 1: Empowering decision-makers with evidence to improve learning for all

For the last five months, EdTech Hub has been exploring and refining our strategy for advancing evidence in EdTech for low- and middle-income countries. We invite you to explore our thinking for how we will carry out this mission within our context and in partnership with the global EdTech community.

Verna Lalbeharie, Executive Director

Thank you to all of our peer reviewers: Waseem Ajmal, Andrew Ashe, Anthony Bloome, Nicholas Burnett, Victoria Collis, Nat Dinham, Saqib Farooq, Sachin Gathani, Gouri Gupta, Dan Wagner.

Where we are today: A global learning crisis, while the world is rapidly advancing around us

Even before Covid-19 closed schools around the world, there were 258 million children globally who are out of school according to a 2019 UIS report. Many millions more continue to experience severe disruption to their schooling because of the restrictions associated with Covid-19. Access to education is crucial but the bigger challenge is ensuring that children can engage in productive learning. We are in a global learning crisis, and it is the poorest children who are most affected. 

Collectively, the global community is making little progress towards Sustainable Development Goal #4 which aims for inclusive, equitable, and quality education for all by 2030 (⇡UNESCO, 2019).

Meanwhile, digital disruption has already resulted in transformative changes to sectors such as entertainment, finance, and agriculture, among others. This change is expected to continue at pace as technological evolutions allow us to reimagine previously unchallengeable norms, processes, and behaviours. 

In entertainment, there has been a transition from one to many broadcasts to one-to-one, highly personalised, on-demand entertainment with platforms like Spotify and Netflix. Finance has turned every phone into a bank terminal, much of which was pioneered by M-Pesa in Kenya. In agriculture, the emergence of artificial intelligence to provide predictions about crop yields, and the use of remote sensors to support real-time adjustments to approaches is revolutionising the way farmers around the world manage their resources.

Against this backdrop, leaders in governments and others, like funding agencies, the private sector, and civil society are pressured to make decisions about how to accelerate learning, and they are turning to technology as part of the solution. These decision-makers urgently require easily accessible and contextually relevant evidence. 

There are significant gaps in the evidence on how to use technology in education in a high-impact and cost-effective way at scale. This makes it difficult for decision-makers to plan and fund effective technology-enabled interventions and for classroom teachers to know how to use technology to improve learning outcomes for children. 

We, at EdTech Hub, recognise that technology has the potential to transform teaching and learning. However, we do not see it as a panacea to addressing the global learning crisis. Our goal is to empower decision-makers by providing the rigorous evidence necessary to make informed decisions about technology in education.

EdTech Hub’s footprint to date.

Where we want to be: EdTech Hub envisions a world with clear evidence, better decisions, and more learning

EdTech Hub is a global research partnership. We exist to play our part in shaping a world where decisions are informed by evidence, so that EdTech interventions can help improve learning outcomes for children. We believe our contribution can enable a world where:

Decision-makers will demand and have access to evidence

  • Influential research efforts (e.g., the Smart Buys and the Building Evidence in Education group) will be able to compile a critical mass of evidence on how EdTech can improve learning in specific topics.
  • This evidence and ‘how’ to use it will be easily accessed by decision-makers responsible for education policies.
  • Our focus countries will be examples of good practice in the generation and use of evidence to improve practices in EdTech — inspiring other countries to do the same. 

Effective, equitable, and affordable EdTech solutions will be scaled

  • Several EdTech interventions will be operating at scale with replicable impact. 
  • The bar will be raised on what is considered to be a ‘high-impact’ on outcomes through technology. The sector default will be to invest in technology interventions that will have a proven impact on learning outcomes, at an affordable cost-at-scale of less than USD 5 per child per year. 
  • There will be consistent guidance on how implementers should approach cost-effectiveness and transparent full-cost assessments will increasingly be an industry norm — not spin or anecdote.
  • Sustainability and scale will be embedded from the outset of all projects. 

Learning outcomes for all children in low- and middle-income countries will improve

  • Half a billion children will have benefited from changes in practice and the implementation of effective digital personalised learning, improved teaching, and messaging interventions.

How we’re going to get there: Key shifts we will contribute to, now and next

Our goal is to expand the global evidence base and influence policy and practice on the use of EdTech in low- and middle-income countries. We are doing this by focusing deeply at the national level in six countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Tanzania.

We work at the national level, side-by-side with our in-country partners to address key challenges. We draw together our insights across multiple countries to contribute to global understanding of a particular topic, sharing our evidence with interested audiences beyond our six focus countries.

Over the next five years, with support from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, FCDO, UNICEF, World Bank, and other partners, we will focus on a few key shifts, which, if made, we believe will create a meaningful change in the education sector and help address the global learning crisis. We at EdTech Hub will contribute to the global body of knowledge in each case, working  with others who complement our work.

1. Improve learning for 100 million children through teacher professional development 

School-based “Community of Learning” approaches to teacher professional development have been shown to work at small scale and create improvements in pedagogy, teacher subject knowledge, and teaching efficacy. Scaling-up this best practice could improve learning outcomes for 100 million children in low- and middle-income countries

Q: How can technology enhance teacher effectiveness through in-service teacher professional development and structured pedagogy? 

A sample of our work towards this shift includes: 

  • Understanding how primary teachers in Bangladesh use digital tools and resources to develop their professional knowledge and practice, and whether this improves teaching and learning in numeracy — with Open University and Mobile Learning for Empowerment of Marginalised Mathematics Educators)
  • Supporting the governments in Sierra Leone and Tanzania to develop, test, and implement a new technology-enabled teacher continuous professional development (TCPD) plan — with HakiElimu and the Education Development Trust. 
  • Understanding the impact of a new technology-supported, school-based TCPD model on learning outcomes in Tanzania. 
  • Testing the role of a virtual learning environment in supporting teachers in Zanzibar.

Others contributing to the topic include:

  • In Sierra Leone, a mixed-methods study including RCT is funded by E-Cubed (INEE/Dubai Cares), this research is being undertaken by Open Development & Education, and will align with the Hub-funded research in Tanzania.
  • Shule Bora will be implementing the TCPD plan in Tanzania from 2022 – we will be working closely with them to ensure our findings form the foundation of their work.

2. Influence how money is spent on personalised learning

Significant financial resources are being invested in a wide range of digital personalised learning programmes, but there is no clear evidence on whether they are more effective as a complement or substitute to other learning content, and how they might be used in low-and middle-income countries . Clear evidence on pedagogically appropriate, cost-effective digital personalised learning will guide investment in these programmes to have increased impact on learning outcomes.

Q: How can technology be used at scale to maximise the effectiveness of digital personalised learning (DPL) and teaching at the level of the student?

A sample of our work towards this shift includes: 

  • Investigating how best to integrate the insights from personalised learning to boost student outcomes and enable more effective teaching approaches — with CERP and Harvard in Pakistan. 
  • Understanding how phone-based tutoring / teaching at the right level can improve learning outcomes in Sierra Leone and Kenya — with Young1ove. 
  • Testing and implementing a digital personalised learning intervention in Kenya, and understanding contextually appropriate approaches for integrating DPL in primary schools — with Eidu. 
  • Understand ways that DPL can enhance the role that parents / carers play in learning around foundational literacy in Kenya — with WorldReader. 
  • Understand how learning occurs on an offline DPL platform in Kenya — with Oppia. 
  • Working with governments and other education stakeholders in Bangladesh, Kenya, Pakistan, and Tanzania and beyond to identify ways in which EdTech can support students to access content at their proximal level of learning. 

Others contributing to the topic include:

  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, and the Jacobs Foundation, among others, are investing in better understanding and implementation of digital personalised learning as a means to rapidly accelerate learning outcomes at scale.

3. End simplistic approaches to messaging 

Messaging is considered to be the most cost-effective means of increasing Learning-Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS). However, the evidence for this is limited and there is a lack of understanding regarding the factors that make messaging more or less effective in certain contexts. This combination means that policymakers tend to invest in messaging in overly simplistic ways, assuming it to be a silver bullet. Clear evidence on how messaging should be used in different contexts will increase the impact it has on participation and learning outcomes. 

Q: How can nudge technologies and messaging apps be used to re-engage students, reduce the number of out-of-school children, and make meaningful long-term improvements to learning outcomes?

A sample of our work towards this shift includes: 

  • Understanding how messaging works alongside phone-based tutoring to improve foundational numeracy in Sierra Leone and Kenya — with Young1ove. 
  • Understanding how SMS is used in Kenya to facilitate education for girls — with mShule.
  • Understanding how messaging is used to promote participation and return to school of girls and marginalised learners in Ghana — with Eneza. 
  • Supporting the Keep Kenya Learning initiative to gain insights into how messaging can be used to increase caregiver confidence and capacity to support learning at home. 

Others contributing to the topic:

  • The World Bank’s Strategy and Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF) evaluations focused on messaging use a range of experimental designs in their research examining the impact and cost-effectiveness of messaging interventions. This includes (at least) three impact evaluations on messaging using the SIEF costing framework, which is aligned well with the Hub’s work on cost-effectiveness, providing potential sector-wide impact.

4. Improve learning outcomes for girls

Girls are educationally marginalised in most countries. Technology can either exacerbate or reduce education inequality for girls depending on the ways in which it is used. When used effectively, technology can be used as a tool to help break down the barriers that stop female students all over the world from accessing and progressing in high-quality education. We have specific studies focused on girls and EdTech, and a gender lens is also applied to all our work as a cross-cutting theme. 

Q: How can TCPD, DPL, and participation and messaging be approached in a way that maximises benefit for girls’ education?

A sample of our work towards this shift includes: 

  • Capturing evidence on current good practices on how technology can help improve outcomes for girls through learning from the portfolio of the Girls’ Education Challenge. This applies across all of our focus countries to inform work on all other topic areas.
  • Understanding how to use messaging to promote participation in schools for girls in Kenya — with mShule. 
  • Understanding how edutainment can improve outcomes for girls in Kenya 

and Tanzania — with Busara and Ubongo.

  • Working with UNICEF Bangladesh to understand how technology can be used to support better basic literacy and numeracy outcomes among girls in rural Bangladesh. 

Others contributing to the topic:

  • The Girls’ Education Challenge portfolio has included a range of technology-based interventions including work with Promoting Equality in African Schools (PEAS), iMlango, and Plan International.

5. Enhance data-driven decision-making

Poor availability of data — as well as the limited use of data for effective decision-making — are obstacles to improving educational outcomes. Digitisation efforts in low- and middle-income countries are paving the way for reliable educational data collection. The resulting data can be used to improve all aspects of education policy and programming at the district, regional, national and international levels. Innovative approaches for technology-use in enhanced, data-driven decision-making will be applied both as a cross-cutting emphasis in EdTech Hub’s work and as an explicit focus within specific research studies, innovation activities, and technical assistance. 

Q: How can technology-use improve the availability and use of data for effective decision-making in education? 

A sample of our work towards this shift includes: 

  • Investigating the impact of geospatial methods for teacher allocation in Sierra Leone. The work focuses on the impact of teacher preference matching, including geospatial approaches, on increased job-uptake, decreased teacher absenteeism, and — ultimately — improved student outcomes. 
  • Hosting a working group with the Education Commission with a specific focus on how geospatial data can be used across low- and middle-income countries to optimise teacher deployment as well as resource allocation. 
  • Working on how technology can improve accountability within education systems, and providing data-driven diagnostic tools for governments and other stakeholders.  
  • A cross-Hub effort to improve data access and transparency regarding cost-effectiveness of EdTech, with a focus on building reliable cost-models and quantifying cost in relation to learning outcomes. Such approaches can improve decision-making to ensure the best possible outcomes for rural and marginalised populations.
  • Investigating how data can be better used to improve the accuracy, use-value, and rigour of EdTech research. This includes ways to rapidly access data within EdTech implementations to increase the speed of iterative research cycles (also informing the wider education research sector). 
  • Co-founding the Unlocking Data initiative with our partners, Education Sub Saharan Africa and Zizi Afrique, to explore how to access, use, and share education data effectively in Africa.

Others contributing to this topic include: 

  • The Education Commission, Global Partnership for Education, Fab Inc., the World Bank’s Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund (SIEF), the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP), Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) Data Reference Group, and associated Smart Buys hosted by Building Evidence in Education (BE2).

How we’ll invest: Building a pipeline of topics, learning, and adapting

The shifts are where we are starting, and they inform the majority of our investment and effort. At the same time, we’re making smaller investments in other emerging topic areas to build a pipeline of future shifts and opportunities. Over time, we will deepen our understanding and perspective on whether more substantial investments should be made. 

We align our topics across three categories:

  1. We make our most substantial investments in Large Hub topics where we have a defined shift and clear view of the opportunity for impact in-country.  
  2. We make initial midsize investments in Medium Hub topics to deepen our understanding and perspective on them. 
  3. We keep an eye on emerging trends by making small investments in Small Hub topics that are also important to our partners. 

We continuously learn and adapt by fostering a learning culture that includes:

  • Adaptive planning practices: internal learning cycles allowing us to regularly reflect on whether we are moving in the right direction, and adapt the strategy as new information emerges. 
  • Understanding in-country needs: staying close to the priorities and emerging needs of governments through targeted in-country engagement and support. 
  • Sensing and horizon scanning: Understanding the areas of interest across our key stakeholders through our partnerships, communities, as well as the incoming requests to the Hub. 
  • Prioritising strong relationships with partners: With the understanding that not everything is straightforward and decision-making can be more important than evidence.
  • Understanding what other research and work is happening in our focus areas: Avoiding duplication and allowing the Hub to channel resources to the research which is most needed.

What we do: Using an integrated approach to deepen understanding and connect theory with practice

We at EdTech Hub, believe that high-quality, relevant evidence that informs policy and programme design must be multi-disciplinary. We generate evidence through rigorous execution of research, innovation (sandboxes), and technical assistance

Our approach is uniquely defined by the integration of these disciplines. Our hypothesis is that this approach will give us a previously unachieved depth of understanding about how EdTech can support the acceleration of learning at scale for the most marginalised. It also provides a mechanism for continuously feeding evidence into practice, and ensuring that evidence-generating activities address authentic problems of practice. 

We then amplify the impact of our work by building public goods and partnerships:

  • We translate our own and others’ evidence into relevant, practical resources for decision-makers, from entrepreneurs to policymakers 
  • We collaborate with partners to expand our reach, reduce duplication, strengthen existing institutions, and invest in in-country expertise

How we work: Our values

  1. Build on what is already working: We will promote and use foundational bodies of work, such as the World Bank EdTech principles, the EdTech Tulna assessment, and the Principles for Digital Development. 
  2. Human and compassionate: We believe that we can support well-being while doing great work. By being human we deal better with uncertainty and complexity and become stronger for it.
  3. Inclusive diverse perspectives: We believe incorporating different ways of thinking and being into our work is essential to enhancing learning outcomes for all.
  4. Collaborative and co-creating: We chose the word ‘Hub’ on purpose. We believe our work is better when we join together. We value lived experience, different perspectives and, most importantly, the people we hope to support through our work. 
  5. Fearless, humble learning: We believe that by focusing on learning we will make sure we are always improving, and that by sharing our knowledge we can significantly increase our impact. 
  6. Think big, starting small: We believe our ambitions need to match the scale of the need in the world, but that we need to start small, test and learn, and use what we find out to deliver impact at scale.

Read Part 2 of Our Strategy

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