Critical Questions for EdTech to support education reform in Eastern and Southern Africa

Credit: Ciku Mbugua

As governments in Eastern and Southern Africa lean into education reform to adapt to the changing needs of their societies and tackle the global learning crisis, the integration of technology has become a central piece of these reforms. This is particularly the case in the post-Covid-19 world, where the need to build resilient education systems that support learning outside the traditional school building has become apparent worldwide. There is also an urgent need to recover and accelerate learning through the use of technology to address learning losses.  

Governments and leaders are increasingly aware of how important it is to ensure that education systems engage learners who will ultimately join the workforce and meaningfully contribute to economic prosperity. This is particularly key for Africa, where an ever-increasing youth population has the potential to generate a demographic dividend in the coming years. Digital literacy skills in the 21st century are a priority for countries across the continent. Technology must be integrated into education for teaching and learning to realise this vision. What is often unclear, however, is what works best and how to use evidence to effectively shape the decisions around this integration. 

This is the gap that EdTech Hub was created to fill. EdTech Hub generates rigorous and robust evidence around what works (or doesn’t), in what context, for whom, and why. The goal of EdTech Hub is to empower decision-makers with the evidence they need to implement technology in their education systems optimally. 

In November 2022, EdTech Hub had the pleasure of being a part of the Strategic Choices for Education Reform (SCER) workshop for education leaders in Eastern and Southern Africa, organised by the World Bank in partnership with the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and hosted by the Government of Zimbabwe. 

The first-ever event of its kind brought together over 100 participants from nearly 20 countries across Eastern and Southern Africa. SCER aimed to provide a forum for senior government officials from ministries of education, planning, and finance from across the continent to reflect on and consider how to refine their education systems best to meet the needs of learners — not just today but for many years to come. To accomplish this goal, the workshop brought together policymakers, implementers, researchers, and experts to discuss critical and emerging issues for education systems and the role of evidence and research in addressing them. The event also aimed to catalyse a network of peers across the countries to share experiences and evidence as they continue with reforms beyond the event. 

One day was dedicated to discussing the integration of technology in education systems, underpinning the critical role technology has begun to play and the potential it has to address urgent educational challenges. EdTech Hub was privileged to facilitate the workshop on this day. We had deep, interactive sessions that sought to answer some of the most critical questions about the implementation of EdTech specifically and education reform more broadly. Based on our work supporting governments through our Helpdesk and technical assistance work over the past three years, EdTech Hub raised four critical questions for discussion that we have seen the greatest demand for guidance on. These are presented below. Click on the embedded links to see the presentations from the session.

  1. EdTech Policies: How do we develop aligned and actionable EdTech Strategies?

Education policymakers must have clear strategies and action plans to mainstream EdTech effectively into education systems. EdTech strategies currently sit apart from broader education sector plans for various reasons. For example, the recent rapid evolution of the space, the cross-cutting nature of EdTech (e.g., links with other agencies like ministries of ICT and planning), the limited capacities in ministries to develop these plans, and the need for the strategies to be agile and adaptable to factor in the rapid and constant shifts in this space.

Since the pandemic, there has been a rapid increase in our cumulative knowledge of EdTech. Strategies need to reflect what was proven to be effective and sustainable while evaluating and adapting what did not work. 

  1. Teacher Continuous Professional Development (TCPD): How can we rapidly upskill our large teacher workforce? 

Teacher quality is the most important determinant of learning outcomes at the school level, but in many countries, teachers are in short supply, isolated, and not adequately supported to provide effective teaching and learning (see this 2019 report from the Education Commission)

Most countries are grappling with the question of how to rapidly, rigorously, and continuously upskill large teacher workforces because any education reform is contingent on teachers being able to deliver learning experiences in the classroom. Technology which enables flexible access and potential cost savings can help answer this question. Evidence shows that a blended approach to teacher continuous professional development (TCPD) that leverages technology while maintaining critically important human relationships helps maintain cost-effectiveness over time. 

Key to sustainability is co-designing TCPD with teachers and other stakeholders to ensure that it is relevant, just-in-time, contextualised, and appropriate for the diverse needs of teachers and learners while factoring in marginalised groups and areas with low connectivity. 

  1. Digital Personalised Learning: How can we use EdTech to ensure that students are provided with quality educational content at the right level?

Evidence shows that before the Covid-19 pandemic, 86% of children in sub-Saharan Africa could not read and understand a simple sentence at age 10. Learning poverty has been further exacerbated by Covid-19. As education systems work to build back more resiliently, targeted approaches to improve foundational literacy must be front and centre of this process.

Digital personalised learning has been proven to positively impact learning by using teaching at the right level (TaRL) approaches with adapted content delivery. The approach helps close educational gaps through adaptive remedial instruction and helping with routine tasks. TaRL frees up teachers so they can spend more time on aspects of education where they have comparative advantages over technology.

TaRL has been shown to improve learning outcomes when implemented thoughtfully, and based on evidence. Technology can be leveraged to reach learners at their current levels of knowledge by creating, managing, and delivering online courses with software that can track student usage and progress. The software then develops learning pathways in response to a student’s learning level and grasp of content. Data generated through the platform can quickly identify learning gaps on specific topics or skills, enabling teachers to prescribe timely plans for remedial learning. 

  1. Cost Effectiveness: How do we ensure our EdTech investments are cost-effective?  

It goes without saying that all of the potentially beneficial outcomes above remain out of reach if they are not cost-effective. Evidence shows that Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS) per USD 100 (which measures how many years of quality education can be bought with an additional USD 100 spent on intervention) is the best metric we have to inform decisions about the cost-effectiveness of scaling an education intervention. 

Due to the large populations that education systems cater for, EdTech interventions can be costly, especially when implemented at scale. However, more research is needed on the impact of EdTech on LAYS. It is, therefore, crucial to carefully select and understand all the costs of an EdTech intervention, to ensure access and equity as EdTech also has the potential to exacerbate learning disparity.

Costs of EdTech interventions are often underreported, and in many cases, longer-term expenses are not considered. It is, therefore, imperative that costs are carefully defined and that analysis is embedded in the short and the long term. If captured accurately at source, data on learning outcomes and costs can help compare different interventions and determine cost-effectiveness. Accurate data capture is often limited due to the fragmented manner in which various ministries deploy EdTech, which can lead to overspending and thus limit scale. 

For all of the countries represented at SCER, Covid-19 has had a drastic and varied impact on education systems. Learning losses and school drop-out rates, especially for girls, are now a huge challenge that has necessitated agile and thoughtful reform. 

The benefits of technology in mitigating these challenges and ensuring no learner is left behind have provided promising evidence. Based on these lessons, many governments are now exploring how best to integrate technology into their education systems. It remains true that technology has massive potential. The kind of tech interventions implemented and how they are implemented can either help to improve access and quality education or further exacerbate the inequalities that already exist. Evidence-based decision-making and implementation are the keys, and everyone in the EdTech ecosystem must ensure that interventions are backed by contextual evidence. 

In an effort to ensure that accurate and timely evidence is available for every decision-maker who needs it, EdTech Hub is obsessed with answering these five questions and invites all educationists to join in this campaign:

1. Will this use of technology lead to a sustained impact on learning outcomes? 

2. Will this use of technology work for the most marginalised children and enhance equity? 

3. Will this use of technology be feasible to scale in a cost-effective manner that is affordable for the context? 

4. Will this use of technology be effective in the specific implementation context? 

5. Will this use of technology align with government priorities and lead to the strengthening of national education systems?

Making evidence-based decisions central to the implementation of EdTech will help to create a future where the promise of integrating technology in education systems can be leveraged to attain better learning outcomes for all learners. 

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