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Hello, I’m Björn, Director of Research

Björn Haßler
Director of Research

Following on from our recent blogs introducing the Hub and our focus on research, innovation and engagement, over the coming weeks the members of the Research Sphere will be writing about their work so far and introducing themselves and what has brought them to join the EdTech Hub. The first of these posts has been written by Björn Haßler. 

I’m Dr Björn Haßler, one of the three Directors of Research for the programme. Research, and particularly at-scale research, is a core focus for the #EdTechHub and that’s why we have three Directors of Research, who will also introduce themselves. I am — we all are — extremely happy that we have been awarded the programme. We, like all our competitors, worked hard for around 1.5 years until the final submission. However, this work paid off! It means we can get going on the important mission.

Here are a few things about my interests. My route to teaching and learning in low-income countries was a little indirect, but I suppose this holds for many EdTech practitioners and researchers. My PhD (now around 20 years ago) was in mathematics, with a practical focus on numerical models in climate change. During this time, I became interested in ‘public engagement in science’, which led to various projects (such as BlueSci and what later turned into Streaming Media Service) and eventually to working with teachers and low-income countries.

My research interests include teacher professional development and learning in resource-constrained environments (low-income countries and regions, including regions in Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, etc). I’m particularly interested in peer-facilitated, school-based approaches with distributed leadership because these appear to have a more favourable balance between scalability, value for money and effectiveness.

Another interest (perhaps a bit more obvious, given my current role) is the use and role of technology (and digital) in education. I’m quite sceptical of some common approaches (such as tablets for children) because often these just aren’t scalable. I often say that there’s no question that technology use can effectively contribute to children’s learning in principle. For evidence, see the EEF toolkit here; what you also see is that this overview table (also from the EEF toolkit) rates different interventions by impact (on children’s learning) and cost. This leads us to the right question to ask: How does using technology (in an intervention) compare to using non-tech resources (in a comparable intervention)? In other words, what is the added advantage of using EdTech? How much extra learning can you get (in specific low-resourced contexts, such as many parts of rural Sub-Saharan Africa) for what cost per child? What is the right blend of approaches if the resources are constrained?

Let’s talk about some less common approaches and swing back to teacher professional development: We know that (the right kind of teacher professional development) can have a strong impact on children’s learning. What if you can use technology to enhance teacher learning? Then your hardware cost goes down from a cost per pupil (say 1000 pupils at a school) to a cost per teacher (say 20-40 teachers), gaining a factor of around 30 in hardware cost alone. Of course, you may not need one device per pupil, but likewise, you may not need one device per teacher. So what would you use that device for? Well, we do know that, e.g., video plays an important role in teacher development: Teachers watching videos of other teachers’ practice, teachers recording their own practice for the purpose of discussion and reflection.

So – starting to formulate some ideas for our tentative research agenda – what if you ran one teacher professional development programme without technology support and you ran a very similar teacher professional development programme but with technology support? This would allow you to determine the ‘differential’ impact of technology support: What is the impact of introducing technology (for teachers) on children’s learning? Clearly, this would have to be a fairly long-term experiment (at least one year), but you’d learn some very interesting things.

Look out for the upcoming posts from my fellow Directors of Research, Sara and David, and from the wider research team. Interesting times ahead at the #EdTechHub.

The EdTech Hub’s approach to amplifying impact through engagement

Molly Jamieson Eberhardt
Director of Engagement, EdTech Hub

If you have spent time working in the education sector, you’ll know that even marginal gains are worthy of celebration. Those of us involved in launching the EdTech Hub know this well — from our experience as teachers, researchers, advisers, programme implementers, and civil servants. Nevertheless, we have the ambition to help accelerate progress toward quality education at an unprecedented rate.

We of course know that sustainable change often takes time, and we respect hard-earned marginal gains. But what we’re really after is improvement in education outcomes at a pace that matches the urgency of the problem — think millions of children receiving quality education within a decade, not in decades.

To be clear, we’re not seeking a silver bullet, and we have no intention of pursuing this goal alone. We realise it is only through a diverse, global, collective effort that this can be achieved.

That’s where our focus on engagement comes in. 

You’ll have read my co-directors’ recent blogs introducing the Hub and our focus on research and innovation. The third focus of the Hub is engagement, which I lead with my colleagues at Results for Development. I’d like to give you a sneak peek at what we have planned.

There are two main components of our engagement work, both focused on creating mutually-beneficial partnerships with a focus on evidence:

1. Global engagement: Partnering with implementers, researchers, innovators, and funders

The EdTech Hub is initially planned as an eight-year, £20 million initiative. We envision that it will be fueled by additional funding and actually last far beyond eight years. But no single initiative can address the learning crisis at the scale and in the diverse range of contexts in which it persists.

Our global engagement work is about building partnerships with organisations who share our vision for — and are already working towards — a world where technology is appropriately and effectively used to improve education quality, especially for the most marginalised. We seek partners who are eager to achieve mutual amplification of impact by bringing an evidence-driven approach to one or more of our focus areas: synthesising and conducting research, supporting innovation, and engaging with governments. We are eager to…

  • exchange knowledge and experience
  • co-develop tools and resources
  • share research tools, methods, and findings
  • jointly implement activities
  • test out new approaches together
  • expand the range and diversity of contexts in which we are collectively able to deliver new approaches, conduct research, and share our learning
  • deliver beyond the capacity of any one organisation

In addition to these focused partnerships, the EdTech Hub will also engage with the broader global community by producing and sharing global public goods — resources that are free to distribute and adapt. This is part of our commitment to transparency, inclusion, and equity.

2. Country engagement: Partnering with governments

We are especially focused on building partnerships with government actors. Governments are responsible for the majority of teachers who in turn serve the majority of children; if technology is used effectively and appropriately, the potential for impact is massive.

There are two primary ways in which the Hub will support government officials.

First, we will partner with three national ministries of education to co-design a portfolio of planning, implementation, and research activities. Our goal is to work beside ministries through sustained co-working, co-creation, and coaching — to learn from their experience and expertise and together grapple with tough EdTech challenges. We will also offer our partners embedded capacity through the opportunity to host a post-graduate economist as an EdTech Fellow for two years to support the ministry’s EdTech priorities. The Hub plans to facilitate peer learning between partner ministries, as well.

Second, we will run a Helpdesk service through which country-based World Bank staff, DFID education advisers, and eventually, government officials, can request discrete, short-term research and advisory support to answer questions they are facing in their decision-making. 

Stay tuned for more details on our engagement plans at @GlobalEdTechHub. Hopefully, something you’ve read here has sparked an idea of how collaboration with the Hub can amplify the impact of your work.

Five starting points on innovation for the EdTech Hub

Lea Simpson
Director of Innovation, EdTech Hub

As the Director of Innovation for the EdTech Hub, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to how we’re building innovation into our work, with the aim of accelerating the scale of the best education technology… and showing others how to do the same.

If you haven’t read them already, check out Sara’s post on our approach to research and Susan’s overview on the Hub’s work as a whole. 

While our research colleagues will be focussing on studying education programmes that have achieved scale to understand what works and why, we’ll be investing those insights in proof-of-concept ideas, to get more good ideas to scale faster. We will do this by establishing EdTech Sandboxes. 

A sandbox is a real-life location which is being used to experiment and test/refine a proposed product. This methodology is borrowed from the world of software development, designed to contain the experiments and prove value before scaling a validated idea. Similarly, we will measure, learn and adapt technology in line with what we learn by trialling it, first in one classroom, then one school, and eventually across entire education districts. 

We know that the potential positive impact of technology requires more than just products, so we’ll be testing and learning across systemic factors too, like policy, pedagogy and teacher training. 

I want to use this first post to share a few principles behind how we’re thinking about innovation and, most importantly, how we hope you’ll be involved throughout. 

1. Our focus is on innovation, not just ‘innovators’ 

We are, of course, interested in those who are working on promising technology ideas in education. We also know, however, focussing on a few bright spots here and there will limit our chances. That’s why our overarching goal is to ‘show others how’. Often, when people talk about innovation, what they really mean is ‘an idea’. We think of innovation as ‘a process’ for taking the most potent ideas to scale. We believe that testing and learning about this process and sharing what we learn with the broadest group of people is where we have the greatest potential to unlock exponential possibilities for marginalised children.

2. There is no innovation without experimentation

We will be working for real — in the real world, with real people — systematically testing the potential of technology use for learning. We know that technology use typically delivers impact (or not) because of the context and environment within which it is implemented, so we’ll be experimenting with things like policy, professional development, pedagogy and other factors surrounding the tech too. In each case we will extract assumptions, build, measure and learn in small, fast increments along with the makers, buyers and users of these products. We’ll be writing more about experimentation and our approach to creating EdTech Sandboxes in future posts. 

3. There will be calls and open competitions to take part

If you are one of the many people working in education technology who has made contact in the past few weeks since the Hub was announced – thank you! Your well wishes, thoughts and ideas are all gratefully received. If you’re working in an education district grappling with persistent challenges like teacher training, assessment, administration or if you’re an entrepreneur with an idea that might address those challenges, there will be a great number of ways for you to be involved. For now, please tell us about yourself here. Filling in this form will ensure we get in touch when opportunities come up. 

4. Keep an eye on the future, today

Technology moves quickly, so it’s crucial that we’re on top of emerging trends and creating useful and actionable hypothetical use cases for tech that we can test. For us, this means putting in place an ongoing horizon scanning process to continuously be imagining and hypothesising what a 3-5 year frame might offer in terms of challenges and opportunities. These concepts and possibilities about tomorrow will then be woven into our experiments, today. 

5. Collective intelligence is our biggest asset — and you are invited

We know that if we want to bend the curve of progress, we’ll need to leverage the intellectual brilliance of as many of those working in education and technology as possible. We need you to join us as collaborators and critical friends in everything we do. 

This collaboration starts now. In order for our work to have the biggest possible positive impact, we need a sharp focus on key challenges within the world of education. And to find our focus, we’re crowd-sourcing insights and opinion through a range of consultations, expert interviews and working sessions at events like eLearning Africa.

Please shape our work by completing the following form online, it should take less than five minutes… or a bit closer to ten for those who are more contemplative.

For now, be sure to follow us on Twitter @GlobalEdTechHub, @HelloBrink, @LeaSimpson and @byAliceCarter for more EdTech Hub innovation as it unfolds.

Introducing the EdTech Hub’s programme for research in low-income countries

Sara Hennessy
Director of Research, EdTech Hub

Education is on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies; however, it has been on that brink for some decades now.

Diana Laurillard, 2008

Our first blog post introduced the EdTech Hub as having three main, interconnected spheres of activity: research, innovation and engagement. This blog spotlights the research work. We’re keen to share what we’re doing and get feedback as we go along. Constructive input from the global community is immensely valuable.

Our priority is to identify the most — and least! — effective and culturally appropriate uses of EdTech for promoting better learning outcomes for children and young people in low-income countries. Our main aim is to make the evidence we are gathering and generating accessible, robust and actionable by researchers and decision-makers (including policymakers and donors). Ultimately we hope to significantly improve the educational experiences of many learners and to guide others within the sector.

This means we’ll be undertaking and commissioning research on interventions with the potential to scale — at a systems level. It also means we don’t start with any assumptions about the promise of particular forms of EdTech but look for added value above and beyond other approaches. We embrace low-tech such as radio and TV programmes as well as high-tech interventions. We’ll look at cost-effectiveness and prevalence of ownership as well as limitations. And we explore the factors constraining and enabling implementation and equity.

Research team

The three Research directors include myself, Sara Hennessy, based at the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge (UoC), David Hollow of Jigsaw Consult, and Björn Haßler of Open Development & Education. We have a fantastic team of researchers (listed on the UoC Hub web page) with a wealth of complementary experience and expertise of different research methodologies, country settings and technology applications in education that we can draw on. We’ll all introduce ourselves in more detail in future blog posts. We’re thrilled to be working together on this exciting programme.

Our approach

Now that I’ve introduced our research vision as a Hub, let’s focus in on the activities within the research sphere. Our remit is to explore the potential for using EdTech to make a contribution towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4. Quite obviously, tech alone cannot solve the global learning crisis. We also know there are many systemic constraints on EdTech use that the Hub cannot overcome on its own or within the lifespan of the programme (see recent UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Reports). That said, we are confident of illuminating ways of making progress and guiding future large-scale investments in EdTech in low-income environments towards more fruitful initiatives and equitable uses. The sad fact is that most initiatives to date have failed to be impactful, sustainable or scalable. (We’ll elaborate on the underlying reasons in a future output.)

We will be looking at the field through a critical lens, since technology alone has no agency or transformational “impact” on learning. The most popular developments in the field are not necessarily the most promising. For instance, placing thousands of mobile devices in the hands of learners may be a marvellous ideal in theory but may not prove cost-effective. Likewise, apps can be educational but alone have significant limitations. The evidence base itself is weak, often based on small-scale, biased, instrumental evaluations. Therefore, we will draw on the growing body of literature taking a similarly critical approach, including highlighting unintended consequences of use, for example:

Selwyn, N. (2016) Minding our language: why education and technology is full of bull**** … and what might be done about it. Learning, Media and Technology, 41(3), 437-443.

Closely related is our focus on supporting and empowering teachers. Teachers are marginalised in many EdTech initiatives yet we know that low teaching quality constitutes a major obstacle to learning in under-resourced contexts. Pedagogy for effective, purposeful and active interaction with EdTech is all-important, as is a sense of ownership.

Finally, we hold a “situated” perspective, shunning terms like “best practice”. After all, who decides what is best, best for whom, in what circumstances and contexts, for what kinds of learners…?  The process of identifying and developing effective practices must take careful account of relevant context-specific factors.

What are we actually doing now/soon?

Taking stock of the field by

  • Analysing problems with existing initiatives and evidence;
  • Comprehensive survey of methodologies for systematic reviews and developing our own approach, parameters and keywords;
  • Conducting a systematic review of literature underpinning our research focus: trialing manual searches then automated ones;
  • Mapping and reflecting on EdTech projects/programmes in LICs.

Establishing our scope: primary and secondary school-level learning (formal, informal) and teacher education (pre- and in-service). An equity agenda is important here. We prioritise the most marginalised learners – including out of school, rural and remote, displaced and refugees, girls and those with disabilities.

Developing a methodological framework based on systematic, rigorous and systems-focussed mixed-methods research.

Formulating our country-based protocols. That is, how we will select research countries and teams.

Engaging the sector with a view to sharing our evidence, tools and methods and learning from other researchers and practitioners.

More info / Get in touch

Each of the above activities will produce an output to be shared soon. Follow our work in this blog space and on social media (@GlobalEdTechHub).

Information about the EdTech Hub and our outputs can be found on this site at https://edtechhub.org.

To register your interest in the Hub’s work, please complete this form

Introducing the EdTech Hub

Susan Nicolai
Director of Programme, EdTech Hub

As part of the recent High-level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, world leaders had a chance to review progress on Sustainable Development Goal 4 on Quality Education for the first time since the 2030 agenda was adopted four years ago. Their assessment of a lack of tangible progress toward achieving the SDG 4 target sets out an urgency to do things differently. 

Headlines from the Report of the Secretary-General on SDG Progress 2019 include the sobering fact that in 2017, some 262 million children and youth were still out of school and more than half not meeting minimum proficiency standards in reading and mathematics. This report quickly goes on to emphasise one of the most promising areas for change, claiming that “rapid technological changes present opportunities and challenges” alongside a caution that the quality of education has not “kept pace.”

Our new EdTech Hub is an effort to change that. 

A few short months ago, the UK government along with the World Bank, announced funding for the world’s largest ever educational technology research and innovation programme. Since then, we’ve had our heads down designing our work. While the launch of the Hub itself is expected sometime early next year, we’re ready now to begin giving you a sneak peek into our plans.

So what will we do?

Our planned approach locks together research, innovation and engagement in a collaborative, iterative cycle, generating knowledge with and for users to address problems as they perceive them. Our efforts will mobilise wider networks with well-established relationships with government, non-government agencies, national research and technical specialists, and local community groups for the purpose of better grappling with the use of technology in education. 

Within this, our overall focus is on the following two questions, broken down in different ways as part of our research and innovation work:

  • How can educational technology help to accelerate, spread and scale interventions which can deliver better learning outcomes for all children, including  the most marginalised?
  • Which educational technology interventions present the greatest value for money and social return on investment?

Who’s involved?

The Hub brings together a team that has first-class EdTech, education equity, and education systems research expertise as well as experience supporting innovations to improve and scale. Led by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), we have extensive experience in running complex, multi-year consortia, including a range of adaptive programmes, across multiple sectors. Research leadership is based at the University of Cambridge Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, Jigsaw Consult and Open Development & Education, drawing on the passion of individuals who have been working in the sector for 15 years. Innovation is led by Brink, a practice with extensive experience in technology and lean and agile approaches. Our engagement strategy is led by Results for Development (R4D), a global leader in developing effective country-engagement models that lead to knowledge translation and the development of practical resources that inform policy and practice. Regional innovation will be supported through AfriLabs and BRAC, with communications outreach extended via eLearning Africa

What can you do?

We’re in the early days of design for the EdTech Hub, so your input is valuable. We’re talking to people as part of forums like UKFIET, the mEducation Alliance Symposium this week and the eLearning Africa conference later this month. Even in the new year once we launch and begin implementation, we’re committed to being agile and adaptive, to accommodate not only the inevitable changes of an emergent programme but also rapid technological changes and the potential they bring.

You’ll increasingly be seeing more in this blog space and on social media from our team as we share plans and ‘learn out loud’ about how the EdTech Hub can support exponential rather than incremental change toward SDG4 and quality education for all.