The education gap: is technology helping?

By Shirish Bhattarai and Keir Macdonald.

There has always been debate regarding the effectiveness of Edtech, which has often been praised as being able to make education more accessible and engaging than ever, but also criticised for being implemented in many cases with disregard for the needs and capabilities of students and teachers.

Regardless, we are now being forced to experiment with distance learning via technological means. Multiple online resources are available, some released specifically in reaction to the current lockdowns in place across the world, while others which have been in existence before, and are now seeing their usage grow. What this means is that we are in the unique position of being able to see how people engage with these materials, and how effective they can be. While this is by no means a scientific experiment, given the unique circumstances and absence of any means of fair comparison with “normal” ways of teaching, it will at least show whether young people respond positively to a completely different type of learning.

EdTech in different contexts

We must be mindful that in many parts of the world, access to education is a privilege. In parts of the developing world, it is prioritised behind being able to generate income, or fulfil other household or community roles from a young age, a problem which disproportionately affects young girls. This becomes more acute with the onset of enforced online/distance learning. The shift to online learning can also make education a privilege even in parts of the world where it had previously been assumed to be accessible to all. In the UK, for example, despite an abundance of choice regarding online teaching materials, there is a real risk that many pupils simply will not be able to access these materials, or the necessary support needed to use them at home, leading to widening gaps between young learners. Technology-enabled distance learning can be a powerful tool, but only for those who can access it. While there are initiatives aimed at ensuring broader access to technology, and while the current situation left little time for schools or students to prepare for a massive shift towards distance learning, this point is vital for the potential of education technology in the future beyond the current crisis. If we do not address the underlying technological access gap, there is a risk that education technology serves only to widen the educational gap between those who can access technology and those who can’t.

The effect on education of this global health crisis, as with most other crises, will be primarily faced by the poor, while the wealthy few will find ways to adjust accordingly.

According to a recent World Bank report, while investments in educational technologies reflect the notion that technology use has the potential to close education gaps related to access and performance, in practice, online learning at scale usually benefits students with pre-existing advantages (rich, urban, high-performing) over poor, rural, low-performing. In cases where the fix is to use technology and the internet to take classes or complete assignments, the poor and marginalized in developing countries who already face wide technology and education gaps, are likely to see this gap widen further. 

As the Coronavirus crisis unfolds in developing countries it will be interesting to see the disparity between strategies of well-funded private schools to that of public schools that lack even the basic resources to teach their students. This difference is likely to be even more pronounced due to the fact that private schools usually cater to the well-off and public schools in most developing countries cater primarily to the lower income populations. Other complicated factors such as inadequate family support and inability to appropriately replicate teaching for ‘non-core’ subjects like music, art, and physical education can be especially difficult. The effect on education of this global health crisis, as with most other crises, will be primarily faced by the poor, while the wealthy few will find ways to adjust accordingly.

Source: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/edutech/brief/edtech-covid-19

Despite this, there are some examples of technology enabled solutions that show a lot of promise. Education solutions built on more accessible platforms such as SMS , voice calls, radio (including Interactive Radio Instruction) television, projects utilizing a mix of accessible technologies like Uliza from Farm Radio International can offer a lot for both teachers and students. As their use-case erupts with the global closing of schools, the real challenge for these solutions will be to ensure that their content provides quality learning to its users and that their design is as closely aligned to the formal standards as possible while remaining easily accessible. While formal standards of education are in some respects universal, subject matter, learning outcomes and assessment techniques can be deeply contextual. Building solutions that are designed to fit the context of users is critical now more than ever.

Regardless of the newfound role which education technology is playing in people’s lives, it is hard to avoid the feeling that physical schools cannot be replaced.

As we reflect on the challenges and possibilities of the current crisis for education in developing countries, there should be a call for renewed focus on closing the technology gap and trying to enable more users to access the existing technology-based solutions. However, this approach would largely miss more immediate needs and opportunities. By focusing instead on the kinds of solutions that are lean, open-source and user-focused, the post-Covid world could be one with Edtech solutions that enable convergence in quality education, rather than increase the existing gaps.

Regardless of the newfound role which education technology is playing in people’s lives, it is hard to avoid the feeling that physical schools cannot be replaced. For one thing, the role of a teacher who is able to enthuse, encourage, and educate young people, whether facilitated by technology or not, is vital to the learning experience. This is not to mention the role which schools play beyond teaching, offering a social environment for young people. For some students, school is the only guarantee they have of receiving good meals

Conclusions

We should seek to learn as much as we can about the potential of education technology and distance learning during this unique time. However, in doing so, we must be constantly mindful of the need to provide people with the resources to take advantage of it, and of the fact that regardless of education technology’s potential, we should see it as a complement to, not a replacement for, teachers in classrooms.


Shirish is an IDS MA Globalization, Business and Development student from Nepal. He has experience in implementing ICT4D projects in numerous countries in South Asia and Africa, working in tech start-ups and social enterprises. He is passionate about issues around technology-led development, impact investment, and renewable energy.

Keir is studying an MA in Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies, after five years working as an investment manager researcher specialising in renewable energy and infrastructure investment. He has also co-run a UK financial education charity. He wants to pursue research on impact investing and development finance, as well as education in development.


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