Just recently, the education community gathered in New York for the UN Transforming Education Summit, where they took stock of how the world is progressing towards Sustainable Development Goal number 4: equitable quality education for all. The edtech sector, which had a baptism-by-fire when remote learning was imposed worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic, could be critical in this respect.
Edtech’s potential to improve learning around the world is great, whether in day-to-day school settings, or amidst humanitarian emergencies, such as the one unfolding in Ukraine. It can provide children with a personalized experience– something UNESCO calls a human right – allowing them to study at their own pace and at their individual level of proficiency. In schools, teachers using edtech could be freed up from routine tasks such as recording grades, which technology would do automatically, allowing teachers more time to focus on the creative and interpersonal aspects of teaching students. It could also provide solutions to education challenges in remote areas around the world, helping tackle illiteracy (a World Bank study showed literacy is improved within days by quality edtech).
But the pandemic, which came as education systems were already facing mounting pressure to redress longstanding learning inequalities, also exposed urgent questions edtech must address. Research in India showed that teachers faced challenges with parental involvement and children’s participation in remote learning during the pandemic, with a lack of access to technological devices, low-tech literacy and no or minimal access to internet connectivity.
Central Square Foundation, a non-profit organization helping India to take advantage of technology to support learning in low-income communities, warns most edtech solutions are geared primarily towards English-speaking, high-income households, putting them out of reach of low-income families. Despite a vibrant ecosystem of over 9,500 edtech companies, only a small number focus on foundational learning in literacy and numeracy.
A crucial barrier to true success is edtech’s lack of a convincing evidence base. Many products we use in our everyday lives, like medicines, must undergo rigorous testing before reaching consumers. Yet robust scientific evidence does not presently play central role in how most edtech products are designed, deployed, and evaluated. This problem is at the heart of the edtech ecosystem, affecting start-ups, investors, and buyers alike.
Buyers who purchase edtech for schools don’t tend to request proof of a product’s efficacy. In the US, a survey of more than 500 school and district leaders who make edtech purchasing decisions showed that just 11% demand peer-reviewed research. In India, it is clear buyers who are not IT experts are likely to fall foul of unfair trade practices and false advertising from edtech companies themselves; so serious is the problem that the government delivered a warning to the sector in July to clean up its act or face new, “stringent guidelines.”
For edtech start-ups, it can therefore be difficult to reconcile time-consuming research with the demands of a fast-changing market. The UK edtech review platform Edtech Impact found that just 7% of edtech companies used randomized controlled trials to find evidence of impact. Many of these businesses simply rely on testimonials and school case studies. A PwC report published in 2021 concluded most edtech start-ups in India have low profitability due to their lack of reach with platforms occupying a limited products/solutions market with similar offerings, leaving little room for differentiation on value proposition, leading to inefficient and ineffective user engagement that will often result in product failure.
The kind of culture shift needed to overcome all these problems requires the whole edtech sector – start-ups, researchers and investors – to come together. Robust evidence should drive not only the development of edtech products and their evaluation, but also investment decisions.
As a generation of students risks being left behind, there is no time to waste on ineffective edtech. Investors should be able to choose products that stand the test of time to enable students to benefit from game-changing innovations.
To encourage more researched-based approaches, the Jacobs Foundation has allocated $30 million to leading edtech venture funds that are committed to investing in companies backed by research. We have also granted $10 million to a research facility at the University of California Irvine that will connect scientists and start-ups to examine the impact of technology on learning. We hope these efforts help overcome the “evidence barrier” in edtech, yielding innovative learning solutions.
India, which has the largest youth population in the world, is brimming with potential. If we all work together, we can empower the next generation of Indian change-makers to help solve the world’s biggest challenges, from global inequality to pandemics to climate change.