Guest Articles

February 28

Paul Callan / Jeffrey Berger / Yohann Sequeira

The Promise (and the Absence) of EdTech: Why Countries Aren’t Adopting It More Widely – And What Can Be Done

Sixty-nine million teachers. That’s how many more the world needs to give every child a primary and secondary education by 2030. Without these extra teachers, according to UNESCO, as many as 263 million children may not get a complete basic education. The challenge is even more daunting when one considers this: Many, perhaps even a majority, of the current teachers in low-income countries lack the knowledge and skills needed to teach, and shocking numbers of teachers are not present in their classrooms on any given day.

This situation begs the question: Are there alternatives to finding and training so many teachers? Surely technology can help? EdTech – Education Technology – would seem to be the perfect solution to classrooms without teachers or whose teachers have inadequate skills. For example, The Economist recently highlighted the case for EdTech in an article titled “How technology can make up for bad, absent teachers in poor-country schools.”

However, we have yet to see many large-scale EdTech programs in developing countries – despite two decades of efforts. And very few have focused on making up for a lack of teachers or under-skilled teachers; most programs have provided tools to build upon adequate classroom instruction.


Assessing the Evidence

So, why are Ministries of Education in developing countries, and donors from rich countries, reluctant to take the leap towards nationwide programs to address teacher gaps through technology?

It’s been argued that resistance from teachers’ unions has hindered progress. And there are many discouraging stories of fancy technology collecting dust on the shelves due to limited access to electricity, maintenance and the internet.

Perhaps the most important reason, however, is that the evidence base for EdTech programs is simply not yet compelling enough. There are promising stories about EdTech programs, but there isn’t sufficient hard evidence to justify big bets, for an education minister to decide to make a significant shift to their budget or for a donor to devote significant resources.

The Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) points out the rapid growth of EdTech “has outpaced rigorous research on its effectiveness.” Save the Children finds that “a lack of robust evidence on the impact of certain technology on learning outcomes, and its testing in refugee contexts is even more limited.”

Much of the data that is tracked is often based on perceived results – usually insufficient evidence to assess the true impact on educational outcomes. For instance, in the mid-2000s the Chinese Ministry of Education developed a distance learning program for 110,000 rural elementary schools and 384,000 intermediate schools. Their reported results were derived from a survey of whether schools agreed that the program was able to “stimulate interest in study” or “cultivate creativity,” among other indicators.

But when more rigorous evaluations have been conducted, most of the results have been mixed or uncertain. The One Laptop per Child program, launched in 2005, offered over 3 million low-cost laptops to schools, and attracted significant attention from backers such as Google and eBay, but did not show improved educational outcomes. Tusome, a nationwide literacy program in Kenya, uses technology in some components of the program; however, it is not possible to attribute the positive effects on literacy scores to the technology alone, because these effects could be due to the curriculum design, or the distribution of books, or other elements of the program.

One exception is perhaps Mindspark, a computer-based educational program implemented in India that provides learning material and quizzes, for which an evaluation by JPAL in 2016 found increased test scores in math and Hindi for students in a Mindspark-driven after-
school program.


Untapped Promise

As The Economist puts it, “used properly, [EdTech] now deserves more prominence in schools.” But Ministries and donors are unlikely to devote significant resources to using EdTech to cover for teacher shortages – instead of training more teachers or repairing schools – without very convincing evidence.

The goal for the EdTech community should therefore be to provide that evidence – through rigorously designed, medium-scale programs. Such programs, if successful, will provide hard evidence to justify large-scale investments, and if unsuccessful, should clearly point the way to alternative approaches that may work across entire school systems.

With focused efforts over the next five to 10 years, EdTech could identify – and prove the worth of – applications and methods that can finally realize its promise. EdTech done right can help the millions of children who won’t have access to qualified teachers.


Paul Callan is a partner and strategy practice leader at Dalberg.

Jeffrey Berger is an associate partner and co-lead of Dalberg’s Latin America practice.

Yohann Sequeira is an associate consultant at Dalberg.


Photo courtesy of Siyavula Education.




Education, Impact Assessment, Technology
edtech, global development, impact measurement, research