Recent decades have witnessed the unprecedented development of technology in every field of life. In the education industry, the adoption of technology has been steady but slower compared to other sectors, at least until early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced educators and learners to a swift, and at times improvised, move to remote learning. With remote learning, often came the necessity to master educational technology. Despite initial implementation difficulties, now that the peak of the pandemic seems to be behind, edtech is here to stay and is not merely considered a crisis-management tool. According to the World Economic Forum, the edtech market is expected to expand to $342 billion by 2025. The advantages are countless, from access to diverse content to improved support for special educational needs, and the development of key digital skills. Obstacles, however, are daunting. To be effective, edtech requires qualified teachers, as well as accessible technology that can engage students. For many low and middle-income countries and communities, this remains an unattainable vision.
What is edtech?
Definitions of educational technology (edtech) vary. Broadly speaking, they refer to the use of software and hardware to facilitate teaching and learning. This can happen in a variety of contexts: from the formal teacher-led settings of schools and universities to the non-formal education opportunities people can access at work, or from the comfort of their homes. Diverse are also the ways in which edtech can be offered: through remote learning or in-person meetings, synchronously or asynchronously, and even a combination of these. The reach and adaptability of edtech are wide, making it a crucial driver of academic, professional, and personal development.
How edtech improves education in schools?
Edtech mainly impacts formal education in three ways: it changes the way students learn, what students learn, and how teachers help their students both in the classroom and after school.
Edtech tools can radically change the way lessons are delivered. Teachers are no longer just lecturers, but they become facilitators of a more student- centred learning experience. Classes are more engaging, collaborative, and participatory. Examples include project-based learning, gamified classroom activities, or on-the-field practice through virtual reality.
Edtech not only transforms the way students learn, but it also changes the content teachers can bring to the classroom. For example, students can learn with peers located in different geographical areas or contexts. These activities expose them to diverse knowledge systems and enhance mutual understanding, one of the pillars of SDG target 4.7. Furthermore, students who are exposed to edtech at school better develop key digital skills that make them more competitive not only as learners but also as future professionals and citizens.
Edtech can facilitate teachers’ work even outside the classroom. Countless software, for example, allow for grading to be more automated. Similarly, grading tools make it easier for educators to visualise trends and plan targeted interventions when needed. The time teachers do not spend grading can be dedicated to helping students or to the pursuit of professional development. Edtech can also facilitate the inclusion of students with special needs, and it allows teachers to easily offer diversified assignments.
Edtech for non-formal education and lifelong learning
The use of edtech goes beyond traditional learning settings. In fact, online courses, most of which now rely heavily on edtech, were often developed to meet the needs of adult learners and professionals. The flexibility and affordability of MOOCs and other courses offered remotely are unmatched, especially compared to programs offered in brick-and-mortar institutions that might, for many, not only be too expensive but also geographically too distant. Learning management systems (LMS) are now making learning accessible anytime and anywhere. They are also entering the corporate world; more and more companies are relying on them to conduct varied activities, from onboarding to training. LMS now includes a broad range of edtech tools that make online learning a rich and productive experience. Therefore, edtech is a great way for people of all age groups to accommodate learning within busy professional and family lives.
Edtech for sustainability and global citizenship
Within the framework of Agenda 2030, edtech can play a crucial role in the achievement of several SDG targets.
Regarding SDG 4, quality education, educational technology, paired with online learning, can increase the number of people who have access to affordable and quality technical, vocational, and tertiary education (target 4.3), and the percentage of people who are digitally literate (target 4.4). Online learning can also be decisive in reaching the NEET, youths who are not engaged in education, employment, or training (target 8.6).
Thanks to the possibility to embed special education variations in edtech tools, it is also possible to increase the accessibility to vulnerable groups (target 4.5). Using connected and collaborative edtech tools, students can learn internationally with other peers and glimpse into knowledge systems that differ from their own; this promotes a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity, as advocated by target 4.7.
The positive impact of edtech goes beyond education and employability. It can be crucial in promoting global citizenship and sustainable lifestyles. In terms of climate knowledge and capacity (target 13.3), for example, edtech tools such as gamified activities and virtual reality can help people understand first-hand the dramatic effects of climate change in other areas of the world, or even in the future, should we choose to perpetuate unsustainable practices.
A multitude of edtech tools, ranging from smartphone applications to online simulations and games, can be used to develop more sustainable lifestyles (target 12.8). For example, several programs allow people to calculate their carbon footprint and, based on the results, explain which habits can be improved and how. Challenges hindering the role of edtech
Regardless of whether learning takes place at school, in a corporate setting, or at home, several obstacles prevent edtech, and learners from reaching their full potential.
The first challenge is related to affordable and steady access to electricity, internet connectivity, and digital devices. Data from UNESCO shows that out of all primary schools worldwide, 30% do not have access to electricity, and less than 50% have access to the internet or have computers available for their students to use. The situation is even more daunting once children leave school. According to UNICEF, two-thirds of the world’s school-aged children have no internet access at home. The digital divide in education is just one of the many faces of energy and connectivity poverty.
Challenges persist even when connectivity issues are addressed. Not every educator has the technical skills to use edtech tools, or the pedagogical expertise to adapt his or her teaching. This became particularly apparent during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when educators scrambled to move to remote learning, often with mixed results. To achieve SDG 4, more needs to be done to support teachers through professional development opportunities.
It does not take long to realise how already marginalised and vulnerable groups and communities are disproportionately affected by these challenges. Necessary actions to overcome edtech obstacles
First, if we want to benefit from edtech, every learner should be connected. We must recognise, however, that areas and communities struggling with extreme poverty, hunger, and diseases rightfully cannot prioritise this target. For countries and communities where this is not achievable, an alternative option would be to empower teachers or schools instead. It is not impossible, and many initiatives are already working towards this goal. In 2019, UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) launched Giga, a global initiative that aims to connect every school by 2030. So far, they connected more than 5,539 schools in 19 countries and mapped more than 1.1 million schools in 50 countries. Mapping itself is crucial because it highlights gaps in infrastructure and establishes market demand.
Then, if edtech is to fully reach its potential, the professional development of teachers must be prioritised. Teacher training should include digital literacy. This need is also recognised in SDG target 4C which advocates for an increase in the number of qualified teachers, especially in the least developed countries and in small island developing states.
Lastly, given the diverse accessibility options of educators and learners, attention should be paid to local characteristics to ensure feasibility.
Edtech tools are varied, some low-tech tools do not require an internet connection.
When accessibility cannot be guaranteed for all learners, low-tech tools should be favoured, so as not to create or widen educational gaps.
Is edtech what the world needs to address the current learning crisis?
Although the edtech sector has a huge potential in making education more inclusive, diverse, equitable and engaging, it has so far not lived up to its promises and it will not do so unless connectivity issues are addressed.
The digital divide is exacerbating the already dramatic educational inequality that learners face both within and among countries. The longer we wait to bridge the gap, the wider it will become, and the more people will be left behind. Without steady and affordable access to electricity and digital technologies, people not only miss out on educational opportunities but are also prevented from gaining the skills needed to compete in the modern economy and become active citizens.
Initiatives such as Giga, supported by UNICEF and ITU, are paving the way. To alleviate educational inequality, we need to dramatically scale up efforts, investments, and resources.
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Lecturer, Renmin University of China.