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EdTech and e-Learning: Need of the Hour

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May 9, 2020

As the pandemic coronavirus spreads to 180+ countries, pushing states to opt for precautionary lockdown, 1.6 Million of the world’s children are out of school. Though children, irrespective of the development and socioeconomic status of their nationality, are forced to stay at home the way states are responding varies.

In few countries, such as Germany, a localized school closure has been implemented. Whereas, in most countries, a country-wide closure of educational institutions has been put in place. Figure 1 below illustrates the current status of schools closure caused by COVID-19.

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Figure 1Global Status of Schools Closure caused by COVID-19 (Source: UNESCO, 08-05-2020)

China, the epicentre of the virus, announced country-wise closure of schools on January 20th 2020, even before implementing a lockdown in Wuhan, affecting 278 Million students. This decision was supplemented by resorting to two existing free virtual education platforms: Empower Learning and EduCloud – in what will be known as the largest simultaneous online learning exercise in human history.

African countries such as Rwanda, where 3 Million students are out-of-school due to the lockdown, are responding by utilizing radio as its main tool of outreach. UNICEF, in collaboration with Rwanda Broadcasting Agency, identified basic literacy and numeracy focused radio scripts from around the world that could be localized in alignment with the national curriculum and aired around the country. In Indonesia, for example, children are following a home-based study model with assignments being communicated by teachers. The challenge further complicates for countries such as Pakistan that have a complex, multi-layered education system divided among various axis including medium of instruction, range of tuition fee, curriculum, public versus private sectors, local and international examination boards.

The response has been varied too. The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training has launched a state-backed satellite school TeleSchool, which has been reviewed with much appreciation and criticism alike by experts, policy makers for effectiveness and learning outcomes. In a similar manner, the Government of Punjab, the largest province of Pakistan that also has the largest absolute cohort of out of school children, has launched its own version Taleem Ghar. The private sector has had a mixed strategy towards reaching out to students.

The common global concern, however, remains of the effect of school’s closure on learning outcomes once institutions re-open. The key areas are:

  • Will students’ grasp concepts in distance learning?
  • How will they be assessed?
  • Conceptual retention after an undefined break from regular school?

Technology is a powerful tool that has proved its transformative impact across industries with what we call the 4th industrial revolution. Marked by 5G, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, it has penetrated the education sector as well.

The sheer size of the investments made in the edtech sector reveal the development in and trends of the market. From a global investment of USD 8.15 Billion in the first 10 months of 2017[i], the figures have skyrocketed to USD 18.66 Billion in 2019[ii]. As distribution and edtech platforms scale internationally, the market is projected to grow at 11% per annum, to USD 341 Billion by 2025[iii].

Technologically advanced countries such as China have been utilizing artificial intelligence to assess learning outcomes and classroom effectiveness. In Shanghai, for example, brain wave tracking headbands are used by students that collect data about their concentration levels – the data is fed into the central database accessible by teachers in real-time. A report of the same is shared with the parents.

Computer and app-based education systems are giving a new meaning to distance learning especially at junior levels of schooling. In Pakistan’s case for example, SABAQ is an edtech startup which is working to increase student engagement and improve learning outcomes through high-quality scalable digital content that is relatable for children. Thus, making it accessible to millions through the public and Private-NGO sectors. Their work is multi-dimensional and includes animated video lessons, interactive exercises, live-shot lessons, story-based instructional content and teacher guides. In a supplementing manner, the learning apps developed by SABAQ are designed to be used alongside regular instruction at pre-primary and primary levels to help children develop better literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills.  To data, more than 250,000 students have been impacted, 1800 schools transformed, 1500 learning units produced and 540 centres established. The impact is beyond figures – it lies in the transformative effect on the schools and students using its flagship product MUSE.

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Figure 2 Improvement in Students' Learning Outcomes (Source: SABAQ, 2020)

SABAQ and similar startups working in the edtech space have given an evidence that it impacts learning positively across demographics. In this challenging time, when 1.6 Million children are forced to be out of school, and the global education system has come to a standstill, there is an opportunity to take a fresh start, to rethink how the system is being executed. It is an opportunity to go back to the planning stage and focus on the key objective: nurturing the minds of the children and youth and enhancing the learning outcome. Here’s what needs to be reflected upon:

  1. Global Responsibility

The pandemic coronavirus has affected the well-being of students from around the world, irrespective of nationality, religion or socioeconomic status. To overcome this challenge, the response has to be collective, inclusive and be carried out with responsibility and empathy.

Multi-agency platforms such as UNESCO do have a global framework in place. If joined by regional and interest-based networks such as E.U, OIC and SAARC, expertise, learnings and resources can be utilized more effectively for the larger good of the world’s children. For this, however, priority agenda should be education, before political and economic differences. Prerequisite: Empathy and Responsibility

  1. Local Governments and Agency

Going by the need of the hour, state resources are being channelled to medical and relief work, especially for the marginalized and the vulnerable. However, local agencies must maintain focus on the larger purpose and set goals in-line to that. The larger purpose for most countries is economic strength; the approach taken and process engaged in varies – however, what needs to be kept in mind is that it’s the next generation that will take the economy to a higher level. Hence, invest in them – equip them with the right technological tools that add value. The agencies may choose to steer or row this process as per its own framework, the end goal should be clear and facilitated.

  1. Startups

The cases mentioned reflect the integral role of startups in opening unexplored avenues of learning. In the present and Post Covid-19 world, edtech startups need to work in providing further localized content such that it makes the experience more relatable and accessible for the children.

  1. Parents

Certainly among the most significant stakeholders in children’s well-being, parents have an important role to play. The shift in the mindset - from discounting the importance of education altogether and restricting learning progress to attainment of grades to acceptability of edtech platforms and services - is steered by parents. It is the foundation on which any efforts from global bodies, local governments and startups are based upon.   

The overall long-term impact of edtech and e-learning services is promising. Post Covid-19 lockdown, once the global education system takes a fresh start, edtech and e-learning will potentially become a new norm in schools.