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Can Edtech transform education? Should it?

Marc Shotland 20 May 2021

In this Q+A, IDinsight’s Marc Shotland, Director of the Research, Evaluation, and Data Team, shares evidence on what makes distance learning programs successful and the factors that contribute to their failure.

Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna from Pexels

The COVID-19 pandemic caused school closures worldwide, forcing educators to find innovative ways to teach students away from the classroom. Many teachers used distance learning educational technologies for the first time. Our team at IDinsight recently completed an evidence review, investigating which factors make distance learning approaches effective and successful. Marc Shotland, Director of our technical team, shares what they learned.

Q: What piqued your interest in Edtech?

Marc: Back in 2002, my first job in the development sector was as a research assistant (RA) for Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, the founders of JPAL. I worked on a remedial education and computer-assisted learning (CAL) program with an NGO called Pratham in India. My fellow RA, Jim Berry, and I worked closely with a few people at Pratham and helped to basically build this Edtech program from scratch: procuring and commissioning the development of good software that could teach early grade math in Gujarati (the local language). The CAL program proved to be immensely impactful. I became quite convinced that computers were really powerful tools to help kids learn.

Q: What is the current state of Edtech and distance learning? Why is this an area worth researching?

Marc: Before the pandemic, Edtech and distance learning were not on the minds of many educators, policymakers, or even parents. However, COVID-19 resulted in school closures around the world, and suddenly distance learning was the only way to ensure children had the chance to learn. Educators had to employ technology to deliver content or instructions to students.

This posed quite a few challenges:

  • Teachers no longer had in-person access to dutiful students attentively listening to the instructions they’re giving.
  • Parents have had to become teachers or take a much larger role in their children’s learning.
  • Students no longer have the structure and discipline of educational institutions and have had the responsibility of learning thrust upon them.
  • The home isn’t always the safest place or one conducive to learning, especially when children have the added pressure to earn income, they’re sharing space with multiple family members, etc.

There are, however, some opportunities:

  • Education systems can now readily admit that children do not know what they’re supposed to know given their grade level.
  • Education departments and ministries have recognized that there’s a need for assessment to be able to determine students’ level.
  • To get students to where they need to be in terms of their learning level, they need remedial education.
  • The digital divide has created massive inequity in learning opportunities for students, especially as technology becomes the sole means of delivering instructions to students.
Q: You did an evidence review recently to determine what contributes to the success or failure of distance learning methods. What did you find?

Marc: First, we learned the educational content students receive is more important than the device by which they receive it: e.g. radio, television, computer, or mobile phone.

We identified a trend in the design features of Edtech interventions where the technology would either:

  • Increase the quantity of instruction a student received i.e. by supplementing traditional instruction, or
  • Substitute traditional instruction i.e. by replacing the teacher with an Edtech intervention.

We found that almost any Edtech intervention that increased the quantity of instruction was very likely to be successful (there were a few exceptions).

It was when the technology was substituting traditional instruction that we found mixed results.

Q: What is your vision for Edtech? How should educators and administrators be thinking differently about these education approaches?

Marc: One thing that everyone in the education space acknowledges is that students start off at different levels and they learn at different paces. The traditional model of schooling — where a single teacher delivers one level of instruction at one pace to 40 students — is not the most optimal strategy for maximizing learning.

My vision for Edtech is that eventually, every student gets a device (computer, mobile phone, tablet) either at school or at home that can deliver instruction at their level and adapt instruction to their learning pace. Students would learn much of the content on their own at their own pace and then the school system and the teachers would facilitate the application of what they have learned. National infrastructure and technology investments to close the digital divide should also be considered as educational priorities.

To read the full report, click here.