The world’s biggest classroom takes shape

The world’s largest skills-formation classroom aimed at improving learning outcomes through education technology is taking shape, courtesy of US$25 million in joint funding from the World Bank and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

At the centre of what is known as the EdTech Hub project is Brink, a British technology company that is coordinating a cohort of education researchers from the University of Cambridge’s faculty of education, AfriLabs, Jigsaw Consult, Open Development and Education, Results for Development and eLearning Africa. Other partners include BRAC, the Bangladesh international development agency, and the British Overseas Development Institute.

According to Lea Simpson, director of innovation at Brink, the primary focus of EdTech Hub researchers will be to understand how academic skills can increase employability in Africa and other developing countries in South Asia.

“We are confident that education technology has the potential to accelerate progress in learning and increase equity,” said Simpson, a co-founder of the company, during an address to delegates attending the 14th International Conference and Exhibition on ICT for Education, Training and Skills Development, or eLearning Africa 2019, held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire from 23 to 25 October.

Skills mismatch

More than 617 million children and adolescents do not achieve minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics, according to new estimates from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. At the same time, a large number of graduates of higher education are entering the job market without the skills that employers need.

Taking this into account, EdTech Hub researchers are seeking solutions to boost learning outcomes in basic education as well as improve employability of higher education graduates.

“In effect, EdTech Hub intends to explore the use of education technology in developing countries and … establish pathways in which such successes could be replicated,” Simpson told University World News.

According to Professor Tim Unwin, the UNESCO chair in ICT4D and the head of the intellectual leadership team for the EdTech Hub, the project will focus on equitable use of innovative technologies to benefit teaching and learning in developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

During the inception phase, researchers will avoid past mistakes whereby educational technologies in developing countries are generated from programmes in developed countries.

“We shall be looking for learning interventions that work among all children and more so those in marginalised communities, and how such benefits could be spread using education technology,” Unwin told University World News.

According to Professor Sara Hennessy, director of research in the faculty of education at the University of Cambridge (and also one of the advisors of the EdTech Hub), technology use must be adapted to cultural contexts.

“We intend to review and iterate, generating insights from rigorous research before applying them in practice,” said Hennessy in a briefing about the new project.

The anticipated massive adoption of education technology in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia is expected to spur open, distance and e-learning in universities and other tertiary institutions. According to Alice Carter, a co-founder of Brink, the new dispensation will change how teachers are trained in universities, with lecturers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia steering rigorous research and developing high-quality learning materials.

Curriculum change

“Already, we are witnessing curriculum change in African universities whereby students are increasingly being exposed to digital skills for employability and productivity,” said Carter.

According to Simpson, Brink will be open to independent research from African and Asian universities. However, challenges remain: while the uptake of educational technology in Africa and South Asia is on the rise, there has been limited development of local apps and digital platforms that address local issues, and opportunities for teachers to learn how to use them.

“Quite often the technology is not in the right language … there is poor maintenance of the hardware, lack of accountability and unequal distribution of educational technologies,” said Carter.

As Susannah Hares, the co-lead at the Center for Global Development, has pointed out, if the EdTech Hub is to succeed in translating the concept of the largest global classroom into reality, its research should go beyond application solutions and distribution of hardware.

“The big challenge is to generate evidence about whether education technology can be effectively integrated into large and capacity-constrained public education systems in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia,” said Hares.