From Access to Impact: The Role of Context in EdTech Effectiveness

By Sandra Wells

Technology in education has reshaped the way we learn and teach, and it has the potential to transform education in developing countries, towards more equal learning opportunities and outcomes. However, is the presence of technology enough to unlock this potential?


Technology in education – a simple solution?


Education technology, also known as EdTech, has become an increasingly popular tool for improving educational outcomes in developing countries. After all, if technology is so widely spread out in education in developed countries, extending its presence to developing countries seems like an obvious step in paving the way to a more equal education. A recent review of EdTech implementations in developing countries begins to shed light onto how this technological presence should take place.


Improving access to technology is a common starting point for EdTech interventions. One example is the One Laptop Per Child project in Peru. While this program successfully increased access to technology for children, the impact on education outcomes was limited. In Israel, a similar study investigated the impact of providing public schools with computers on student performance. The results showed that, in fact, students who had access to computers had lower scores in math and language skills than those who did not have access.


Not so simple after all


While providing students with access to technology does seem like an essential step in EdTech, these examples make it clear that the field is complex and multi-faceted, and needs more in-depth understanding before implementation. It helps to take a step back and re-consider: what are the root causes of low educational outcomes in developing countries, and are the EdTech interventions addressing these causes specifically and carefully?


Among the main root causes for poor educational outcomes in developing countries are:

  • Lack of resources to allocate towards education, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, inadequate infrastructure, and poorly trained teachers.
  • Limited access to education due to geographic, socioeconomic, or cultural barriers, such as distance to schools, lack of transportation, and early marriage or child labor.
  • Low quality of education, including inadequate teaching materials or outdated curricula.
  • Gender inequality, since girls are often at a disadvantage in accessing education in developing countries due to cultural and societal norms that prioritize male education.
  • Political instability and conflict, which can disrupt education systems and lead to the displacement of students and teachers, resulting in a loss of education opportunities.


Obviously, EdTech is far from a “one-size-fits-all” solution to the breadth and the magnitude of these root causes. Thus, for EdTech interventions to play a positive role in improving educational outcomes, they must be designed thoughtfully around the specific issues from a specific context. Otherwise, they might fail to address the problem partially or completely, potentially becoming less effective or cost-effective than non-EdTech interventions, or even resulting in negative effects. In the interventions in Peru and Israel on access to computers, one of the main shortcomings was, precisely, that they did not have, as a premise, a clear theoretical or causal path between owning a computer and improved school performance. Fortunately, though, there have been several other studies where careful, context-specific design has allowed for a more successful effect of EdTech.


The reward of understanding complexity


In Pakistan, the specific issue of a lack of qualified teachers, and teacher absenteeism, was addressed by creating short videos with academic content in math and science and implementing the program through the local government. The videos created for the intervention were designed to be visually engaging and interactive, and they were aligned with the national curriculum. This intervention resulted in significant gains in learning, as well as reduced teacher absenteeism and increased teacher effort. 


In an intervention in Andhra Pradesh, India, the specific issue of student absenteeism was addressed. Students’ parents were sent daily automated phone calls in the local language informing them of their child's attendance at school. If the child was absent, the call would remind the parent to send their child to school the next day and emphasize the importance of regular attendance. This intervention was effective in reducing absenteeism by 4.5 percentage points and was cost-effective, with each automated phone call costing only a few cents.


The MPrep program, in Kenya, was designed to address the lack of access to quality education and resources, especially in rural areas. In this program, mobile phones were used to provide students with educational materials and exercises, allowing them to study and practice math concepts at their own pace. This intervention was effective in improving math scores and reducing absenteeism rates, and also cost-effective, since the cost of implementing the program was much lower than the cost of hiring additional teachers or building more schools.


Even more examples of effective problem-specific interventions have been found in contexts where there was a lack of teacher professional development. Here, providing teachers with video recordings of their lectures as self-improvement feedback, or complementing their classes with digital simulations to aid in explaining scientific concepts, also resulted in increased student learning outcomes.


Is that all?


Designing EdTech interventions around a carefully identified contextual issue is necessary for their effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. However, that does not mean that it is sufficient to guarantee its success. For this, a well-designed intervention requires several other factors, including appropriate stakeholder accountability and continued intervention maintenance. Above all, though, what is most needed to ensure the success of EdTech in developing countries is to expand investment in research providing more insight on the most effective interventions: when, where, how, who, and what should be done to maximize the potential of interventions, are still all significantly open questions in this field, and it is undoubtedly important and pressing to answer them.


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