Opinion: EdTech has not lived up to its promises — here's how to turn that around

EdTech is a multi-billion dollar industry that had lofty pledges of democratizing education and improving equity. In many ways, it failed to make good on those promises

EdTech is a multi-billion dollar industry that had lofty pledges of democratizing education and improving equity. In many ways, it failed to make good on those promises. Image: REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Natalia Kucirkova
Professor of Children's Reading and Development, The Open University and University of Stavanger
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EdTech is big business, and the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed it into the mainstream.

In just the next three years, the market for, EdTech, technology used to enhance and enable education, is set to grow by $112.39 billion. BYJU’S, an EdTech platform worth roughly $22 billion, is a major sponsor of the 2022 Qatar Soccer World Cup, the most-watched sporting event of the year.

But, after a decade of glittering promises of democratization and egalitarian education, EdTech and its companies have become bigger — but not necessarily more “educational.” If it is going to work for children, rich and poor, EdTech needs a culture change.

A decade of unmet expectations

From 2010 to 2020, EdTech exploited two key educational myths to perfection. First, advocates for one-to-one initiatives confused learning engagement with learning gains. Sponsors of whole-school deployments of iPads or Chromebooks have somewhat smugly held up examples of children’s use enjoyment as examples of learning. The promise of data-informed individualised learning devolved into data-driven individualistic learning. As any teacher knows, genuine learning is collaborative and challenging. Furthermore, motivation precedes learning, but it does not make the learning stick.

Second, the portrayal of EdTech as a solution to inequitable education has confused learning access with learning achievement. The rationale driving the global EdTech market is the democratic idea that everyone should have access to education. The problem is that not all EdTech platforms are truly educational — in fact, very few actually are.

Have you read?

Over the past decade, international research groups have documented the harmful effects of non-educational EdTech. Researchers working in diverse disciplines have shown time and again which and why some apps and online platforms lack educational benefits.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw into stark relief the consequences of this. Human Rights Watch revealed that EdTech was endorsed by 49 governments during the pandemic led to major violations of children’s rights. Pushing for online learning at all costs was not only demoralizing, to teachers but it also directly advanced bad teaching practices in US schools.

After the pandemic, several governments jumped on the bandwagon of rapidly delivered, under-researched, COVID catch-up programmes. These post-COVID policies are comparable to rapid deployments of underdeveloped EdTech prototypes. The COVID learning loss concept is based on highly uncertain estimates and known for fuelling moral frenzy and anxiety among teachers and parents.

Big EdTech in the classroom

A number of big-tech companies have transitioned their existing business models into schools. Today’s other big EdTech companies, similarly follow two main revenue streams: subscription and data rental. Both are commercial, not educational, models.

Digital libraries, such as Epic!, deliver e-books on a monthly basis to provide on-demand, direct-to-consumer services. Edu businesses like Pearson extract data rent as a route to monetization. BYJU’s, Google and Apple in Schools deploy well-honed commercial tactics to concentrate power through multiple mergers.

Together with fast-growing EdTech start-ups, these companies aim to become too big to fall and too connected to fail. In pursuing this goal, their commercial interests at times supersede educational equity interests.

But the message from the recent Unicef-LEGO EdTech report is clear. Education can be brought into the metaverse — but it should not be done the other way around. New EdTech models can promote public-private cooperation and demand transparent documentation of privacy policies. Independent research evidence can drive the ways in which EdTech is developed, evaluated and scaled-up. Realization of this vision requires collective action from the education community, but investors, researchers and schools, too, can play a part.

Reforming EdTech

A more nuanced approach would follow evidence-based recommendations on COVID legacy issues:

  • Account for the diverse and non-uniform contexts of where and how children learn
  • Focus on support for habits and traditions that are deeply embedded in communities
  • Ensure the burden of responsibility does not fall unfairly onto parents or individual schools.

A nuanced approach would account for the growing role of major technology companies in the classroom, too. A key step is to re-think the regulations surrounding EdTech and the commercial models driving the industry.

Standard data regulations are not enough to rein in the commercial excesses of the EdTech industry. Legislation changes — such as the Children’s Code in the UK and the tech antitrust agenda in USA — address children’s rights, but more is needed if EdTech is to equitably educate children at scale.

Investors should demand evidence of EdTech’s effectiveness and impact before investment, and assess not only immediate effects but also the long-term impact of EdTech interventions on the community.

Researchers should engage in collaborative research to promote evidence-based practice in EdTech design and pedagogy, while also supporting support schools and families in deciding which EdTech to use and how, for optimal benefits.

And schools should support whole-school staff training and community involvement in using and understanding EdTech and demand evidence of learning gain effects and compliance with children’s rights regulations before adopting a new technology or platform.


EdTech in 2030

For the coming decade, futurists predict technology development native to classrooms. Businesses will move away from implementing commerce in classrooms and develop their products with a stronger evidence base. This would be good news.

To make sure it happens, research scientists must bring investors on board. There is already proof that this can be done. The Jacobs Foundation, for example, has committed CHF 40 million ($41 million) to support strategic collaboration between researchers, investors and EdTech producers.

By 2030, we need to think of EdTech as one ecosystem of mutually dependent investors, developers and users, all accountable to each other and children’s education.

The skills that will make the new EdTech ecosystem work are what Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek call the 6 skills of Becoming Brilliant: collaboration, communication, confidence, creativity, criticality and competence in learning to learn. These skills can not only fix EdTech’s deficiencies but make it brilliant, too.

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