Education Technology- Is It All That It Is Being Made Out To Be?

By Munira Fidai

The novel coronavirus may be receding globally, but by the time it got done with us, the world itself seems to have transformed. From workplace structures to commerce and medicine, every sector has been forced to revamp its processes and become more adept at keeping up with future adversities. For a sector like education that shapes the future, creates the work force and fuels the world through its teachings, how could the verdict be any different?

Thriving on classroom style education for centuries, the $1.3 trillion sector had been doing things in a scripted way almost forever. Come Covid, the industry had to stop and take a hard look at the way it had been going on. Decision makers at the helm of the sector suddenly had a mammoth problem on their hands- protecting one of the most vulnerable groups in society meant closing down schools. Educational institutions had upwards of 1.2 billion empty chairs in the classrooms of 186 countries and leaders around the world needed a way forward, or face immense economic slowdown in future. 

As with most problems these days, the answer lay with technology. Two years ago, remote learning was not a new phenomenon in any way. With beginnings in the early 1900s, the world was already familiar with the concept of acquiring knowledge distantly. Even pre Covid, education technology was a high growth market which was seeing a rapidly accelerated rate of acceptance. Global edtech investments were around US$18.66 billion in 2019 and the overall market for online education was projected to reach $350 billion by 2025.  Language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing technology and online learning software were already up and running, even if not on the scale they run now. 

Even pre Covid, education technology was a high growth market which was seeing a rapidly accelerated rate of acceptance.

What then, was the issue? The problem lay in the sheer scale at which this technology would have to be offered to the masses, in order to steer the sector back into survival mode. It was a big ask but the costs of not stepping up to the challenge were astronomical.

This problem paved the way for e-learning in all its glory. Existing technology like Google Classroom and Zoom came forward with their offerings and newer educational apps received more acceptance than they would have, if they had launched at another time. 

Photo: Chris Montgomery

Think of the Indian edtech company, BYJU’s. The virtual tutoring firm that started in 2011 exploited the pandemic situation and announced free live classes on its Think and Learn app. It consequently saw a surge of 200% in new student enrolments in that window of time. Similarly, after the Chinese government instructed almost 250 million of its full-time students to resume their studies online, it gave rise to an unprecedented movement in the history of education where approximately 730,000 students of a grade started schooling through an online platform called Tencent K-12 Online School in Wuhan. 

Other platforms, like a Singapore based collaboration suite called Lark started to offer students and teachers unrestricted video conferencing time, auto-translation services, co-editing services in real time, smart calendar scheduling and a range of other relevant features. 

All this was made possible because the big guns in the edtech industry sniffed out the opportunities and scaled up their capabilities in app engineering and global server infrastructure to be there when the market needed them most. Initiatives like these were seen in the edtech sector of Bangladesh too. A spokesperson for Teach for Bangladesh mentioned, “In 2020, we focused on leveraging existing mobile Internet connectivity for learning in underserved communities in response to widespread school closures. We trained teachers in blended learning best practices leveraging existing Internet connectivity and low-cost smartphones. We focused heavily on building an ecosystem for online learning by working on the knowledge, digital skills, and mindsets of not just our students but equally with parents and communities to support online learning for students.”

Experts in educational psychology say that learners are able to take in larger amounts of information online and are also able to retain more from the sessions, primarily thanks to the use of audio-visuals in the online platforms. However, there are a number of challenges that also plague this up-and-coming high growth sector. 

It can be accused of being a somewhat elitist technology, as it does not take into account the plight of the student, who does not have a quiet place in their home to study, and also excludes students whose schools do not offer online study platforms. The technology ignores those without computers or active internet connections at home, and those who live in remote places outside of phone network coverage. “A challenge we continue to face is children’s access to devices and internet connectivity and affordability for families, particularly during this period of high inflation,” said Teach for Bangladesh. Teachers also need to be trained, in order to be able to prepare and engage themselves in online learning, understanding the technology in a way so as to provide a seamless experience to tech savvy students. 

Technology exists to bridge gaps that are naturally created by progress but it comes with its own set of challenges each time. Despite hurdles, the way in which edtech has stepped up to the challenge of school closures during the pandemic is testimony to the fact that it has infinite benefits that are yet to be exploited. If made inclusive, the market has scope to grow and paybacks to the economy are immeasurable.

Munira Fidai is a business writer who occasionally wets her feet in other forms of writing. The author has 7 years of corporate experience with multinationals such as JCPenney, International Beverages Private Limited (Coca-Cola Bangladesh), and BASF Bangladesh Limited. She currently enjoys teaching languages and spending time with her private circle. Munira can be reached on eshafidai@gmail.com

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