The education crisis – is technology the solution?

Emilie Skogvang
TIK MA Student

There are currently 60 million children who do not have access to education, of which 30 million are living in areas affected by war and conflict. At the same time, there is a severe lack of teachers to meet the needs of these children. Can educational technologies, so-called “edtech”, be part of the solution?

A question of safety and stability

When you think about the war in Syria, you might think of the millions of refugees who have had to flee their homes, the lack of food, the poverty and the primary needs that go uncovered. But did you ever think about the consequences of the 2.3 million Syrian children who have lost their opportunities for education due to the ongoing conflict? Even those children who do have access to school may face difficulties in learning because they have been under long-term stress, or because they may be taught in a language they do not master. How can Syria and other countries affected by conflicts ever hope to rebuild if millions of their people have had no access to education over long periods of time?

According to Save The Children, 60 million children are out of school globally. A further 60 million drop out before they reach 4th grade, and 130 million do not learn basic skills in the early years they attend school. At the same time, there are not nearly enough teachers to meet these needs, especially in fragile contexts characterised by war and conflict. According to the most positive forecasts, we will not be close to having enough teachers for the next 30 years. The trend is that many humanitarian crises turn into protracted crises, like the war in Syria. This means that the lack of education for these children is a long-term problem, and short-term solutions for long-term needs will simply not suffice. This is an under-communicated crisis which is not only a question of the psychosocial well-being, safety and the future of the millions of children affected by wars and conflicts, but also a question of global safety and stability in the years to come. These children will build the societies of the future, and we must make sure they have the right tools to do that in order to ensure safe and sustainable development, especially in unstable parts of the world.

Can the edtech industry be part of the solution?

Humanitarian organizations are increasingly looking to partner with the private sector to harness their innovation capabilities and technological expertise. In the context of education in humanitarian crises, there is one industry in particular that might have a solution to the education challenge: the “edtech”industry. This industry consists of companies who are suppliers of educational technologies which might meet some of the needs of the children affected by crises. One example is EduApp4Syria which started as an international open innovation contest facilitated by The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). The contest resulted in two open source smartphone applications with the aim of helping Syrian children with basic literacy in Arabic and improving their psychosocial well-being. Whether the apps will have a positive impact on these two factors is yet to be seen. NORAD is currently collecting quantitative data from the field to see the actual impact, but the qualitative feedback they have received so far is very promising.

Another example is the Norwegian edtech company, Alphabet King. They have developed a solution called “The Learning Lab”. This is a collection of 200 unique educational apps and physical exercises in a reversed classroom where the children walk around at their own pace and do tasks on their own level. The apps are designed to be easy for children with different backgrounds to understand, and they can be used on tablets, smartphones and computers. Alphabet King is currently piloting “The Learning Lab” in Gambia, Uganda, Somalia and Kenya among other countries, and they have found that the solution gives good results for children regardless of their nationality and socioeconomic status.

Although there are tremendous possibilities in technology, both the edtech industry and humanitarian organizations know that an app alone cannot save the world. Children need contact with adults and a safe learning environment to prosper. It is important to emphasize that edtech cannot replace a teacher or a safe learning environment:

Educational technology has great benefits when it comes to distributing learning and knowledge to people in parts of the world where access to education would normally be impossible, as most people have smartphones. Digital tools can never replace teachers and formal education, but in times of crisis and conflict, it can help provide learning regardless of time, space and level.

Hege Tollerud, CEO of Oslo EdTech Cluster

Getting to know the end user through strategic partnerships

When developing any type of technology, the end user is important. After all, it is the end user’s problems one is trying to solve. In this case, the end users are children affected by wars and conflicts, and it is their situations and needs that must be taken into consideration. Culture and context-specific characteristics must be incorporated into the solutions at an early stage in order to achieve real impact and be sustainable. Since humanitarian organizations usually have great knowledge about children affected by war and conflicts, strategic partnerships between humanitarian organizations and edtech companies are important to develop long-term solutions to tackle the education crisis.

Image Courtesy: Alphabet King