Edtech’s Social Impact

[Author’s note: In advanced of next week’s EdTechInAsia conference, this piece examines the intersection of education, technology and social impact. Updates and edits will be noted at the bottom.]

Because education, like clean water, is often viewed as inherently ‘good’, it is an uncontroversial investment. While this invites uncritical funding, as more money pours into the sector, rigorous evidence of impact will be demanded. It is therefore instructive to examine the evolution of social impact in education and the role that technology plays in expanding that impact.

Universal Primary Education: Access for All

The mainstream view of education’s social impact is often aligned with the UN’sMillennium Development Goals (MDG) of providing Universal Primary Education, including basic literacy and numeracy skills, to impact outcomes such as: eliminatinggender inequality; reducing poverty; fostering economic sustainability; and creating asustainable planet. In certain areas, this is often a matter of life and death (note: education is key in reducing infant and maternal mortality and fostering peace).

While education’s social impact is often linked to the aforementioned issues, technology’s contribution has been one of access – ensuring that as many people as possible receive universal primary education, so that we as a society, can achieve morepositive social outcomes. Moreover edtech’s social impact role may broaden to focus onfinancing and student loans, furthering the goal of access.

Beyond the Digital Divide: Learning Analytics

At the same time, there’s growing recognition that marginalized groups (e.g., at-risk or low-income schools, young women in remote areas) often miss out on digital, economic and educational progress. For example, in low-income communities, schools often lackqualified teachers, have unsuitable large class-sizes and a reward system that focuses on test-taking at the expense of a richer learning experience. So from this perspective, edtech’s role in narrowing the gap has been to understand the context specific to marginalized groups and provide quality learning solutions.

The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. – William Gibson
Despite edtech’s best efforts to narrow the gap, there is some evidence that it is, in fact,widening. Researchers are finding that merely giving marginalized groups access to content and instruction is not sufficient. There is actually variation in usage; research has found meaningful differences in how low-income vs. affluent students use information technology.

At this level, edtech’s social impact goes beyond access and delivery, to examining howstudents use educational technology. This may involve understanding how content actually gets integrated into schools or the role of teachers, how educator insights are integrated into products/services and how teacher training and development may be crucial. Edtech entrepreneurs are going beyond focusing on a particular solution to taking a holistic approach to understanding the learner’s context.

Given the various ways that content becomes digitized, technology can play a larger role in tracking student learning analytics over time. Technology can be employed to track learning analytics to see student behavior and interaction.

Opening the Black Box

At the national policy levels, education is often tied to a country’s social and economic development goals and social impact would be tied to changes in various ‘social’ development indicators like: labor skills, productivity, employment rate, capacity to absorb new ideas, community participation, improved health, level of criminal activity, teenage pregnancy risk and dependence on government assistance, among other things. These approaches to social impact often take a macroeconomic view, which unfortunately treats education as a ‘black box’ overlooking factors like curriculum, pedagogy, teacher quality and student experiences. The danger is that good intentions get mired in poor execution: What sounds good at the policy level (e.g., one tablet per child) may fall flat at the implementation level.

Thus, edtech’s potential for social impact is to open the black box, making explicit the links between various learning analytics and social impact outcomes. Advances in computing, cloud services and data analytics means that edtech entrepreneurs can (and should) begin making the case, backed by data, for exactly how specific education initiatives lead to wide ranging social outcomes.

Questions we might ask include: How might education technology that strengthens communication between teachers, parents and administrators also keep students off the streets from illicit activities? How might sophisticated learning platforms allow student and teachers to co-create a personalized learning plan that increasing engagement and reduce premature dropout rates?

These are some of the themes that will be explored next week at EdTechAsia 2016 – hope to see you there!