The edutech sector is set to see a boom

The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in an upheaval of people’s everyday lives due to its impact on various sectors. One such sector was the basic and tertiary education sector. Learners were not allowed to physically attend school and class. To mitigate these disruptions, institutions relied on educational technology (edutech) to enable and facilitate remote learning.

Educational technology defined

Educational technology is the combined use of computer hardware, software, and educational theory and practice to facilitate learning. Edutech is beneficial for users – learners can engage learning materials in a paced manner, and also obtain one-on-one feedback from facilitators.

State of technology use in education

The 2019 state of the nation address (SONA) provided a glimpse into the state of technology use within the education sector.  President Cyril Ramaphosa indicated that the government planned over the 2020-2025 period to “provide every school child in South Africa with digital workbooks and textbooks on a tablet device.” In reality, this has not been the case and resources need to be redirected to plugging this gap.

Prior to the national lockdown, which began in March 2020, the use of educational technology was not widespread. In fact, one could regard it as having been a want more than a need. 

The country’s national lockdown resulted in educators looking for other means of going through the year’s curricula. This increased the focus on digital learning solutions; including whether they would be able to produce the same or better results if teaching was administered through this platform.

Some parents were sceptical, thinking of edutech as complementary to what is taught in the classroom. In interviews with my employer, business advisory company Birguid, others felt it a necessary adjustment in light of the further commoditisation of education through platforms such as the internet. 

However, others, who form the majority of the population, found it cumbersome as some schools (particularly the poor ones) did not have digital learning tools to use to teach their students and students did not have internet access to be able to access the learning materials through this platform.

If edutech is a solution for future learning, how do we make it more accessible for the populace that at present cannot afford to access it?

Surge in edutech use during the national lockdown

During level 3 to level 5 of the national lockdown, there was an increase in the uptake of edutech use in South Africa’s education sector across primary, high school and tertiary levels. Findings from Birguid’s demand-side survey on edutech solutions in South Africa revealed that uptake increased considerably between January and June 2020 (respondents reside in urban areas). 

Previously, respondents who were using edutech solutions for 11 hours or more per week constituted 4.8% of respondents in 2019. 

This increased to 28.5% for the January to June 2020 period. 

In addition, 76.2% of the respondents indicated that edutech solutions were delivering value for money. Major reasons cited for this was the ability to conduct self-paced learning, cutting down on travel time to educational institutions, and the ability to repeat lessons for a deeper understanding of the learning materials. 

These positives suggest that more needs to be done from both a policy and service provision standpoint with regards to growing the edutech sector.

Other findings from the preliminary survey were that the edutech solutions mostly used by basic education users were Google Classroom, Zoom and Microsoft Teams; and Udemy, edX and Coursera for the tertiary and adult education learners. 

Despite 71.4% of survey respondents indicating they would continue investing in edutech solutions post-lockdown, internet data costs were cited as being a major determining factor for future edutech uptake.

Growth potential in South Africa

Statistics South Africa’s 2018 general household survey showed that 89.6% of South African households did not have access to the internet at home. Access to the internet in South Africa is mainly via mobile devices (60.1%) including cellular telephones and 3G/LTE data cards. 

One way in which some educational institutions have gone around the data cost issue is seeking educational sites to be zero-rated. Entering arrangements with mobile network operators to have tailor-made data packages is another option which educational institutions are and should be exploring. An ultimate benefit of such arrangements is affordability and expansion of the pool of people accessing high quality educational content.

In the 2020 SONA (prior to the national lockdown), President Cyril Ramaphosa indicated that “in line with our framework for skills for a changing world, we are expanding the training of both educators and learners to respond to emerging technologies, including the internet of things, robotics and artificial intelligence.” Such a commitment bodes well for edutech’s growth prospects. However, the challenge and major obstacle to success will be to convert policy to practice, ensuring affordability by scaling the roll-out of edutech in South Africa.

South Africa is riddled with socioeconomic disparities as the lockdown made evident. Learners from disadvantaged communities are excluded from systems that are premised on remote learning. This presents an opportunity for innovators in the educational technology (edutech) space to explore how to deliver affordable, lower costing quality learning and development for this critical segment of the market.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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