Here's how the Middle East’s $4bn edtech sector could transform learning
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Here’s how the Middle East’s $4bn edtech sector could transform learning

Here’s how the Middle East’s $4bn edtech sector could transform learning

Edtech’s potential to improve learning around the world is vast, whether in day to day school settings, or during humanitarian emergencies

Gulf Business

Recently, the education community gathered in New York for the UN Transforming Education Summit, where they took stock of how the world is progressing towards Sustainable Development Goal number 4: equitable quality education for all. The edtech sector, which has undergone major changes due to the remote learning imposed on the world by the Covid-19 pandemic, could be critical in this regard.

Leaders of the edtech sector in the Middle East and around the world have a vital contribution to make together. Analysts predict that edtech expenditure in the region will rise by 75 per cent, to $7bn, within the next five years. But the Middle East was already pioneering edtech solutions well before the pandemic: in 2018, the UAE government introduced its Madrasa platform, which provides free learning materials to more than 50 million Arab students around the world.

Edtech’s potential to improve learning around the world is vast, whether in day to day school settings, or during humanitarian emergencies, such as the one unfolding in Ukraine. It can provide children a personalised experience – something UNESCO calls a human right – allowing them to study at their own pace and according to their level of proficiency.

In schools, teachers deploying edtech could be freed up from routine tasks such as logging grades, which technology would do automatically, allowing teachers more time to focus on the creative and interpersonal aspects of teaching students. It could also offer solutions to education challenges in remote areas of the world, helping address illiteracy (a World Bank study showed literacy is improved within days by quality edtech).

But the pandemic, which came as education systems were already facing mounting pressure to redress longstanding learning inequalities, also exposed some challenges that edtech must address.

A survey of UAE teachers and educators conducted by the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation found that remote teaching had extended their workload and stress. Moreover, UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank have warned that up to 70 per cent of children in lower- and middle-income countries are now in “learning poverty” (a lack of basic age-10 literacy) – due in part to school closures, but also, critically, because of the relative ineffectiveness of some current remote learning technologies.

Moreover, a crucial barrier to true success is edtech’s lack of an evidence base. Many products that we use in our everyday lives, like medicines, must go undergo rigorous testing before reaching consumers. Yet robust scientific evidence does not presently play an integral role in how most edtech products are designed, deployed, and evaluated. The problem lies at the heart of the edtech ecosystem, extending to start-ups, investors, and buyers alike.

Buyers who purchase edtech for schools don’t tend to request proof of a product’s efficacy. In the US, a survey of more than 500 school and district leaders who make edtech purchasing decisions showed that just 11 per cent demand peer-reviewed research.

For edtech startups, it can therefore be difficult to reconcile time-consuming research with the demands of a fast-changing market. The UK edtech review platform Edtech Impact found that just 7 per cent of edtech companies used randomised controlled trials to find evidence of impact. Many of these businesses simply rely on testimonials and school case studies.

This kind of culture shift requires the whole edtech sector – startups, researchers and investors – to come together. Robust evidence should drive not only the development of edtech products and their evaluation, but also investment decisions.

As a generation of students risks being left behind, there is no time to waste on ineffective edtech. Investors should be able to choose products that stand the test of time to enable students to benefit from game-changing innovations.

To encourage more researched-based approaches, the Jacobs Foundation has allocated $30m to leading edtech venture funds that are committed to investing in companies backed by research. We have also granted $10m to a research facility at the University of California Irvine that will connect scientists and start-ups to examine the impact of technology on learning. We hope these efforts help overcome the “evidence barrier” in edtech, yielding innovative learning solutions.

The Middle East is a youthful region that is brimming with potential. If we all work together, we can empower the next generation of the Middle Eastern change-makers to help solve the world’s biggest challenges, from global inequality to pandemics to climate change.

Fabio Segura and Simon Sommer are co-CEOs of the Jacobs Foundation

Read: Alpha Wave leads $57m funding in edtech platform Cuemath>

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