Waiting for ed-tech’s iPhone moment – Dr Ayesha Razzaque

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The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

Over the past two decades, Pakistan’s startup ecosystem has been seeded with a large number of aspiring entrepreneurs. Many startups in the 2000s were technology focused, serving markets abroad, undoubtedly inspired by the rise of Silicon Valley in the 90s.

Despite overusing the ridiculed phrase “…to change the world” in their pitch decks, most startups are driven by a profit motive, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The 2010s saw more startups addressing needs of the local market, a trend further boosted by the introduction of 3G / 4G wireless Internet access.

What is very heartening to see is the growing number of social impact ventures entering the startup ecosystem in Pakistan. Social impact ventures put solving social problems ahead of profit. A number of local social impact ventures have taken aim at sectors where need is most dire – education, health, transportation, etc.

If a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, the Covid-19 pandemic was perhaps the single most opportune moment for education-technology startups (ed-techs) to break into the traditional model of education delivery. Early on during the pandemic, there was a lot of chatter in the ed-tech community that the pandemic will transform education in Pakistan forever. Eight months later, the (first?) wave of Covid-19 has come and washed over Pakistan but ed-tech’s ‘iPhone moment’, a situation that leads to a collective realization changing people’s perception about a product or service, never materialized the way it was envisioned. Why is that?

When a window opened for ed-techs to make a transformative entry into the education sector, most were still standing by the front door waiting for it to open. A survey of the local ed-tech startup landscape will reveal that most of the innovations on offer rely on every student or every classroom having a computer or tablet or smartphone, (high-speed) internet access and electricity in school and/ or at home. A good many are working on producing new learning contents, but too often they require the same kind of large investments in technology. These prerequisites and the associated cost to schools and / or parents limit their potential market to a razor thin slice of the total education market, consisting of top tier private schools. Too often ed-techs are more concerned with using technology and being tech startups, rather than ed-startups.

An ed-tech executive was telling me about how their innovation adds a cost of merely $6 per student per month. While this would indeed be considered an impressive feat for a low-cost solution in many places in the world, in Pakistan this translates to about Rs1,000 per month. Even if an independent third-party evaluation concludes the intervention to be effective, the scale of the problem and economic conditions being what they are, that already puts it out of the reach of public schools and many private schools.

Ed-techs need to think beyond the use of screens. My favorite example is the ‘Foldscope’ developed by Prakash Lab at Stanford University. The Foldscope is a sheet of paper that provides cutouts and instructions to fold and assemble a working microscope. A few transparent plastic beads serve as lenses of various magnification levels. It is inexpensive, reusable, portable, and does not require electricity or an internet connection, yet can be easily integrated at scale in existing classrooms and has the ability to greatly enrich the learning experience in even the most budget constrained schools.

Sustainable and realistic reform is often incremental. Many solutions on offer are clean-slate approaches that duplicate or displace contemporary school education entirely, usually without evidence of efficacy and are often expensive to boot.

Ed-techs working with private schools have fewer constraints to consider. However, in my work I have observed that where many ed-techs seeking partnerships with public schools fall short is lack of knowledge about the customer – that is: the departments of education, their associated institutes and directorates. I have seen pitches that present solutions to problems for which the various provincial and federal governments already have an entity in place, putting them in a head-to-head competition.

For example, consider digital content development for teacher training. Some provinces have adopted a hybrid teacher training model of their own and entire directorates are responsible for the production of digital training materials (albeit with donor support in many cases) with support from institutes that help deliver that model. When an ed-tech suggests that they are bringing in a novel solution, that is not only incorrect but also makes them appear uninformed, leaving a negative impression. Do not expect a government department to engage a vendor that does not know its client.

Engagement with government departments does not happen overnight. It requires cultivating relationships, building a personal rapport at various levels, and speaking the language of the bureaucracy. Decisions are not taken overnight but are often painfully slow. It requires identifying allies in the bureaucracy and political leadership with a sympathetic ear. The bureaucracy has a lot of inertia and prefers the status quo, regardless of its merits or demerits. Enacting major reforms opens up decision-makers to charges of corruption. While politicians and political appointees come and go every few years, bureaucrats have to consider being hauled in front of some accountability inquisition down the road. In the current climate, that means the prudent thing to do is to not stick your neck out for anyone.

Ed-techs often make their argument on the basis of delivering better quality, but without having convincing proof. When the end goal is better student learning outcomes, quality on the basis of content being technically or aesthetically superior is not enough. If you are unable to demonstrate, through robust third-party evidence, that a product or service delivers outcomes superior to what the government currently gets at an appropriate per head cost, then the claim does not hold. In the spring, ed-techs developing learning content generously offered some of their products for free, in the hope that the situation will serve as a pilot study and demonstrate their products’ efficacy. Time will tell if that materializes.

The public-school sector should not be thought of as a monolith; problems and resources of public schools vary widely. I met a girl in a remote school recently who confided that she had used her school’s toilet only once in the four years she had been there. When I saw it, I understood why. It was so unhygienic and in such a state of disrepair, not even an animal would venture there.

Many problems of public schools do not require pedagogical solutions, but stem from lack of basic infrastructure – water, power, toilet facilities, boundary walls, transportation, etc. While we may poke fun at initiatives of our eastern neighbor, the fact is that lack of toilets and water is keeping a lot of children (girls, in particular) out of schools in rural and remote areas. Unfortunately, many startups in the education sector would consider developing dry flush toilets and other infrastructure problems lacking the glamour of tech.

Let me give the example of a teacher at an elite private school in Lahore where teachers had been complaining of frequent cases of laryngitis from having to speak over the noise of ceiling fans. The solution was as simple as demanding wireless microphones and installing speakers in classrooms so teachers can deliver their lectures without straining their voice boxes. This problem is worse in public schools with class sizes of 80 to 100 students. After all, even the most motivated student cannot learn anything if she does not hear the teacher. Is any ed-tech offering a low-cost solution to this very real, but very common problem?

Put simply, there is a lack of preparation as well as a mismatch between the high-end private school-going segment of the education market many ed-techs cater to and the middle and low-end public school-going and out-of-school segments where the need for interventions is greatest. This makes the innovations most ed-techs offer out of step with what most schools need or can afford.