From education to employment

Leveraging EdTech to overcome the largest disruption in the history of education: COVID-19

Stavros Yiannouka, CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), and Victoria Basma, Policy Development Officer at WISE

During a recent panel discussion hosted by Qatar Foundation (@QF) to coincide with the United Nations (@UN) General Assembly, Qatar Foundation’s Vice-Chairperson and CEO, H.E. Sheikha Hind, posed the question:

What is really important in education?

This question, it turns out, did not prompt the type of reflection that was limited only to abstract, aspirational ideals, but rather a close examination of what it would really mean to accelerate education’s long-term recovery from COVID-19:

  • How do we create new learning pathways so that we can help all students reach their full potential?
  • What types of investment are urgently needed?
  • How do we leverage existing innovation?

A global education crisis

To date, 1.5 billion children have been out of school as a result of the pandemic, leading to a global education crisis, the impact of which (absent timely interventions) will likely resonate for decades to come.

Although there have been exceptional efforts by teachers and administrators to meet immediate pain points since the onset of this pandemic, the protracted nature of this crisis has tested education systems’ capacity to adapt. As a result, the learning loss experienced this year has been striking.

Students in the US for instance have returned this term with only 70% of their expected gains in reading, and only a staggering 50% in maths. The disparity between countries is also worsening.

Experts are now estimating that the achievement gap between parts of the world like Central Asia and their European counterparts is now double the gap that existed prior to the pandemic.

This is a concerning decline in human development that will likely have serious ramifications for these emerging economies.

A haphazard approach to technology is having a significant impact on day-to-day learning

At the beginning of the year, there was perhaps a rather optimistic expectation that the rapid move to online learning would demonstrate the efficacy of edtech as a viable alternative to in-person learning.

Whilst the widespread use of edtech made possible the operational continuity of education systems in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation or so ago, it also highlighted serious issues regarding how we interact with edtech in the classroom.

Unlike remote study (with which the student might still follow the traditional instructor-led course, just from afar), distance learning requires a blended approach to pedagogy that relies on a deep understanding of how to leverage technology beyond simple content delivery.

There are many examples of schools that were already adept at employing a hybrid model of learning and they have been able to enact an easy transition to the digital space over the last few months.

However, for many others, a lack of strategic investment and training over recent years has resulted in a haphazard approach to how technology is procured and applied, something that is now having a significant impact on day-to-day learning.

Inflexible global education systems created an endemic resistance to change

A lack of foresight might have led some schools to overlook meaningful investments in edtech. However, a more compelling argument perhaps is that there has been an endemic resistance to change due to the inflexible policy conditions of our global education systems:

1. Complex and lengthy procurement processes

First, many schools continue to be constrained in their decision making around edtech due to complex and lengthy procurement processes.

Technology is developing at an increasingly fast pace and the pandemic is likely to further accelerate this, as it has created even higher demand for new solutions that can meet schools’ needs – and do so quickly.

However, the procurement processes that schools are required to undertake are intentionally designed to ensure a tempered approach to acquiring edtech; innovation is side-lined for the sake of caution. This creates a lag that prevents schools from seeing real impact through technology in the classroom.

By the time the lengthy procurement processes are completed and the technology is implemented, there is also a heightened risk of the edtech no longer matching the fast-evolving needs of school stakeholders. This in turn progressively discourages any future efforts to introduce new technologies.

2. Restrictive Data Policy

Secondly, schools lack the type of enabling environment required to see edtech thrive. Schools hold a treasure trove of data and information that remains inaccessible to entrepreneurs and edtech providers, in turn impeding their ability to improve the design, development, and delivery of learning technology.

Data of this nature is of course incredibly sensitive, however the current policies around this information severely limit any opportunity for teachers and edtech providers to leverage its value.

Practitioners are not trained to have the type of skills required to analyse the breadth of student data delivered through edtech and therefore cannot prove the value of the technology for themselves or the entrepreneurs.

This has massive effects on their ability to make informed decisions both on the types of solutions that should be offered to schools and on how these tools can be further developed.

3. Lack of consistent research

Finally, there is a noticeable lack of consistent research around technology in education. This leaves school leaders without enough reliable research to build a strong, evidence-based approach to technology procurement.

This also denies edtech providers an opportunity to determine what types of needs are emerging from schools as they continue to evolve. Coupled with the stresses of managing a pandemic, many schools are now either clambering to onboard new ‘panacea’ edtech that promises to aid in the transition to distance learning or are in a heightened state of wariness and therefore relying on ‘safe’ technologies that are, in all likelihood, not doing much to enrich the learning experience of students online.

Education has long needed a reassessment of purpose – Use this period as an opportunity

Effective blended learning is not always easy to realise, as it requires a nuanced approach to learning that is built to adapt to the needs of both teachers and students, not simply transferring curriculums online: a feat made even more difficult in an emergency context.

Couple this with the fact that schools and edtech providers still struggle to speak the same language and we are presented with a rather dire picture of education for this generation of students.

However, all this is not to say that there is not a willingness to see meaningful change. There is often a real openness from practitioners to introduce technology in the classroom, but without the ability to analyse and understand the effect that edtech has on their students, the value of any tool immediately dissipates.

With that said, it is up to both policymakers and school leadership to use this period as an opportunity to lobby for more freedom to experiment with edtech and clearer pathways towards collaboration with edtech entrepreneurs in the classroom. Education has long needed a reassessment of purpose.

Reimagining the way we interact with edtech could bring greater transformations across this sector, from the way we evaluate 21st century learning to how we achieve greater levels of access. We need only be open to the possibility of change.

By Stavros Yiannouka, CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), and Victoria Basma, Policy Development Officer at WISE

WISE is an international, multi-sectoral platform, which has established itself as a global reference in new approaches to education. It is part of non-profit organisation Qatar Foundation and, carries out research, runs capacity-building programs, and hosts a biennial global summit exploring the future of education.

Stavros Yiannouka 100x100Stavros N. Yiannouka is the CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), a global think tank of the Qatar Foundation. WISE is dedicated to enabling the future of education through innovation. Its activities encompass research, capacity-building programs, and advocacy. WISE flagship initiatives include an annual series of research publications, a biennial global summit dubbed the ‘Davos of education’, the WISE Edtech Acceleratorthe WISE Innovation Awards, and the WISE Words podcast.

Prior to joining WISE in August 2012, Stavros was the Executive Vice-Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKY School) at the National University of Singapore. He joined the LKY School in June 2005 to spearhead the implementation of an ambitious growth strategy, which he had helped develop as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company. Today, the LKY School is widely recognized as the leading global policy school in Asia. Together with Kishore Mahbubani et al. Stavros is the co-author of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy: Building a Global Policy School in Asia, World Scientific (2012). For more visit

Before joining the LKY School, Stavros spent five years with McKinsey & Company from 2000-2005 serving private and public sector clients in Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and Canada, predominantly in finance, healthcare and education. Prior to joining McKinsey, Stavros practiced corporate law in the City of London from 1995-1998 with the firms Gouldens and Mayer, Brown & Platt. Stavros holds an MBA (with Distinction) from the London Business School and an LLB (with Honours) from the University of Bristol. He is a member of the Law Society of England and Wales, a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA); a Member of the Board of Trustees of Nazarbayev University in Astana Kazakhstan; and a non-executive Director of Blue Diagonal Capital Limited.

Victoria Basma 100x100Victoria Basma is Policy Officer for WISE, she has over 6 years of experience working in education, including time spent as a classroom teacher and education consultant.

She currently serves as WISE’s Policy Development Officer within the edtech track, working with key edtech investors and entrepreneurs on projects that aim to create a positive impact within education.

Victoria holds a Master’s degree in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), specializing in development in education and social policy reform. 

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