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Inclusion and exclusion in EdTech

How can EdTech create opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds? We chat with Adam Edmett, Head of EdTech Innovation at the British Council, to get his thoughts…

Q: Firstly, congratulations on your ‘Best use of mobile learning’ bronze at the Learning Technologies Awards! Your award was for the use of tablets to support English teachers in unsafe environments. Could you explain more about this project and the lead-up to your deserving win?

Thank you! This was from a project in Rwanda working with teachers on their digital literacy and language proficiency levels. Along with the LTA award, there was an A+ rating from the funder: the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

One of the main reasons we had this success was because we provided both data and devices to tackle infrastructure and compatibility issues. When you work with mobile technologies, it’s not a straightforward technical proposition. It may seem simple but it really isn’t. For example, many Learning Management System suppliers promise offline solutions but once you take these out into the field they do not always live up to expectations. Offline access to content is very important for people with variable access to Wi-Fi or where the cost of data is a consideration. Our UK tech partner eCom Learning Solutions had won awards in this area previously, so that’s one of the reasons we teamed up. We’ve been able to work closely on getting things right in challenging tech environments.

Q: The British Council have also worked with eCom in the past on their English and Digital for Girls’ through Education (EDGE) programme. Could you tell us more about how this project has affected girls from disadvantaged backgrounds?

EDGE has reached over 20,000 adolescent girls in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. These girls – all of whom are either currently out-of-school or living in socio-economically marginalised communities – are using innovative learning techniques to gain English and digital skills which, in turn, give them confidence and agency in their communities.

The data that we’ve collected from EDGE club participants show that after completing two thirds of the programme they demonstrate significant improvement in English language speaking ability, and progress from zero IT knowledge to being able to perform basic tasks on computers, using MS office and the internet. The peer group learning model has also given the girls improved levels of confidence and self-esteem, and more awareness of social issues that affect their communities.

Q: Throughout your career, what ways have you seen EdTech benefit and present new opportunities for learners around the world?

I started in the field over a quarter of a century ago! That timeframe encompasses the dawn of some fundamentally transformative technologies. So, of course, access to ‘learning’ has increased exponentially. But also very important for education was the moment that we moved from the internet as a more or less one directional source of read only information or Web 1.0, through to Web 2.0 and the connecting of people and co-creation of knowledge.

I remember the early online learning communities I was part of as being very exciting places. It felt like the world was on the brink of something completely new. That wasn’t quite how it panned out, so nowadays I’m slightly wary of getting carried away with the next big thing! Even with the current hype around the next phase – Web 3.0, which promises entirely new opportunities for interaction through technologies such as AI, machine learning and the Semantic Web. Still exciting though!

Q: We know EdTech has many benefits for students, globally. However, what are the potential challenges that come with distance or digital learning?

THE challenge is inclusivity. This could be a lack of device access, low to no connectivity, poor digital literacy levels, and even self-regulation aspects like motivation and resilience that are more important when you move away from face-to-face teaching. As digital reach extends so does inclusion, but simultaneously, exclusion. Some of the teachers in our project in Rwanda had never accessed the internet previously. That’s staggering when you think about how connected our lives can be today.

Q: Feedback from across the world suggests that, during COVID, children who were taught online had poorer learning outcomes than previous cohorts. What evidence is there that under-16s would learn language as well online as they do face-to-face with teachers and peers?

There are many things at play here which might have influenced those results. For example, there was the impact of COVID itself on everyone’s mental health. I still don’t think we fully realise the impact the pandemic had on all of us. We cope, that’s what humans do, but I don’t think the full impact is evident.

In terms of whether online can work as well as, or better, than face-to-face for language learning, I’m not aware of any evidence that would be generalisable beyond it working for some individuals in certain contexts and situations: as the saying goes, everything works somewhere but nothing works everywhere.

Q: In the adult market there is a high level of student drop-out for distance learning. High rates of attrition can be a very attractive business model as long as students either pay in advance or sign-up for a subscription service; similar to the business models used by fitness centres. How do you reduce attrition?

Attrition rates do vary. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the worst offenders – some put the completion rates at just 3-6% – but that’s partly because they are free and easy to sign up for.

From years of experience, we know that providing a blend of face-to-face and online course dramatically improves the chances of learner engagement, along with other factors such as support with onboarding, how a course is structured, qualifications awarded, and whether there is a moderator and active online community of learners. Let’s face it, keeping learners engaged in pure self-access mode is the hardest task of all. Perhaps AI powered tech will help, but I have doubts that it can replace that part of education that really makes it life changing.

Q: What is the future you envision for EdTech and digital learning worldwide and how do you plan on achieving it?

Simply put, we need to include everyone, and on their terms, not ours. I recently attended the World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar which had an AI focus. Pelonomi Moiloa spoke about her organisation’s work building large language models for underserved languages in Africa. This is a necessary response to US dominated Big Tech and the well documented issues around non-representation and cultural bias. There will need to be a lot of grassroots, context specific work like this for an equitable AI powered future. The British Council has a global presence and is on the ground in more than 100 countries. We are in a privileged position to support and promote this fully inclusive digital future.

Image courtesy of Library
Dr Adam Edmett
Dr Adam Edmett
Dr Adam Edmett is Head of EdTech Innovation for the British Council and currently based in Doha, Qatar. Adam has 27 years’ experience in English language teaching and digital learning technology, with roles in 14 countries. He has a doctorate from the University of Bath and an MA from the Open University, both in Online Education.
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