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Picture: 123RF/TASHKA2000
Picture: 123RF/TASHKA2000

As with all other facets of our lives, we are seeing the transformative use of digital tooling in the education sector. The classroom is being disrupted all the way from early childhood education right through to tertiary. eLearning is not just replacing physical spaces with digital ones, it is also digitising textbooks, pencils and notebooks.

The use of tech in education, commonly referred to as edtech, has fast become a necessity. As workplaces become increasingly digital, it is imperative that the learning environment mirrors this format. Whether one aspires to become a lawyer, accountant, doctor or teacher, digital literacy will be a required core competency and the classroom is where the journey to acquire it should begin.

Unfortunately, the adoption of edtech across the country has not been widespread. While private and well-resourced schools have made the switch, most SA pupils are being left behind. When Covid-19 forced a rapid shift to remote learning it exposed the extent of the digital divide. Lack of access to devices, data and prior experience of an eLearning environment went from being a debate on privilege to a full barrier to learning.

If the benefits of edtech are widely known and understood, and recent events have exposed the urgent need for widespread adoption, why do we appear to be taking long to adapt? It seems the challenge is that edtech is woefully underfunded. This is evident when it is compared to the fast-growing world of fintech.

KPMG estimates that investments in African fintechs doubled to $1.6bn in 2021, compared to R800bn in 2020. Most of this funding came from foreign venture capital and private equity investors. What’s more, the investments include funding for fintechs geared towards financial inclusion. Start-ups like Yoco, Fundrr and Pineapple are rapidly growing businesses that provide financial services to previously underserved segments of our society. Edtech, on the other hand, raised a total of $14m in 2020, just 1.75% of the quantum of investment in fintech.

By leveraging growing penetration of mobile phones and increasing access to data, venture funding is enabling fintechs to increase financial inclusion. While this is going on, the growth in edtech is painfully slow. Fintechs are cashing in on their ability to deliver direct and quick returns on investment, while the long plays for inclusive edtech are not attractive to investors.

Opportunity in the crisis

But while edtech is underfunded, SA is a big investor in education. The government spent R27bn on education in 2021, up 15% from 2020. The World Bank estimates that this spend is 6.8% of the country’s GDP, higher than developed countries such as the US (6.2%) and UK (5.4%). SA is only behind Scandinavian states Norway (7.9%) and Sweden (7.6%).

However, despite this high spend, the quality of education outcomes remains unsatisfactory. Data from the department of education shows that only 37% of those entering the education system matriculate and only 6% will end up with a university degree.

At the same time as edtech is struggling to attract venture funding, education in general is managing to attract enviably high levels of government investment. Edtech, with its cost savings, operational efficiencies, superior data collection and analysis and overall alignment to the future workplace, may well be an opportunity to revamp the education system and start to produce better returns on the existing levels of investment.

Viewed from this perspective, the underfunding of edtech is less an issue of there not being enough money from the private sector and more a sign of the need to redirect existing government spending.

Reframe policies 

A core reason for the slow adoption of edtech by the public sector is that education policy frameworks are highly regulated, and the change process is slow and tedious. The government prefers to invest in proven models and is sceptical of sudden shifts. The critique of this is that while caution and pragmatism are hallmarks of sound public policy, where they are not moderated they become a barrier to progress.

In truth, while edtech may seem like a new thing, it has been around for decades. Private providers like Spark Schools have built robust models for digitally enabled learning and have proved that edtech can be delivered successfully, affordably and at scale. Their journey to success served as a pilot for edtech implementation in the SA context modelled on global best practice.

Making it easier for such organisations to access public funding will enable accelerated delivery of edtech. Their proven methodologies are untapped repositories of policy frameworks that can be replicated to accelerate the digital transformation of SA education at a national level.

The future we speak of is upon us. The opportunity to leverage the qualities of digital platforms to address rampant unemployment and future-proof SA’s workforce beckons. Achieving this success at scale will require collaboration as well as updated policies that will allow edtech investment to be directed towards learning models that are relevant in today’s digitalised world and achieve better outcomes to prepare students for the future. 

• Samushonga is CEO of WeThinkCode.

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