“Ed-tech that doesn’t solve core education challenges is irrelevant”

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Photo: Injini

Jamie Martin, founder of Africa’s first ed-tech incubator Injini, discusses why education innovation should focus on developing local solutions that tackle major educational challenges directly.

Aisha Schnellmann: How would you describe the education challenges in the African countries where Injini is active?

Jamie Martin: Someone who is lucky enough to have grown up and been educated in a developed country will struggle to understand how poor the quality of most school education in many African countries is. Injini has worked with companies from seven different African countries and despite the continent’s diversity, the education challenges faced are remarkably similar. In public schools, teachers tend to be poorly educated and trained, national curricula are both overly prescriptive yet insufficiently challenging, and there is a near total lack of accountability for how much students learn.

That’s why so many parents make humbling sacrifices to send their children to low-cost (often under $100 per year) private schools. These schools don’t have elite teachers or outstanding facilities we’d associate with private schools in developed countries, but do at least have teachers that show up to work, and some semblance of accountability to parents.

Unfortunately, this means that many children in Sub-Saharan African countries leave primary school with little or no literacy or numeracy skills. According to a recent World Bank study, less than 20 percent of upper primary school students in these countries scored above a minimum proficiency level on reading and mathematics learning assessments carried out.

“Schools, teachers, and parents – not politicians – should determine how educational outcomes are achieved. Schools should then be held highly accountable for these outcomes.”

AS: Can educational technology play a role in addressing these challenges?

JM: I think that in Sub-Saharan African countries, there is a bigger opportunity for ed-tech to improve core teaching and learning than in other countries with better education systems. Take Singapore for example: It already has good teachers who are using scientifically-sound pedagogy within a strong knowledge-rich curriculum, so ed-tech is only going to offer fringe benefits.

Unfortunately, too much ed-tech focuses on the wrong problems and uses the wrong pedagogy. If ed-tech continues to go down the rabbit hole of tech for tech’s sake, then it will have no impact.

At Injini, we have tried to select startups that are developing solutions that address core teaching and learning issues in African countries. In particular, our focus is on developing ed-tech that improves literacy and numeracy, trains better teachers, and equips students with useful vocational skills for future employment. These are the main areas of education we feel that ed-tech can add the most value in the local context.

eLimu, for example, is improving the literacy of children in Kenya through tablet-based reading practice used by teachers and students. In the same country, M-Shule is boosting literacy and numeracy through adaptive practice on smartphones. And Slatecube is addressing employability directly with a platform that provides students with free online courses and links them with potential employers based on the results of end-of-course tests.

That being said, it is clear that ed-tech innovation alone will not be enough to fully address these challenges.

AS: What other interventions are necessary?

JM: Firstly, substantial effort has to go into reducing absenteeism rates of teachers and increasing school attendance rates of students in these Sub-Saharan African countries. If students aren’t in schools and teachers aren’t there to teach them, no one is going to learn anything. Then there needs to be a combination of increased autonomy and accountability. Schools, teachers, and parents – not politicians – should determine how educational outcomes are achieved. Schools should then be held highly accountable for these outcomes. The current situation, where politicians or unions try to micro-manage what happens in schools, but no one suffers the consequences of poor results, is the worst of all worlds.

It is also important that teachers are well-supported and have adequate opportunities to learn from each other, which is not always the case in many of these countries. In September 2018, the first researchED conference, a research-driven grassroots conference run by teachers for teachers, was held in South Africa. With a second one in September 2019, this is an example of a step in the right direction.

“It’s important that innovators build a strong understanding of the local context and the real needs of teachers and students as they develop their ed-tech solutions.”

AS: Injini is Africa’s first ed-tech incubator that supports entrepreneurs across the continent who are innovating to improve educational outcomes. Why do you think it is important that education innovation is developed locally?   

JM: I don’t think it should be exclusively developed locally – there are many examples of ed-tech innovations that are equally effective internationally – but I do think that it is a good idea that local innovators work on problems that they are close to because they understand the issues better.

In Tanzania for example, many students cannot afford textbooks and have no internet access. So Injini-supported ed-tech startup Mtabe created an app that provides students with offline access to learning content developed by trained educators with the help of artificial intelligence and SMS technology. If a student wanted to ask a Math question for example, he could text it and receive an AI-generated response immediately. In this case, because of their immediate local knowledge, the team behind Mtabe were able to come up with an incredibly tailored ed-tech solution; one that I doubt would ever cross the mind of a person living in London.

If an ed-tech solution doesn’t help in addressing core areas of educational need in a community, I think that it should be disregarded completely. That’s why it is so important that innovators build a strong understanding of the local context and the real needs of teachers and students as they develop their ed-tech solutions. Only then will they be able to develop ed-tech solutions that will truly change the educational experiences of children, and maybe change their lives.

Jamie Martin is a former Special Advisor to the UK Secretary of State for Education and a management consultant with over a decade of experience advising governments and businesses on education across the world. He founded Injini in 2016. His comments in this interview represent his personal views, not those of Injini or any organization. 

Injini is an incubator dedicated to funding and supporting African Ed-tech companies.

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