Micheal Goodman

The South African edtech sector has been growing quietly over the past decade, without many investors taking notice. But this might be about to change after 2U, a Nasdaq-listed US edtech company, announced in May that it had acquired Cape Town-based GetSmarter for $103 million.

What is most surprising about the acquisition is that executives from 2U, which partners with the top American universities to offer their degree programmes online, hadn’t heard of GetSmarter until about a year ago, according to edtech news outlet EdSurge. The company’s founder just happened to see GetSmarter’s logo on a Massachusetts Institute of Technology online short course and decided to investigate. Acquiring the South African company, a specialist in certificate-bearing, online short courses, proved to be the perfect chance for 2U to instantly meet two of its long-term objectives.

The first was the demands of partner universities, which had been asking the company to look into setting up the technology to put their shorter, non-degree-bearing courses online. And the second was to expand internationally, particularly into potentially high-growth markets like South Africa.

News of the transaction pricked the ears of those of us who see edtech’s potential to cut costs and massively improve the delivery of education and training, but have been struggling to get investors to take notice of the exciting developments in the sector here at the southern tip of Africa.

The state of edtech in SA

Globally, edtech attracts billions of dollars in funding, with the biggest market being the United States. According to EdSurge, American edtech companies attracted just over $1 billion in venture capital funding in 2016, with almost half this figure going to start-ups serving the equivalent of what we call the basic education sector. This is over and above public spending on edtech.

However, in South Africa, the picture is fractured and uneven, and the investment levels are difficult to ascertain.

There are only a tiny number of established edtech companies, Via Afrika among them, and numerous start-ups and other smaller companies all competing for a share of a tiny investment pie. Universities and companies so far have been slow to adopt or adapt to edtech, preferring traditional methods such as face-to-face and distance learning.

And only a tiny number of public schools – approximately 28% – use computers and other devices to enhance teaching and learning. Too few use it to transform education into an experience that prepares learners for life in a future where artificial intelligence is predicted to take over jobs currently done by humans.

The government, for its part, has expressed interest in edtech and funded the delivery of tablets and broadband access to schools. And in its interim report, the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training said it was investigating proposals to offer degree programmes online as a way to reduce the cost of tertiary education to students and their funders.

All of this is promising, though it’s a long way yet from an edtech ecosystem that attracts the funding needed to grow. Mainly, it is still far from allowing technology to open the doors of learning and make education accessible to all, as envisaged in our Constitution.

An insider’s point of view

Over a decade ago, Via Afrika realised the potential of edtech and began developing digital content for education. However, this still requires devices and an internet connection that too few of our schools don’t have. So we have several Via Afrika Digital Education Centres – converted shipping containers filled with devices, free internet access, and more than 400 Via Afrika ebooks, apps and other digital content, as well as hardcopy books.

But this is not enough. Implementing digital education effectively requires a skilled facilitator, so we began training teachers at our Digital Education Academy. Too few teachers have the skills and confidence to use edtech at the level required to positively transform the learning experience.

More recently, we began to offer a digital maths tutoring programme, Via Afrika Tabtor Maths, and have begun experimenting with crowdfunding to mobilise corporate and public funding to support digital education.

These experiences have given us insight into several barriers to edtech investment that must be addressed if this country is to be one where every person has access to education that allows them to fulfil their potential. I will highlight three of the biggest.

Resistance to change

The first and perhaps most significant is resistance to change. Much of the research on this topic has focused on teachers, but resistance is evident at all levels – including on the part of otherwise tech-savvy institutions. There needs to be a nationwide shift in mind-set that translates into behaviours that accept the transformative effect edtech is having on our lives.

For example, students, accrediting institutions, and companies need to be more willing to accept certificates and degrees obtained online as legitimate as those obtained through sitting in the same physical classroom as the instructor.  Because, while poorly understood, digital education techniques can be more engaging and effective and therefore produce better outcomes than traditional methods. At this point, questions about quality should focus on the institution providing the education rather than the medium of instruction.

A change in mind-sets and behaviours towards digital education will lead to growing demand for it, which in turn will attract investment into improving the technologies, techniques and people that deliver it.

The second barrier is the hype around edtech. It needs give way to a more realistic assessment of what is possible. We need to borrow ideas from international best practice but remain rooted in our local context. This was one of the points highlighted in Edtech 2016: Global Perspectives, a report published by the EdTech World Tour, a research project looking into the best practices in education innovation globally.

Researchers from the project visited South Africa and 9 other countries last year, and emerged with the lesson that edtech companies only go global if they base their offering on their local specificities. That is arguably what GetSmarter did – catering to local demand for short courses, thereby positioning themselves as specialists in a field a much larger company operating in a different context wanted to be in.

The third barrier is the siloed, fragmented approach, which has not worked. Edtech in this country requires greater collaboration and pooling of resources and ideas across industries, segments and levels. People are already beginning to realise this. The Cape Technology and Innovation Initiative, for instance, recently announced that it was setting up an incubator dedicated to providing infrastructure and other support to edtech start-ups.

Like Via Afrika, the incubator’s philosophy and approach is to empower teachers and equip them to become better educators. In our context, where access to digital technologies is uneven and unequal, teachers should be the focal point of edtech innovation and investment. If we can tackle these barriers and place teachers at the heart of our work, edtech in SA could finally start delivering on its promise.

– Micheal Goodman is the Group Content Development Manager of the educational publishing house Via Afrika. He has worked in education for over 25 years in teaching, authoring, teacher education and publishing roles.

This article was first published by News24 on 29 June 2017.