For the past two decades, I've worked on issues at the intersection of the education and technology sectors in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world. It's been a fascinating job: Over the past 20 years, I've been an advisor to, evaluator of, and/or working-level participant in, educational technology ('edtech') initiatives in over 50 such countries. When it comes to ICT use in education, the promised revolution always seems to be just around the corner. Indeed: I am regularly pitched ideas by people who note that, while many past promises about the potential of the use of new technologies in education have failed to pan out, they are confident that "this time, it's different".
At the same time, I am quite often asked to help other folks identify intriguing initiatives that might, individually and/or collectively, illuminate emerging trends and approaches in this sector:
"I'm interested in examples of innovative educational technology projects from around the world, especially those primarily focused on helping teachers and learners in developing countries. In other words: Not the usual suspects. Can you suggest a few projects and companies that I might not know about -- but should?"
I receive a version of this request most every week (sometimes even multiple times in a single day). Given the frequency of such inquiries, I thought I'd quickly highlight 20 such efforts from around the world, in the hope that people might find this useful. The hope is to point readers in the direction of some interesting projects that they might not know much about, but from which there is much we can learn.
While I am not sure if, indeed, things will turn out to be 'different this time around', the overall volume of such projects, and the sophistication of many of them, are quite notable. There is more happening, in more places, than ever before. A number of efforts have been informed (in good ways) by past failures. That said, others will no doubt attempt to 'reinvent the flat tire' and display a characteristic common to Einstein's definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Hopefully none of the groups profiled below will fall into that trap, but I suspect that a few of them might.
The list here, a mix of for-profit and non-profit initiatives, is deliberately idiosyncratic and non-representative (see the many caveats and explanations that follow below the list). Some of these projects are no doubt doomed to 'fail'; others will most likely be restructured more than once as they try, to borrow the words of Deng Xiaopeng, to "cross the river by feeling the stones". And maybe, just maybe, a few of them might actually turn out to be as 'transformative' as they hope to be.
With that said, and in alphabetical order, here are:
ALISON provides free online courses. Considered by some to be the first 'MOOC' (a characterization that others may strongly contest, most people credit these folks), it boasts a large number of learners in developing countries.
BRCK began by focusing on designing hardware and software products to help solve connectivity problems specific to many African contexts. Based out of the iHub in Nairobi, which is a regional epicenter for innovative educational technology initiatives in East Africa (a future EduTech blog post will highlight some of the fascinating edtech-related projects happening in Kenya in more detail), it now counts education as area of focused attention.
While not traditionally thought of as an edtech firm, the private education provider Bridge International Academies uses ICTs in many innovative ways as part of its business model. The company is, to be sure, a lightning rod for attention (a few minutes on Google, or on the related Wikipedia page, can serve as a jumping off point into related discussions that are worth having; my purpose is not to explore them here), but its use of technology is undeniably noteworthy. Much can be learned from this use about what's possible and practical, let alone what's desirable (as well as what isn't), when it comes to edtech in many educational settings in Africa.
Disclaimer: Like Andela, Byju's and Coursera (all companies worthy of potential inclusion on this list), Bridge has received investments from the IFC, the private sector financing arm of the World Bank Group. I don't work on these investments (the IFC operates separately from my team at the World Bank), but I know the people who do.
In my mind, the most interesting large scale educational technology effort anywhere in the world right now is being led by EkStep, a philanthropic effort in India that is building open source platforms for use by government to help meet a number of challenges.
Eneza offers low-cost quizzes and related products to help learners in Kenya (and increasingly in other parts of Africa as well), especially when it comes to exam prep. It is a notable example of a 'mobile first' approach to edtech.
6. Enuma (Kitkit School)
Enuma is an XPRIZE finalist for its Kitkit School project. Drawing insights and expertise from working with students with special educational needs and from the world of online gaming, it aims to promote literacy and numeracy among young learners.
7. Foundation for Learning Equality
The Foundation for Learning Equality (FLE) is best known for KAlite, an offline version of the Khan Academy. Building its experience with KAlite, FLE has developed Kolibri, which makes high quality education technology available for off-line use in low-resource communities.
Geekie, a graduate of the education accelerator supported by Brazil's Lemann Foundation, offers 'adaptive learning' solutions that are used by many learners in Brazil.
inABLE, a small Kenyan NGO, explores innovative uses of technologies to support the education of students with visual impairments.
Mindspark is an adaptive-learning product from Educational Innovations that aims to help children to improve their skills in mathematics. It is the subject of one of the most notable rigorous evaluations of an edtech product, J-PAL's Disrupting Education? Experimental Evidence on Technology-Aided Instruction in India.
Nafham is a free online platform that hosts educational video lessons aligned to Egyptian and Syrian curricula.
OLE, the Open Learning Exchange, coordinates an international network of organizations exploring the use of low-cost, locally relevant teaching and learning content in local languages in such places as Nepal and Ghana.
onebillion, an XPRIZE finalist, is exploring innovative approaches to promoting the development of literacy and numeracy skills among young children in Africa.
14. University of the People
University of the People (UoPeople) is a tuition-free online university that offers accredited degrees, with a strong focus on supporting learners in developing countries.
15. Pratham Books' Storyweaver
Storyweaver, an initiative of Pratham Books, a not-for-profit children's book publisher in India, is an online platform that connects readers, authors, illustrators, and translators to create free stories for children around the world in their mother tongue.
Rumie provides free learning content to students around the world, with special attention to some of the most challenging educational environments.
Siyavula provides openly licensed, curriculum-aligned Open Education Resources (OERs) for learners in South Africa (and beyond).
Ubongo is a non-profit social enterprise that creates interactive edutainment for kids in Africa. Based in Tanzania, it is perhaps most famous for its Ubongo Kids educational cartoon.
WorldReader provides free access to digital books through mobile apps and platforms to readers in developing countries.
#20 is left deliberately blank here, as an acknowledgement that this list just scratches the surface. I could easily have done a second (and third, and fourth) list of 20 (or 19) projects that would be just as varied and intriguing as this one.
A few related caveats and explanations:
- I fully acknowledge that there is a decidedly Africa-centric focus here. For the past few years, I have spent more time talking to African entrepreneurs, and those who support (and in some cases impede) them, than I have with similar groups from other places, and I'll admit to a geographical bias as a result. (That said, astute readers will notice, for example, that nothing from Nigeria is highlighted here -- a rather large omission!).
- On a related note: There is also an over-representation of initiatives based in North America that are predominantly focused on working with educators and learners in in low and middle income countries. I am based in Washington, DC, and many of these groups pass through town, so it is easier for me to be in contact with them.
- The country which I consider to offer the most interesting and innovative edtech projects, many of which are largely unknown outside of its borders, is China. No Chinese projects or firms are listed here, as this will be the topic of a follow-on blog post.
- There are a few projects listed from India, but as with China, I could have assembled multiple lists like this focusing only on India, given the related activity and ferment happening there. This will also be the topic of a follow-up blog post.
- Depending on time and requests, I might offer similar lists focusing only on other countries across Asia (there are many innovative efforts in Pakistan and Indonesia, for example, that are not well known internationally which might be of interest to a global audience).
- Projects supported by traditional publishers are absent from this list. This is not meant to imply that there isn't a lot of innovative stuff happening as traditional publishers continuing their 'transition to digital'. Of course there is. That said, such efforts tend to be well-chronicled elsewhere, and these groups have their own well-financed marketing and PR arms, and so I have not mentioned any of them here. (I'll note parenthetically, and for what it's worth, that a good number of the efforts listed here utilize open educational resources, or OER.) The same goes for education efforts of large tech firms, although a number of the projects listed here have been supported in various ways by large tech firms, under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and/or business development efforts.
- To my knowledge, few (if any) of these projects are based in Silicon Valley. That choice is deliberate (and it means that very interesting initiatives like Cell-Ed are omitted).
- A World Bank colleague of mine covers Latin America, and so I've largely omitted projects from there from this list here. (There's only a single project from Brazil ... that country will be the topic of a related follow-on post.)
- I've left off a number of very interesting an innovative projects and groups that have already been the focus of previous EduTech posts (which have, for example, featured Coursera, CyberSmart Africa, PlanetRead, Talking Book, and Ustad Mobile). All are worthy of inclusion here.
- I've also left off national, government-supported educational technology initiatives, as these are regularly featured on the EduTech blog. For what it's worth, a good number of these will be highlighted in an upcoming series of country-specific posts.
Looking for other examples of innovative edtech projects from around the world? Here are some places to look:
- Buried within a recent (and very good) Brookings report on educational innovations around the world (Can we leapfrog? The potential of education innovations to rapidly accelerate progress; it's quite good, you should definitely have a look) is a short list of 'Innovations Spotters'. These groups, which identify, analyze and/or support innovative education projects (many of which utilize ICTs) can be found on p. 84 of the Brookings report. They include: Ashoka Fellows and Changemaker Schools; R4D–CEI Program Database; EdSurge Curriculum Products; WISE–ed.hub, awards, and prizes; OECD Innovative Learning Environments; Graduate XXI/IDB; HundrED Finnish 100; InnoveEdu; USAID and mEducation Alliance; UNICEF–Innovation Fund and Mapping; Harvard Global Education Innovations Initiative; Teach for All–Alumni Incubator; Development Innovation Ventures; Humanitarian Education Accelerator; and the Global Innovation Fund. Very helpfully, Brookings has made available a spreadsheet for download (note that this is an Excel file) that contains its master list of over 2850 (!) projects.
- The Global Learning XPRIZE is "a competition that challenges teams from around the world to develop open source scalable software solution that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within the 18-month competition field-testing period". While some critics may be put off by this prize, considering it to be an example of 'techno-utopian Silicon Valley solutionism' (if not 'ed-tech imperialism') that is harmful or unproductive, the quality of many of the groups competing for this prize (two of the finalists are in the list above) are absolutely top-notch. In my perspective, no other group has been as successful as XPRIZE in catalyzing diverse groups of talented educators, researchers and technologists to come together to develop tools and products explicitly meant to address the needs of learners in very difficult learning environments in low income countries. Will this work? Who knows, and the cautionary words of critics are well worth considering, but the semi-finalist and finalist competitors are really a top-notch bunch.
- UNICEF and the Center for Education Innovations at R4D have identified many notable programs in this regard. Here's a big list of many of them.
- A number of initiatives have been singled out for recognition under the WISE Prize for Education; the WISE Accelerator has supported a number of efforts that it hopes many merit recognition for the WISE prize in future years.
- Start-up activity in the education sector across Africa has been simmering for a while. A number of firms are receiving support from the Injini accelerator; Teresa Mbagaya and VentureBurn highlight some others. The famous Silicon Valley startup incubator/accelerator Y Cominator has traditionally shied away from supporting edtech firms and non-profit efforts (OpenCurriculum has been a notable exception), but this may be beginning to change. An excellent recent report from Caribou Digital concludes that "an ad-supported internet isn’t going to be sustainable in emerging markets". If this is true, it might be that it will be from emerging markets and the do-called 'developing world' that some of the most innovative edtech business models might emerge.
Have I missed other resources and projects? Absolutely. Some people may disagree with the aims or approaches of some of these groups; others may think that we need a lot more efforts like those listed above (I suppose it's possible to hold both views as well.) Hopefully, though, I've helped point some people towards some projects and organizations that they've never heard about, but which they might find of interest: to support; to collaborate with; and/or to engage with critically. I do think, however, that we can learn something from all of them.
You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:
- Innovative educational technology programs in low- and middle-income countries
- A new wave of educational efforts across Africa exploring the use of ICTs
- Why we need more (not fewer) ICT4D pilot projects in education
- ICT & Education: Eleven Countries to Watch -- and Learn From
- Promising uses of technology in education in poor, rural and isolated communities around the world
- Educational technology and innovation at the edges