By 2019, the World Bank’s PRIEDE project had exceeded several of its goals. Aiming to improve Kenyan students’ base math skills, it had distributed over 3 million textbooks, appraised nearly 30,000 teachers, and its national student information system had registered 96 percent of all students nationwide.
But in 2020, the program requested $9 million more to rollout a teacher training campaign. Halfway through, he had recorded a 2.5 percent decline in the grade 2 math skills he was trying to improve, having omitted to train educators on how to use the new resources effectively. The decline was eventually recovered but the project ultimately concluded that distributing materials had almost no positive effect on learning outcomes.
A Major Problem
It is notable that even in 2020 the World Bank introduced targeted teacher support only after a key indicator declined. More concerning is that it’s not an isolated case.
Teachers are consistently under-prepared to incorporate tech tools into their classrooms. Governments and development organizations have financed material distribution without similar investments in training educators on how, when and why to use these tools. In 2020, only 10 percent of Kenyan teachers were using the more than one million laptops distributed through a Digital Literacy Program between 2016 and 2018.
Rwanda, an African edtech leader, plowed on with the (formerly) UN-backed One Laptop Per Child initiative without explaining how teachers should work with them. And US schools regularly pay for tools but not for educator training.
Although it’s vital for true results, teacher training is often neglected due to its relatively high cost, time commitment and hard-to-measure immediate impact.
Survey after survey shows educators’ deep dissatisfaction with the amount of support they receive, especially when it comes to integrating technologies into their classrooms. The Promethean State of Technology in Education UKI Report found that over 64 percent of UK educators were dissatisfied with the training they received; only 15 percent believed they had received satisfactory training in edtech.
Bart Epstein, CEO of the US-based EdTech Evidence Exchange, sees it as a major problem, especially given that more schools are using technology following the pandemic. “Too many schools think the cost of training and professional development and support are optional,” Epstein told EdSurge. He adds that schools might spend $125,000 for a license, but decline the $25,000 training package offered along with it.
Scaling and modernizing training schemes, when they are implemented, are also a challenge. “Legacy teacher training in the US is outdated,” with little hands-on learning, says Taylor Chapman, partner at the higher education investment fund SEI Ventures. “This is a key area for innovation.” Some companies are beginning to emerge but many of them offer simple online certifications that are overall of low quality.
Teachers Want Solutions
“Before the pandemic, one of EdTech founders’ greatest challenges was engaging teachers with digital tools,” said Thiago Rached, founder of Brazilian writing-improvement tool Letrus, at the LATAM EdTech Show. This also cropped up in our interviews with Chinese teachers in early 2020 about the shift to remote learning. But “that’s completely changed. The pandemic got teachers to understand there’s no way back from tech and that it can help them in many ways,” Rached says.
Teachers are eager for training opportunities. Initially worried about how to incentivize educators to attend training sessions, Misan Rewane, the co-founder of West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE), noted how enthusiastic educators were about the initiative. “Teachers generally want to do a good job, they just don’t have a lot of time,” she says.
Kiko Muuo, founder of Kenyan teacher training and STEAM platform Angaza Eliwu, had a similar experience with his firm’s own services. “We had a training over Zoom where teachers stayed for 4.5 hours. They had no incentives to do this, they were buying their own mobile data to be there, struggling through connectivity issues.”
Training follow-up is a big demand. “We initially thought this would be just six weeks,” says Muuo of Angaza Eliwu’s standard training course. “But teachers reached out for continued follow-up,” so the firm set out to provide it through weekly calls. “They see actual progress in their classrooms, which motivates them to keep using the platform and go through the training program.”
WAVE saw a similar trend. “Educators were kept engaged through WhatsApp groups and sent videos of themselves teaching post-training,” says Rewane.
Edtech firms relying on teachers and tutors to support their business models often take a highly personalized approach to training. Startups like GoMyCode, out of Tunisia, or Kibo School, which works with learners in Africa, teach coding and tech skills, and source tutors directly from their own alumni pipelines. While this does not attempt to solve the broader problem, it does address the specific need for teacher training on a particular platform.
Other edtech firms target teachers directly by providing classroom analytics—and teaching them to use these tools. TeacherFX, a Brighteye Ventures portfolio company, hopes to improve teachers’ performance and the student experience by offering real time classroom analytics to help teachers curate their best teaching style. This helps teachers self-reflect and adapt to their students’ preferences, but only when educators know how to use the analytics. Used by over 2,000 teachers, Singaporean startup Doyobi offers video lessons, a custom-built virtual environment to use in class and content like quizzes to make teacher’s online sessions more interactive.
“Teachers are underpaid and overwhelmed,” explains Nader Shaterian, founder of the digital creation space School Fab Labs. Even if teachers have the tools available to improve their pedagogy, they are unlikely to be impactful in the long run unless they are easy to use.
Areas for Innovation
Hampered by bureaucracy, teacher training can be a difficult space to break into, but three areas offer promise.
First, improve teacher’s resource-sharing opportunities. “A space where teachers can share their methods and experiences drastically boosts educational outcomes,” says Anuradha Handa, principal of GD Goenka Public School, a private high school in Delhi. Many governments invested in sharing resources for teachers during the pandemic but these were largely confined to the school or regional level. One company trying to change this is Colombia-based Coschool, which allows teachers to upload their own materials for other educators to download for free or a fee.
A second opportunity reimagines training delivery methods using emerging technology. Mr. Shaterian is most excited about virtual reality, as existing teacher training models are human-based and therefore hard to scale. Eight years ago, School Fab Labs created a successful model “to train teachers and observe them in action with the kids,” he says, adding that the future could look very different with emerging technology. “VR headsets would change everything, I’m a true believer in that sector.”
Finally, tools that free up teachers’ time would allow them to focus more on students. Educators’ heaviest time burdens include lesson planning as well as creating and grading assignments—yet few firms target this issue, explains Rhys Spence, head of research at Brighteye Ventures. Working with 15 schools, ChalkTalk built a fully adaptive, highly personalized curriculum-design technology to reduce teachers’ lesson-planning time from 2.5 hours to 10 minutes. Launched late last year, EdQuill similarly seeks to help teachers save time by automatizing grading and more easily share content en masse (although their target users for now are tutoring centers).
As the Kenyan PRIEDE program has shown, teacher training is essential for helping students learn with edtech. As investment continues to pour into the sector, investors should pay particular attention to how educators are engaged and ready to maximize the tools—and how they’re being trained to use them effectively. After all, teachers can work without tech, but tech in schools simply can’t work without teachers.