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Can technology play a role in addressing educational inequity in Southeast Asia? Octava Foundation and MIT Solve want to find out.

Alice Cornish

Octava Foundation is launching a Social Innovation Challenge with MIT Solve to uncover innovators who can deploy accessible and affordable technology to improve learning outcomes for underserved learners in five Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Better Purpose has been supporting the development of this Challenge as a research partner, and this blog explores the context for innovators looking to participate.

Whilst China and India have become EdTech powerhouses in recent years (it’s been impossible to miss Indian’s EdTech giant Byju’s meteoric success), much of Southeast Asia has been slower to adopt. Parts of the region have been held back by inconsistent access to connectivity, electricity, and devices, as well as mixed appetite at government level to push forward a coherent and comprehensive EdTech agenda. Amid this backdrop, some major players are emerging. First amongst these is Ruangguru, an Indonesia-based EdTech company that launched as a platform to connect students with tutors but now delivers remote lessons in school-related subjects. Ruanngguru is an MIT Solver from 2017 and now serves over 22 million users across the countries it operates in.

Despite these pockets of activity, EdTech in the region remains the preserve of more affluent consumers, offering them adjacent educational services that parents are willing to pay for, such as remote tutoring and exam prep, English language learning, and other enrichment programmes. There is little evidence that the "bottom of the pyramid" (those who are socio-economically disadvantaged) is being well-served and that technology plays a key role in teaching and learning in public school systems.

In fact, the nascency of technology adoption in public education systems in Southeast Asia was thrust into the spotlight in the past 18 months. School closures caused by COVID-19 exposed how ill-equipped many public education systems were to transition to remote learning. Whilst there were efforts to use technology to support learners at home, the inadequacy of supportive infrastructure and lack of quality provision forced many parts of many countries to resort to more low-tech and paper-based solutions, or in many cases, no provision at all.

Octava Foundation and MIT Solve’s Social Innovation Challenge is seeking to deepen understanding about what role technology could play in addressing some of the biggest challenges around access to quality and equitable learning experiences in the region. Despite rapid economic progress in the region, high levels of inequality persist, and disadvantaged and marginalized students suffer from lower levels of enrollment and poorer learning outcomes. This inequity is likely to have significantly worsened as a result of prolonged school closures.

EdTech is not a panacea for all education-related challenges, but when used well, it presents an opportunity to enhance certain aspects of the education process and complement the work of educators. Brookings Institute describes how technology needs to play to its "comparative advantages." Put simply, technology can do some things really well. These include:

  • Scaling up quality instruction, such as through pre-recorded quality lessons.
  • Facilitating more personalized instruction, such as through computer-adaptive learning and live one-on-one tutoring.
  • Expanding opportunities to practice.
  • Increasing learner engagement, such as through videos and games.

Better Purpose’s report on EdTech in the region seeks to build a better picture of the status of education in the five countries and how technology is being used to support education, as well as what sorts of innovations could support underserved learners. It is intended to be used by those considering EdTech development and investment in the region and can be particularly helpful to those innovators applying to the Social Innovation Challenge.

For innovators considering designing accessible and affordable solutions to improve learning for underserved groups, we offer the following advice in the report:

  • Know your market: If innovators want to scale EdTech and reach the "bottom of the pyramid," they need to deeply understand the contexts they wish to serve and their target beneficiaries. This will involve understanding the infrastructural and financial constraints their beneficiaries face and designing solutions with these in mind. Innovators must be clear on who they are designing for and how their solution addresses the challenge, as well as how demand is currently met and the strength of competition.
  • Align to government priorities: Innovators will need to have a strong understanding of how EdTech is procured within public education systems (which typically serve the most disadvantaged learners) or through non-state actors, such as lower-cost private schools. To work through government systems, solutions will need to be closely aligned to government priorities and innovators will need to cultivate strong relationships with government actors.  
  • Assemble the right team: In addition to technological expertise, the team will need to have deep contextual understanding of its market, the ability to forge relationships with governments and establish sales channels, business acumen, as well as technical and curriculum knowledge in education. 
  • Design solutions with the ‘Science of Learning’ in mind: Effective solutions integrate high-quality content and sound technological design principles with a clear understanding of how children learn. Innovators may find it useful to consult Better Purpose’s Science of Learning report, which synthesizes evidence about how children learn. Solutions should draw on the significant evidence-base about how to maximize learning outcomes through the design of effective learning experiences.

You can apply for the Social Innovation Challenge here, and you can find a copy of the report on opportunities for EdTech development and investment in the five Southeast Asian countries here.

Alice Cornish is a Director at Better Purpose. Better Purpose shapes and accelerates the work of organizations that want to make a difference to education outcomes globally. Find out more at:

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