The Role of Technology in the School Education Value-Chain

The Role of Technology in the School Education Value-Chain

Organization of American States
Building Pathways for ICT in Education Conference
Oct 20-21, 2016, St George’s, Grenada

The Role of Technology in the School Education Value-Chain

Vis Naidoo
Chief Global and EdTech Officer – Cell-Ed


In 1998, my colleague and good friend, Ms Shafika Isaacs and I began to introduce the concept of the value chain for the use of technology in school education. We argued that unless key elements of the education value chain are functioning at a basic minimum level, no matter what technology is thrown at it, we would not attain the expected learning outcomes. We stressed the need to focus on education and not on the technology and be strategic about how we use it to enhance learning in schools, universities and other spheres of life.

A paper in the Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education1 (2016)1 focused on the impact of educational technology and made the following conclusions:

  • Technology itself cannot improve learning and instruction but it is the effective use of technology that will see better education impacts.
  • Technology developments will continue to influence and change our lives, the way we work and live. It will also change the education landscape.

I mention the value chain concept from 1998 and the findings in 2016 as an analysis of educational technology and ask, eighteen years on, what progress have we made? What has worked and what are the current technology trends and its impact on education? Are we achieving the results we expected with massive and amazing technology developments? Is our education becoming too influenced by the latest technology development and do we have ‘carpet-baggers’ peddling the latest technology with promises of change to the education system?

Defining Edtech and its value to education systems

Perhaps an important starting point is to have an agreed understanding of educational technology. I draw on the research work commissioned by DfID where they define edtech as “the use of digital or electronic technologies and materials to support teaching and learning”2. The analysis that I noted from 1998 is that technology in and of itself does not enable learning, but it is the effective use of it in the classroom and its support to learners, its suitability fit to the program and curriculum and ensuring teacher training that enables better educational outcomes.

Today we have senior education officials from Eastern Caribbean countries who are responsible for the systems in your country attending this conference. How do you identify what educational technology programs will make a difference to your country and most importantly, to the learner from the poorest parts of our islands, who by virtue of the DNA lottery, is potentially destined to remain in poverty?

Let’s focus on our system and identify key elements that we know must function for it to work.

The assumption that we made and is reiterated by the 2016 research report on the impact of ICT on education is that the effective use of technology is required. It is here that three key elements of the value chain need to be functioning for technology to be effectively used:

  • Policy on ICT in Education
  • School management
  • Teacher development

Many Caribbean countries have ICT in education policies, completed with the support of agencies like UNESCO, COL and others. These provide an excellent framework within which ministries of education can develop their strategies and make budget allocations.

School management is key for a well-functioning school, managing teachers and ensuring basic requirements are met. It is here that technology plays a role, in supporting school principals to have access to information, changes to policy, new directives, etc. If such info is immediately available in repositories of checklists, support documents and management tools that enable school principals to address issues that support the functioning of a school.

Teacher development, on an ongoing basis is perhaps the most important part of the system. It is critical to deepen teacher’s subject matter knowledge and enable improvements in their teaching practices. Technology also plays a role here in terms of being used for on-going teacher development and to provide skills to use technology in creative ways to enable learners to understand what is being taught.

Teacher training should include how to integrate the use of technology during teaching, encourage learning processes that focus on deepening knowledge, find information, use to solve problems, collaborate – some of the essential elements of what has been described as 21st century skills. At the pre-service level, teacher training is also important and using technology should not only be part of the teaching methods course, but should be across the whole pre- service teacher training program.

The notion of 21st century skills is an important development within the education and training sector. The World Economic Forum3 identified 16 skills within three categories, viz. Foundational Literacies, Competencies and Character Qualities. These skills enable a learner to apply themselves to different vocations, jobs and fields of study.

A second assumption is that technologies will continue to emerge and offer new possibilities for learning and instruction. We often reference the use of technology to enable large scale support of learning leading to improvements in learner progress and quality of education. For this to take place, the policy environment, school management and teacher development is important. The 2016 report on the impact of educational technology notes the following:

“Therefore, useful research on the impact of educational technology should focus on the complete system, including the teacher, the content taught, the technology used, the school system or environment in which the teacher is working, and the environment in which the learning is taking place”4.

I have provided a high-level view of a framework to consider when looking at ICT integration and use within the school system.

Using this framework, what constitutes an effective and cost efficient edtech program:

  • Is this within the policy framework of the country and does it help to advance the strategy leading to the achievement of the national goals, including the country’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)?
  • There is a need for programs to have an educational focus rather than a technology focus. What is the focus of the learning outcomes, how is the curriculum structured and where will technology be used to enable learning and the achievement of outcomes?
  • What learning support materials and technology will be used?
  • Is there an effective teacher development and pedagogy focus so teachers are trained to use technology to improve their teaching methods?
  • What evaluation methods will be used to determine the value of the edtech program and whether it supports the achievements of the outcomes?

There are other factors that influence good ICT integration in school.

These include the modality of school management, the role of the principal and parents/community, practical issues like security in the school (reducing the possibility of theft), having access to relevant digital content, access to devices and if the Internet is being used – good connectivity. In many countries, budget constraints limit the nature of educational technology, so it is important to determine the cost-benefits and value for money of any edtech program.

Many of these factors are also raised by the GSMA Intelligence Consumer Survey 20155 where they highlight 4 primary barriers to increased mobile phone (a major edtech device) adoption and through this, increased access to learning. They note the absence of local and relevant content and addressing issues like learner interfaces with local languages. Of course, accessing Apps that are mainly focused on entertainment raises the perception that the internet is not for education.

Even though the internet has been identified as the major source for finding information, it is often not seen as part of the education process. Students lacking digital skills limit the level of use and how technology is used for learning and teaching. Affordability is another key barrier to learning, especially for citizens at the bottom of the economic pyramid. For example, the cost of mobile phone ownership for the bottom 40% of people removes on average 17% of income. This is unaffordable, hence a major barrier to using technology for learning. While network coverage is approximately 90% of the region’s population, there are still some areas that do not have coverage – remote islands, rainforests, etc. Therefore, remote communities are at times outside of coverage and have limited access to learning opportunities.

These are some of the challenges that need to be addressed for the effective use of edtech for learning purposes.

Technology trends and impact on education

The final part of my presentation focuses on recent technology developments and its potential and actual value to education.

There are numerous articles that identify megatrends in computing. Some of these trends include big data, virtual reality, The Internet of Things, 3D printing, robots, blockchains, mobile technology, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

I want to highlight three that I believe will have an impact on education, viz. Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchains and mobile technology.


The development of virtual agents or chatbots, a web application that uses an artificial intelligence to have conversations with humans, using language processing systems leading to automation of responses is increasingly being used by companies to respond in real time to the needs of their customers. Some technologists predict this will replace Apps as the virtual agent will find what you need, no Apps required, no down loading, just type in or ask your virtual agent.6

Other terms for virtual agents include chatbot, chatter-bot, talkbot, bot, artificial conversational entity.

A major concern in the use of web-based technology for education is the costs of the device (smart phone, tablet, laptop) and the data costs associated with downloads. Chat bots also overcome the download barrier faced by most App developers and address the issue of expensive data.

This is already being used in education, for example in language learning, university, skills, professional development, info about products.7 The implication of this technology development for education is immense, especially in terms of teacher development and support for curriculum learning. It does raise the issue of assessment for the school student and how does one test what has been learnt and how it is applied.

This site is dedicated to the value of chat bots to education and offers useful examples of how chat bots are used. For learning English, look at and to understand how chatbots are being used to scale English teaching.


BlockChains, already in use in the financial sector and the technology behind Bitcoins, is being tested for the education sector. A blockchain system can record all aspects of every transaction so that the credential awarding institution can verify that learning took place and that a verifiable assessment of knowledge, competencies and skills took place. Sony Corporation is investing in blockchain technologies for education8. In Sony’s system, verified assessment results are captured, automatically transferred to the registration system of the home institution and, through the institution’s own automated verification systems, can then be added to the student transcript. Anyone with permission can view the entire and detailed transactions associated with this credit (who did what, when, where and how) at any time.

Mobile phones

We know the Caribbean has not escaped the global mobile phone wave. In fact, the Caribbean has one of the highest levels of mobile phone penetrations in the world. As early as 2009, mobile phone penetration in Latin America and the Caribbean was estimated to be 80%, which at that time was above the world average of about 58%9.

A recent GSMA study10 noted there are 363 million citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean are covered by mobile networks, but not connected. They identify two barriers to having these citizens connect, 1) improving digital literacy and identifying relevant local content and services and 2) while mobile broadband is a primary method of delivering affordable internet access, there is a large population that does not have this or cannot afford the costs of data downloads.

The use of mobile phones for education or mLearning has also not received the attention of education systems. There have been mixed reactions to the use of mobile phones in the classroom and for other educational purposes. In fact, some would argue that mobile phones and mLearning has not delivered the kinds of promise that was created, given the ubiquitous nature of the device and the ability to access the Internet.

Let’s list a few basic features of mLearning11.

Using the mobile phone offers a platform to be learner centered and design a curriculum that addresses learner needs. It is perhaps one of the key technologies that enables this. Given the ubiquitous nature of the device and ways to address access to the Internet and expensive data downloads, learning can be done anywhere and anytime.

Every click, time on task and learner submissions can be tracked and used for learner analytics and improving the learning process. One can use adaptive algorithms to analyze data and identify problems early and determine ways to address these. An ‘early warning system’ for the education sector.

Using mLearning further enables peer-to-peer and teacher-to-peer engagements, potentially creating communities of purpose. Gamification elements can also be used to enable interactive learning activities and simulations.

Therefore, adaptive engines, real-time learning analytics, digital learning materials, peer learning and analysis of learning enables greater ability to address issues and build quality within the school education system.

It is estimated that by 2017, there will be 4.77 billion mobile phone users. This offers a unique opportunity to reach the unreached, the illiterate and those within the education system and address issues of equity, social and economic development. The ubiquitous reach of mobile phones also enables a learning environment that is self-paced, allows for practice within a real world context using audio, text, interactivity and multimedia (smartphones).

The use of mobile (app or chatbot) and block-chain to be able to securely track fees, credit transfers, assessment results, tutor sessions and create a truly learner centered approach to learning. The three key tech developments that I have highlighted today will play a role in enabling students in the Caribbean to complete his/her education.

Conclusion – Does this all sound plausible?

The use of mobile (app or chatbot) and block-chain to be able to securely track fees, credit transfers, assessment results, tutor sessions and create a truly learner centered approach to learning. The three key tech developments that I have highlighted today will play a role in enabling students in the Caribbean to complete his/her education.

In the Caribbean, we know many island nations struggle with poor performance by Boy learners.

There are a host of reasons put forward as to why Boys are not doing well at school and completing their studies and I am sure there are strategies to address this. Going to school seems to be the ‘uncool’ thing to do. So how can we use technology to make learning cool again, make it relevant to the learner and enable learning that does not necessarily have to take place in the classroom?

By adopting a systems approach, identifying the key elements of the education value chain and noting what enables good usage of technology, we can support the efforts to address Boy’s underperformance.

The bottom line – technology is and will continue to be an important part of our school landscape. There are various barriers to address in this regard and good examples of how this is being done. There are also exciting technology developments that make learning exciting, addresses quality, equity and shapes efforts to build a lifelong learning system – as noted in SDG 4.


2 Power, T., Gater, R., Grant, C. and Winters, N. 2014. Educational Technology Topic Guide. The Health & Education Advice & Resource Team (HEART) with funding from British Government’s DfID.

3 World Economic Forum, New Vision for Education: Unlocking the Potential of Technology (2015)







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