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Much has been talked about the impending technological revolution for the education sector. Some even say teaching is the next profession where robots replace humans. Depending on which side of the debate you’re standing, technology is either seen as a magic bullet that will provide every student with a personalised curriculum or as the dystopian endgame that will see our youth sever their last ties to our shared reality. And then there are those who say education is such a conservative field that no amount of innovation can tear us away from our beloved chalk-and-blackboard combo.

With such a range of opinions, it’s hard to say where exactly education and technology are headed, but we’ll do our best to cover the present and future of edtech. You can read about the future of technology in education in future blog posts.

But before we get to that, let’s start with the obvious – a quick overview of the current state of education in the world:

The world (of) learning

Over the last half a century, we have made wonderful progress in making education accessible to much of the world’s population. Primary school enrolment levels are at all time high:

And they’re projected to keep rising.

Literacy, too, is booming across the planet:

As you can see from the data, especially big strides have been made in the developing world. While still lagging behind North America and Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are making progress in closing the gap.

In the grand scheme of things, the data seems to be painting a rather rosy picture. Even the much-maligned gender gap leading to more men than women getting an education is closing in many (but not all) countries.

The other side of the coin

But, as usual, there’s another picture to be painted. What the data don’t show is what the future holds.

By the midpoint of the current century, Africa is projected to house most of the world’s school-aged children. And, coincidentally, that is also the continent that struggles the most with literacy rates and providing quality education. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, literacy skills remain among the lowest on the planet, while school exclusion is still a major issue. Of course, Africa is a huge continent with a vast variety of different countries, policies, and issues. So, for example, in countries such as Kenya, Botswana, and Eswatini, primary education is virtually universal, while some (South Sudan, CAR, and Equatorial Guinea, among others) still struggle to fill their classrooms, according to the World Bank.

But it’s not just Africa that’s facing issues: everywhere across the world, countries are struggling to find qualified educators to fill their schools: there are almost 69 million teachers missing globally. And, of course, just because a classroom exists and students are in it, doesn’t mean they’re acquiring knowledge.

Despite global gains, low literacy remains an issue. In 2017, only 37% of fourth-graders in the US qualified as proficient readers. The data is especially disconcerting considering the staggering racial disparities that still exist: while 47% of white children were considered proficient, only 20% of black and 23% of hispanic students managed the same. To make matters worse, literacy rates don’t seem to be improving much: in 2015, the percentage of children at “proficient” was 36.

Is education in crisis?

On the one hand, we’ve made wonderful progress in the last couple of decades in promoting accessible education and limiting the gender gap. On the other hand, however, progress seems to be slowing down and different issues are cropping up.

It might also just be that we didn’t get the data right to start with.

Take literacy, for example. It’s a rather tricky thing to measure well. Many sub-Saharan countries equate their school-completion rates with literacy or rely on self-reporting, obfuscating the numbers. But when tested on their skills, less than 5 percent of children in primary schools in low-income countries qualify as proficient readers. All of that might mean that governments lack the information they’d need to start improving their educational systems.

The other issue often getting framed as the source of the crisis in education is the staggering lack of qualified teachers. From the UK struggling to fill positions to Uganda where many teachers simply don’t show up for work, countries around the world are facing a very uncertain future when it comes to their education systems.

All of this has caused many to turn to technology as a possible solution to many of the problems we covered.

Conclusion

The world has made tremendous strides in the right direction when it comes to providing education. Some countries have enforced a near-universal access to schooling, although the quality of the service vary wildly from country to country. Even in the developed world, achieving a high level of literacy remains out of reach for many, and the data coming from other parts of the world relay similar information.

The seeming dead-end our education systems are in (or, at least, marching towards) has lead to an every-growing interest towards EdTech as the possible solution. Facing a lack of 70 million trained teachers, it certainly seems like the only fix that could scale. You can read how technology can (and probably will) shape the future of education in the second part of the Future of Learning series.


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