The unprecedented education emergency unleashed by Covid-19 has meant that schools for more than 168 million children globally were completely closed for nearly an entire year due to lockdowns (according to UNICEF).
The magnitude of learning loss is beyond quantification both in developing and developed countries. Students, without in-person schooling and no access to digital means, have been falling behind every day, with the most marginalised paying the heaviest price.
Education sector ill-prepared for the pandemic
Over the last two decades, industry after industry (banking, retail, hospitality, mobility, health, and so on) has been disrupted by technology but NOT the education sector.
Known to be a laggard in adopting technology, the education sector worldwide has largely remained entrenched in status-quo (with few exceptions). Consider Japan.
Despite being one of the world’s most technologically advanced and affluent economies, traditional textbook-based classroom teaching and evaluation through paper-based assignments have remained the hallmark of Japanese education for the last century.
According to a 2020 OECD report, fewer than 20% of teachers in Japan use ICT for class work frequently or always.
But Covid-19 changed it all.
Edtech comes to the fore
In the wake of school closures triggered by the pandemic, technology has proved to be a strong force for good in spurring fundamental changes in the education sector. Educational technology (edtech) companies were quick to turn the learning crisis into an opportunity.
They leveraged IT tools, online platforms, videos, teaching apps and augmented interactions to support students, teachers and schools, while also growing their business. Japan’s Study Sapuri, a subsidiary of Recruit Holdings Co. Ltd, an internet pioneer and the largest staffing company in the country, is a case in point.
In the wake of school closures triggered by the pandemic, technology has proved to be a strong force for good in spurring fundamental changes in the education sector.
Study Sapuri – enabling learning and overcoming challenges
Study Sapuri, an online learning platform, was launched back in 2011 to make learning accessible and affordable for Japanese students preparing for university entrance examinations.
This was a key pain point for many of the 3 million high school students who were unable to enroll at “cram” schools or seek tutoring, due to income disparity and/or geographical inaccessibility.
Study Sapuri soon became successful, especially in rural areas. The platform gradually expanded into learning apps for elementary, junior and high school students. A tablet or smartphone was used by students to access video lectures and drills from top instructors – anytime, anywhere.
In parallel to the domestic moves, in 2015, Recruit made an overseas thrust through the acquisition of Quipper, a UK-based edtech startup which went on to expand into emerging markets like Indonesia, Philippines and Mexico.
By 2016, Study Sapuri was a profitable business not only being used by individual students but also by 700 high schools (as a supplementary educational platform) across Japan.
When Covid-19 hit, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency in March 2020. Study Sapuri was ready to accelerate. It decided to provide its services for free to local governments to enable online education efforts.
For example, the Aichi Prefecture decided to provide Study Sapuri services for all of its 183 prefectural high schools (with over 122,000 students). However, several challenges arose.
The first was limited student access to digital devices. This was resolved by the local governmental agencies lending tablets to students. Second, many teachers being unfamiliar with the platform were overwhelmed by the idea and process of incorporating a private service into their curriculum.
Study Sapuri’s team worked closely with individual schools to provide support, guidance and customization to solve these problems.
As the teachers gained proficiency in using technology, they realized that they could free up a significant amount of time (and energy) to better support, interact with and monitor students’ progress.
As at December 31, 2020, Study Sapuri had 1.57 million members (an increase of 97.4% year-on-year) across elementary, middle, and high school students, as well as those preparing for university entrance exams.
Its services were used by more than 2,000 (mainly high schools) out of approx. 5,000 schools, country-wide.
Although the debate continues about the advantages and disadvantages of edtech, it cannot be denied that technology has enabled the continuation of learning through the pandemic instead of grinding to a halt.
The bigger question is, “what happens next?” While unprecedented levels of the venture capital funds are pouring into edtech, will the growth opportunities in education endure beyond the pandemic?
Moreover, edtech firms so far have made free versions available to students but their premium versions with paid content are not affordable for the majority. How can the resulting equity gaps in access to digital education be resolved going forward?
And what about human psychology – Are we going to see irreversible shifts with newly learned behaviors taking root among educators and students? Or, will schools and colleges go back to their traditional ways and comfort zones with the lifting of lockdowns?