Ensuring A Lasting EdTech Legacy For Childhood Development Post-Pandemic

The lockdowns caused by the pandemic have presented an opportunity for lasting technological transformation that creates tangible benefits for people, places and institutions.

One area where this is especially true is in early childhood development and educational technology (EdTech). When the world went into lockdown, UNESCO estimated that closures to schools and learning facilities affected 90% of the world’s student population. Students, teachers and parents had to transition quickly to the sudden shift away from the classroom. The result was an acceleration in demand for innovative e-learning technologies.

Online learning became key

Turning adversity into opportunity, online learning platforms stepped up to deliver efficient solutions for this generation of students impacted by COVID-19. Poland-based e-learning platform, Brainly, saw its monthly user base surge to 350 million in 2020, a staggering increase from 150 million the previous year. A popular peer-to-peer network, Brainly offered students, parents and teachers a platform to engage with one another as schools around the world operated remotely.

Austria-headquartered GoStudent became Europe’s first EdTech unicorn in June 2021 after raising a EUR 205 million-funding round as it aims to become the world’s number one online school. These startups benefitted from having developed scalable, ready to implement business models that required little adaption once lockdowns took effect.

The EdTech boom has undoubtedly brought about a host of benefits including customised learning, easy access to resources, an improved ability to track student progress and more.

But, as countries emerge from lockdowns, will we be able to sustain the adoption of online learning and childhood development technologies?

I see positive signs. Even before the pandemic, early childhood development technologies were already gaining significant traction, and they certainly proved their mettle during lockdowns. In Finland, virtual learning environments were and continue to be widely used, supported by a range of the latest digital tools and simulators that aid with projects, assignments, testing and communication. In Kenya, where radio, education television and online channels have been used to enhance learning since March 2020, Google’s Loon Balloons are carrying 4G base stations across the country to ensure equitable internet access.

Championing e-learning technologies may be one of the best socio-economic investments that a country can make. According to research by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, investing in early childhood produces the greatest returns in human capital, resulting in a strong future workforce and enhanced economic competitiveness.


The future of EdTech

The global EdTech market has been projected to reach USD 40 billion globally by 2022 but, in our view, this can only be achieved through closer partnership between the private and public sectors. Companies bring to the table unbridled innovation, efficiency and ambition, while the government provides the infrastructure and support that determines whether they succeed.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has invested strategically in building an enabling environment for technology startups and innovators in this sector. This ecosystem ensures that companies have the necessary tools to imagine innovations for the broader benefit of society.

The widespread support from across the ecosystem has resulted in several standout homegrown or UAE-nurtured startups emerging in this space: Alef Education, a leading K-12 education technology company; Lamsa, which develops educational, linguistic and creative thinking skills; and Teacherly, a planning and collaboration platform for teachers.

These companies experienced exponential growth since the pandemic disrupted learning for billions globally. The explosion of novel early childhood development ideas and solutions in Abu Dhabi is being led by forward-looking startups with the support of an innovation-focused ecosystem.

Looking ahead, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) believes that resilience, environmental sustainability and inclusiveness will become more prominent objectives on global policy agendas. Therefore, investments in science, technology and innovation will intensify. This will be an opportunity for startups to step up.

In Abu Dhabi, the government continues to sow into the success of innovative EdTech startups. One of the most exciting ways we are providing support is via the Anjal Z programme, which empowers startups to address early childhood development challenges through innovation and technology. The programme is rolled out in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office and the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority.

The inaugural cohort comprised global entrepreneurs and startups that were invited to localise their solutions for Abu Dhabi and take their products to a bigger market – because these types of challenges are global in nature. Building on the programme’s success, we are recruiting a second cohort of startups to take up the mantle of progressing solutions for the sector.

Advancements in childhood development technology and EdTech can be beneficial here in the UAE, but this type of technology is not constrained by borders and can be used anywhere. Innovation holds the key to solving many global issues. In Abu Dhabi, we are developing solutions that are locally relevant and globally exportable. We want to empower the bold ideas and pioneering companies paving the way for a brighter tomorrow both at home and abroad.

Written by H.E. Mohammed Ali Al Shorafa, Chairman, Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development