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Investing in the Future of Asia’s Education

Written by Emily Colyer, Content Producer at Bett
25 Sep 2020
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Investing in the Future of Asia’s Education

The Bett team interviewed Brajesh Panth, Chief of the Education Sector Group and Jian Xu, Senior Education Specialist – Education Technology from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), exploring the challenges, opportunities and future course of education and technology in Asia.

These views are of the education specialists and should not be attributed to the ADB.

What have been the main challenges and opportunities experienced by educators, parents and students during periods of home learning in Asia?

We have seen three main challenges:

  • Disadvantaged students who were previously at risk of falling behind have suffered the most during this period of remote learning, resulting in an increased risk of dropping out of school even after schools reopen.
  • Much of Asia’s youth population – especially migrant workers, informal workers and independent workers – have been disproportionately impacted by unemployment. Asian countries have the option of repurposing the workforce and rescale their upskilling and reskilling provision, ensuring that the youth population can secure employment in the current turbulent labour market.
  • Governments are currently facing the combined challenge of decreasing revenues and rising costs. Education budgets have tightened due to other emergency needs such as health, social protection and economic recovery. As a result, education delivery and access may turn into an emergency from the current crisis. This has presented countries with a critical need to collaborate with global partners and non-traditional sources of funding.

Despite these challenges, Asian countries are transforming the crisis into an opportunity in the following key areas:

  • Although efforts were underway to address the learning crisis pre-pandemic, progress had been extremely slow in improving learning outcomes. The pandemic has accelerated progress through amplifying the pre-existing problems, in turn increasing the urgency and necessity to find innovative, scalable and equitable distance learning solutions to complement face to face approaches.
  • It is now more important than ever for education to look outwards: we are at a critical juncture where cross-sectoral collaboration has become essential. For example, many educational institutions have already benefited from collaborating with the health sector to ensure that they meet on-campus health and hygiene standards. Partnerships both within the education community and with industry will be instrumental in overcoming financial barriers, creating synergies and sharing targeted expertise linked to emerging labour market demand.
  • Digital skills have become essential for teachers, trainers and students to prepare for the transition to a digital economy and to futureproof the current and future workforce.
  • There is growing realization about the urgency to mobilize more financing – traditional and non-traditional – for education by drawing on lessons from sectors like health. 

To transform these challenges into opportunities, countries need to consider how they can best utilise their currently limited funding to align short-, medium- and long-term investment.  

In what ways do you see SEA countries needing to set up strategies and processes to address the skills gap required to be a viable part of the 21st Century workforce?  

When designing and implementing curricula, it has become crucial for SEA countries to view education in terms of the skills required for industry and the relevant learning pathways running throughout primary, secondary and tertiary education. In light of the accelerated technological disruption, educational institutions must look to continuously refine and rescale these skills pathways.

The investment of AI and big data analytics could be utilised to ensure real-time labour market intelligence and analyse professional job portals (as well as other related databases in public and private domains) to see how demands for certain skills and occupations are changing. Such would enable jobseekers to effectively align and develop their skillset with that of the labour market and find relevant training institutions and programs. All these interconnected digital systems can help reduce the skills gap and minimise unemployment by connecting key stakeholders.

Ensuring the objective, credible assessment and recognition of 21st Century skills such as creative thinking and collaboration is key to closing the skills gap. Particularly in higher education, there is already some evidence that the ASEAN community is co-creating a unified system for recognising 21st Century skills, which will facilitate labour mobility for the overall benefit of different countries in the region. Countries need to extend and apply this system to K12 and TVET, building a cohesive, cross-phase framework for the development and assessment of 21st Century skills and integrating cross-sectoral approaches such as STEAM education.

What are the key priorities for government education strategy & policy in Asia?

There are two major priorities in education and training: to improve the quality of education at all levels (measured by the achievement of learning outcomes) and to improve employability levels at all levels of graduation. As more countries in the Asia Pacific region become middle-income countries, their continued success will depend on not just investing in infrastructure, but also in human capital. This will be critical for countries to move up the value chain.

The current crisis has triggered and amplified the challenge of youth unemployment. It is therefore not surprising that there is an increased appetite for TVET projects within Asia since the shorter duration of TVET programmes offers a more immediate solution. For this to be effective, Asia’s training institutions need to substantially enhance collaboration with private sector employers to develop effectively-aligned, responsive partnerships, ensuring that the TVET experience yields a viable workforce. There is also a need to ensure that TVET students have 21st-century skills.

To what extent do these priorities differ between Asian countries?

Priorities mainly depend on countries’ levels of development, differing in terms of economic maturity and their relative situation with infrastructure and human capital investment. Although some countries may be looking to secure fundamental technological infrastructure and connectivity to ensure universal access, more developed countries are looking to invest in data analytics for continuous monitoring and refinement of their infrastructure performance. Despite differences in their development stage, all Asian countries are broadly following the same trajectory of technological investment and implementation – innovative practices and approaches to fulfilling universal access remain to be very important for countries who are at an earlier stage of development.

How do you see the challenges of helping lower-income countries invest in the technologies for the classroom being addressed, particularly in cases where teachers have limited digital literacy skills?  

Lower-income countries require a more robust technology investment strategy for their schools. In addition to investing in hardware devices, it is more important to invest in the corresponding software running systems to develop a robust and sustainable technology provision.  

Teachers are central to a smooth transition towards technology-enabled classrooms. The gradual introduction of upgrades to learning solutions are vital to ensuring that teachers are engaged and empowered when adopting new technologies and developing their digital literacy skills.

How should solutions providers respond to and effectively support the shift in teaching & learning delivery in Asia?

Before the pandemic, we have seen that most education technology solutions providers have been focusing on technology at a more developed infrastructure level, limiting their penetration to higher-income families and organisations. However, the pandemic has triggered the massive need from governments for low cost and low infrastructure solutions. For countries with lower levels of infrastructure, we will likely see more public-private partnership opportunities that the solutions providers to provide efficient, scalable and affordable solutions for the majority of public sector education systems.

To sustain and optimise partnerships with lower-income Asian countries, solutions providers need to shift their focus and innovations to supporting low-tech environments. Developing offline capabilities will be vital to ensuring universal access to education – particularly those within rural, hard-to-reach areas and the public education system.

In what ways has the pandemic impacted investment into infrastructure for digital/online learning across the region? 

Although the pandemic has positively shifted mindsets towards digital learning, it is critical to ensure a balance between the short-term investment securing teaching & learning continuity, and the long-term investment to transform and reimagine teaching & learning.

For example, we see that some national governments and international organisations are investing heavily in video lessons and data consumption packages to address immediate learning needs. However, these solutions are not being invested with the view to move towards a longer-term, multimodal learning strategy.

To ensure learning outcomes are met for all students – regardless of individual access to devices and level of connectivity – countries’ long-term strategy for teaching & learning will be better served by accounting for differences in delivery modes. For instance, the use of lower-tech media such as radio and TV for students with lower levels of connectivity may require a greater emphasis on strengthening what can often be a relatively weak feedback loop between educators and students.

If there is no substantial investment in digital infrastructure, it will be difficult for countries to build on the short-term investment to move to a more robust system in the longer term. Such investment will benefit the education sector and beyond during the transition to a digital economy. Similarly, the pandemic has demonstrated that digital infrastructure needs to support both in- and out- of school learning. While we understand that resources are scarce and redirected to address other urgent needs, it is critical for countries to strategically approach short-term investment to secure and underpin long-term teaching & learning delivery.  

What are your predictions for upcoming EdTech investment priorities for ASEAN countries?

The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted students across all learning environments and levels of accessibility, transforming the pre-existing learning crisis into a universal concern. Asian countries are now very keen to invest in reliable, affordable and stable internet connectivity for all learners and education institutions with different provisions, including low-cost and low-power consuming devices and systems.

Following this, we would expect to see a further drive to develop digital content, specifically through leveraging partnerships for providing open-source learning materials. AI and big data will also play a critical role in developing labour market intelligence systems to align job seekers, training providers and employers.

These views are of the education specialists and should not be attributed to the ADB.

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