Educational Technology Could Hold Key to Meeting Sustainable Development Goals

Over 750 million people around the world can’t read or write. More than half of the planet’s children and adolescents – 617 million young people – do not achieve minimum proficiency in reading and mathematics. Even in the United States, the world’s richest nation, two thirds of 8th graders are not proficient in math. A good education is the most reliable path out of poverty and towards inclusion – yet hundreds of millions don’t even make it to the starting line. The daunting numbers give rise to an equally daunting question: how to achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of a quality education for all by 2030?

In classrooms across North America, one solution to the world’s education challenges is showing promise through a combination of digital innovation and personalised focus. It’s a platform called DreamBox Learning that opens the door to mathematics success for millions of children. By engaging the imagination and adapting to individual needs, DreamBox’s intelligent adaptive engine uses digital learning to challenge the child to make sense of numbers – as well as make learning fun. “Imagine if you had 30 kids in a classroom and each of those 30 kids needed something different— how can even the best teacher in the best circumstance deliver what each child needs to each child every day?” says DreamBox Learning CEO and President Jessie Woolley-Wilson. “The only way you can do that is with the support of adaptive technology.”

One of the advantages of the individualised math program is that it has been independently linked to strong student achievement through rigorous metrics, a critical factor in evaluating success. A study by Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research found that students who spent more time on DreamBox saw larger gains in mathematics achievement than their peers who did not use the software.

A decent education is the most reliable path out of poverty and towards inclusion – yet hundreds of millions don’t even make it to the starting line

Equally important is that DreamBox is scalable. Scaling ground-breaking innovation in the growing field of educational technology can lead to a paradigm shift in providing the disadvantaged with the tools needed to break out of vicious cycles of poverty. Impact investing – which seeks to produce social benefits alongside strong financial returns – can be a key driver of the spread of quality digital education tools around the world.

Overall, impact funding is projected to grow by 8 percent in 2018 to $37.4 billion, according to the Global Impact Investment Network's latest annual report. And education, while still lagging other areas, has notched the highest growth of sectors winning impact allocations – with a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 33 percent. It’s testament to a growing recognition that education is key to levelling the global playing field.

One reason for the rising interest in impact education is that a quality education for all underpins other U.N. Sustainable Development Goals: no poverty, gender equality, decent work and economic growth, and reduced inequalities. A good education is the most important factor in empowering people to rise above entrenched barriers to success. According to the Open Society Institute, one year of primary schooling increases wages by five to 15 percent, while each year of secondary school boosts wages by up to 25 percent. And education provides more intangible qualities of critical thinking and social awareness that help individuals succeed in the world.

To promote quality education, institutions need organized strategies that include a commitment to advancing personalized learning tools. Back in the 1980s, pioneering educator Benjamin Bloom published research that showed children learn best through one-on-one tutoring rather than in large classrooms. The recent confluence of technology and policy changes has opened the door to advancing truly personalized learning digital solutions, not just the modified versions of paper textbooks that represented the first iterations of education technology. The rise of artificial intelligence is opening previously unavailable opportunities for individualised, responsive tools to help students thrive, providing a level of interactivity that far outstrips earlier platforms.

Studying on tablets, computers and smartphones enables the learner to co-create the educational experience. The possibilities are extraordinary in a world in which nearly 20 percent of countries have a student to teacher ratio exceeding 40 to 1 for primary education. The results from online learning can be checked, monitored and enhanced by human teachers – reinforcing the learning process in a virtuous cycle of individual growth.

Imagine if you had 30 kids in a classroom and each of those 30 kids needed something different, how can even the best teacher in the best circumstance deliver what each child needs to each child every day?

Jessie Wolley-Wilson
DreamBox CEO

DreamBox is one of the hallmark investments from The Rise Fund and is a core element of its strategy to drive positive change in education. More than 2.6 million students used DreamBox last year, nearly 80 times the number in 2011, the platform’s first full year in the school market. The platform tailors lessons to each student’s individual needs, adapting not only to their answers but also how they solve problems.

“This is an extraordinary time for the field of education. The rapid pace of innovation gives new capabilities to both teachers and students. It also allows for individualised learning where each child can learn at their own pace, and where technology responds to their specific needs,” says says Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education and Senior Advisor to The Rise Fund. “At the end of the day, that can mean the difference between a student who’s excited to learn and one who is afraid of failure – and that can be the most important thing to getting motivated kids in the classroom every day,” says Duncan.

From kindergartners to adult learners, education is the single most valuable tool for improving livelihood and realising potential. Ultimately, nurturing and investing in underprivileged talent and striving to realise the UN SDG Goal Four by 2030 – to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ - will be transformational for millions of young people around the world and their wider communities. The returns, both in terms of social and financial impact, are likely to be substantial.