Leveraging digital education, technology, and innovation for gender equality

By: Erin Gilchrist Posted: 29 March 2023
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Credit: IDRC/Alejandra Vargas-Garcia

The priority theme of the 2023 UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. The COVID-19 pandemic drove learning online in many parts of the world. Educational technology (EdTech) innovations have helped students access quality education in diverse contexts, but a growing digital divide reflects inequalities that must be addressed. High-quality research is critical to designing such innovations to drive equitable access to quality education, to strengthen gender equality and inclusion, and to understand how to scale effective approaches in low-income and fragile contexts.

This blog presents the key insights surfaced at a CSW side event on leveraging digital technology, education, and innovation for gender equality in the Global South, hosted by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

The panel was moderated by Naser Faruqui, the Director of Education and Science at IDRC, who was accompanied by representatives from three IDRC-supported research projects. Claudia Sugimaru represented an IDRC-funded Conecta Ideas project that assesses the adaptation and scalability of a digital math innovation in Peru. The other two panelists, Larysa Lysenko and Jasmine Turner, represented projects funded by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), a joint endeavour between GPE and IDRC. Larysa represented the KIX project, Using technology to improve literacy in the Global South which uses literacy software to improve learning outcomes in Kenya, Rwanda and Bangladesh. Jasmine represented the KIX project, Bridges to impact through innovative EdTech: Forging links between policy, research and practice, which is scaling a custom-made gaming technology designed to tackle learning quality, reach, equity, and challenges face by refugees and displaced children. The Honourable Marci Ien, Canada’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, joined the panel and provided closing remarks.

“Understanding education in the digital age – including its challenges and opportunities – is a necessary step to ensure gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, in all of their diversity.”

Hon. Marci Ien, Canada’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth

Gender norms: The challenge and the opportunity

Equitable access to EdTech is greatly affected by prevailing gender norms. These dictate who can acquire and use digital tools and can limit the participation of certain groups in education. For example, family responsibilities are often assigned based on gender: young boys may be expected to work or herd livestock and many young girls are left in charge of household responsibilities and care work. These can all result in children missing out on learning to support their families. When they do go to school, many of their learning materials reinforce these gender stereotypes. For instance, textbooks may be filled with images of heterosexual marriages, women portrayed as caregivers, and men presented as strong workers.

However, by developing and implementing EdTech with gender equality, equity, and inclusion at its core, these projects are designing digital innovations to recognize and challenge gender norms and help to build more equal societies. The main character in the “Using technology to improve literacy” project’s software is a girl who loves adventure. The “Conecta Ideas” project designs math activities that question stereotypes, making women visible in leadership and business roles and depicting men doing housework. They also ensure the experts featured in their video training modules are mostly women who act as role models for girls to embrace math.

“In one of the co-creation workshops with children, the girls said that they wanted a girl character to be a football player. The boys laughed as this was ‘impossible’, so of course there is a female football character in the game.”

Jasmine Turner, War Child Holland

Teachers as drivers of inclusive EdTech

Ultimately, teachers are the main drivers of learning outcomes in classrooms, and EdTech is a useful tool that can help support their success. Importantly, in contexts where there are no teachers – such as in conflict settings or for populations on the move – EdTech can bridge the learning gap until teachers are available and, once they are there, digital tools can help them achieve better learning outcomes. For this, teachers need both access and capacities to use edtech to support learning, but also to support gender equality goals.

Some projects offer unique support to female teachers. For example, when the “Using technology to improve literacy” research found that many female teachers struggle to afford adequate data plans to access online resources, they established a private sector partnership with a leading telecommunications company in Kenya that offered discounted rates for data bundles to access the project’s digital resources.

The projects are also addressing teachers’ capacity to successfully use EdTech for gender-responsive education. Professional development opportunities are helping teachers learn to identify and address gender inequalities in the classroom, for example by ensuring leadership roles in class are awarded to students of all genders. Developing and using gender-responsive tools to measure and analyze how students are responding to the material can also help teachers ensure children are benefitting from the innovation.

“Generating assessment reports from individual student data allows teachers to tailor their instruction to students’ needs. Teacher professional development helps strengthen their capacity to teach with a gender-lens in mind.”

Larysa Lysenko, Concordia University

Context matters: Scaling EdTech innovations

While designing gender-responsive digital innovations to provide learning content to teachers and children is valuable, it is not enough. Ensuring that these innovations are scaled up and integrated into national curricula – both for teacher training and for student learning – is critical. To that end, research supported by IDRC and KIX has generated important lessons on how to scale effective approaches in low-income and fragile contexts.

All three projects noted that a wide range of partnerships are at the heart of successful scaling efforts. By co-creating research and solutions with teachers and students, these projects are designed to ensure that digital innovations are addressing the right challenges, in the right ways. Involving ministries of education in the co-creation process can help strengthen their capacities to use these innovations and greatly increases the likelihood of uptake at the national level. However, these projects have noted that meaningful engagement with decision makers at the local level can also be an important catalyst for national-level change.

Partnerships are crucial in adapting technology to local context and users, which is another vital element of effectively scaling digital education innovations. By aligning with existing systems, infrastructure, and policy priorities, these projects ensure that their interventions are relevant, contextually appropriate, and well positioned for use. When it comes to designing and implementing gender-responsive EdTech, projects must be developed from a deep understanding of cultural norms and expectations.

“Knowing the local context matters. Innovations cannot be scaled in a vacuum.”

Claudia Sugimaru, Group for the Analysis of Development (GRADE)

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women plays an instrumental role in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women globally. The priority theme selected each year represents an essential area of action for accelerating equality. It is noteworthy that this year’s CSW recognizes education in the digital age as a catalytic issue in achieving gender equality. Her Excellency Ambassador Mathu Joyini, Chair of the 67th CSW, explained that “digital technologies are bringing unique advances for the empowerment of women and girls, but also giving rise to profound new challenges for the rights of women and girls. Technology and innovation are rapidly evolving, and much of the global normative framework on it remains to be shaped.” The panelists at this side event demonstrated the enormous potential for EdTech to strengthen equitable access to quality education and how high-quality research is helping achieve that at scale.