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Just-in-time support to education decision-makers during COVID-19

The EdTech Hub Helpdesk model

Before COVID-19, there was already a global learning crisis. Education decision-makers faced difficult choices with limited resources to get children learning.

In March 2020, schools around the world shut down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Since that time, the pandemic has exacerbated the pre-existing learning crisis, with 90 percent of children in low-income countries not learning to read a basic text by age 10. As decision-makers grapple with providing learning continuity, they face more challenges and choices about how best to deploy technology to achieve this aim.

One such challenge relates to speed: how to identify and tap relevant expertise, and to digest relevant research and good practice examples quickly, to inform decisions which need to be made right now. In the early days of the pandemic, many EdTech product and service vendors rushed to fill the information void. At the same time, international development agencies were overwhelmed with requests for just-in-time, short-term technical assistance.

To address this challenge, EdTech Hub, a global research-to-practice program led by R4D and five partners, debuted a dedicated Helpdesk in April 2020. The EdTech Hub Helpdesk represents one among a number of ways that R4D has been working with change agents to support decision-making with data and evidence. During COVID-19, our support to education leaders has ranged from visualizing data on emerging education trends in the Indo-Pacific, to rapidly testing family and community engagement and teacher coaching approaches to improve early grade reading outcomes in Senegal.

Through EdTech Hub, which is supported by the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the World Bank, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are generating new evidence on effective uses of technology in low- and middle-income countries, and engaging decision-makers to ensure that it is put into practice. This cycle of learning and sharing at national and global levels is key to our approach.

The EdTech Hub Helpdesk received over 70 requests from nearly 30 countries in its first year of operation. And we have received positive feedback on our initial support, with World Bank and FCDO headquarters and country teams using it to inform policy and programming.

Below we introduce the Helpdesk and highlight five unique features of the model that support evidence uptake among EdTech decision-makers.

What is the EdTech Hub Helpdesk?

The Helpdesk is a rapid response service that provides just-in-time evidence-based advice on EdTech to decision-makers to inform how EdTech is used in the education policies and programs they design and implement.

Direct users of the Helpdesk include FCDO education advisers and World Bank education staff who submit requests on EdTech linked to their work with governments and ministries of education. They are usually pressed for time and come to the Helpdesk for support to make sense of disparate examples, evidence and information that are often not curated to meet the moment they are facing. Indirect users of the Helpdesk include anyone who accesses Helpdesk responses published as global public goods on the Hub’s evidence library.

Depending on the request, responses take anywhere from two to 20 days to deliver. To respond in practical ways that meet the needs of our users, we have developed a structured yet adaptable set of response types. Responses typically take the form of virtual consultations with experts, reviews of program documents, curated lists of EdTech examples, briefs to synthesize existing evidence, and more.

Importantly, the Helpdesk is no substitute for long-term, collaborative technical assistance. In fact, the Helpdesk is one of seven approaches of EdTech Hub; the other six include collaborative TA, research to generate new evidence, and sandboxes, the Hub’s approach to real-world, iterative experimentation. The Helpdesk complements these more in-depth collaborations with discrete support that can quickly get decision-makers practical resources that they need.

1. Flexible staffing and raising the visibility of local experts

The Helpdesk combines a global core team and a flexible group of specialists to staff requests on EdTech issues ranging from learning management systems to assistive technology.

Inspired by R4D’s evolving approach to technical assistance, we seek to elevate country and regional experts as a long-term source of EdTech expertise through the Specialist Network. The Network meets every other month to share learning, reflections and resources.

The Helpdesk core team serves as “air traffic control” across incoming Helpdesk requests. We review and prioritize, draw connections to other Hub work, and matchmake between specialists and country needs.

2. Relationship-building and practical responses

The Helpdesk engages requesters in several ways. For each new request, we begin with a 30- to 60-minute scoping call. This call helps us get to know and build trust with the requester and understand the context, including political and partner dynamics that may affect how Helpdesk support is used.

During the call we probe on core questions or challenges that the request addresses, and provide any existing resources that are immediately relevant. We think through how to respond in a way that is practical for the requester, discussing the most appropriate format of the response and timelines. Providing credible, practical, and relevant information that is easily digestible, and suits their timelines, is crucial.

The Helpdesk also works iteratively, starting small and seeking feedback when uncertainty about a specific need or question is high. If the request requires in-depth work, such as development of an evidence brief or report, we often share an initial outline, draft or other “slice” of the work part way through to get feedback before finalizing a response, which helps ensure that our response is fit-for-purpose.

We also ask for requester feedback to understand what worked well and what we can do better. In some cases, “repeat customers” at the Helpdesk have become partners in longer-term, collaborative technical assistance and real-world sandboxes to test and adapt innovation.

3. Translating EdTech knowledge for decision-makers

Evidence on EdTech can be hard to access, lacking in rigor, and nascent, among other challenges. And, sometimes, what the academic community researches doesn’t align with the most urgent and important needs of policy- and decision-makers.

These challenges, combined with the global salience of EdTech during the pandemic, have raised the importance of EdTech evidence translators like the Helpdesk. Evidence translators identify, adapt, contextualize and communicate credible evidence and insights to inform decisions. In this role, the Helpdesk removes some of the friction of accessing and using evidence on EdTech.

Sitting in a global research program, the Helpdesk benefits from direct links to researchers who are generating new, high-quality evidence. In turn, we share insights about decision-maker needs with researchers to inform their work.

4. Sharing Helpdesk advice as global public goods

A core component of the Helpdesk model is to publish the responses we generate, ensuring that our work is as far-reaching as possible. By doing so, secondary users see how we’re applying EdTech knowledge and evidence to guide their own decision-making.

To date, we have published over 30 Helpdesk responses — with more to come. When it’s not possible to publish responses, we synthesize and share our lessons learned.

5. Enhancing coordination and learning across our global partners

With colleagues at the World Bank and FCDO as our main users, the Helpdesk is uniquely positioned to increase coordination and alignment across several development agencies working to support ministries of education to navigate distance learning.

Historically, many EdTech-related questions have been asked of individual consultants or firms in a decentralized way. The answers to those questions were not always easily shared or made publicly accessible.

Increasingly, the Helpdesk is creating a record of these questions and building up an evidence base and shared learning on how to address them. In several instances, we have been able to broker connections between country teams facing similar challenges so that they can share resources directly.

In 2021, we are anticipating the addition of UNICEF as a partner, with regional and country office colleagues as new Helpdesk users. UNICEF is working on digital learning through its flagship initiative, Reimagine Education, in over 140 countries and territories. We are excited about the opportunity to deepen alignment and coordination across agencies working closely with governments on EdTech.

Future directions

As the Helpdesk continues in its second year, we are thinking about how to improve our support and continue to innovate. The short-term and discrete nature of Helpdesk requests allows us to be responsive to feedback and iterate quickly. We see opportunities to co-create resources with our requestors, and to use Helpdesk insights about decision-makers’ needs to inform the work of EdTech Hub and the broader EdTech community.

As a new form of hands-on support to change agents that brings knowledge into practice, we hope the Helpdesk model might inspire other sectors facing similar challenges when it comes to knowledge translation and evidence uptake amid uncertainty.

Highlights from EdTech Hub’s Helpdesk

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