Investment in education technology surges as markets around the world recognise its transformative potential


In an era marked by profound technological disruption and intense global competition, emerging markets are striving to improve and adapt their education systems to meet the demands of the modern economy. As such, innovative solutions are being developed to address barriers within traditional education systems. Education technology (edtech) is gaining traction worldwide as an invaluable teaching and learning tool.

However, the global edtech movement has been somewhat uneven, its implementation delayed in some developing countries due to infrastructure deficits and tight budgets. Nevertheless, the surge in investment in the last few years indicates the substantial potential for edtech to enhance the quality of education around the world in a variety of ways.

Appetite for Innovation

Edtech companies in developed countries came into prominence in the early 2000s. In the US, the subsesctor’s advent was made possible by the country’s well-developed ICT networks, large economy and successful innovation hubs, such as Silicon Valley. In 2018 the US edtech market was estimated to be worth more than $8.38bn, according to the Software and Information Industry Association. In Europe, the centre for edtech is the UK, home to at least 1000 edtech companies, 200 of which are based in London.

Although the US and the UK are the world’s edtech leaders, Asia has quickly become its fastest growing laboratory. With the largest school-age population, Asia is home to over 600m K-12 students and is the emerging global centre for online education. Many Asian countries have placed a premium on education, and both governments and parents are willing to spend a substantial amount of money on educational services, particularly in developed markets in the region. For instance, parents in Singapore spend more than $70,000 each year, on average, to educate their children, while more than 70% of secondary school students in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea hire private tutors. While parents in the emerging markets of Asia have less discretionary spending power, these countries have a great deal of potential to utilise their burgeoning innovation ecosystems to develop new, cost-effective edtech solutions to improve learning outcomes. For example, Indonesian edtech company Ruangguru was tipped by the country’s Minister of Communications and Information to grow into a unicorn valued over $1bn in 2019, as it rolls out its one-stop learning services app across South-east Asia.

Schools Demand

In addition to the US, the UK and Asia, there is also a growing edtech sector in the Middle East. A 2016 education report by regional investment bank Alpen Capital suggests that more than 50,000 schools are needed across the Gulf to accommodate an expected 20% increase in the student population to around 15m by 2020. India-based market intelligence firm Ken Research forecasts that the education market in Saudi Arabia alone will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 12.3% over the next three years, reaching a value of $15bn in 2021.

Forbes estimates there are 270 edtech start-ups in the Middle East, some of which have tapped into gaming, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to transform the learning environment. However, despite its great potential, there has been a lack of edtech investments in the region compared to other regions, such as Asia. According to Forbes, less than 1% of global funding for tech start-ups in 2017 went to countries in the Middle East, while approximately 22% went collectively to China and India, highlighting a need for more diversified investments in the future.

The edtech movement is also steadily expanding in Latin America and Africa. E-learning revenue in Latin America grew by 14.6% each year between 2013 and 2016 to $2.2bn, so that by 2018 it was the world’s fourth-largest edtech market in terms of revenue, after North America, Western Europe and Asia. Markets in the region have particularly benefitted from their proximity to the US, which has allowed them to speed development of learning solutions. Meanwhile, access to mobile internet has dramatically increased in Africa over the years. More than 60% of its population, which equates to approximately 700m people, are mobile subscribers – 300,000 of whom use mobile internet. As a result, mobile learning has started gaining momentum in Africa as a way for education to more efficiently reach the masses.

Growing Investment

Given the huge potential, it is therefore not surprising that there is an influx of investment in edtech. Looking forward, education stakeholders in less developed markets are increasingly viewing technology as a means to bridge gaps in education infrastructure and teaching resources. “There will be a large number of opportunities for investors in online platforms because they are more cost-efficient than opening new physical school branches and are thus set to generate high returns in the future,” Azhar Sunayo, director of Primagama Tutoring Institution in Indonesia, told OBG.

US-based research institute Metaari reports that global investment in learning technology companies reached a record $9.56bn in 2017, breaking the previous record of $7.3bn in 2016. In particular, there has been a significant increase in investments made in edtech companies that specialise in augmented reality, AI, neuroscience and cognitive science.

Another consistent trend over the past three years is the enormous amount of money being invested in edtech companies in Asia, particularly China. Out of the 16 companies that attracted more than $100m in investment in the first 10 months of 2017, seven were from that country alone.

While the US and the UK still account for the majority of edtech investments in the world, there is also increasing investment activity in emerging regions such as Latin America. The International Finance Corporation has spearheaded over $450m in investments to online learning institutions in Brazil and the Pacific Alliance countries, namely Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. Although Brazil appears to be the biggest market in the region, investors are increasingly interested in Pacific Alliance members because of their common language, educational uniformity and higher GDP.

Due to a growing level of investments, a number of Latin American countries are already making progress with the implementation of e-learning at the corporate level. According to a survey carried out by US-based Kaagan Research Associates, approximately 41% of companies in Mexico and Brazil use e-learning solutions to train their staff in marketing, technical documentation and customer support. This is closely followed by Colombia (39%), and Argentina and Chile (30%). The firm also found that among the 58% of companies in the region which do not use digital solutions, 32% would eventually utilise them in the future.

Government Support

There has been widespread support for the adoption of new technology in education systems globally. In Asia, several governments have taken steps to adopt e-learning tools as part of wider efforts to transition into digital economies. For example, the authorities in Thailand are looking to improve the country’s English proficiency by using AI to assess students’ writing and speaking skills online. It also launched a free mobile app called Echo English to encourage its citizens to practice conversational English through games. Elsewhere, the Department of Education in the Philippines recently launched a new K-12 curriculum that stipulates the inclusion of Media and Information Literacy as a core subject in public schools. The aim of the move is to equip students with the skills needed to succeed in a digital economy.

Governments in the Middle East likewise see education as a key to progress and economic development, allocating as much as 19% of their budgets to the sector – well above the global average. The UAE Ministry of Education has indicated its willingness to support e-learning initiatives as tools to improve education delivery in a market that is expected to expand by 60% to be worth $7.1bn in 2023, while the Ministry of Education in Egypt announced in October 2018 that 2500 secondary schools had been connected to fibre-optic internet or Wi-Fi, as part of its plans to give every student studying at that level a tablet computer.

In Latin America, governments are also investing a substantial amount of resources in edtech to improve learning outcomes. To expand education access in rural areas, the Mexican government is implementing a distance learning programme called Telesecundaria, which will provide lectures to secondary students through a network of satellite televisions. “While only 50% of the population in Mexico has internet access, this figure is quickly increasing due to the government reforms in telecommunications,” Jose Antonio Quesada, director of the Egade Business School, told OBG. “These initiatives make online programmes possible and can be used to complement existing learning techniques.” In fact, several US-based companies travelled to Latin America in 2018 to explore the possibility of establishing more edtech programmes in the region.

Transformational Potential

Indeed, as digital methods of teaching and learning proliferate across the globe they are having a democratising effect on education by widening access to it. Online programmes are being leveraged in a number of emerging economies in Asia to address disparities in both education access and quality. “Technology allows us to keep the quality of education consistent between different cities because it enables us to teach two or more classes at the same time. Therefore, no one can say that students in Yangon are far more advanced than students in Mandalay or Myitkyina,” U Tin Maung Win, managing director of the International Language and Business Centre Myanmar, told OBG.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have also become accessible throughout Indonesia, enabling users to learn anytime and anywhere. In a similar way, edtech has provided much-needed support for teachers working in refugee camps in the Middle East. For instance, the non-profit platform Edraak, which provides MOOCs in Arabic, was launched in 2018 for refugee children in Jordan, Egypt and Syria. The platform allows students to access sequential learning materials and enables teachers to create more interactive, engaging learning experiences.


With the advent of data analytics, customised strategies may now be formulated to better address students’ various learning needs and enhance engagement through personalised learning. In the higher education sector software applications such as learning management systems allow students to move through materials at their own pace, giving learners who need it more time to process information. In Brunei Darussalam, Universiti Brunei Darussalam has teamed up with local technology start-up Mindplus Education to create a more tailored learning experience for students online and in the classroom. In Latin America, schools such as Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia and Aliat Universidades in Mexico have used edtech to personalise assessments, whereby students can evidence learning through videos, multimedia presentations or online storybooks.

Researchers maintain that integrating technology makes learning more exciting and interesting for the pupils. Indeed, the wide range of learning channels available, including mobile, multimedia, peer-to-peer and game-based learning apps, means content is becoming increasingly immersive. Instructors are able to utilise polls, videos, interactive texts and virtual reality tools to address the issue of disengaged and distracted students. For example, Nairobi-based online platform Kukua endeavours to empower African children with basic reading and maths skills by combining traditional literacy methods with games and animated entertainment. Codemi, an online learning management system in Indonesia, takes a similar approach, gamifying the learning process and providing rewards to engage and motivate its users.

Digital technology has also provided opportunities for schools to directly engage students’ parents. This is important, given that researchers agree that parental involvement correlates positively with students’ academic performance. Edtech start-ups in the Middle East are developing interactive platforms for parents to converse with teachers in real time. Abu Dhabi-based tech start-up SchoolVoice is a mobile app that keeps parents updated about school events, exams and their childrens’ academic performance.

In addition to improving parent-teacher interactions, technological advances have also provided opportunities for students to fully collaborate and connect with one another. EduPOW, an online publishing platform based in Malaysia, offers education courses that enable users to share knowledge on a diverse range of topics including arts, health, music and language. A healthy dose of collaboration may help enhance learning, as researchers found that students involved in online discussions felt more connected and reported higher levels of satisfaction with courses.

Aside from widening access and offering customised, interactive learning experiences, edtech has helped cut the cost of education delivery by, for example, reducing the need for printed materials. Online content can also be easily updated – and efficiently distributed – without relying on manual resources. Moreover, with advanced analytics to keep track of students’ progress, educators are able to reduce the time spent on manual grading and record-keeping.

Africa Challenge

In spite of its advanced state of development in several parts of the world, edtech is very much in its infancy in Africa, with most countries in the region only just beginning to incorporate digital learning into education. Adopting modern technology can be capital intensive, thus very few public schools utilise computers. Many universities and professional companies prefer traditional face-to-face and distance learning methods. Internet penetration has also been very slow to gain ground, as only 21.8% of the continent had permanent access to the web in 2017, and mobile broadband penetration lags far behind other continents. Consequently, there remains relatively little investment in learning technology, and start-ups are struggling to compete for funding.

However, in spite of the lack of infrastructure and investment, state-led initiatives to implement edtech have begun to emerge. The government in South Africa has started funding the delivery of tablets and internet access in its schools and is exploring the possibility of delivering online programmes for students. Following the introduction of ICT into the school curriculum in 2007, successive Ghanaian governments have invested significant amounts in procuring computers and establishing laboratories in several secondary-level institutions. Similarly, in 2013 Kenya’s Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology implemented a Digital Literacy Programme, which gave 1.2m digital devices to primary schools.

Meanwhile, faced with the collapse of public services in the wake of the Ebola crisis, the government of Liberia has trialled the use of government funds to place students in schools operated by for-profit education providers, many of which make extensive use of edtech platforms. After pupils in the initial trials comfortably outperformed other students, the for-profit providers were given more schools to operate. The long-term outcome of this experiment will be keenly followed by other regional governments facing substantial financing and capacity constraints.


Technology has successfully penetrated education systems around the world and is rapidly revolutionising the sector, making learning more accessible, engaging and efficient. While developed countries took the lead in innovation during the early stages of edtech, the improvement in ICT infrastructure in emerging market economies, as well as the ubiquity of smartphones and digital devices, means edtech is expected to soon become a leading industry.

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