Using ‘building blocks’ to develop digital education platforms cheaper and faster

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Earlier this year, our team at EdTech Hub and partners at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation noticed a recurring pattern: we saw colleagues around the world — in government, the private sector, civil society — working to develop various digital platforms for learning. We also noticed that most of them tended to need similar platform components — and they either developed them from scratch or used off-the-shelf solutions that weren’t quite tailored to their needs. 

We found ourselves wondering … if we, as a global EdTech community, can understand which platform components or ‘building blocks’, are needed and how they can be used most effectively, we could reduce duplication, increase quality, and conserve resources — ultimately lowering the cost of digital education opportunities and giving access to more children. 

So, we set out to investigate existing and potential use cases for how open-source, modular ‘building blocks’ can be used to build digital platforms for education in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). We wanted to test the following hypothesis:

build digital platforms for education
… but what are ‘building blocks’?

Building blocks can mean different things in different contexts. In our research we defined building blocks as open-source, modular, interoperable pieces of code or software that can be (re)used to build or tailor platforms. They are the middle ground between building bespoke platforms and using off-the-shelf platforms.

Examples of platforms that could leverage building blocks include content repositories, teacher professional development platforms, virtual learning environments, student information systems, and education management information systems.  Broadly, these platforms fall into two major categories: platforms for teaching and learning and platforms for education system management.

What did we do?

We conducted desktop research and semi-structured interviews with donors, ministry officials, and platform developers to gather a long list of platforms and tools that are used in sub-Saharan Africa. From this, we did a deep dive on three building block platforms (DHIS2 for education, OpenEMIS and Sunbird), and four countries (Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Kenya, and South Sudan).

Through our research, we were able to provide insights on the following questions: 

  1. How can education systems potentially benefit from building blocks?
  2. What are the pathways to successful uptake?
  3. When should you build from scratch, use off-the-shelf solutions, or use building blocks?
  4. What roles do key stakeholders play?
  5. How can stakeholders interact better?
  6. What are the risks of provision?
  7. Is there a need and demand?
  8. How can donors provide better support?
  9. What considerations need to be taken into account to determine a country’s readiness to use digital platform building blocks?
What did we find?

In addition to our insights on the above nine questions, some of our unique findings included the following:

  • While countries such as India have a thriving community both developing and using building blocks, this is not yet the case in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, ministries are more likely to build bespoke solutions from scratch (e.g., Kenya’s National Education Management Information System) or to use off-the-shelf solutions (e.g., MS Teams). This is either because they are unaware of existing building blocks or have concerns about the integrity of open-source platforms.
  • While there are no homegrown examples of building blocks in sub-Saharan Africa, building blocks that are developed by international partners are being used (e.g., OpenEMIS used in DRC, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa and Zambia, and DHIS2 for Education used in Eswatini, Mozambique, The Gambia, Togo, Uganda, and Tanzania).
  • Factors that enable effective use of building blocks include:
  1.  Digital infrastructure maturity
  2.  Human capacity such as skilled developers and data analysts
  3. A supportive ecosystem 
  4. Sufficient funding
  5. Stakeholder and policy support
  • There is a need to ‘educate demand’ on the use of open-source platforms and building blocks for both donors and in-country decision-makers. There are a large number of bespoke platforms being developed by ministries with donor funding. Sharing information regarding the benefits of building blocks can reduce duplication and conserve resources.
  • There is a need to coordinate donor funding on platform development. There are a number of donors developing different platforms of a similar nature within a country.  This has resulted in fragmented data that can even produce conflicting findings. Donor projects and funding need to be coordinated such that they invest in building central and / or integrable platforms.

Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao

Björn Haßler
Björn Haßler