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Leveraging digital education, technology and innovation for gender equality


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 still be addressed. High-quality research is critical to designing innovations that drive equitable access to quality education, strengthen gender equality and inclusion and improve understanding of how to scale effective approaches in low-income and fragile contexts.   

This article draws on insights from three IDRC-funded projects: Conecta Ideas, which assesses the adaptation and scalability of a digital math innovation in Peru; Using technology to improve literacy in the Global South focusing on Kenya, Rwanda and Bangladesh; and 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 faced by refugees and displaced children. The last two projects are part of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), a joint endeavour between GPE and IDRC.   

Research highlights

  • Gender norms present both a challenge and an opportunity for EdTech: they affect who has access to digital tools and education, but EdTech can play a role in challenging gender norms by designing learning materials with representations that defy gender stereotypes. 
  • Teacher training plays a key role in ensuring that EdTech is used in ways that strengthen gender equality. 
  • Building a wide range of partnerships helps researchers adapt EdTech to local contexts and supports the scaling of innovations that strengthen equitable access to education.  


Gender norms: The challenge and the opportunity   

Equitable access to EdTech is greatly affected by prevailing gender norms. For example, family responsibilities are often assigned based on gender. Boys may be expected to herd livestock, while many girls are left in charge of household responsibilities and care work. Not only can these family expectations result in children missing out on learning, but many of the learning materials they are exposed to when they are in school may also reinforce these gender stereotypes. For instance, textbooks may be filled with images of heterosexual marriages, women caregivers and strong male workers.  

However, by developing and implementing EdTech with gender equality, equity and inclusion at its core, IDRC-funded projects are designing digital innovations to recognize and challenge gender norms and help build more equal societies. In the software for the project Using technology to improve literacy, the main character is a girl who loves adventure. The Conecta Ideas project designs math activities that put women in leadership and business roles and depict men doing housework. And in the Bridges to impact through innovative EdTech project, students co-created characters that show female athletic capabilities in a custom-made gaming technology designed for refugees and displaced children. “The girls said that they wanted a girl character to be a football player," said Jasmine Turner, who is leading the project at War Child Holland. “The boys laughed as this was ‘impossible,’ so of course there is now a female football character in the game.”  

Teachers as drivers of inclusive EdTech  

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, help teachers achieve better learning outcomes. But for this to happen, teachers need access and capacity to use EdTech to support learning and gender-equality goals. 

Developing and using gender-responsive tools to measure and analyze how students are responding to the material can also help teachers ensure that children are benefiting from the innovation. “Generating assessment reports from individual student data allows teachers to tailor their instruction to students’ needs,” said Concordia University’s Larysa Lysenko, who is leading the Using technology to improve literacy project. “Teacher professional development helps strengthen their capacity to teach with a gender-lens in mind.”  

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, both at school and at home, the project team established a private-sector partnership with a leading telecommunications company in Kenya that offered discounted rates for teachers.  

Professional development opportunities are helping teachers learn to identify and address gender inequalities in the classroom, for example by ensuring that leadership roles in class are awarded to students of all genders.  

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 note 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. “Knowing the local context matters. Innovations cannot be scaled in a vacuum,” said Claudia Sugimaru from the Group for the Analysis of Development (GRADE), which is leading the Conecta Ideas project. 

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.  

These insights were shared at an IDRC-hosted side event at the 2023 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The discussion on leveraging digital technology, education and innovation for gender equality in the Global South was moderated by Naser Faruqui, the director of education and science at IDRC. The Honourable Marci Ien, Canada’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, participated in 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,” Ien said. 

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) plays an instrumental role in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women globally. The priority theme of CSW 2023 was technological change and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. The priority theme selected each year represents an essential area of action for accelerating equality.  

This year’s CSW recognized education in the digital age as a catalytic issue in achieving gender equality. “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,” said Ambassador Mathu Joyini, permanent representative of South Africa to the United Nations in New York and chair of the 67th CSW. “Technology and innovation are rapidly evolving, and much of the global normative framework on it remains to be shaped,” she added.  

Contributor: Erin Gilchrist, Knowledge Translation Program Officer, KIX, IDRC