Tread Carefully: Education Technology’s Role in Developing Countries

By Veena Narashiman  2020

Education has long been considered a means to move out of poverty. Edtech—teaching and learning that makes use of technology—has in recent years become a multi-billion dollar sector for both developed and developing countries. And an emerging category in the sector are nonprofit organizations, backed by investors eager to spread tech literacy to improve livelihoods throughout the globe.

On January 28, Berkeley’s Education Initiative for Development (EID) IdeaLab, a group of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate students passionate about education and development, hosted four nonprofit education technology professionals to spark dialogue and provide updates on edtech’s evolution. Three of the panelists graduated from UC Berkeley and one is a current student.

The panelists included:

Kate Sturla (B.A. 09) associate director of IDinsight, a San Francisco-based impact assessment firm that uses data and evidence to help leaders combat poverty worldwide. Sturla manages projects in education, health, and agriculture.

Moses Surumen (B.S. 19), a fourth-year Cal engineering and computer science student, is founder of the Kenyan coding institute M-Soma, which teaches Kenyan high school students computer science. M-Soma currently instructs a cohort of 47 students.

Sandra Spence (MPH 09) is a UC Berkeley School of Public Health graduate and director of global partnerships for CAMFED, a nonprofit whose mission is to eradicate poverty in Africa through the education of girls and the empowerment of young women.

Vivian Bronsoler (MPP 14)  is senior manager of J-Pal (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab), a nonprofit global research center based at MIT devoted to reducing poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. With a network of 171 professors at universities around the world, J-PAL conducts randomized impact evaluations to answer questions in the fight against poverty.

The EID panel, moderated by student Paige Balcom, focused on common pitfalls of edtech to inform students about new directions in the field.

How is technology being used to support education in developing countries? How is it different urban or rural areas?

Kate Sturla: Edtech often operates in resource-poor environments—schools may not even have chairs or tables, let alone electricity. So we must be cognizant not only of physical limitations, but also that there is a thoughtful theory of change mapped out for any given  edtech intervention.

Sandra Spence: When CAMFED started thinking about incorporating tech in schools, we knew it had to be very basic, especially in rural schools. In Malawi, we gave each school e-readers. The schools were able to negotiate the rights to get books for a discounted rate, which increased student exposure. In the beginning, the schools were scared the Kindles would be broken or stolen and it was hard for students to electrically charge the ebook. We encountered several hurdles to making the technology practical as we moved along.

Vivian Bronsoler: Technology can be used in innovative ways, but we have to be careful. Technology should not be a substitute for teaching or for cognitive practices while studying. For example, One Laptop Per Child [a nonprofit that creates and distributes educational devices for the developing world] had a broad goal to teach kids how to use computers. However, it hasn’t helped student learning or attainment of knowledge—it’s not a substitute. In other words, technology should be seen as a complement to teaching.

For example, technology can be helpful in less obvious ways that simplify the process of education. A website could could allow students to access homework assignments online, or a database could organize scholarships resources. A teacher could use an app to take attendance for large classes, and keep better track of grades—while parents could also access this information to be more involved in their child’s education.

What is a common misunderstanding people have about edtech in developing countries?

Sandra Spence: You can’t just drop technologies into an environment. You need to ask: What is the human platform that will support it?

Kate Sturla: People often conflate computer literacy skills with edtech. For example, access to computers can help students become more literate in how to actually use the device  (i.e., typing) versus helping a student actually learn a subject, like math. We should also make sure we teach at the correct level and give teachers the tools to target students at different learning levels.

Vivian Bronsoler: Edtech is attractive to people who want quick solutions—it can seem like a solution, but money can often be better spent better somewhere else. It’s wrong to copy and paste an intervention from one context to another or say you have an innovative idea without actually testing it.

How do you think Berkeley students can make a difference in edtech?

Moses Surumen: Take an education class. We can’t develop apps without understanding of how people learn.

Vivian Bronsoler: During your college career, you learn the tools and theories to get trained on various poverty interventions. But then, once you are in the professional world, various realities exists and challenges arise. Volunteer anywhere you can to get some real-world experience—really be engaged. Learn as much as you can— you can use it in practice.

Sandra Spence: Don’t get swept away by technology. Be part of the wave that is thoughtful about the application of technology. Ask: How does technology fit into the environment? Is it empowering? Are you listening to the people closest to the problem?

Kate Sturla: IDinsight began as a graduate project. Being a student is the best time to build bridges across disciplines and majors and take classes to get different perspectives. Push yourself to take a class outside of your major to get a different angle.

Interested in joining the Education Initiative for Development IdeaLab? Contact IdeaLab Co-Directors Samuel Cabrera ( and Bei Zhang (

IdeaLabs Fostering Collaboration at Cal

By Sarah Bernardo 

UC Berkeley has over 38,000 students  and more than 100 different majors spread across 170 academic departments. This rich diversity produces incredible ideas and a variety of perspectives that continue to make Cal the number one public university in the world. However, at a research university as large as Cal, it can be challenging for students to get the opportunity to work with students outside their major or department. But solving the grand challenges facing society — energy, water, climate, food, health — requires the expertise of many different disciplines — and thus the IdeaLabs program was launched.

The Blum Center’s IdeaLabs program  provides the space and funding for graduate and undergraduate students from all across campus to come together in interdisciplinary collaborations. IdeaLabs are completely student-driven — meaning that an IdeaLab’s themes and issues, and indeed its very existence, is determined by  the students themselves. To launch, an IdeaLab needs a minimum of 5 team members from at least 3 different departments or majors. The labs provide a forum for students to explore specific issue areas across disciplines. Students work together to learn about the issue, collaborate with campus and community partners, and develop innovative solutions or services. This year, three amazing IdeaLabs are tackling the areas of human trafficking, water issues, and remote diagnostics.

The Anti-Human Trafficking IdeaLab engages in scholar-activism to combat human trafficking and slavery in the Bay Area and beyond. Participants in the lab work with academic researchers and local community partners to educate the Cal campus about all forms of trafficking while discussing best practices for combating the issue. Members also deconstruct intersecting social issues such as gender inequality and poverty.

Hannah Ousterman, Co-President of the Anti-Trafficking Coalition at Berkeley and co-facilitator of the Anti-Human Trafficking IdeaLab, says, “the most unique aspect of our IdeaLab is our ability to connect with so many amazing local organizations and activists. Rather than focusing solely on raising awareness about trafficking, we are able to invite community members for conversations about how race and socioeconomic status influence the issue and how we can be conscientious advocates in the field.”

The Anti-Human Trafficking IdeaLab has a lot of great events planned for this year. On September 22, they will be hosting a film screening at the Blum Center of The Long Night, a documentary feature film directed by award-winning photojournalist Tim Matsui. The film explores the harrowing reality of domestic child sex trafficking. A discussion with Holly Joshi will follow the screening. Ousterman adds, “We are also working on a much larger project to create a directory of anti-trafficking organizations in the Bay Area so that students can more easily find opportunities for volunteering, internships, and jobs in the field that apply to their studies and interests.”

The Berkeley Water Group IdeaLab focuses on the issues of water, sanitation, and hygiene both domestically and internationally. Through the lab, participants can find support for their projects and work directly with faculty members. The Berkeley Water Group also sends out a weekly digital newsletter. Future projects  include launching a Water Science, Sustainability, and Policy minor and producing a student academic journal on water-related subjects.

Sruthi Davuluri, co-director of the Berkeley Water Group IdeaLab, says, “My favorite part about the Berkeley Water Group is the interdisciplinary approach we take on discussing water issues. Our membership is made up of an eclectic group of students who come from different backgrounds such as engineering, economics, public policy, and many more different areas which always leads to interesting discussions because everybody has a different perspective.”

Davuluri explains that in the upcoming year, the Berkeley Water Group plans to make a “stronger partnership with the Save the Bay organization in order to have more volunteer opportunities for [their] members” while expanding their presence beyond Berkeley into more areas in the Bay. Davuluri adds, “We would also like to work on a long-term water conservation project here on campus.” Their meetings involve a variety of activities such as debates, guest speakers, and field trips.

The Point of Care Diagnostics (PoCDx) IdeaLab works to develop solutions to address the challenges of remote diagnostics by gathering members from across diverse fields such as public policy, medicine, and engineering. Members participate in a forum to share ideas and technology. They also are given the chance to attend talks by guest speakers who are experts in the field.

Bochao Lu, facilitator of the Point of Care Diagnostics IdeaLab, explains, “We organize multidisciplinary seminars where experts in different fields present their work and more importantly share their experience, which we believe will invoke more brilliant ideas from the audience.”

The PoCDx Idea Lab is planning an exciting speaker series for this year. Lu says. “We will invite speakers in the field of point of care, from faculty in academia to product managers in industry and entrepreneurs in diagnosis.”


All three IdeaLabs are currently accepting new members for the year or you can contact the Blum Center to launch your own IdeaLab!

Here’s how to get involved:

Anti-Human Trafficking IdeaLab: Meetings are every Tuesday 8:00-9:00 pm, Location TBD

(The room number will be posted on the Anti-Trafficking Coalition at Berkeley Facebook page.)

There are no requirements to join. All are welcome to join, even STEM majors and those who do not have a background in anti-trafficking work.

Berkeley Water Group IdeaLab: Meetings are every other Monday 6:00 pm in Blum Hall B100.

Everyone is welcome at meetings. For more information, email Weekly newsletters are sent out with information about ways anybody can get involved in the water community in Berkeley and in the greater Bay Area.

Point of Care Diagnostics (PoCDx) IdeaLab: Meetings are every other Thursday in Blum Hall.

Anyone interested in joining, should email Bochao Lu at to be added to PoCDx’s email list. Information about seminars are usually sent out one week before the event.


In addition to joining the existing IdeaLabs, any student on campus can propose a new IdeaLab to the Blum Center. IdeaLabs generally focus on a broad issue area of global significance with the purpose of advancing human well-being, environmental sustainability, and social justice.

The proposal process only involves two steps:

  1. Fill out an application form here.
  2. Email as soon as you submit the form to ensure that your application is reviewed in a timely manner.

Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis, and any questions should be directed to