Building high-trust teams to test edtech during the COVID-19 pandemic

Building high-trust teams to test edtech during the COVID-19 pandemic

This is part of a series that focuses on how our Venturing practice takes a systemic and relational approach to designing funds, managing portfolios, and growing ideas. Across four blogs we'll be showing how that approach has played out in the real world with stories from our work.

Brink leads Innovation on the Global EdTech Hub, a global movement for evidence-based decision making in edtech (funded by UKAid, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Jacobs Foundation, and with support from the World Bank).

COVID-19 left 1.6 billion children out of school, the majority in low and middle income countries. In 2020, the EdTech Hub launched a call for ideas and a series of showcase events to connect edtech ideas for out of school kids, with those who could support them. From this, we selected five organisations and provided them with £50,000 and venture-building support to design, test and iterate promising technology ideas. This support took the form of a dedicated ‘coach’ who got stuck into the organisation, worked strategically through challenges with them, and held space for a lean ‘build, measure, learn’ process amidst unprecedented uncertainty.

Our support focused on grassroots organisations and campaigns, who were introducing edtech based on a deep understanding of the households, teachers and communities they served.

This included:

  • Jusoor, who were experimenting with Whatsapp based lessons for refugees in Lebanon
  • BRAC, who were building a telephone helpline for out-of-school adolescent girls in Afghanistan
  • DeafReach, who created videos in Pakistani Sign Language for deaf learners at home in Pakistan
  • Mango Tree Literacy Lab, who used community based radio to teach local language literacy in northern Uganda
  • #KeepKenyaLearning, a campaign to support parents to become educators at home in Kenya.

Introducing tech that works, is contextually appropriate, usable and contributes to children learning is messy work. Things going ‘wrong’ is part of the journey. Circumstances will change, ideas or features won’t work as we expect, people won’t cooperate, things will take longer than we think. What’s important is that we learn as we go. To do that, we need to create the psychological safety to talk about things going wrong out in the open.

To do that, we need to build trust within the team.

And to do that, we need relational wisdom.

This is the wisdom that tells us that, for change and impact to happen, building this trust is something to be as intentional about as the work itself.

Here’s some ways we practised relational wisdom throughout the journey, as coaches with these organisations.

At the beginning of the journey, we had a ‘Sprint 0’. This was a two-week period to speak with as many people as possible, read widely, and truly understand the organisation, people and wider context we are working in.

We ask questions like:

  • Does the initiative have buy-in across the team we’re working with, the organisation, and others who would keep it going once we run out of time and money?
  • What waves within the organisation and wider system does this work ride? What agendas conflict with it?
  • What personal or professional goals drive the people we’re working with?
  • What has come before, that we’re building on? What can we borrow or learn, rather than starting from a blank canvas?

Sprint 0 does two big things for the team. Firstly, as coaches, it gives us a holistic understanding of what’s going on. In Pakistan, we learnt how teachers in DeafReach schools had started to record short video lessons, finding it exhilarating, stressful and creative in equal measure. In Lebanon, we watched lessons unfold in Whatsapp groups and saw how committed teachers were to education. In Afghanistan, we learnt about how a new, female Minister of Education in 2020 was sparking new hope and investment in girls’ education.

The second thing Sprint 0 does is that it demonstrates our investment in the work. It shows we care, and that we want to support as much as we can from a place of knowledge. That’s a powerful signal for building trust.

COVID travel and social distancing restrictions meant our entire journey with organisations was remote. We designed a set of virtual tools, embedding nudges to encourage openness towards things going wrong. 

Here’s the project pack we designed for teams, on GoogleSheets. It asks what do you believe? and how will you verify that belief? Then, after that batch of work is done, it asks what did you learn? and how does this affect what you do next? All questions to normalise holding ideas loosely, and changing course in response to things not going as planned.

We had many virtual working sessions with ventures using this tool. During those sessions, I remember my colleague Alice used to cheer every time an organisation said they didn’t know, or when they documented a genuinely surprising learning. 

Lastly, we held meetups of the different organisations regularly, building collective resilience and learning in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic. At the end of the cohort’s six-month journey, we held a graduation ceremony and collective learning event, putting the insights the ventures had gained on a pedestal and publishing their shared wisdom on behalf of the EdTech Hub.

We believe this investment in building trust and psychological safety led to some of the biggest breakthroughs we had as a team. 

It meant Richard from Deaf Reach could suggest and implement a ‘consulting’ revenue model, a first for the organisation, by selling expertise on educating deaf learners to grassroots organisations in Nigeria and Palestine. 

It meant Suha from Jusoor could suggest using cash transfers alongside Whatsapp based learning, so refugee children could learn instead of work (unlocking 28% increase in attendance). 

And it meant Nasrin from BRAC could tell us that adolescent women felt uncomfortable talking to male teachers on a telephone helpline, leading us to pivot to SMS based support instead.

Hopefully this story has been able to illustrate why our Venturing practice is based around the principles of working with others to understand leverage points and directing funding and energy towards shaping those points. For more examples, take a read of our other stories:

Scaling impact in the real world

Story 1: Directing money to the right lever, to help people access oxygen

Story 3: Bringing everyone onboard: using virtual reality in the International Criminal Court

Interested in this topic, want to know more, or have some thoughts? Drop us a line at [email protected] and let's chat!