Neither black nor white: different shades of gray in the usage of technology to improve learning

Neither black nor white: different shades of gray in the usage of technology to improve learning

Elena Arias Ortiz 15 Mayo 2014 Comentarios

*Co-authored by Julián Cristia

Monday, 8:15am. Mario, a 6th grade teacher in a low-income area of his country, is sitting in his classroom. Suddenly, one hears: “tututu, tuu-tutuuu,” the ringtone of an incoming Skype call.

– Hello? Marta? Can you hear me?

– Yes, Mario. It is a pleasure to see you again. Are you ready for our session? – replies the voice coming from the computer sitting peacefully on the desk.

– Yes, I am ready! – responds Mario while the children happily take their seats at their desks .

This is the fourth virtual coaching session that Marta, veteran teacher and education leader, provides to Mario, who only recently graduated as teacher. Marta’s role is to help Mario in his transition into the practice of teaching. All the children greet Marta, although in a few minutes they will forget that she is observing the class, which will unfold as usual for them. For Mario, however, her presence makes a big difference….

Using advanced online and mobile technologies, a remotely-located instructional leader like Marta can observe the lesson and discretely offer feedback in real time to teachers like Mario, thanks to the device called bug-in-ear. The characters in our example are fictitious, but similar situations did occur during the realization of a pilot project lead by a group of researchers from different American universities, financed by the U.S. Department of Education. The results show that this method is not only effective for improving teacher quality, but it also increases motivation, fosters team work, and contributes to the pursuit of innovative pedagogical solutions. Some experts consider this quick and low-cost method very promising for increasing teacher effectiveness, even for the least efficient.

This teacher support tool made possible by technology constitutes only one of the many new and innovative examples that can contribute to the improvement of education quality in our region. In fact, “technology in education” is a rather general term and can include anything from distance-education programs through fiber-optic networks, radio, or satellite, to smart blackboards, and online courses. It also integrates “one-to-one” models which distribute a tablet or laptop to each student, generally with internet access. However, the enormous potential that lies in the usage of technology in education has not been fully exploited yet. This can be partly explained by the fact that ICTs are embedded in an increasingly polarized debate between those who consider them a magical solution capable of transforming the education system and those who, on the contrary, see them as a threat, or simply a misuse of resources that could have a greater impact on learning if invested in other educational inputs.

This debate is particularly relevant in the case of Latin America, given that the region’s nations have recently invested heavily in increasing the access of their students to computers and internet, predominately through the “one-to-one” model. Out of the 26 borrowing member countries of the IDB, 20 have undertaken a “one-to-one” computing initiative between 2006 and 2012 and more than 8 million portable computers have been distributed to public school students in the region. Our perspective from the IDB is neither white nor black; instead it entails different shades of gray. Infrastructure and technology are necessary but not sufficient; they need to be geared towards improving learning. The key question is: how can we design effective technology programs to improve our children’s learning?

BoxEnglishElenaWhile it is true that some of these programs have not significantly increased learning in subjects such as Math and Language, a more in-depth analysis of the evidence of solid empirical studies demonstrates that the impact on academic fields is very high for programs that guide the use of technological resources. In our review of the solid evidence on the subject, we found that the programs that provide a guided use can become more effective in improving the standardized educational assessment test scores, when compared with other education interventions such as reducing class size or buying educational materials. However, programs which require the users to define a specific use are among the least effective interventions. While guided-use programs generate, on average, high academic effects, a great dispersion of the specific program impacts exists. This high dispersion of the impact of guided-use programs suggests that designing technology programs with appropriate inputs is crucial, in order to enable them to effectively increase student learning.

In the context of the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, celebrated on May 17th, we wanted to highlight the enormous potential that lies in the use of technology in education. The IDB’s experience in the region, the new evidence about effective uses of technology in education, and the existence of successful international and innovative experiences fills us with enthusiasm and motivates us to support the countries in their quest for education solutions using technology. In this way, more Latin American teachers, like Mario, can access innovative tools to help them improve how much their students learn.

* Julián Cristia is Lead Economist with the Inter-American Development Bank’s Department of Research and Chief Economist. 

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