Neither black nor white: why the use of technology to improve learning looks more like shades of grey

Neither black nor white: why the use of technology to improve learning looks more like shades of grey

Elena Arias Ortiz 15 mayo 2014 Comments

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

  • Hello? Marta? Can you hear me?
  • Yes, Mario. Nice to see you again. Are you ready for our session? – replies the voice coming from the computer
  • Yes, I am ready! – responds Mario, while the children happily take their seats at their desks .

While the children greet Marta at the beginning of the session, they quickly forget that she is there. For Mario, however, her presence makes a big difference.

Using an advanced mobile device (appropriately named bug-in-ear), a remotely-located instructional leader like Marta can observe the lesson and discreetly provide feedback in real time to novice teachers like Mario. While these characters in our example are fictitious,  they reenact what occurred during pilot sessions of a project led by a group of researchers financed by the U.S. Department of Education. This team found 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.

This teacher support tool is only one of the many innovative ways in which education can be brought to the classrooms to improve education quality in Latin America and the Caribbean. Under the umbrella of “technology in education”, distance-education programs are made possible through the use of resources ranging from fiber-optic networks, radio, or satellite, to smart blackboards, and online courses. It also encompasses the well-known “one-to-one” models which distribute a tablet or laptop to each student, generally with internet access.

However, the discussion about the enormous potential that lies in the usage of technology also comes with an increasingly polarized debate. On the one hand, some consider technology a magical solution capable of transforming the education system; on the other, skeptics see them as a threat to conventional methods, or simply a misuse of resources.

This debate is particularly relevant in the case of Latin America. 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 take on the use of ICT in the classroom is neither black nor white, but it leans towards 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 and youth’s learning?

Many of these programs have not significantly increased learning in subjects such as math and language. Yet, our study finds that the programs that provide a guided use can become more effective in improving test scores in standardized assessments, 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. Moreover, while guided-use programs generate, on average, high academic effects, we also find that designing technology programs with appropriate inputs is crucial, in order to enable them to effectively increase student learning.

As we kick-off the Innovation Month at the IDB´s Education Division, 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 ICTs, and the existence of successful international and innovative experiences such as Plan Ceibal, motivates us to support the countries in their quest for new and more effective education solutions.

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