Can technology help to improve the quality of education?
This is the question that led us at the Inter-American Development Bank to produce a report on currently available knowledge on assessments and experiences in this subject around the world. (Escuelas y Computadores: por qué los gobiernos deben hacer su tarea, Berlinski, Busso, Cristia y Severin. BID, 2011)
Clearly, Latin America and the Caribbean face an ongoing challenge in improving educational quality. Hopes that this technology can produce better results in the classroom have led to many projects and initiatives.
Our report focuses on the efforts made in Latin America beginning with the creation of computer labs in the early 1990s to the tremendous growth in the field, which today includes the option of providing a computer for each student (“One to One” models).
The focus generally used in the region has consisted of proposing investments in technology as a new educational input that includes installing machines in schools, providing technical training for teachers in their use, and making digital educational resources available through web portals.
This approach has had a rather low impact if one examines test results. Evaluations and studies so far indicate that the use of technology has produced modest improvements in language and no gains in math.
On the other hand, teachers as well as students have made significant advances in the management of technology as well as in higher-level skills, such critical thinking and collaboration.
However, the question remains whether technology can help provide the qualitative educational gains we all desire. We know that changes in education take place over the long term, and some of these initiatives—especially the “One to One” models—have not been underway for long, with the result that we really probably cannot judge the impacts they are having.
It is also relevant to ask how well we are judging these impacts. The lack of adequate tools for measuring many of the skills that technology is supposed to support, and insufficient rigor in evaluating the initiatives, have contributed to the lack of clarity on the subject.
Probably the best explanation for the modest results is precisely this concept of computers as an additional input in the school environment, and one that will magically improve educational results.
Consider this. If these investments are not included as part of comprehensive policies; if teachers are not trained (either initially or in-service) in how to make use of the opportunities that technology offers; if innovative educational resources capable of changing the behavior of teachers and students are not made available; if technologies are not used to improve communication and the involvement of families in the school; if new platforms that offer personalized attention for each student in line with their interests and abilities are not offered…
Then I don’t see how anyone can expect that technology—on its own—can make a difference in education. As Albert Einstein said, “If you want different results, you’ve got to do things differently.”
Until now, most of the initiatives reviewed in our report are carried out in schools as an “extra,” or a “bonus track.” In this regard, they have been treated as inputs isolated from the rest of the pedagogical and educational strategy. As a result, schools, teachers, and students have gone about business as usual, now with the addition of computers, but without real changes in teaching methods and few changes in learning.
The use of technology in education is a relevant economic decision.
Despite a gradual reduction in costs for equipment and connectivity, technology still represents a huge burden for the countries of Latin America, which on average spend US$622 a year per student. Considering that investment in computer labs costs some US$30 annually per student, a serious and complete “One to One” program would represent an annual cost of at least US$150 per student.
For these reasons, it is essential to perform a rigorous design of these strategies.
Use of technology continues to represent a key opportunity for achieving quality education as well as being an undeniable component of education in the 21st century. It is crucially important to learn from past experiences, and above all, to understand that problems cannot be solved by simple or magical solutions. If technology is not part of a systemic strategy of improvements, we will continue to wait in vain for computers in schools to turn boys and girls into citizens of the knowledge society.