Latin America and the Caribbean is in the midst of an educational crisis. Though enrollment in primary school has grown and today is nearly universal, average completion rates for secondary school stand at 64 percent compared to an average of 79 percent for OECD countries. Moreover, only 35 percent of 15-year-old students in Latin America attain minimum competency in math, way behind the average of 76 percent for OECD countries, according to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam.
Large inequalities in secondary completion and learning performance persist between low-income and high-income students. And the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges. With school closures imposed for longer in Latin America and the Caribbean than any other region, learning has been set back, just as anxiety and depression among adolescents have soared.
The Promise of Digitalization
All this requires urgent attention and, as a recent IDB report indicates, leveraging technology in education could play a significant role in achieving it at low cost. The use of existing digital infrastructure such as computers and cellphones — along with teacher training in the use of digital tools — could make an immense difference in tackling key educational issues, such as high school dropout and low learning levels. So could investments in developing platforms and software.
The impact of these efforts, especially on low-income students, would also be greatly enhanced by an expansion of broadband internet and by increasing access to digital devices in schools.
The promise of digitalization can be seen in its ability to tackle the problem of millions of students abandoning their studies before completing secondary school. Evidence has shown that this early dropout depresses economic opportunities during adulthood and exacerbates other social problems, such as criminal activities and adolescent fertility. The good news is that a groundbreaking study implemented in the Dominican Republic in the early 2000s shows that informing students of the long-term returns from education can encourage them to stay in school until graduation.
These results, in turn, motivated a group of university researchers who collaborated with Peru’s Ministry of Education in 2015 to deliver this information at low cost. DVDs with four videos and instruction for teachers were sent to hundreds of urban schools to inform students of the social and economic returns of education as well as the possibilities for scholarships and the expected payoffs for different areas of specialization in college.
Presented in the format of a soap opera and shown during school hours at a cost per additional student of $0.05, the approach had a remarkable effect. The secondary school dropout rate for those who saw the videos fell by 1.8 percentage points two years later from a 9.6% rate for students who did not see them. Compressed into a single 30-minute video for delivery to rural schools, the intervention was even more effective, cutting the dropout rate by 50%. Each additional year of schooling results in an average increase of 10% in wages for workers in Latin America and the Caribbean. That makes these results potentially transformative, allowing many children to vastly expand their future professional and income earning opportunities. According to our estimates, 1.6 million students can be reached with an implementation cost of just $2.2 million, leading in turn to $1.1 billion in future wage gains.
Technological Interventions to Boost Learning
Technology can also significantly complement the work of teachers to enhance the learning process and boost student performance. A program called “Conecta Ideas,” which provided two weekly 90-minute sessions in computer labs to disadvantaged Chilean fourth graders studying math, is one example. The program used an online platform with exercises aligned with the national curriculum. One of the weekly sessions replaced traditional math instruction, while the other involved additional instruction time in math. For a bit of friendly rivalry, the program also used “gamification.” That is to say, it incorporated game elements, such as individual and team competitions, into the instructional process to increase motivation and student effort.
After seven months, the program accelerated learning for participating students by 50%. These learning gains are substantially larger than those produced by more traditional interventions, such as extending the school day, reducing class sizes, or providing teacher training. And like the program in Peru, this program was highly cost-effective.
The Race Ahead
Educational attainment and learning levels in Latin America have historically been low and unequal. These problems were made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Interventions must now be implemented at an unprecedented scale amid significant fiscal restraints. Our research reveals that technology programs put in place with a relatively small initial investment can reap immense rewards, improving student learning while cutting dropout rates. It also shows that the design of programs is essential. Programs that invest in closing digital gaps by improving access to shared devices in schools and ensuring that low-income students have digital access provide the greatest gains for society. So do programs that provide teachers with extra support from coaches to enhance their digital skills, with special emphasis on teachers in low-performing schools.
In a moment where Latin American and Caribbean students are falling seriously behind, jeopardizing their prospects and those of their societies, an urgent and effective policy response is crucial. By combining high-quality teaching and learning approaches, as well as effective technological interventions, the region might make up for lost time and find its way forward.