Friday, June 29, 2012

Educational Reform: New Paradigms and Technologies

From Latin American Policy Journal

Author: Eugenio Severin

Harvard Kennedy School of Government

June 2012

Download: LINK


The demand for better quality education has contributed to the development of multiple educational reforms in Latin America. Recently, information and communication technolo- gies have taken an important role within the education policies of a number of countries, including important budget and management efforts. So far, evidence shows that technol- ogy itself is not able to solve the educational problems. A systemic effort of reform that modifies the present paradigms of educational service is needed. In order to achieve that, technology can and should play a central role. The experimental assessment of the “Una Laptop por Niño” (One Laptop per Child) program in Peru confirms the need for integral approaches that last.

There is a general consensus regarding the need to improve results achieved by students in the educational systems of Latin America and the Caribbean. After multiple reforms and initiatives, the demand for quality and equity remains a pending issue in the region. The will for change has faced rigid educational systems, a fact that doesn’t point toward a direction different from the historical one, where the interests of many stakeholders interact in order to favor the status quo.

However, the tension between the school supply and what societies actually demand has been growing. This has not only raised the concern of governments and productive sectors but also, increasingly, raised malaise among students and their families, who realize that the promise of an education that truly enables individuals to exercise citizenship and be included in the twenty-first century is hard to achieve.

This requires meaningful changes in what is taught, so that it is appropriate for the needs of this knowledge society, as well as in how things are taught, so that they take into account the educational context that twenty-first century society has created.

Information and communication technology (ICT) plays a fundamental role in the changes experienced by society, including how we communicate, produce, create, and share knowledge. Industries that took generations to create and consolidate have changed substantially in just the past twenty years. These changes are due to both the speed at which knowledge is produced, its depth, and its impact on practical life, health, mobility, and communication as well as the ability for goods and services to be distributed more widely and less expensively.

Therefore, there is a growing agreement on the importance of including ICT in education (Kozma 2009). However, the generalized use of this terminology points to the challenge of including an external element (technology that supports information and communication) within the educational framework. ICTs are things that are “introduced” in school spaces, therefore demanding adoption, adaptation, and appropriation processes.

This article looks at educational systems from the perspective that such systems must be oriented at producing quality results. As such, educational systems should develop systemic reform actions that use technology1 and make it relevant and appropriate. This article examines the need for educational technologies that are conceived, designed, developed, and distributed to support processes that aim to improve learning skills while remaining tied to educational objectives.

Ambitious programs introducing technology into schools have been implemented in Latin America since the mid 1990s, with many countries in the region having invested in computer science labs. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a huge amount of resources was invested in training teachers on the basic use of technology, which favored access to digital educa- tional resources through educational sites (Jara 2008; Alvariño and Severin 2009). During the last five years, with Uruguay

being the first in the region, many countries have embraced the idea of providing all students with a laptop as a step toward producing disruptive change within the educational system (Severin and Capota 2011).

But technology by itself does not produce substantive impacts on educational results.2 The belief that only access to technology, whether to teachers or students, will produce substantial changes in learning practices and experiences has proven extremely optimistic.

In every educational initiative, the students should be the direct and final beneficiaries. Therefore, the expected results of all projects need to be related to student learning, and to learning in a broader sense, beyond scores achieved on standardized tests. Projects, including ICT educational projects, should relate to learning in one or more of the following ways:
  • Improving students’ commitment to and involvement with the learning process
  • Changing teaching practices as well as learning practices among students, teachers, schools, and communities
  • Focusing on cognitive learning (curricular)
  • Developing non-cognitive, or “twenty- first century,” skills, including the acquisition of skills involving the use of information and communication technologies
It is very common to declare that these kinds of initiatives are expected to have important social impact (closing the achievement gap or enabling social integration); economic impact (increas- ing productivity, competitiveness, or employment); and educational impact (improving non-cognitive skills, learning, school environments, or internal effi- ciency). And yet, afterward, the results are only measured by math or language standardized tests. Or, given the difficul- ties of measuring and demonstrating educational results, the discussion only focuses on social impact.

Evidence on whether the use of technol- ogy improves the quality of education is mixed in both developed and developing countries.3 Even in rigorous studies that randomly allocate treatment and control groups, the ambiguity of the effects of technology in the classroom prevails. Literature suggests that these mixed results may be due to: the initial level of knowledge among students regarding software; the attitude of teachers toward ICTs; whether ICTs are implemented inside or outside the classroom; the evaluation period; and the subject taught. It is hard to compare the results because the interventions are very different and have been implemented in different contexts. Moreover, it takes time to see an impact in the field of education.

Until now, evidence has shown that the effect of digital technologies on the learning process depends on how well the educational experience with the support of the technologies adjusts to the initial level of students’ skills. Abhijit V. Banerjee et al. (2007) conducted a study based on a computer-assisted teaching program in India. In this program, children spent two hours per week using an educational package that emphasized basic math competences. The software adjusted to the student’s level of knowledge, and the instructor encouraged every child to play games that challenged the student’s level of comprehension. The results showed that school grades improved, and there was a higher level of impact among lower-performing students.

Fang He et al. (2008) analyzed a teaching program where children were given a machine called “PicTalk.” Using a pen, they were able to point to figures and then listen to the machine’s pronuncia- tion of the word. Unlike Banerjee et al. (2007), the results showed that the stronger students benefited more from this self-imposed learning process and that the weaker students benefited more from teachers. The authors emphasize that the software has an important role regarding the program’s potential effect on students, noting that the software should consider the heterogeneity of students’ skills in the classroom.

In the United States, Lisa Barrow et al. (2009) evaluated the use of a popular instructional computer program in randomly assigned classrooms in three urban school districts. The program provides a package centered on a specific topic for students to learn and includes a preliminary test, a review of required knowledge, a lesson, an accumulated review, and a final test. The students were able to advance at their own pace. The authors found that the computers offered a benefit to groups of students whose skills were more heterogeneous. The argument is that teachers could dedicate more time to each student and make an effort to find the correct pace when the class was supported by the computer lesson plans.

In this example, computers offered an efficient way of providing specific information to the user and therefore improved the students’ learning results. Many other studies support this conclu- sion (Lepper and Gurtner 1989; Heath and Ravitz 2001).

Leigh Linden (2008) looked at a teaching program that was assisted by computers. When the computer software did not adjust to the students’ knowledge level and was implemented in schools in India as a substitute for the teachers’ lessons, school grades diminished. When the same program was implemented outside the school, a positive effect on the school grades was observed.

On the other hand, Barrow et al. (2009) argue that technology can have a more beneficial effect and be a substitute for teachers in certain contexts: for example, students benefit more from technology being used when the number of students per classroom rises, the variability of skills in the classroom increases, and there is a high level of absenteeism per classroom. In other words, technology has a positive effect when it is introduced as a comple- ment and also as a substitute within contexts where the teaching coming from the teachers is limited.

However, precautions must be taken with regard to technology’s role as a comple- ment. If there is an absence of the appropriate software as well as parent and teacher supervision, having a computer may diminish the amount of time invested in studying at home. For example, Ofer Malamud and Cristian Pop-Eleches (2010) found that poor children in Romania who have a com- puter at home increase their digital abilities and cognitive skills but diminish their mathematics, English-, and Romanian-language grades. This finding has a lower effect in homes where parents supervise computer use.

The government of Peru has imple- mented a program called “Una Laptop por Niño” (“One Laptop per Child”) with the objective of improving the quality of education, giving priority to students’ development and emphasizing training for teachers so that they make a better pedagogical use of technology in the rural zones. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Peru was one of the pioneers in adopting the plan of the One Laptop per Child foundation and has considerably invested in this program. By 2011, there were 850,000 beneficiary children in 5,000 schools of low socioeconomic levels.

The program evaluation, developed by the Inter-American Development Bank with the support of the Ministry of Education of Peru, GRADE, and the Peruvian University Cayetano Heredia, took a sample of 319 rural schools eligible for participation (that is, they had electricity, were schools with more than one teacher, and had not received laptops until then) and randomly assigned computers to 209 schools out of the total available pool. The remaining schools made up the control group to use for a comparison of the results.

Among the main findings, the first is an increase in access to technology: 1.18 computers per student in the treatment group versus 0.12 in the control group. Also, 82 percent of students from the schools that received laptops reported having used a computer at school during the previous week in comparison to 26 percent of students from control schools. There are also important differences in the use at home, that is, 42 percent of students from treatment schools used a computer at home in the previous week versus only 4 percent of students from control schools. (The program gave laptops to the students under the assump- tion that they would use them at home.)

Most of the students from the treatment schools showed general abilities to use the laptop for simple tasks (e.g., document processing) and to look for information available on the equipment. Access to the Internet was very limited because only 1.4 percent of schools had connectivity.

The study did not see evidence of a positive impact on learning skills in mathematics and language (in this case, Spanish). The average estimated effect for these tests was of 0.003 standard devia- tion and the associated standard error was 0.055.

The program did not affect the rate of school attendance, the time dedicated to homework, students’ level of motivation, or teachers’ and families’ expectations related to the future opportunities for the students. No effects were found on reading outcomes, even though the equipment included 200 available digital book titles and only 26 percent of students from the control schools had more than five books at home.

Finally, it seems that the program did not affect the quality of instruction within the classroom. The complementary qualita- tive study that was part of the Inter- American Development Bank evaluation showed that the introduction of comput- ers produced modest changes on peda- gogical practices. This can be explained by the lack of software or educational contents directly linked with the areas of mathematics and language and by the lack of sufficient training for teachers.

Among the positive aspects, the study found an impact on the development of cognitive skills. At the three measured dimensions,4 students from the treatment group surpassed those from the control group by 0.09 and 0.12 standard devia- tions, and these differences are statisti- cally meaningful by 10 percent for the application of the progressive Raven’s matrix test. Even so, the quantitative effects are interesting. A simple calculation suggests that the estimated impact of the verbal fluency test represents an expected step forward of six months for a child. All together, the results of the three cognitive abilities’ tests show an impact of 0.11 average standard deviation on the measure that corresponds to the expected progress of five months ahead of students in the control group.

The experimental evaluation of the One Laptop per Child program in Peru represents an important effort to produce knowledge that guides the development of public policies for the use of technology in education.

It shows that the provision of equipment without adequate training for teachers and principals, sufficient educational resources, and connectivity or other technical and educational support mechanisms results in restricted effects, at least in the short term.

The use of technology in education still represents a tremendous effort related to resources and management skills for Latin American countries. Its implemen- tation must be closely related to its potential to have a positive impact on learning to ensure the cost-effectiveness of the investments.

It is possible to state that the introduction of technology by itself does not produce the expected positive results on improv- ing student learning. However, at the same time, the changes required to renew the pedagogical paradigms and update the educational practices to make them meaningful, both for students and society, require a serious, systemic, and sustained incorporation of educational technolo- gies. Technologies by themselves do not create the educational reform, but the latter will not be possible without them.

Alvariño, C., and E. Severin. 2009. Aprendizajes en la sociedad del conocimiento. Punto de quiebre para la introducción de las TICs en la educación de América Latina. CEPAL, Documento de Proyecto Borrador. Santiago, Chile.

Banerjee, Abhijit V. et al. 2007. Remedying education: Evidence from two randomized experiments in India. Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(3): 1235-1264.

Barrera-Osorio, Felipe, and Leigh L. Linden. 2009. The use and misuse of computers in education: Evidence from a randomized experiment in Colombia. World Bank. Impact Evaluation Series, IE 29, policy research working paper.

Barrow, Lisa, Lisa Markman, and Cecilia Elena Rouse. 2009. Technology’s edge: The educa- tional benefits of computer-aided instruction. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 1(1): 52-74.

He, Fang, Leigh Linden, and Margaret McLeod. 2008. How to teach English in India: Testing the relative productivity of instruction methods within the Pratham English Language Education Program.

Heath, Marilyn, and Jason Ravitz. 2001. Teaching, learning and computing: What teachers say. Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.

Jara, I. 2008. Las políticas de tecnología para escuelas en América Latina y el mundo: Visiones y lecciones. Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL).

Kozma, Robert B. 2009. Comparative analysis of policies for ICT in education. In International handbook of information technology in primary and secondary education,edited by Joke Voogt and Gerald Knezek. Springer.

Lepper, M.R., and J.L. Gurtner. 1989. Children and computers: Approaching the twenty-first century. American Psychologist 44(2): 170-178.

Linden, Leigh. 2008. Complement or substitute? The effect of technology on student achievement in India.

Malamud, Ofer, and Cristian Pop-Eleches. 2010. Home computer use and the develop- ment of human capital. NBER Working Papers 15814, National Bureau of Economic Research.

Severin, Eugenio, and Christine Capota. 2011. Modelos uno a uno en América Latina y el Caribe. Panorama y Perspectivas. Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo.

Trucano, Michael. 2005. Knowledge maps: ICTs in education. infoDev/World Bank.


1 The article particularly refers to digital technologies that appear as a result of the development and spread of computer science and network connectivity.

2 Some studies find a positive effect on the learning test: Banerjee et al. (2007); Barrow et al. (2009); and He et al. (2008). Others do not find such effect: Barrera-Osorio and Linden (2009); and some others even find a negative effect: Linden (2008).

3 An exercise to establish a “knowledge map” developed by the World Bank’s infoDev (Trucano 2005) showed that despite the great investments that many countries have done in order to introduce ICT within the educational systems, there is limited and arguable data that support its role in improving education.

4 The three tests that were applied were: a Raven’s test to measure abstract nonverbal thinking; a verbal fluency test to evaluate language functions; and a codification test to measure the individual’s processing speed and work memory.

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