By Maximilian Stralz
Photo by Anil Sharma
With incredible computing power, seemingly infinite possibilities and decreasing prices of modern-day electronics, one might think that those technologies are omnipotent tools to overcome educational issues in low-income countries (LICs). However, initiatives trying to implement EdTech in LICs show that there is more to it than just putting a laptop in the hands of children.
In her talk at ETH, Ghislaine Megha-Bongnkar painted a worrying picture about the issues and challenges facing the education sector in LICs – limited access to education and technology, low enrolment rates, poor quality of education, limited technical expertise, gender disparities – to only name a few. As a very interesting article by Santiago Cueto about EdTech initiatives implemented in Peru points out, some of these issues can actually be solved using technology.
The bigger picture
The above-mentioned article describes how in Peru, 900,000 easy-to-use and durable laptops were distributed to the poorest students in the country so that they could connect with each other and their teachers. In the process, two major issues arose: First, in most cases there was no internet connection available. Second, even when provided with an internet connection and scholars taught how to use the laptops (but teachers were kept out of the loop), no increase in reading or mathematic levels could be observed. The key takeaway is therefore that technology is only as good as the weakest link in the supporting infrastructure it needs. That is why in order to improve the situation using technology, all parties involved (students, teachers, schools, policymakers, EdTech organizations) have to be included in the implementation process.
Photo by Ferreñafe
Learning from past initiatives to shape the future
Two of the takeaways that are mentioned in the sandbox handbook 2.0 from the EdTech Hub presented by Ghislaine Megha-Bongnkar are the learning and iterating cycle and to publish one’s findings. I find it interesting and encouraging to see how these concepts are obeyed in the above-mentioned Peruvian case. After the first failed attempts, they also included teachers in the process and after a review of other published findings in different countries, they adapted a model of guided instruction based with a pedagogical concept on an already successful implementation in Chile with the promise of 50 percent increase on math learning in one year. And of course, they published their findings as well so that other initiatives know about the status quo, what works, what doesn’t work and have a starting point for their own projects.
What can we learn from the Peruvian case?
Finally, the initiative in Peru managed to enroll 157,742 students (8 percent of all students in Peru) with 58,127 students nationwide having used the programme one or more times. This shows the success of implementing the learning and iterating cycle method. However, as Santiago Cueto points out in his article, “continuing in a process of experimentation and evaluation could help in our quest of finding specific models of using technology that can produce high impacts on learning in a cost-effective way”.
Broader context and key takeaways
To sum up, I would like to take a brief detour to the Austrian educational system. Since I am from Vienna and I follow the educational debate, I want to compare the situation described above in Peru with the plans and the actual implementation to incorporate technology in Austrian schools. Similar to Peru, Austria distributes laptops to children in their first year of high school. However, there does not exist an own subject to teach them how to use a PC. Even though the PCs should be used as part of the classes, there does not exist a nationwide curriculum and it is up to the teachers how technology is implemented in their classes. Given the age distribution amongst Austrian teachers with over 44% being older than 50 years, unfortunately a lot of them do not have much of experience with PCs leading to unused and/or unsuitable use of these laptops.
All this is to show that even in a highly developed high-income country such as Austria where the supporting infrastructure such as broad internet access etc. is fully developed, just handing out laptops to children living by the mantra “we provide the technology, the learning and correct usage will follow” doesn’t work.
This emphasizes the need for all parties being involved the implementation process. Additionally, there has to exist a pedagogical concept, training and support for teachers, so they are able to use the corresponding technology in their classes. Finally, even when teachers already have received a training, they should be kept up to date about new features and encouraged to continue using these technologies.
To conclude, technology is not able to overcome all the issues in the educational sector in LICs. Nevertheless, with the correct implementation it offers a huge range of possibilities to achieve better learning rates and might enable more children to have access to education.