Evaluation 3.12

To Guide or Not to Guide?

How to Use Technology to Improve Learning

Considering everything that technology has made possible, from instant global communication to space travel, harnessing it to improve learning and revolutionize education would seem well within our reach.

Indeed, the IDB is looking at how technology can improve learning across Latin America and the Caribbean, where there is an urgent need to improve student performance in such a critical field as mathematics. In 2012, schoolchildren from eight countries of the Region participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test administered every three years to a half-million 15-year-olds in 65 countries worldwide by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The Latin American and Caribbean countries were among the 14 lowest-ranked countries tested.

This poses problems for a region that is seeking to raise productivity and reduce poverty and inequality, so the IDB has been trying to determine how technology can best be used to improve teaching and learning. To that end, the IDB undertook a meta-analysis: comprehensive and systematic review of 15 impact evaluations from around the world that focused on both guided and non-guided use of technology in the classroom.

What can we learn from these experiences around the world? How can the findings improve the design of similar interventions in our Region? Here are a few lessons from the meta-analysis that could improve learning and teaching through effective introduction of technology in Latin American and Caribbean classrooms:

  • Simply providing technology does not do the job. Peru implemented an ambitious technology in education program that distributed 900,000 laptops and trained teachers. But there was little clear guidance regarding how to use technology to improve learning, and an evaluation of this program in rural elementary schools found no measurable impact on mathematics and language learning.
  • Programs that guide the use of technology increase academic performance in both mathematics and language about four times more than programs that provide little or no guidance. The best guided-use programs are those that define the “3 S’s”: subject, software, and schedule. A program implemented in primary schools in India followed this approach. It provided students with two weekly hours of computer use (schedule), focused on math (subject), and used software that could tailor the level of difficulty of exercises to individual students. The program brought about large positive effects in math learning.
  • Successful guided-use programs share a number of important features. These include using computers at school rather than at home; sharing computers and equipment among students; focusing on only one subject, such as math or language; carefully coordinating infrastructure, content, and teacher training resources; emphasizing exercises aligned with regular course content; and providing technical support to help students use the software properly.
  • The design and rollout of technology-assisted learning programs is critical. The use of such technology produces the best learning results when programs start with small pilot initiatives that can be evaluated and then scaled up if found to be effective.
  • Even guided-use programs are not a panacea. To achieve positive results, these programs should be carefully designed, implemented, and monitored. In a sense, guided-use programs are similar to a global positioning system (GPS). In general, a GPS can be an effective tool, but if we use it with outdated maps, it may take us on the wrong route and end up wasting our time. Similarly, guided-use technology-assisted learning programs can be effective, but if they are poorly designed they can also be detrimental to student learning.

In sum, the meta-analysis shows that while using technology may not solve all problems in education, it can enhance student learning when implemented with a clear vision and used effectively. Using this approach, governments, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and the IDB and other development banks can design and operate programs in Latin America and the Caribbean to help students learn. This will strengthen the skills of today’s generation of students to prepare them for the professional challenges of the twenty-first century.

Story by:
Elena Arias Ortiz, a senior associate in the Education Division in the IDB headquarters in Washington, DC.

Julian Cristia, a lead specialist in the Research Department in the IDB headquarters in Washington, DC.

More about the evaluation:
Arias Ortiz, Elena, and Julian P. Cristia. (2014). “The IDB and Technology in Education: How to Promote Effective Programs.” IDB Technical Note No. 670, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DC.

Continue reading Chapter 3 - Evaluating Projects to Enhance Learning and Policy Making