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Last Wednesday, we attended the conference “Schools Ready For Change: Technology to Improve Learning in LAC” at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The event brought together key policy makers, experts in technology and education, business professionals, and social entrepreneurs to discuss innovative ways to improve student learning through the use of technology. The speakers discussed their own research and programs, shared best practices, and highlighted major challenges and barriers to expanding technological improvements in the region. IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno set the stage early on, stating that technology is necessary but not enough to transform learning in Latin America.    

Below are our main takeaways from this rich and important event. We believe these lessons are critical for maximizing the use of technology to improve learning in Latin America.

1. There is no guarantee that technology will improve learning.

Technology does not necessarily improve student learning. In fact, technology can have adverse effects on learning if programs are not well developed or content is weak. Julian Cristia and Elena Arias (IDB Education) explained that non-guided use programs, like One Laptop Per Child in Peru, provide Internet, software, and computers, but leave the responsibility to the teachers – and sometimes to the students themselves – to figure out how to use the ICTs. In order for these programs to be successful, they require constant support. Simply “throwing” laptops at children does not help them learn. This is neither cost-effective nor conducive to improving learning. As Richard Culatta (US Department of Education) said, “if we give each child a laptop and ask them to simply copy what the teacher wrote on the board, then the difference between the laptop and the notebook is insignificant.”

Instead, technology must function as a tool and an opportunity to reinvent the system. Irene Gonzalez explained that in Uruguay, Plan Ceibal began with the goal of providing students with laptops and increasing connectivity. Now that most students in Uruguay have access to laptops and connectivity is high, Plan Ceibal has adjusted its goals: the focus has shifted toward actually improving learning via the technology. For example, the Mathematical Adaptive Platform (PAM) uses algorithms to personalize and detect a pattern of mistakes students make, giving students immediate feedback and creating new exercises to address weaknesses. This personalized and adaptive program is designed specifically to improve student learning by using impact evaluations.

2. Programs must be specific and targeted.

We must tackle problems with specific, targeted approaches. As Cristia and Arias argued, problems will be more effectively solved if we define the three 3 S’s: Subject, Software, and Schedule. A good model would be: we will improve reading skills for 2nd graders (subject) with in-school use of technology that provides immediate feedback (software) for two hours per week (schedule). Cristia and Arias found that these guided-use programs produce results that are four times better than programs that do not guide use (see previous blog). PAM offers a real-life example of this approach: it focuses only on math and gives students immediate and individualized feedback as they progress. Similarly, Julioprofe.net, a site created by Colombian teacher Julio Ríos Gallego (Julioprofe), provides step-by-step instruction in Math and Physics through online tutorials. These videos offer detailed explanations for complex problems and allow students to learn at their own pace. What makes these programs successful is not necessarily the type of technology used (they clearly vary), but rather that they target specific content. As Pedro Hepp (Enlaces) stated, “it is about the content, not the container”.

3. Provide teachers with initial training, professional development, and technical support.

Influencing teachers is essential if we want to implement successful programs. This is one of the main challenges, however, because teachers who have been using traditional teaching techniques for many years often resist change. Program designers must take the time to train teachers and show them how they can improve student learning through the use of ICTs. Plan Ceibal has developed successful teacher training programs online that have been well received by teachers and schools. Similarly, the Ayrton Senna Institute in Brazil has provided expertise and professional development – rather than equipment – to teachers and administrators, as explained by Fabiano Gonçalves.

But sometimes training and professional development is not enough. According to Hepp, there is a big elephant in the room – “what happens when technology breaks or malfunctions?” Programs must have an answer to this question. Having the ability to fix all technological problems or glitches as they arise is as important as using the technology in the first place. If teachers don’t know how to implement and fix the technologies, they will not use them. But there are ways to combat this. In Honduras, Sharon Guardado revealed that the 1-to-1 program Educatrachos has found innovative ways to deal with technical problems. Local governments and communities have created support systems to help teachers and students use and fix technologies. This is an example of a local solution that has helped improve the learning process effectively.

4. Monitoring, evaluation, and gradual expansion of ICTs are crucial.

It is important to note that developing these programs takes time, and extensive implementation will not materialize overnight. Hepp explained that “we often want a revolution, but our experience has taught us that education reform is more of an evolution”. It is therefore crucial to carefully monitor and evaluate smaller pilot programs before implementing programs on a large scale. This way, we can assess the true impact of ICTs on student learning. Fortunately, technology provides useful mechanisms for collecting and assessing a lot of data, so it is becoming easier to effectively monitor progress. According to Mike Trucano (World Bank Education), public-private partnerships are also a key factor in effectively expanding programs nationwide. While the private sector is usually more innovative and creative in terms of content design and program development, the public sector often provides the capital, expertise, and political power to decide how and when to expand programs. Ultimately, in order to have a significant impact at the national level, as explained by Laura Mares (RELPE), Ministries of Education must assume the main leadership roles.

Clearly innovation and technology in education programs have already sparked an initial impact on learning in Latin America. But much more needs to be done before we can clearly see which approaches are the most practical and effective. IDB Chief of the Education Division Emiliana Vegas opened Wednesday’s event by saying that “technology is rapidly changing the world, but the process is slow for education”. To accelerate this process, we believe there should be more private sector engagement, more freedom for schools to try new things, and a shift in the role of Ministries of Education from purchasers of computers to promoters of innovation, evaluation, and appropriate adaptation of policies. ICTs are attractive to many stakeholders in LAC education – from policymakers to innovators to teachers and students – so it is important to keep bringing them together to region wide events in order to take advantage of the full potential of ICTs to improve student learning.

Federico Sucre is a Program Assistant for the Education Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. You can follow him on Twitter @fedesucre

Sarah Swig is a recent graduate of Tulane University and is currently doing an internship in the Education Program at the Inter-American Dialogue