Computers in Primary Education: Caution!

˙ PREAL Blog

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In the early 1980s my colleagues at Instituto SER de Investigación in Colombia were working with Seymour Papert, then Director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They were applying Logo (Logo Programing Language) among primary education rural students in Nemocón, Colombia. Seymour was also one of the principals for the One Laptop Per Child initiative, and started what today is the MIT media lab. In fact, he is one of the fathers of education technology.

Papert created Logo as a tool that can, in principle, be used by educators to improve the way children think and solve problems. For many years, studies on the cognitive and social benefits of Logo, however, have produced conflicting results. Our research in Nemocón (and in urban Bogotá) showed that it changed social relations within the school (girls used Logo in more creative ways than boys so became more prestigious than boys); it helped improve self-esteem and even originality and creativity; it also increased good attitudes towards the school. But its impact on learning was negligible.

Years later, Nicholas Negroponte, an earlier collaborator of Papert, promoted computers as a way to improve quality of primary education in developing countries, and the instrument he proposed was the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Basically it was (and unfortunately still is) a one-shot deployment approach with little or no consideration to other education elements like curriculum and teachers, based on delivering supposedly US$100 computers that students could use in schools and at home. An entrepreneurial man, he approached the World Bank to seek support for his idea.

At the time, we had to explain to the World Bank President that we were not ready to support the OLPC idea because we did not have enough empirical evidence about the effectiveness of computers to improve quality of primary education and we pointed out that the findings from the few robust Impact Evaluation (IE) studies on the topic (computers to improve quality of primary education) were not supportive. We also highlighted the fact that US$100[i] per student was about the student unitary cost of primary education per year in many of our client countries and it was too risky, to say the least, to invest that amount in one single intervention that might or might not improve quality of education.

That same year I attended a meeting organized by INTEL to discuss the use of ICT in education in what was an eventful gathering, because international experts had an open and frank discussion on the subject. A practitioner from Cali, Colombia was surprised when I said that there was not one single IE study showing that computers were effective to increase quality of primary education.  Her view was that it was so obvious that it did not have to be proven. 

A couple of years later, after an abrupt change in the World Bank Presidency, Mr. Negroponte approached the institution again, and we had to insist in our position of not getting involved until more information was generated.  I was particularly affected because a partner signed a Memorandum of Understanding to support OLPC in the region where I was working. This time I was asked why we were not ahead of our partners. My position was simple: It was responsible not to finance education inputs that we had no empirical evidence were actually effective. The evidence-based information available at the time was not supportive.  I was not fired, so I guess they accepted my position. 

Many developed and developing countries have invested billions of dollars in computers in primary education. In the developing world, countries like Argentina, Brazil, Georgia, Honduras, India, Kenya, Peru, Rwanda, Turkey, and Uruguay—to mention some—, have done it, and some have followed the OLPC approach. 

Results, from developed and developing countries, are finally coming out in some numbers and have not changed my view on the subject as no evidence has been found to support it. The Inter-American Development Bank, IADB, in the Latin American context, and other donors in other regions are supporting robust research, and some are giving serious thoughts to the experience. Some of us are optimistic that this new wave of research will provide light to make more responsible decisions.    

A solid IE study following the more demanding orthodox methodology found no evidence that the OLPC program increased learning in math or language.[ii] In the case of Uruguay, several evaluations found no evidence that the OLPC program increased learning in math or reading. The last one available is based on a longitudinal panel analysis.[iii] 

In fact, no IE study has found a positive effect of computers on learning when non-guided programs like OLPC are implemented. However, some evidence is emerging with information that has been used by the IADB to identify elements to be considered when supporting computers in primary education. Clearly, it is important to: (i) focus on specific learning objectives; (ii) pay attention to the interaction between infrastructure (hardware and software), content (curriculum) and human resources needs (training of teachers and principals); (iii) progressive expansion with sustained effort over time; and (iv) monitoring and evaluation (M&E).[iv]  

I find it regrettable that authorities in several developing countries, some in Latin America and the Caribbean, embarked in some of these non-guided programs without information about their effectiveness. Significant amounts of scarce resources are being wasted. Anyone accountable? Providers, sector authorities, financiers?

We encourage authorities to design and implement policies and programs based on empirical evidence.  Good IE has been done and now we have more useful information that clearly points out that to procure and distribute computers without systematically integrating their use to the formal curriculum and pedagogical program is a waste. It is important to make sure that, in addition to the computers, attention be given to technical issues, including curriculum and training of teachers. It is also important to make sure that we find out if these programs are cost-effective before we see the next round of investment to try to improve quality of education in developing countries by using computers in the classroom, particularly in Latin America. 

[i] Incidentally, I think that even today the computer cost is at least twice that amount. A matter as serious as this begs for cost-effective analysis of the intervention.

[ii] For more information on this case in Peru, see J. Cristia, S. Cueto, P. Ibarraran, A. Santiago, and E. Severin, 2012. Technology and Child Development. Evidence from One Laptop per Child Program in Peru. IDB WP 304.

[iii] For more information, see G. de Melo, A. Machado, A. Miranda, M. Viera, 2013. Impacto del Plan Ceibal en el aprendizaje. Evidencia de la Mayor Experiencia OLPC. Instituto de Economía. Universidad de la República, Uruguay, Serie Documento de Trabajo. DT 13/2013.

[iv] For more information, see P. McEwan, 2014. Improving Learning in Primary Schools in Developing Countries: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Experiments. Review of Educational Research. Vol. XX. No. X.  And also see E. Arias, and J. Cristia, 2014. The IDB and technology in education: How to promote effective programs?  IDB-TN-670.