Education technology tailored to individual students' knowledge levels could play a key role in improving the quality of education in the developing world, but key challenges remain, a study has found.
Researchers from the United States analysed the cost-effectiveness of programmes designed to improve access to education and learning in low-income countries. They identified key challenges facing the education sector in these nations, particularly in rural areas.
The careful use of educational technologies, such as software tutorials, could help cater for the vastly differing learning levels found within classrooms, the authors say.
"The approaches that have been tried haven't always been successful: we've seen examples of success and those that haven't worked very well," Rachel Glennerster, one of the study's authors and the executive director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States, tells SciDev.Net.
A computer-assisted program to teach maths to students in India using carefully designed software led to higher test scores.
However, another computer-assisted learning programme in Colombia and the One Laptop Per Child project in Peru failed to significantly boost scores.
The Indian program "allowed children to learn at their own pace". But the Colombian and Peruvian initiatives failed to tailor instruction to individual students, and the Colombian initiative was not integrated into the curriculum.
The most important aspect of technology is to tailor teaching to the knowledge level of the child, says Glennerster.
When designing technologies, she adds, it is important to understand proven strategies for boosting education in developing nations, rather than imitate what works in the developed world.
The authors say that technology could also be used to monitor teacher presence in schools, especially in rural areas, which tend to have high teacher absenteeism rates.
"Better monitoring of teachers to ensure their attendance is an excellent use of technology," says Mark Warschauer, professor of education and informatics at the University of California, Irvine, United States.
The study also looked at other educational challenges facing the developing world.
Glennerster says that, although the number of children attending primary school in the developing world has increased over the past two decades, access to education alone does not ensure learning.
"We found that reducing class sizes or providing more teachers didn't improve learning," says Glennerster. "Providing textbooks without additional inputs didn't either."
Such measures did not improve learning because school curriculums were often too advanced for students and textbooks were aimed at the brightest children, she says.
"[These measures] do not work unless you change how you teach, [for example] by providing remedial help to those who have fallen behind, by splitting classes by level of learning so that you can pitch to the right level and by improving teacher accountability," says Glennerster.
On the other hand, initiatives that offered scholarships to students who performed well in school enhanced learning by encouraging them to do homework and attend school regularly, the study found. In addition, those that informed students and their parents about the long-term financial benefits of staying in school improved attendance and were found to be cost-effective.
Another initiative that encouraged the use of existing buildings as schools in Afghanistan to reduce pupils' travel distances helped to raise girls' enrolment by 42 percentage points.
The study was published as part of a special section on grand challenges in science education in Science last month (19 April).
Link to the study
Science doi: 10.1126/science.1235350 (2013)