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Ever since the World Wide Web was invented at Swiss particle physics laboratory CERN to bring its international research teams together, people have dreamt that information technology will break down global differences in access to education and knowledge. With ever-rising mobile and computer ownership, it is tempting to think that such an era is almost here.
The situation was highlighted earlier this month in a study by think-tank the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), which compared how many 15-year-olds used computers at school in 2009 and 2012.  However, the study found that, in many countries, introducing computers failed to improve results in international tests on reading, mathematics and science skills.
Those students who made moderate use of technology at school tended to perform better than those who rarely used it, says the report. But, surprisingly, many of the frequent users performed much worse than peers without access to computers at school, because they aren’t being taught the skills to make proper use of ICT (information and communications technology), it says.
Several digital divides
Francesco Avvisati, an analyst in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, sums this up: “There is not one, but several digital divides,” he says. “The one that is easiest to overcome is the access divide, but we are more worried about the divide in the ability to benefit from new technologies.”
Much of the study focuses on the rich nations among the 34 OECD members, but it also has data on developing countries. And Avvisati says countries planning to expand the use of ICT in education can learn from the developed world by avoiding some of its “worst practices”, including introducing ICT without matching it to school curricula.
The report found that an average of 72 per cent of students in OECD countries used computers at school in 2012, but the figure was lower in countries such as Uruguay (50 per cent) and Chile (nearly 62 per cent) (see graph).
As an illustration of remaining disparities in developing countries, the OECD found that, in Colombia, Indonesia, Mexico and Peru, more than a quarter of pupils at rural or small-town schools had no internet access at school, compared with just 10 per cent in urban areas.
The trouble is that closing such gaps is no guarantee of improved learning. “Perhaps the most disappointing finding is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students,” says the study.
For developing countries looking to implement national plans for equal access to technology in education, this provides much food for thought. Focusing on reading skills that actually allow children to use ICT effectively is crucial, says Avvisati, because “technology applied to an inefficient process will only amplify the inefficiency”.
Troubles with technology
Michael Trucano, a specialist in education and technology at the World Bank, says the report’s implications are potentially troubling for policymakers in countries with shortages of qualified teachers, especially if they believe that “simply buying lots of laptops and putting them into the hands of students will make up for such deficits”.
Part of the reason for the ineffective use of ICT, he says, is that new technologies can actually make schools less productive and teaching less efficient by complicating life for teachers and students.
“One challenge for educational policymakers and planners in the remote, low-income scenario, is that most models related to ICT use come from high-income contexts and environments,” Trucano says. As a consequence, technology access strategies from rich countries are often simply adapted and “made to fit” in poorer countries, without regard for their specific needs and environments.
The effects of such sloppy policies are magnified, says Trucano, because, in poor countries, “the opportunity costs of wasting money on ill-advised technology purchases are even more acute, and potentially tragic, than in rich countries”.
The OECD report cites studies in Peru that examined the effect of improving pupils’ access to ICT resources at both school and home. These trials variously reported having no notable influence on improving academic performance, cognitive skills or dropout rates, although the pupils gained overall proficiency in using computers.
“We shouldn’t think that ICT is a panacea by itself. It’s a very useful tool, but really needs to be tailored towards the necessities you want to address,” says Diether Beuermann, an economics specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank, which has been investigating the trends in conjunction with Peru’s government.
Beuermann says these types of evaluation are helping to reshape Peru’s approach to ICT, with the government now developing training materials for teachers and aligning software with school curriculums.
Uruguay leads the way
And Trucano says that some countries seem to already be headed in the right direction, citing Uruguay’s programme for free laptops for children, Plan Ceibal, which was the result of the country becoming the first to implement the One Laptop Per Child project.
“Today, seven years later, every kid from primary, secondary and high school in the country owns his or her own laptop,” says Cristóbal Cobo, director of the Center for Research at the Ceibal Foundation that was set up to support Plan Ceibal. “The internet is available to almost 100 per cent of schools.”
As a result, Uruguay is more or less on a par with many developed nations on this measure, having seen one of the biggest increases in internet access that the OECD uncovered in its report.
But, crucially, the programme has focused on changing ways of learning rather than just improving connectivity alone — with the entire school curriculum shaped towards seeing computer use as an additional resource, not an ultimate educational goal. That’s why the country still ranks lower than many other OECD countries on computer use in teaching.
“We shouldn’t think t hat ICT is a panacea by itself. It’s a very useful tool, but really needs to be tailored towards the necessities you want to address.”
Diether Beuermann, Inter-American Development Bank
To boost ICT in schools, Trucano says Uruguay started “down and out” before moving “up and in”: prioritising rural and poor communities that were most in need of computers and internet before expanding elsewhere, with capital Montevideo left until last.
One example of how the initiative works to be more inclusive is the mathematics programme PAM, which is used by 150,000 students in each academic year. PAM consists of teaching software to be used at home and in school. The software adapts to each child’s rate of learning, taking into account their level of computer literacy and general education.
Another example is a link-up with the British Council, the United Kingdom’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. This partnership uses video conferencing to teach English to both teachers and students, with the aim of getting more support from the whole school. Students exposed to this method have been shown to learn English faster than those who aren’t, says Cobo.
Focus on the basics
Getting parents involved can also encourage children to use technology more effectively, even though this may be difficult because adults tend to have had worse access to ICT and education in their youth. The Inter-American Development Bank is planning to run a trial project in Jamaica next year that seeks to tutor parents in mathematics using workshops and technology. Beuermann, who is involved in the project, says offering training sessions near to or in people’s homes increases the chances of recruiting willing participants.
Avvisati notes, meanwhile, that some of the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia — including Japan, South Korea and parts of China — have tended to be cautious about integrating information technology into the classroom. “Where they do, they tend to focus on connecting teachers and building platforms for knowledge creation, rather than on handing out tablets to students,” he says.
In the end, says Avvisati, it is essential to get priorities right. ICT access and skills are important, but the core of learning — teaching reading and maths, and fostering curiosity in young people’s minds — must always come first.
“When governments invest in education technology, we must ask whether these investments are not made at the expense of other initiatives that would increase the quality of teaching,” he says. “And we must make sure that teachers use computers in ways that expand their students’ opportunities to learn.”
This is part of a set of pieces on data funded by the Hewlett Foundation.