New technologies are revolutionizing education – or are they?

Published on Monday, 25 January 2016

Published by Tania Rajadel on Monday, 25 January 2016

University of the South Pacific students in a computer lab in the Solomon Islands.
University of the South Pacific students in a computer lab in the Solomon Islands.

While some experts —like disruptive innovation guru Clayton Christensen—believe that new technologies will profoundly transform educational models, others are taking a more skeptical stance, arguing that the advent of radio or television had raised similar speculations. The jury is still out. Meanwhile, we can identify channels through which new technologies can help to improve education systems.

The OECD report Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection has dampened enthusiasm in some quarters. It found that computer use in school was not systematically associated with improved learning outcomes in OECD countries, and one key message is that connectivity and educational software complement instruction when pedagogical approaches and teachers already promote student-led learning and foster critical thinking.

So if it is difficult for high-income countries to harness new technologies for better education, what chance do other countries stand?

ADB’s recent report A Smarter Future: Skills, Education, and Growth in Asia highlights several interesting examples. In the People’s Republic of China for instance, educational computer games in mathematics and English were used to supplement traditional classroom learning for children of migrant workers, and this led to a significant increase in student math scores. In India, a low-cost, computer-assisted learning program also raised math scores during the intervention.

New technologies certainly hold great potential to:

  • Enhance efficiency. Blended learning allows for a more efficient utilization of teaching time. Similarly, the emergence of simulation tools and 3D software is helping students better visualize processes while also reining in costs. Some technical and vocational training institutions are now using simulation software in courses such as welding.
  • Broaden access to education. In the University of the South Pacific, an ADB-supported program allows students from remote islands to attend vocational and university programs through technology-enabled distance learning. The Philippines’ Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) now offers a range of open online courses on e-TESDA.
  • Benefit teachers, too. In Asia alone, initiatives are multiplying to provide locally relevant pedagogical material to instructors. The Vietnam Open Educational Resources platform references lesson units for teachers to download and adapt. In Thailand (Thailand Cyber University Project) and Malaysia (Wawasan Open University), platforms with open online courses—including for teachers—are emerging, thus expanding their professional development opportunities.
  • Usher in new pedagogical approaches. Of particular interest is the emergence of adaptive learning software, which integrates feedback on students’ progress to customize learning pathways. Many such tools are currently under development with varying levels of sophistication such as ALEKS, Knewton, SmartSparrow or RealizeIt.

Truth be told, many of these exciting new possibilities are not yet backed by hard evidence, given the dearth of impact evaluation studies on the topic. While this calls for caution, it should not hold us back entirely. Some guiding principles can help to ensure the relevance of interventions promoting new technologies in education:

  1. Clarify what new technologies are expected to achieve within a given program. Whether they are expected to strengthen learning outcomes, broaden access to education or increase efficiency, we must bear in mind that new technologies remain a means to an end, and can only foster change if they are part of a broader set of coherent interventions. Introducing new instructional software in schools, for instance, will not on its own bring about change in pedagogical approaches – curricula, teaching practices, and assessment systems need to evolve as well.
  2. Ensure students and teachers are engaged. The end users of educational software are students and teachers. Gamification for example is often hailed as a good way to engage students. Ensuring this effect persist in the long run though (once novelty has faded), remains a challenge. In developing country contexts, teachers are sometimes introduced to the Internet at the same time as their students and are quickly outpaced by them. Software solutions need to be driven by end users’ abilities and interests, not by alluring technical possibilities.
  3. Adopt appropriate technological solutions. Whether to develop a product from scratch or to use existing solutions depends on contexts. Factors to consider include local technical capacity, development costs, costs of subsequent updates, customization potential, customer care, and interoperability with other systems. The key is to avoid wasteful duplication of efforts and ensure sustainability in the medium to long run.
  4. Set up strong monitoring and evaluation systems. We are still working out how new technologies can best contribute to education. Policymakers and practitioners should expect a certain amount of fine-tuning and adjustments on the way. This requires solid monitoring and evaluation systems to provide feedback, not only on what is working and what is isn’t, but also on how results are achieved so successful programs can be replicated.