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Not Quite the Best Investment, but Pretty Good

Tim Kelly

It would be churlish to claim that ICTs are the best educational investment. After all, take away the teachers and the schools and there is not a lot left. On the other hand, taking away the ICTs would only take a school back a few decades, but it would keep functioning.

Nevertheless, ICTs represent a pretty good investment, and one that would rank pretty high in the pecking order once the basic requirements of a school or university are met. Consider the following:

  • One of the primary tasks of an educational system is to equip its students for later life, and to assist them in responding effectively to job opportunities. Many of today’s students will work in an office environment and many of them will be spending eight or so hours a day in front of a computer screen. They may not necessarily be using the same programmes or the same applications that they learned in school, but many of the ancillary skills they pick up — typing, using a filing system, email, creating visual presentations etc — will be the same. In the same way that one would not design a cookery school without stoves and ovens, so one would not design a school to prepare students for living in the information society without computers.
  • A further task of the educational system is to prepare students for lifelong learning and to help instill the skills of finding information, and then analysing, digesting and repurposing it. Those tasks are all possible without computers, but so much easier with them.
  • In order to instil these talents in students, the teachers must first capture their attention and their imagination. It is much easier to do that with technology than with textbooks or with chalk and talk. Many students these days will already have a computer at home and they will be easier to reach through the medium they associate with fun.
  • Finally, consider the alternative … The cost of a computer is equivalent to providing a class with a couple of books each. But, providing the computer is linked to the internet, the students and their teacher will then have access to the boundless library of the worldwide web, which is constantly updated and which contains a hugely diverse range of views and experiences. By contrast, their textbooks inevitably provide a pre-digested view of the world, and one that is out of date the day it is printed.

Available evidence on the benefits of ICTs in school is sometimes mixed and hard to interpret, because the benefits of a good education are only observed years later. But the “Programme for International Student Assessment“, housed by the OECD, is generally acknowledged as the most rigorous monitoring and evaluation programme. The latest survey (2006) shows that fastest gains in reading standards of any country observable in the Republic of Korea, where students improved their reading standards by 31 points — equivalent to a whole year’s worth of teaching — between 200 and 2006. Not coincidentally, Korea also scored top in the ITU’s Digital Opportunity Index (DOI) for 2006, the most respected measure of an economy’s ICT performance.

It is important to conclude with a note of balance: no one is suggesting to throw away the textbooks. Furthermore, ICTs alone are pretty useless without well-trained teachers to exploit them, technicians to maintain them, and schools to house them. But, as part of a balanced educational budget, ICTs have an important and growing role to play in preparing students for the challenges of tomorrow. ICTs are not quite the best educational investment, but they are pretty good.

13 Responses to “Not Quite the Best Investment, but Pretty Good”

  1. There are a lot of ICTs, including radio, community radio, tape recorders, and mobile phones. I remember an "interactive radio" experiment in the Dominican Republic in which kids of cane cutters, receiving interactive radio instruction without teachers present and monitored by mothers outperformed the kids in schools on national tests. It is hard to maintain that the teachers and those second rate schools were more cost effective than the radio broadcasts.

    At the other end of the scale, Paul Romer's Aplia software seems to be a cost effective means to improving economics education at the university level. http://bit.ly/qEMJh

  2. Although ICTs clearly have numerous benefits as described above, funding cannot be directed exclusively to ICTs or to more traditional methods of improving education such as more suitable training or improved monitoring of teachers. Using ICTs makes teachers more effective and improves the ability of children to learn, but simply using certain ICTs cannot have the same benefit as if teachers are comprehensively trained to adjust their methods to exploit the new technology to its greatest potential.

    However, another important point to keep in mind is that the technologies are only effective as far as the schools have access to them and to their potential benefits. If the Internet is not available, the benefits of owning computers are severely diminished, so in these cases funds might be better suited to a different educational investment, while lobbying for increased coverage.

  3. Kevin,

    Properly constructed radio and/or television instruction programs can have kids respond to cues provided in the broadcasts. Community members monitoring the programs help to assure that kids actually participate and "interact" with the instructional media. USAID funded experiments to develop and validate the techniques and continues to disseminate the approach. AED has considerable experience.

    Here is a reference: "Listen & Learn: Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI)"

  4. Ed Gaible

    "Not coincidentally, Korea also scored top in the ITU’s Digital Opportunity Index (DOI) for 2006, the most respected measure of an economy’s ICT performance."

    It's a smart observation. But "not coincidentally" deserves either to be elaborated on or elided. Without slightly rigorous test showing causality, we're really not sure whether the improvement of students in Korea is the result of increased use of ICT, enhanced teacher development or some other factor.

    "In order to instil these talents in students, the teachers must first capture their attention and their imagination. It is much easier to do that with technology than with textbooks or with chalk and talk."

    I think that the motivational impact of ICT in schools turns out to be, a) among the first impacts ever demonstrated; b) _still_ cropping up in studies today, despite the increased presence of computers outside of school; c) one of the few impacts that is as strong, or stronger, in developing-country schools. (OK, this isn't the result of any more rigorous test than your assertion in the previously cited point.) But it IS easier to engage the imagination with computers, precisely because IMHO students _imagine_ the use of computers to do impossible things–write to a kid across the world, find out about China or the USA, make a web page that tells about your own life. No one in the real world does those things with chalk and slate.

    What's interesting, though, is to try to connect that engagement of the imagination with the possibility of innovation. OECD-based economist nearly unanimously point to innovation as a key component in growth in the coming years (Reich, Krugman, Manuel Castells, among others). Mostly, innovation is studied as a knowledge-network phenomenon among corporate work groups or among university researchers. But for poor countries, in particular, innovation has _got to_ be promoted among the non-elites, the secondary-school-leavers, at least, if those countries are to advance. And for students in those poor countries, ICT is both an icon of and an engine of innovation. It motivates and it enables.

    • It seems to me that two-way ICT is essential for driving innovation. The work of scholars like Eric von Hipple or Yochai Benkler shows that harnessing the feedback mechanisms inherent in technologies like the Internet are powerful catalysts for innovation. Certainly tech like the radio is more accessible and remains important to much of the world, but in our rush for "appropriate" technology, we shouldn't lose focus on the different capabilities of different technology.

  5. Anthony Makumbi

    Thanks ED I totally agree with you. We are on the same page. We the developing countries need to develop that ability to inovate to be able to transform our economies but currently that is a challenge first because of the scarcity of resources to make it happen but also the style of teaching which does not really promote self learning. So we see technology supporting that gap. Knowledge is power and you learn from others too and begin to contextualise it to your own setting…

    I actually do not want to use the word best then it brings allot of contoversy but it would be what would be the minimum package you would provide because then you are looking at an holistic approach with the limited resources.

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