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Education and Computers: Lessons from Latin America

IDB study says more investment needed in teacher training and educational software

Putting more computers in schools will do little to improve the quality of education in Latin America and the Caribbean unless countries invest in teacher training and educational software, according to a new study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

In spite of a recent flurry of high-quality research on the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on education, significant uncertainty still remains about the effectiveness of these interventions in improving learning, especially in the case of very visible initiatives, such as providing computers for every child.

“Using ICTs in education can be very costly and may crowd out important alternative programs with relatively higher returns,” said Alberto Chong, who coordinated the study. “It is vital for governments to conduct careful evaluations of these initiatives and, particularly, to budget enough resources to train teachers and develop adequate software for students. Countries cannot expect that learning will improve with simply greater access to computers. Quality of use is crucial.”

The findings are detailed in the book Development Connections: Unveiling the Impact of New Information Technologies, which will be launched next month. The book analyzes to what degree ICTs contributed to the success of 46 development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean in six different areas: finance, health, institutions, education, poverty and the environment. The study is the first in this region to apply strict statistical methods in a systematic way to measure how information technologies affected socio-economic outcomes.

Researchers conducted randomized control trials in several education projects throughout the region and found that only 14 percent of the projects in the sample strongly benefitted from the adoption of computers and other information and communication technology tools in classrooms. Partial benefits were detected in 57 percent of the projects and 29 percent benefitted minimally from having these tools available to students in classrooms.

Through a review of the existing literature and evaluation of ongoing projects in the region, the study has drawn the following lessons learned about the use of computers in the region’s schools:

Laptops for students to use at school and at home

  • There are significant uncertainties surrounding the potential impact of programs that distribute laptops to students for school and home use on a large scale and more evaluations are needed to measure the effectiveness of these interventions. The evidence so far indicates that programs that overlook teacher training and the development of specific software may yield very low returns. Also, rather than doing homework or studying, children with weak adult supervision at home may spend more time using computers in ways that do little to boost their educational achievement.
  • Interventions aimed at increasing access at home should implement mechanisms to ensure proper use. In particular, computers could be pre-loaded with interactive educational software and certain applications can be automatically launched to stimulate their use.

Computer use at schools

  • Giving students computer training one or two hours a week in computer labs has had positive impacts on learning and employment opportunities. This may be a cheaper investment for the region, particularly for countries with limited resources, that may yield relatively higher returns: setting up and maintaining a computer lab at school costs approximately $23 per student, compared with $217 per student for a program that provides a computer to every child.
  • The use of computer-assisted instruction software in schools to improve learning in mathematics has shown promising results in the region.
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