The digital skills that help individuals succeed in rapidly changing economies are built on foundations of literacy and numeracy.
Workers can search effectively for digital information or create digital content only if they have strong literacy skills. They can program new online applications only if they have confident numeracy skills.
A new World Bank report, ‘Learning to Realize Education’s Promise’ which warns of a ‘a learning crisis’ in global education. It argues that without learning, education will fail to deliver on its promise to eliminate extreme poverty and create shared opportunity and prosperity for all.
Millions of young students in low and middle-income countries face the prospect of lost opportunity and lower wages in later life because their primary and secondary schools are failing to educate them to succeed in life. Even after several years in school, millions of children cannot read, write or do basic math. The report says that this learning crisis is widening social gaps instead of narrowing them. Young students who are already disadvantaged by poverty, conflict, gender or disability reach young adulthood without the most basic life skills.
World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said, “This learning crisis is a moral and economic crisis. When delivered well, education promises young people employment, better earnings, good health, and a life without poverty. For communities, education spurs innovation, strengthens institutions, and fosters social cohesion. But these benefits depend on learning, and schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity. More than that, it’s a great injustice: the children whom societies fail the most are the ones who are most in need of a good education to succeed in life.”
The report recommends concrete policy steps to help developing countries resolve this dire learning crisis in the areas of stronger learning assessments, using evidence of what works and what doesn’t to guide education decision-making; and mobilising a strong social movement to push for education changes that champion ‘learning for all.’
ICT offers potentially significant gains but handing out laptops is not the solution
Among other factors, the report looks at the role that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can play in education. Mixed evidence is found for the effectiveness of ICT solutions. The vast majority of ICT interventions have had either no impact or even a negative impact on student learning, as with certain hardware interventions.
Some programmes have shown excellent results, such as a dynamic computer-assisted learning program for secondary school students in India that increased math and language scores more than most other learning interventions tested there or elsewhere. But some have been ineffective, such as the One Laptop Per Child programmes in Peru and Uruguay, which had no impact on student reading or math ability.
In Haiti, a programme to use smartphones to monitor teacher attendance had no effect on teacher attendance or student outcomes because implementation proved untenable. Brazil’s One Laptop Per Child initiative faced years of delays and a year after the laptops reached classrooms, more than 40 percent of teachers reported never or rarely using them in classroom activities.
Software can be highly effective if it allows students to learn at their own pace and, in the best cases, adapts dynamically to their knowledge. Computers and computer-assisted learning software, as well as online platforms enable learners and parents to communicate with teachers about assignments and materials. They offer free materials, including interactive whiteboards, text messages to support teachers, and televised programmes, that educators and parents can use in designing age-appropriate development activities.
The report notes that there is a long history of overestimating the transformative nature of technology in schools, going back to Thomas Edison asserting in 1913 that “Books will soon be obsolete in public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye.” He was talking about silent films.
Half a century later, as computers gained traction, some scholars wondered if they might replace teachers at some point. The report says that in schools with technology-rich environments, students might do their work on interactive displays rather than on paper. However, the buildings, the processes of the school day, and the interactions between teachers and students are very similar to those of a century ago.
Technology should complement teachers
The report says that new technology should complement teachers.
Teachers are often poorly prepared teachers limited training and motivation, and education systems have been tempted to use technology, in the form of inputs like laptops, to circumvent these teachers.
Most such attempts have failed. By contrast, using technology to complement teachers has seen success.
The report cites a computer-assisted learning programme in Gujarat, India, that was implemented in two ways. One approach pulled students out of regular classes to use computer-based math program, the program substituting for regular class time. Students under that model performed significantly worse than students left with their regular teachers. In the other approach, where students used the program after school, there were sizable gains, especially for the poorest performers.
Prepared videos of high-quality lessons could also be an effective tool in a classroom.
ICT solutions have to work in existing systems with existing infrastructure
The report also notes that it is important to ensure that ICT can be implemented in current systems. Education technology investments routinely fail because there is limited capacity to maintain them, or the infrastructure needed for them to work effectively does not exist.
In rural areas, technology may be appealing because of weak education systems. But at the same time those weak systems, with their limited access to electricity or the Internet, have the least capacity to support education technology interventions. The authors say thatprincipal-agent relationships and behavioral biases likely play a role in why such investments continue to be made.
Public officials may derive political returns from flashy technological interventions, independent of their usefulness for better learning. Thus, their personal incentives (to make highly visible investments) may diverge from the goals of students (to learn). Cognitive bias may also be a factor, with individuals being unrealistically optimistic.
Technology can help in fragile settings
In places afflicted by war or epidemic, technology can help maintain a connection to formal education.
During the 2014–15 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, schools shut down for eight months, but the government launched an emergency education programme with lessons five days a week. A 30-minute lesson over the radio is unlikely to have a deep learning impact, but this kind of programme may help children stay connected to learning.
Sudan’s Can’t Wait to Learn programme, which provides out-of-school children with computer tablets loaded with learning games, has shown positive learning impacts in mathematics and is now being tested on a large scale in areas receiving Syrian refugees.
Imparting digital skills- foundational literacy skills remain key
Technology can also promote digital skills, increasingly essential in today’s era of technological disruption. As more jobs require digital literacy, the opportunity to acquire those skills is an end in itself.
Students with more access to computers at home have better computer skills. Though Peru’s One Laptop Per Child programme had no effect on academic achievement or cognitive skills, students did significantly improve their knowledge of how to use laptops. In such cases, the report says that clarity of purpose is important. Youth need computers to learn how to use them. But as tools for teaching reading and numeracy, evidence on their usefulness is mixed.
In environments with extremely limited access to computing technology, simple exposure can make a difference, but the skills that students gain are not the skills they need. Replacing traditional textbooks with laptops equipped with electronic textbooks neither helped nor harmed reading ability in Honduras, but in an environment where only 7 percent of students normally use the Internet at school, the laptops allowed many more of them to develop the ability to search for content online and do basic word processing.
In Romania, vouchers to purchase standard home computers improved very basic general computing skills. But such skills that are gained from mere exposure may not be the skills needed to succeed in the marketplace.
Among high school students in Chile, more than 90 percent used computers at school and two-thirds had access to computers at home. Although two-thirds of them were able to search for information online, only half could organise information (such as arranging folders on the computer). Less than one-third could produce information (such as writing an email with adequate content).
Students entering the workforce need better critical thinking and socioemotional skills. The ability to use technology is one way for them to take advantage of technological advancement. But another is to excel at those skills that technology carries out less well. Those include higher-order cognitive skills and interpersonal, socioemotional skills.
The report cautions that though it may be tempting to divert resources from the development of foundational skills into novel technological skills, higher-order cognitive skills, and socio-emotional skills, these are complements to foundational skills, not substitutes for them.
All of those skills that help individuals succeed in rapidly changing economies are built on the same foundations of literacy and numeracy.
Workers can search effectively for digital information or create digital content only if they have strong literacy skills. They can program new online applications only if they have confident numeracy skills. Socio-emotional skills like grit, which are most malleable in childhood, can be practiced and strengthened in the service of gaining strong foundational skills. Innovations in developing 21st-century skills are much needed, but these skills work best in conjunction with strong foundational abilities.
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