Several Latin American governments have jumped head first into One Laptop per Child-type programs. And why not? It seems a win-win situation: The government feels it is doing its part in helping to bridge the digital gap, students - generally from the low-income segments - get to bring a nice shiny computer home and equipment manufacturers see a jump in sales with purchase orders typically coming in for several thousand units.
But are these programs effective?
Possibly not, according to a study recently undertaken by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which called for more research into the issue. BNamericas spoke with research economist Samuel Berlinski and senior education specialist Eugenio Severin, both of the IDB, to find out more details.
BNamericas: What made IDB decide to carry out the study, and what were the goals behind it?
Berlinski: There's an increasing interest in the region in investing in ICT in education. We wanted to know how much we knew about it all, and what the benefits of these types of experiences were, and what the associated costs were.
The bank is interested in providing advice to countries on how they use the money we've lent. The objective of the study was to provide some pointers based on the evidence we have, which unfortunately is not overwhelming. There aren't hundreds of studies.
This study is in the greater context of a book that looks at the potential impact of other dimensions of ICT in Latin America.
BNamericas: Does the IDB currently fund ICT in education programs, like the One Laptop Per Child Program? Where, what and to what amount?
Severin: Our education portfolio is currently at US$3bn, and only 1% goes toward the purchase of computer equipment. For the IDB, the introduction of technology in education is important only when it's part of systemic strategies to improve quality. With the simple distribution of equipment, as shown by the evidence so far, we can't expect high impacts on learning, and this is not how the bank understands ICT use in education.
We support programs [in places like] the Bahamas, Honduras and Uruguay, where they strengthen teachers training, availability of educational resources both digital and not, technical assistance to schools and monitoring and evaluation systems. For example, in Uruguay we support, among other things, the development of a platform for evaluating learning so that teachers have quality instruments and tests in their classrooms to permanently monitor their students' progress.
BNamericas: Will the study results change how the IDB goes about qualifying country petitions for funding ICT in education?
Severin: No. The published study describes some of the conditions and lessons obtained from the IDB's experience in the region and the available literature. But the bank has already been working on this issue for more than two years, with a conceptual framework and indicators set, in order to support the countries in designing, implementing and evaluating these experiences.
From this perspective, we will continue to support programs that incorporate technology use as part of overall strategies for improving quality, focused on achieving better learning for students.
BNamericas: Part of the study found that investing in costly ICT for education can crowd out some alternative programs that could have higher returns. What other alternative programs specifically were you referring to with higher returns?
Berlinski: The general message is that there can be intelligent use of the money, which can lead to higher returns. An example of a successful education program is the case in Uruguay of the expansion of preschool education. This has led to a fall in dropout rates and an increase in the years of completed education. There are things out there that we know work, and the relative merit of [new] interventions should be compared with those that we have evidence that work well.
BNamericas: IDB mentioned that in a sample of schools, 14% "strongly benefitted" from ICT programs. What were the characteristics of these programs that were successful? Can you name specific cases?
Severin: First, are programs whose explicit goal is to improve learning. This is about programs that consider other actions, such as intensive training of teachers and availability of software and educational resources, along with the distribution of equipment. Also relevant is the commitment of school leaders and families and their participation in the process. And it's key that each initiative has mechanisms for monitoring and constant evaluation.
BNamericas: In the same sample, 29% had "minimal benefit." What happened here? Where are the opportunities for improvement?
Severin: In general, these programs haven't considered complementary actions, or even when they're scheduled, execution has been poor. Any intervention in education has two characteristics: complexity and time.
The use of ICT in education must be part of a set of coordinated and rigorously implemented actions, and that isn't easy. The time factor indicates that changes in educational outcomes are slow to be seen, especially with increasing the size of each initiative. There are projects that don't appear to produce effects in the short term, but the effects can be demonstrated over a longer period of time.
BNamericas: What were some of the main points that you can take from this study?
Berlinski: One thing that stood out in general was that there hadn't been a good linkage between the evaluation of programs that had been implemented and the rollout of these programs. The ranking is very much in favor of evidence-based policy, and for that, you have to implement some sort of quantitative evaluation. This is true not just for Latin America; it's true for a lot of the world.
There's the example of Peru, which uses the XO-type OLPC laptops for rural areas. And that was built into a quantitative evaluation where there was a control group and an experimental group, and the evaluation of the difference between the two regarding the gains of the program. In terms of what we've seen in the literature, I think the emphasis is that access is important, but what matters the most is in the use of the computer, or of IT in general.
With the programs that were not rated as well, where there were no gains for computer programs, [these] are related to cases where there was clearly access, but the use wasn't clearly defined. The evaluation is also unclear.
BNamericas: The laptop per student programs are fairly popular in Latin America. In the programs that have been largely unsuccessful, would you say this is due to government inexperience, or maybe even more of an electoral ploy to gain votes?
Berlinski: The study doesn't say that these programs haven't been successful. We haven't been able to evaluate any of the experiences in the middle to long run.
On the other point, there's really no evidence in one way or the other.
BNamericas: In home use, what are some mechanisms recommended to ensure "proper use" of the PC? Are we talking about blocking certain online sites?
Severin: Not only that. Of course we need to protect children from accessing violent or inappropriate content. Studies also indicate that more than two hours of screen time a day has a negative impact on educational outcomes, so it's also necessary to restrict the exposure time. And adult supervision is very important - accompanying children in the use of networks, to protect their privacy and identity.
Berlinski: This is also a challenging task for those less affluent parents who may not have the education or the resources. The policy is to try to break the digital gap, and to stop the cycle of kids suffering the same fate as their parents. But that creates some tension, because now the parents have less understanding of what their kids are doing. It's a particularly difficult problem that we need to think about.
BNamericas: And in the schools, with a computer lab where you have a more controlled environment?
Berlinski: It's a relatively inexpensive way of providing children a chance to learn about the use of computers. You can use that instrument for teaching certain subjects. It provides the students less time to use the instrument. But the question is if having frequent use of the computer provides an advantage; that's what we are still uncertain about.
No one's saying a country shouldn't invest in technology. We just need to look at what investments we have ahead, what opportunities will be presented in the future, and how I can choose something that is flexible enough so once I learn what is best, I can adapt the investment.
AboutSamuel Berlinski, Eugenio Severin
Samuel Berlinski, Argentinean, received a PhD in economics at Oxford University and is an economist in IDB's research department. He is currently on leave from University College, London.
Eugenio Severin, Chilean, is a senior education specialist at IDB. Previously, he served as manager of technology for education at Foundation Chile (2004-08) and as chief of staff at Chile's education ministry (2000-04). He has a BA in literature from Chile's Universidad Católica, a master's in management from Loyola College in Maryland and a diploma in public policy in education from Universidad de Chile.
About the company
Founded in 1959, IDB helps to support efforts by Latin American and Caribbean countries to reduce poverty and inequality.
It is the largest source of development financing for Latin America and the Caribbean, with the goal of expanding its lending capacity to US$12bn annually over the next few years, compared with the US$7.4bn average it disbursed in 1994-2008.
The bank's shareholders are 48 member countries, including 26 Latin American and Caribbean borrowing members, who have majority ownership.
Use this link to find out more information on IDB-sponsored education initiatives