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Technology, Teaching, and Learning: A DFID Review of ICT4Edu Evidence


If you had 90 seconds to answer a question you did not know the answer to, what would you do? Admit to the gap in your knowledge? Take a guess at the answer? Or Google the answer on your phone? The majority of people would opt for the later. Technology has not only changed the way that we live but has had an impact on the way we learn.

Educational Technology and Teaching

However, it is important to remember the difference between learning – an innate quality of our species – and education, which is learning to predefined objectives, usually set by others. In that sense, education is designed learning: it is a process where ideally a teacher uses the available resources, within the given constraints, to get learners from where they are to achieve well-defined objectives. Thus, whatever advantages technology may offer – the teacher still remains at the heart of education, and any technology driven innovation will fail unless it keeps teachers in mind.

The inclusion of technology in the classroom has the potential to move education away from a more traditional, didactic method of teaching. Yet, it has paradoxically often resulted in teachers adopting a much more conservative pedagogical practice: when we feel threatened or unsure, our instinct is to “play it safe”. Education apps, games and video based learning are available should the teacher wish to use them. However, it is important that the introduction of new forms of educational technology does not leave the teachers feeling alienated from their classroom due to a lack of ability to engage and use the technology.

Educational technology can be used not only as a means to education pupils but also to increase teacher’s professional development and offer support to teachers in the classroom. Devices can be pre-loaded with videos and programmes that related to lessons or teaching methods which can be watched as many times as needed by the teacher. More important, teachers can use mobile devices to document and share their own classroom innovations or consult peers and experts on the challenges they face. If we agree that technology opens up exciting possibilities for collaborative, project-based, self-driven inquiry learning – then the same applies to teachers’ continuous learning of their own practice.

DFID Review of the Evidence

Over the past 7 months the policy team at DFID reviewed 83 research papers on the use of technology in education. Their final report is due to be published at the end of August/start of September 2014. The initial research highlighted results in three key educational technology areas: EdTech and Teaching, EdTech and Learning Outcomes, and Value for Money. The policy team at DFID then used these terms to search the research papers.

Although the report is still in its final stages of completion there is sufficient research to show some of the important issues that should be considered when discussing the field of educational technology.

During a recent London Technology Salon on “Technology, teaching and learning – What can we learn from the evidence?” thought leaders in technology and development were adamant that teachers using the EdTech need to be consulted about the devices and the lessons they feel would best suit the pupils in their classroom.

Education, and by extension educational technology, is always context-dependent. What works in Amsterdam may not work in Lusaka, and vice versa. By consulting with teachers the curriculum and its implementation can be tailored to fit the children attending the school and best fit the knowledge and skills that they need.

One of the problems with education that was raised was that children are leaving school with an education that does not fit with the jobs market of their country or the area in which they live. It was suggested that in some cases more than one national curriculum is required to fit with the needs of the pupils in different regions.

Educational Technology and Learning Outcomes

The devices placed in classrooms can be used to collect data and monitor the learning outcomes of pupils. Data can be collected to find out how many minutes a child spends on an exercise, their final score for the task and how much they have learned during the task. This can be used to measure the success of the programme and whether changes need to made to improve the learning outcomes.

Yet, some participants noted that in the most critical cases, the primary data might be the mundane parameters, which relate to the underlying educational environment, rather than the learning experience itself. Issues such as corruption, salary payments, teacher and student truancy, sanitary conditions, and violence define the possibility of basic access to education.

It was suggested in the discussion that such data is more in the realm of crisis mapping than EdTech, and we could benefit from interfacing with the rich tradition in that field and collect background data in the area. Data could be collected about natural disasters, corruption levels or the local facilities. While this does not necessarily relate to education the background data could be used to help improve the local area.

The devices can also be used to collect data on pupil and teacher attendance to track the levels of absenteeism. In schools in rural areas it is not possible to know if pupils are attending, if the staff are getting paid or if the children are learning. EdTech can be used to monitor these outcomes.

It is estimated that there is a shortage of around 15 million teachers. In some cases teacher absenteeism has become such a problem that technology is being used to replace teachers.

The DFID research showed that EdTech can be used to increase learning outcomes but only where it is used to address a specific learning outcome. For example World Reader is an app designed to increase a child’s ability to read in both their native language and in English. World Reader has a wide range of materials on it from classic works of fiction to stories written by local authors. Children using World Reader to practise their read were found to have increased their standard compared those who had not used World Reader.

Value for Money

Despite the recent decreases in the price of smart phones and other devices putting technology into the classroom still remains an expensive investment. In areas where every penny counts and a penny spent on a device is a penny not spent on other things such as paying teachers or maintaining school facilities it is important to get the best value for money out of the devices as possible. Should the devices be allocated to the pupils, teachers or teacher trainers?

The policy team at DFID found that the fewer devices the higher the impact. The research showed that in schools where the device was given to the teacher rather than to each individual pupil the impact and effect of having the device was greater and teachers were seen to care more about learning.

The Problems With Technology

This report has so far shown the beneficial effects technology has been having on learning and education in developing countries. However, there are limitations and the technology can be affected by infrastructure issues. For example if the classroom does not have electricity or a power source then one either needs to be installed or the device needs to be taken to a source of power. With some of the apps and programmes a reliable internet connection is required for downloading content. Again this either needs to be installed or the device taken to somewhere that has an internet connection.

  • Case Study: The Hole in the Wall Project
    In 1999 Sugata Mitra installed the first hole in the wall computer in New Delhi, India. Within about 3 months the children in the slum area where it was located learned how to do almost everything that is possible to do on a computer including surfing the internet, playing games and downloading MP3 files. The children aged 6-12 had no prior experience of using a computer and learnt how to use the computer on their own with no input from an education professional. The children’s ability to engage with the computer seemed to be independent of educational background, literacy level, social or economic status, ethnicity, or intelligence. Through his experiment Sugata Mitra showed that by using a computer children were able to teach themselves and learn new skills without the need for a teacher.
  • Case Study: Girl Hub Rwanda
    Girl Hub Rwanda’s mission is to enable all of Rwanda’s one million adolescent girls (ages 10-19) to fulfil their potential. It was found that although the enrolment figures in schools in Rwanda are swelling to an extent that children need to attend either morning or afternoon sessions of school that attendance levels amongst adolescent girls was dropping. When asked by Girl Hub Rwanda the main reason cited was a lack of interest in school and the curriculum. Girl Hub Rwanda runs a magazine and radio show called Ni Nyampinga which has been used to re-engage the girls’ interest in learning by showing them examples of other girls who have used their education. One example is a girl called Olive who is a trained mechanic her story inspired other girls in Rwanda to become mechanics too.
  • Case Study: Khan Academy, India
    Some schools in India found teacher absenteeism to be such a problem that they are now using the Khan Academy online materials. The American based tutorial service has videos in English on a range of subjects including maths and science. 38 of the videos have already been dubbed into Hindi, Tamil and Kannada with plans to dub 450 of the videos by 2014. Use of the online video tutorials was found to cut student absenteeism and increased test scores. The programme has been found to be so successful that it has been introduced into schools where there are sufficient teachers as a way to supplement their lessons.
  • Case Study: BuffaloGrid
    BuffaloGrid is a solar powered hub that brings power to people where they need it. The hubs are provided to the local community for free and the electricity used is paid for via text message making the system completely cash less. The hubs can be used to deliver electrical access to people in remote areas who need it.
  • Case Study: Learning Design MOOC for teachers
    In Spring 2014 the HandsonICT project ran a MOOC on learning design with technology for teachers. This MOOC was based on the Learning Design Studio model and reused some of the resources from the Open Learning Design Studio MOOC. Over 700 teachers participated in this MOOC, exploring novel and effective uses of technology in education. In the course of the MOOC they analysed their context, identified specific challenges, investigated existing solutions, devised their own innovations, evaluated them and shared their findings with their peers. A re-run of the MOOC is scheduled for this autumn.
  • Case study: SoMoLearn
    The SoMoLearn initiative  aims to support teachers in designing learning and teaching innovations with leverage the potential of social and mobile media. The project has run a learning design workshop at the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2014, and will be running a second workshop at EC TEL in September.

Concluding remarks

It will be interesting to see the final DFID research once published but the preliminary research has shown that in general EdTech has made a positive impact in the field of education and learning. The data collected from EdTech can be used to tailor the lessons to best fit with the pupils and also monitor situations in the local area such as absenteeism and corruption. It is still apparent that there are infrastructural issues that can limit the use of the devices but there are viable solutions available to help resolve them.

Once these have been resolved there is no limit to what EdTech can help achieve in developing countries. Nevertheless, both the DFID study and the other examples discussed confirm our claim that technology has no significant effect unless it is designed on the basis of a clear pedagogy and with a clear view of the teachers and the educational context.

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