The rising use of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) in education—including distance learning, online courses and Internet-based curriculum and testing—has become a hotly debated topic. Some educators, experts and policymakers believe that technology has the potential to increase not just access to education, but its quality. Others respond that technology is too often imposed as a one-size-fits-all solution to deeper problems, and may actually divert resources and attention away from the real issues.
La integración de las tecnologías digitales en las escuelas de América Latina y el Caribe: Una mirada multidimensional (The Integration of Digital Technologies in Latin American and Caribbean Schools: A Multidimensional Appraisal), published by the UN Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the EU-backed Alliance for an Information Society, demonstrates that the debate is especially relevant in the region. The authors—Guillermo Sunkel of the University of Chile, Daniela Trucco of ECLAC and Andrés Espejo, an MSc candidate at the London School of Economics—have written a comprehensive analysis of ICTs and their role in the classroom.
But while they have moved the conversation forward in several important ways, their analysis suffers from noticeable and, unfortunately, common blind spots.
The report correctly begins with the premise that reducing the “digital divide” between traditional and highly connected schools should be a priority for Latin America. The authors acknowledge that “it is urgent to massively increase the incorporation of ICTs in formal education, since it is the most expeditious, economical, and widely available method of reducing the digital gap both between countries and within societies.”
At the same time, they are careful not to oversell the benefits. They note the danger of acquiring technology for its own sake, without strategies for using it effectively to improve actual teaching and learning outcomes. “The great challenge,” they write, “is to incorporate these digital technologies into the learning environment […] which goes far beyond purely technical advancements to touch on a wide array of other variables.”
The renewed push for quality is encouraging. It is a timely recognition of the growing consensus that the drive for access (to schools and to technology), while necessary, is not sufficient without quality. After all, what is the benefit if students are not actually learning once they are in the classroom? Unfortunately, prominent institutions have been slow to embrace this idea. Even the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education mentions nothing about the quality of that education—a lacuna many are seeking to address in formulating the post-2015 UN development strategy.
The report states that “a truly quality education must respond to the diversity of student needs and be relevant to their lives, in addition to providing for a common educational experience that provides all citizens with the necessary skills.”
However, this is not followed by any specific policy suggestions; nor does it address the inherent challenge of providing a “diversity” of educational options in systems defined by heavy regulation and monopoly government providers. The lack of practical specificity is a weakness throughout the book.
At the heart of the authors’ analysis are five factors identified as key to the effective integration of technology in the classroom: access, use, content, skill acquisition, and management. Several chapters are devoted to describing the state of Latin American ICT content, infrastructure and connectivity. While these factors are important, the authors only discuss briefly how these new technologies are affecting the classroom and can be better adapted to it.
Such exciting implications of the tech revolution (such as the way technology is flipping the priorities of the classroom, putting the student at the center and offering the possibility of data-driven school systems—allowing for outcome-based, not input-based, policies) are given short shrift.
Only chapters five and six—on skill acquisition and classroom management—provide original insight into the most up-to-date developments in education and technology, including the challenges of making full use of these new opportunities. In these sections, we are assured that “the mere introduction of digital technologies does not by itself guarantee improved academic results or learning.”
They then point out that “the difficulty inherent in the introduction of ICTs to the education sector lies in the lack of harmony between the teaching styles that currently predominate and the new learning styles that increasingly lie outside the mainstream of the teaching establishment. Most classroom teaching styles are presented in linear formats, based on a hierarchy with the teacher at the top, while elsewhere we see, instead, the success of horizontally based and collaborative learning dynamics.”
In other words, what we know about how kids learn—and how technology can help them—is increasingly at odds with traditional teaching methods. Throughout much of the report, however, it does not appear that the authors recognize the implications of their own conclusions.
Not until chapter five does the report address the “horizontally based and collaborative” skills necessary for the twenty-first century workforce, which are lacking in traditional education—skills like critical thinking, problem solving, persistence, and emotional intelligence. They stop short of connecting the importance of these abilities to ways in which ICTs could help students develop them.
The previous chapter looks at the influx of data as another technological possibility that can positively affect the classroom. As they report, more and better data on learning outcomes will have profound effects—especially by allowing for more personalized education that will enable us, in real time, to adapt curricula to the interests, aptitudes and progress of individual students. Unfortunately, the full implications of this are only hinted at.
The insistence on analyzing ICTs from a top-down perspective is the book’s key weakness. Technology is not something external that governments bring into the classroom and confer onto students. Unlike many other education reforms, ICTs are already embedded in students’ everyday life. In fact, the classroom is one of the least connected parts of their daily experience.
Latin American children are already enjoying near-constant information access, surfing wireless broadband, texting and messaging their peers and parents, and connecting on Facebook and Twitter. Mobile phone penetration in the region is around 84 percent1, while Internet use is at 43 percent2 (although high-speed broadband access is considerably lower).
The focus on high-level government policies, summit meetings, and regulations regarding access to education technologies fundamentally misses the nature of the knowledge society. Instantaneous connectivity radically broadens participation in all aspects of the economy and society, and the students of today need a new set of skills to navigate the new reality. Today, everyone can be a producer, a seller, a student, or a teacher, reaching customers or collaborators anywhere in the world. Sparking innovation, entrepreneurship and initiative is critical, not only for individuals, but also for national economies.
Government can help facilitate the transition from a commodity-based to a knowledge-based economy, but it must go beyond simply spending more money. Many Latin American countries are already spending at or above the OECD average on education, yet consistently place in the bottom third of international education rankings, such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).3 Purchasing ICT for classrooms will not be enough. Instead, governments must work to transform the very way students learn. This means creating data-driven evaluation systems, pushing for the personalization of education and incentivizing attendance to reduce dropout rates. That means leveraging technology’s unique attributes to ensure a higher quality education for all.
The authors of this report correctly argue that we will need a better system to incorporate ICTs into our educational systems. But their narrow, traditional, top-down perspective and approach also reveal that the mainstream conversation on the subject is worrisomely outdated.
In our increasingly decentralized, data-driven, bottom-up world, we cannot simply plug new technologies into our old ways of doing things. It is time for the classroom to return to the forefront of innovation, rather than be constantly behind it.