A silicon classroom revolution?

This column first appeared on the Adam Smith International partner zone on The Guardian

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Every morning, teacher Gladys Achieng takes the class register at Mathare Community Education Beijing School in Nairobi. Beijing was added to the school’s name in honour of new classrooms donated by a Chinese construction company: they built a new six-lane “super-highway” which rumbles right alongside Mathare, a sprawling slum. The highway has become a symbol of Kenya’s aspirations, much as the slum is symbolic of what the country intends to leave behind. The children answering their names at roll-call hope that education will be their ticket to a better life.

A different kind of “super-highway” – the information super-highway – was supposed to transform education in the developing world. However, in Kenya, a campaign promise by the president of “one laptop for every child” has so far failed to materialise. Whilst computers have begun to appear in schools, there is often a lack of teacher skill – or even electricity – to use them.

Buoyed by wildly optimistic talk of a silicon classroom revolution, innovators not only underestimated the human and institutional capacity required to implement their solutions, they overestimated the impact of their ideas and products on the lives of the children.

This is no longer a radical or a Luddite view. Experts are beginning to come around to the view that efforts at technology adoption and scale-up are doomed to failure unless they tackle the human element. Technological innovations cannot be seamlessly implemented across community, socio-economic or national borders. What works for the rich may not work for the poor, unless solutions are tailor-made to suit each context.

Back to Gladys Achieng’s roll-call. Here, in Mathare, a simple application of everyday technology – the ubiquitous mobile phone – has had a practical and immediate effect on school attendance. “After completing the register,” Gladys explains. “I send an SMS to an automated number. If any pupil is absent, their absence is recorded, and their parents can be notified.”

After three days of absence, the system creates an alert that may prompt a visit to the child’s home. Meanwhile, the data is used by the school’s donors – including the UK’s Department for International Development – to monitor the success of their funds in keeping children in school. The system was designed in collaboration with teachers, who insisted they didn’t want burdensome paperwork which took them away from the classroom.

“It really works,” says Gladys. “As you can see, we have 100% attendance today, as most days.”

Other uses of technology, piggybacking on existing consumer equipment and applications, have also proved successful. In remote areas, Global Positioning System (GPS) enabled mobile phones and webcams have led to improvements in school management and staff training.

But more costly, high-profile interventions have struggled. An animated education series aired on national television, while proving immensely popular with children, has shown limited impact on results. Experiments in collecting survey data using tablets (instead of paper forms) neither improved staff efficiency, nor prevented errors in data reported.

Technology cannot on its own, therefore, improve educational outcomes. Laptops and e-books will never replace qualified and accountable teachers. However, when sensitively designed, technological innovations do have an important role in terms of helping focus the efforts of implementers on the ground.

The rapid rewards of the application of technology in education are proving to be in ‘enhanced accountability’ and not ‘educational content’. Better use of conventional technology – such as digital data collection systems and GPS mapping – can provide decision-makers at national and sub-national levels with information that is relevant, comprehensible and actionable.

For the pupils in Gladys Achieng’s classroom, the technological wonderland of internet-enabled touch-screens is a long way off. But they’re all in school, and happy to be learning. That is technology at work.

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