Development Short Read

Reinventing Basic Education

Across the developing world literacy rates in many places still remain staggeringly low. The case for a technology-based solution is mounting.

B asic education can open up many different pathways, especially in less economically developed countries. Estimates show that for every additional year of education in low-income countries a person’s future income increases by an average of 10%. In fact, each additional year of maternal education helps reduce the child mortality rate by 2%. However, many of these countries still face the issue of providing effective education to all children. Recent figures suggest that around 67 million primary-school-age children are believed to be denied the right to education. So what are the problems and are there solutions that haven’t yet been tried?

The main problem is that these countries don’t have the spending budget, resources and government control to improve the situation – instead, they have other more pressing priorities which need to be tackled first. Foreign aid, once championed by many as a viable development strategy, often misses the mark. The UK recently gave 98 million pounds in aid to India – much of which was used to construct the world’s largest statue. Thus, foreign aid may not always have an effective impact. Additionally, investment in the training of teachers may not be feasible or effective as it requires long-term implementation which is beyond the time-horizon of many elected governments.

But perhaps the problem lies in the way that education is delivered. In the past 150 years, the way in which teachers teach and learners learn has remained fundamentally unchanged – regardless of the nation in question. Perhaps developing countries can shorten the learning curve on education in the same way that they did for economic development more generally. As is often the case, technology may be the answer.

One place where technology, development and education collide is in Kenya. In the spirit of innovation, the Kenyan government has adopted a new educational technology called ‘Tuscome’ which is heavily backed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with a $72 million investment. The curriculum is based on ‘Synthetic Phonics’, very similar to the approach developed countries use, and more than 25 million books have been made available to children. The most unique part of the technology is that it provides teachers with in-depth ‘teaching plans’, dampening the need for the government to devote resources towards teacher training.

The results of the trial have been motivational. ‘Tuscome’ has reached more than 3.5 million students in 35,000 schools and the technology has been effective. ‘The proportion of grade 2 students that could read 30 words per minute increased from a third to two thirds.’ The Kenyan government believes that this revolutionary technology needs to be made more available to more children all over the world; if it’s not ‘Tuscome’, it should be an alternative – one that meets the needs for the geographical location.

Despite the positive results from the educational software, many behavioural psychologists and economists still argue that children should only learn from a physical teacher and that governments should support this by increasing the salaries for teachers to boost motivation. However, recent research by Harvard University and MIT have shown that higher wages for teachers would have a very dampened marginal effect on teaching levels. In fact, the teachers in developing countries are already being paid significantly higher than most of their international counterparts (as a proportion of GDP per person).

Educational technology like ‘Tuscome’ should not be overruled just because it doesn’t conform to conventional teaching methods. In fact, such initiatives should be endorsed by many developing economies. Technology is most definitely not a complete substitute for teachers, however, with the right design, it can alleviate some of the problems of poor education.

Instead of throwing money at ‘education’ and teachers, hoping that it will help, governments need to collaborate with multi-stakeholders – the public, private and people – to innovate alternative solutions like ‘Tuscome’. Maybe not all developing countries can efficiently adopt this level of technology. However, nations who have the similar teaching and educational infrastructure as Kenya could strive to follow in their footsteps to narrow the education gap. People tend to see volunteering initiatives as one of the solutions but in most cases it is economically inefficient – the costs outweigh the benefits, the education the children receive is not reinforced and most projects in the long-run are unsustainable. That’s why technology is the way forward.

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