Can Computers Help Students Learn? A World Bank Case Study


Policymakers and development experts seeking to improve the quality of education are interested in the role technology can play. Not only do they want to use technology to directly aid learning, but they also want to ensure that students in developing countries - and poor communities everywhere - get the same exposure, and same education benefit, from technology as do their counterparts in wealthier parts of the world.

Bringing computers into the schoolroom is seen by experts as one way to do this. But just making technology available may not be enough. Policymakers and development experts need to know how to ensure the technology is used in a way that the best way possible. The World Bank is at the forefront of helping developing countries provide their students with the best educational opportunities, while working to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of ensuring primary education for every child.

To assist educators, policymakers and education experts understand how technology may boost the quality of education, the World Bank supported a two-year study of a program in Colombia that places computers in public schools. The study failed to find that the computers led to any measurable increase in student test scores. Researchers suggested this could be because teachers and students mainly used the computers to learn how to use computers, instead of using them as a part of the teaching process.

The results do not mean that computers and other information and communications technologies cannot raise educational quality. But it does offer a cautionary note to those seeking to increase the availability of such technology tools: being able to access technology is not always enough - people may also need training in how to use the technology to reach the stated educational goals.


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I am pleased that this research clearly indicates that poor integration of technology into the classroom results in poor outcomes. The title is, however, misleading and for some folks who only read headlines, it will create "disinformation."
I remain very concerned regarding the myopia of decision makers who believe that the simple provision of technology into education creates an epiphany of better pedagogy and student engagement.
Educators and students deserve much more respect and the provision of coherent, planned, thoughtful integration plans for technology should be the rule and not the exception.
Regrettably, the model of computers in the classroom, that is, the infamous computer lab, has always been a, how can I say this delicately, lousy. Research from the past that focused on this simply concluded the obvious. I recall how teachers in my school equated going to the computer lab like an outside field trip, that is, plenty of planning ahead and arriving to find equipment not working and responding. The end result, only a few select and patient teachers used the labs. The rest of them stayed away.
Today's realities of IT around the world are light years different from the mid 1990's or even the early 2000's.

When you ask the wrong question, unlikely you will get the right answer.

If they use computers to learn how to use computers, their learning will hardly improve. It may even get worse in other areas while they may acquire computing skills.

However, our experience is that even the poorest students who have no social privilege given their parents who could not go to school learn in a few months more than the Indian education system teaches them in years.

The World Bank is well know for its flawed research methodologies, using the hindsight to forecast into the future, its lack of understanding of technology in general and more importantly asking self serving questions and not looking into the future.

Thank you for offering one more example of how not to research a social challenge!

The answer is pretty obvious: technology by itself can't help anyone learn. Technology has to serve education. As simple as that.

Even books can't help education when they lack educational materials. No benefit for elementary school children from reading the Kamasutra, Life Magazine's Yearbook or The Complete Batman Collection.

Likewise, computers need to be morphed into an educational tool, just like a good textbook.

I'd even venture the theory that the best way to integrate technology into the classroom is thruogh the teachers, not the students. But my views are not popular among the ignorant geeks who have not the slightest idea of what it takes to be an educator.

I am willing to bet that one could do the same study but focus on the use of pencil and paper with the same research results, test scores wouldn't improve.

If the intent of purchasing technology is merely to increase test scores and ignore all the other benefits (literacy, access to online content, social interactions/projects) then maybe paying for more teachers and/or private tutors would be a better use of funding. I say do both until you get the results you're looking for.

I have been part of Maine's 1:1 laptop program and I don't believe schools would change or reject the use of laptops or tablets. MLTI's own studies have shown improvement in writing and reading with the 1:1 laptop program.

Maybe the World Bank needs to evaluate and study what makes a successful integration and long term program to contrast with short-term failures or non-correlating factors they're seeing.

I do know that Maine spends a lot of time on training and it's not one-time training, it's part of their ongoing professional development supported by teachers and schools of education. And the end of the day, it's all about the quality of teaching and the learning outcomes. I think it's clear that computers and pencils are enabling tools; not teachers. Not yet.

We knew this already. In class, teachers should teach and students learn.

Outside class, both teachers and students should study and practice. And there is ample scope for ICT to improve the study and practice stage. So what can be done with computers inside the school is rather limited.

And such studies trying to improve standardized test scores are myopic. They smell of "teaching to the test".

If you know what "teaching to the test" does to education, read this beautiful story by Richard Feynman teaching in Brazil:

Ron, I agree with you that this title is misleading. This is actually a summary note of a working paper done by one of my colleagues that carries a slightly better title:

The Use and Misuse of Computers in Education: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Colombia
Here's a link to the full paper, if anyone is interested: [pdf]

(The working paper actually came out in February 2009 -- I am not sure why this summary note is only appearing now.)

I fully share your concern "regarding the myopia of decision makers who believe that the simple provision of technology into education creates an epiphany of better pedagogy and student engagement." (And for what it's worth, your feelings about the utility of the 'school computer labs approach' is one I also share.)

As Mephisto rightly notes, "The answer is pretty obvious: technology by itself can't help anyone learn. Technology has to serve education. As simple as that."

Just because this message is simple and obvious (and accurate) doesn't mean that everyone is willing to listen to it, however. Sometimes having rigorous data in support of such a message can help you make your argument. (Sometimes not, of course.)

Shortly after the working paper first appeared in 2009, I remarked on the the related World Bank EduTech blog post about the "fundamental paradox in many, if not most, large scale roll-outs of computers in schools in developing countries: one of the primary rationales for their purchase and deployment is to bring about improvements in student test scores in core subjects, yet in practice they are typically used for basic 'computer instruction'."

Reasonable people can disagree about whether this oft-stated rationale is actually what is behind many initiatives of this type (perhaps, for example, other things might be at play -- like, for example, those related to the powerful political symbolism when a politician can be seen cutting ribbons on brand new computer labs. I have no knowledge of the particular context of the program in Colombia, and so I can't comment on it, but this sort of political gesture is one that shows no sign of disappearing around the world).

Reasonable people can also disagree about whether improving test scores should be the primary rationale to make these sorts of investments. However one feels about this rationale, the great anecdote from Richard Feynman that Winters points to suggests that that 'teaching to the test' is an especially bad practice when you have very poorly designed tests!

Scott's comments about the need for continual teacher professional development, and not short 'one-off' teacher training activities, is certainly spot on. For what it's worth, the Maine experience (which we know well) is one which we share regularly with key decisionmakers around the world. (It was featured prominently just last week, for example, at a workshop for ICT/education leaders from 10 Caribbean countries,


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