Computers and textbooks will not solve growing global education crisis alone, major report finds

Expert analysis of global education research suggests resources are being poorly spent on materials rather than teacher training in many lower-income countries

Pupils at a township school in Cape Town get to grips with computers for the first time as part of a project funded by the Dutch government
Pupils at a township school in Cape Town get to grips with computers for the first time as part of a project funded by the Dutch government

Simply spending money on computers and materials will not solve a growing global education crisis, experts have warned.

A major new report reviewing the impact of education programmes in lower and middle-income countries has revealed that computer-assisted learning, widely regarded as one of the most effective and forward-thinking classroom tools, does not improve learning outcomes in all contexts.

In some cases, such programmes even had a negative effect on learning, leading to concerns that education funding was being wasted in areas where resources were especially limited.

The study follows concerns that improvements in children’s school enrolment rates have slowed down considerably over the past decade.

More than a quarter of a billion school-age children are not currently in any formal education, according to Unesco figures, a much higher figure than previously estimated.

Birte Snilstveit, a Senior Evaluation Specialist for the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) who co-authored the report, said: “We find that just providing free computers and textbooks does not always improve learning outcomes.

“Our interpretation of this is not that children don’t need computers or textbooks to learn, but that many of these programmes have been poorly designed or poorly implemented.

“For instance, the teachers may not have been given training on how to use the computers in their teaching which may then result in lessons of lower quality.

“As for textbooks, in many poor countries you have a history of many different languages being spoken.

“It’s likely that English will be used at school but another language will be spoken at home. So children may be using textbooks that are in their third language when they are only just starting primary school.”

By analysing research from top education bodies across the globe, the NGO was able to determine the best and worst cases of development within education.

“The pattern we see with the education programmes that fail is unsurprising, because they tend to be badly thought through or poorly implemented,” said Ms Snilstveit.

“In order to reach sustainable development goals, education programmes being offered to areas of must be better designed to ensure that money is being spent wisely.”

“Textbooks and computers and building schools – these are things that are quite visible to the public and may receive funding more easily. But such resources need to be integrated with the curriculum, provided in a language children understand and combined with training for teachers on how to incorporate new materials in their teaching.”

Part of the UN’s sustainable development goals state that by 2030, all girls and boys should complete a free, high-quality primary and secondary education system.

On current trends, however, it is believed that universal primary education will be achieved in 2042, all children of lower secondary school age will have schooling in 2059 and upper secondary schooling will not be universally available until 2084.

World leaders attending a UN General Assembly last month were urged to better address the growing education crisis, particularly in war-torn and underdeveloped countries.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai also called on government officials to guarantee all refugee children access to a full 12-year education, in order to avoid a lost academic generation.

Speaking on 3ie’s analysis, Ms Snilstveit said: “Part of the issue is that the challenges in some of these countries are so great and the resources being put into education are so limited but they are being put into the wrong places.

“Yes, we need more money for education – but we need to make sure that money is being spent as effectively as it can be. Across low- and middle-income countries around the world, we find that successful programmes are those that are well-designed and implemented, and appropriately customised for the local context.”

The systematic review also contained positive findings, in that structured pedagogy programmes –whereby schools were given materials, curricula and teacher training customised to their needs – had seen proven positive developments to learning.

“Education is everyone’s responsibility,” she added, “we need to use what we know works, but also find new, better ways of improving learning outcomes and ensuring better spending of resources to tackle this education crisis.”

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