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Computers in Education in Developing Countries: Why and How?

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Computers in Education in Developing Countries: Why and How? by Luis Osin 1 Preamble This technical note deals with the subject of the introduction of computers as teaching and learning tools within the
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Computers in Education in Developing Countries: Why and How? by Luis Osin 1 Preamble This technical note deals with the subject of the introduction of computers as teaching and learning tools within the educational systems in developing countries, although many of the concepts to be presented here are of general validity and could be applied to any country facing the decisions related to this area. I have tried to avoid the usual pitfall of many transfer-of-technology projects, which is to copy in a developing country a project that was successful in a developed country. This note is the result of my experience in implementing educational projects in the very different situations that arise in developed and developing countries. My experience in the three components of the title (computers, education and developing countries) is easy to identify. I was born and educated in Uruguay, and I spent the first 25 years of my professional career teaching at secondary and university levels, and making decisions as a member of university councils and committees. I was the Head of the National University Computing Center when I decided to move to Israel. During the next 25 years, I worked mainly in the area of computers in education, a topic where my interest started thirty years ago, with my MIT thesis for the MS degree. Israel was the ideal field of application, because there is a national commitment, expressed also in budgetary terms, to raise the level of education as a key element for the development of the country. In this note I am not trying to tell other countries to use the Israeli recipe. What I have tried to do is to filter what we learned in Israel, through my Latin American eyes, selecting those aspects that may be of major importance for developing-country experts in the definition of their national projects. The text will be organized in two parts: Why? and How?. 1 Luis Osin is a consultant in the area of computers in education for the Center for Education Technology, a non-profit organization based on Isreal, and for the World Bank. He can be reached by at: Part I : Why? The Question In developing countries, with large segments of the population living at extreme levels of poverty, the first question that must be asked is whether it is reasonable to invest money in technology for the educational system, instead of using the same money to improve the living conditions of those in dire need. I believe that these interests are not contradictory and that the only way to reach a long-term solution for the economic problems of the population is to raise the educational level, particularly for the low socio-economic groups. The impact of educational level on economic development is more pronounced during recent years, with the influence of the information era and the global markets. Nevertheless, educational organization and practice has changed very little in two-hundred years. For an extended analysis of these problems see Osin and Lesgold (1996). Here I will just mention the following points: Increasingly, competitiveness in international markets is based more and more on the educational level of human resources, and much less on raw materials. Automation of industrial and commercial processes has generated a migration of personnel towards more intellectually demanding tasks. Present educational systems, and not only in developing countries but also in the U.S., are not providing graduates at the levels required by the productive systems. The best sources for this assessment come from the United States. Adult Literacy in America, a 1994-survey issued by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), reported that roughly 90 million Americans over age 16 - almost half that category s total population - are, as far as most workplaces are concerned, basically unfit for employment. That this state of affairs was approaching was already predicted ten years before in a report, issued by a presidential commission, under the suggestive title: A Nation at Risk. In realistic terms, we have to assume that the output of the average educational system in developing countries is even lower than in the U.S. The consideration that a higher percentage of the population in developing countries works in the agricultural sector does not alleviate the problem, because today s agriculture, to be competitive in international markets, requires the usage of sophisticated methods and technology. This, again, requires a much better-educated farmer. I believe that the main reason for the failure of educational systems is that the individual needs of each student to sustain a successful learning process are essentially ignored in traditional classroom practice. Educational systems are resistant to change, and a transformation that purports to accelerate the solution of the problems just stated requires the support of educational technology. Problems of the Educational System In this section I will identify some major problems of educational systems that the use of computers may help to solve. System conception Present educational systems, inherited from a European conception that was created during the Industrial Revolution, group children according to age, in classes which are supposed to be relatively homogeneous from a cognitive development standpoint. Experimental measurements in real classes show that this conception is absolutely false. A good example is presented in Figure 1, built with data from Tyler (1962). In the excellent school district of Portola Valley, California, 550 seventh graders were classified according to what Distribution of Grade Equivalents for 550 Seventh-Grade Pupils (Portola Valley, CA) 3rd and below Figure 1 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th Grade Equivalents and above 2 Education and Technology Series, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1998 they were able to accomplish in mathematics and English reading comprehension. The result is that only 21% of the students perform at grade level, with a distribution ranging from 3rd grade and below, to 11th and above. It is not surprising to find a normal distribution for a population of students (i.e., students are normal). What is exceptional in Portola Valley is that the distribution is centered at the level defined by the grade. In typical schools, for medium and low SES populations, only the best students in the grade would reach grade level (Osin, 1988). The assumption that all the students in a class are able to study the same curriculum in the same time contradicts experimental results. Gettinger (1984) cites findings of a 5:1 ratio among slow and fast learners in time to learn (TTL). In other words, what a fast learner learns in two months might require a whole school year for a slow learner. The emphasis in frontal presentation, or typical classroom teaching, with students listening to what the teacher tells, is not conducive to real learning. Each student must build his or her own models of knowledge. Learning theorists agree that we learn by doing and that schools should devote much more of students time to project activities related to real life and to the application of curriculum contents. Teacher preparation It is estimated that human knowledge (as measured by scientific publications) doubles every eight to ten years. Educational systems do not provide inservice training that suffices to keep teachers knowledge adequately updated. In this state of affairs, many topics which students encounter in the media and arouse their intellectual curiosity - which would be ideal subjects for class discussion - will be avoided by the teacher, who feels insecure about them, and does not want to lose face in front of the students. Teachers colleges lack state-of-the-art educational technology, which could be a stepping-stone for positive changes in future teachers behavior. Developing-countries problems Overpopulated classes, often reaching beyond fifty students per class. Schools lack appropriate infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. Substandard classrooms, black of telephones, electricity, or lavatories. Very low teacher salaries, producing a flight of the higher intellectual levels to better-paid professions. Non-professional teachers are used to teach subjects where a credentialed teacher is not available. Computer Uses in Education and their Benefits Computers provide, for the first time in history, a key ingredient that was lacking in all the previous tools that raised high expectations when introduced in the educational system: individualized interactivity. From blackboard to television, the previous tools were presentation tools only. Computers, however, can not only present information with all the audio-visual expressive possibilities of television or film, but also can receive information from the user, and can adapt the presentation to the user needs, preferences or requests. Furthermore, in those schools where the Internet is accessible, the computer is the gateway to information without frontiers, and the catalyst for teacher and student dialogs beyond the walls of a single class or school. Today, when a major effort is being invested in the transformation of the classroom, moving away from frontal, expository, didactic presentations to environments where learners are active discoverers and builders of knowledge, the computer is the tool with the potential to help in reaching these goals. For a detailed description of different modes of computer use in the educational environment, see Alessi and Trollip (1991) or Venezky and Osin (1991). In the framework of this Technical Note, the following modes and benefits are summarized briefly. Computer-Assisted Learning The student learns by interacting with a program stored in the computer. This program is designed to react to the student s needs according to predetermined pedagogical criteria. In this case the student conducts a distant dialog with the authors of the educational program, who - in a well-designed program - will have considered the learning difficulties involved in the topics studied, and designed accordingly a set of remedial interventions. Enrichment units should have been included also, to attend to the interests of students who want to study in depth, beyond the curriculum requirements. Benefit Each student may learn according to his or her cognitive level and learning speed, independently of his or her classmates. Each student receives individual guidance, with explanations tailored to perceived problems, and opportunities Computers in Education in Developing Countries: Why and How? 3 for in-depth learning according to individual interests. Simulation and Exploration There are topics of study that deal with real systems whose complexity makes them hard to comprehend, operate, or predict. When we want our students to learn how to cope with such a system, the best pedagogical approach is not to provide a set of rules that describe the behavior of the system, but rather to let them explore the behavior, make decisions and predict their consequences or, in short, learn according to their own experience with the system. This is easier said than done, when the real system is a hydroelectric power station, or the economy of a nation, or a patient that requires medical treatment. Fortunately, for many real systems a computer model has been developed, i.e., the computer provides an output describing the behavior of the system, and the changes in this behavior produced by the input of diverse actions. Thus, a student may check the validity of decisions concerning the amount of water allowed to circulate in the hydroelectric power station in conditions of possible drought or flooding, or the effect on unemployment of raising taxes, or the effect of a certain therapy for a patient with given symptoms. All this without creating shortages of electric power for the population, or unemployment, or killing the patient. Benefit The student is actively exploring phenomena, instead of being a passive recipient of information. Thus each student builds his or her mental models of knowledge and develops the skills of searching information and creating hypotheses, which then can be verified or rejected using experimental results. The teacher may use simulations to generate class discussions and to stimulate students to generate hypotheses and critically analyze a phenomenon. Computational tools Teachers and students can use computer-based tools, such as text or graphic editors, databases, spreadsheets, or presentation packages, to help in processing information. Two important benefits that come to mind are: a) teachers can enrich their presentations with rich graphics and tables, which can be stored in their computer, easily updated, and readily accessible for presentation to the whole class by means of a projection device; b) Students papers may be of higher quality, particularly if, instead of just assigning a grade, the teacher requests that each paper be typed using a word processor and delivered on a diskette or through , thereby allowing the teacher to insert comments and suggestions and return it to the student for corrections until a satisfactory paper has been achieved. Benefit Teachers and students get used to working in the style and with the tools that permeate industrial, commercial and intellectual life. Communication networks Students and teachers can communicate with their peers and access data banks in different parts of the country and around the world, in order to develop joint projects, exchange information, or request advice. Instead of the expository presentation of a topic, the teacher may ask a student, or a team of students, to research the topic by exploring the Internet for relevant information. Not all the information on the Internet is reliable, but such is the information we gather in the real world, so that students will have to develop their analytical and critical skills. These skills are not usually developed in the restricted environment of the typical classroom, where most information has been filtered for them. Teams of students in one country can develop joint projects with teams of students in other countries by exchanging and comparing data on similar or contrasting phenomena. Benefit Instead of isolated classes, students can communicate with people and gather information from around the world, thereby increasing their motivation to use higher-level analytical skills in their school work. In addition, communication among people from different countries helps to break down stereotypes and may expand intellectual horizons. Teachers who work in relatively isolated environments are able to exchange information with their peers, receive advice from experts around the world, and download an increasingly broad array of teaching and learning materials available on the Internet. Pedagogical administration Teachers can access a student database, where information about each student s knowledge map is stored. This information allows teachers to organize more effective learning environments for each student. 4 Education and Technology Series, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1998 Benefit For the first time the teacher has the tools to make sophisticated and complex pedagogical decisions, based on appropriate information. Without computers, individualizing or personalizing instruction was quite difficult because it is impossible for a teacher to keep track of the different trajectories of all of his or her students in the universe of knowledge defined by the curriculum. A pedagogical administration system can show the topics mastered by a student, the topics where help may be needed, suggestions for topics and materials to be presented or assigned, and the possible groupings of students for team projects, selecting automatically students who have satisfied the prerequisites for each project being considered. Another important consequence of wide dissemination of computer-based educational materials that have well-conceived pedagogical interactions, is that they serve as good examples for teachers who may be isolated. Based on such examples, teachers may expand their repertoire of strategies, and recognize the need for improvement in their classroom practices. Warning! The potential benefits just described may be wasted in practice. Installing computers does not guarantee that they will be used to improve the learning experience. As a matter of fact, they could also be used to perpetuate the negative characteristics of traditional instruction. As an example, if a teacher assigns a topic to be learned at the computer, but it is the same topic to be learned by all the students in the same amount of time, then, the investment is not justifiable. Similarly, if a teacher allows students to surf the net, without any educational objective, and without a critical analysis of the information gathered, there will be more damage than benefit, and a waste of money and resources. Benefit Analysis In this section and the next, I will argue that a wellutilized system has a measurable benefit in learning outcomes that justifies its cost. A recent benefit analysis of educational technology was published in a study prepared by the RAND Corporation for the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the U.S. Department of Education (Glennan and Melmed, 1996). The main results of meta-analyses of evaluations of technology programs were presented by James Kulik and Dexter Fletcher, well known experts in this area, during a workshop on The Costs and Effectiveness of Educational Technology (Melmed, 1995). Major points in Kulik s presentation were: Students usually learn more in classes in which they receive computer-based instruction. The various analyses produced slightly different estimates of the magnitude of the effects of computer use, but all estimates were positive. Students learn their lessons in less time with computer-based instruction. Students also like their classes more when they receive computer help. Breaking studies of computer-based instruction into conventional categories clarifies the evaluation results. One kind of computer application that usually produces positive results in elementary and high school classes is computer tutoring. Students usually learn more in classes that include computer tutoring. On the other hand, precollege results are unimpressive for several other computer applications: managing, simulations, enrichment, and programming. Dexter Fletcher, of the Institute for Defense Analyses, compared features related to the use of technology in military training to those in primary and secondary (K-12) education. Military training involves bringing individuals or collections of individuals to a required level of performance in the conduct of prescribed tasks. The time to reach competency varies considerably among trainees. The trainee is paid while in training. Thus, methods that reduce training time may substantially increase the cost-effectiveness of the instructional process. Repeated analyses have found that, on average, technology reduces by about 30% the time required to reach criterion levels of knowledge and performance. These estimates are similar to those reported by Kulik for reduced instructional time in education. The comparison of different approaches to improve K-12 education (peer and adult tutors, reduced class size, increased instructional time, and computer-based education), showed that peer tutoring and computer-based education are the most cost-effective approaches. Computers in Education in Developing Countries: Why and How? 5 The results presented by both Kulik and Fletcher clearly justify the introduction of computer technology into the educational system. Kulik s observation that the only type of computer use with consistently proven results is what he calls computer tutoring (and I have called computer-assisted learning) should not preclude the experimentation with other uses listed in the pre
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