#H809 Can Technology ‘Improve’ Learning? And can we find out?

In education and learning we cannot isolate our research objects from outside influences, unlike in positive sciences.  In a physics experiment we would carefully select variables we want to measure (dependent variables) and variables that we believe could influence those (independent variables).  In education this is not possible.  Even in Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT), put forward by researchers as Duflo and Banerjee (see my post that discusses their wonderful book ‘Poor Economics’) as a superior way to investigate policy effects, we cannot, in my opinion, fully exclude context.

This is why, according to Diana Laurillard, many studies talk about the ‘potential’ of technology in learning, as it conveniently avoids dealing with the messiness of the context. Other studies present positive results, that take place in favourable external circumstances.  Laurillard argues that the question if technology improves education is senseless, because it depends on so many factors:

There is no way past this impasse. The only sensible answer to the question is ‘it depends’, just as it would be for any X in the general form ‘do X’s improve learning?’. Try substituting teachers, books, schools, universities, examinations, ministers of education – any aspect of education whatever, in order to demonstrate the absurdity of the question. (Laurillard, 1997)

In H810 we discussed theories of institutional change and authors such as Douglas North and Ozcan Konur, who highlighted the importance of formal rules, informal constraints and enforcement characteristics to explain policy effects in education.  Laurillard talks about ‘external layers of influence’. A first layer surrounding  student and teacher (student motivation, assessment characteristics, perceptions, available hard- en software, student prior knowledge, teacher motivation to use technology etc.) lies within the sphere of influence of student and teacher.  Wider layers (organisational and institutional policies, culture of education in society, perceived social mobility…) are much harder to influence directly.

That doesn’t mean she believes educational research is impossible.  She dismisses the ‘cottage industry’ model of education (See this article from Sir John Daniel on the topic), in which education is seen as an ‘art’, best left to the skills of the teacher as artist.  Rather, she argues for a change in direction of educational research.

Laurillard dismisses much educational research as ‘replications’ rather than ‘findings’, a statement that echoes the plea from Clayton Christensen to focus more on deductive, predictive rather research than descriptive, correlational studies.  He argues to focus less on detecting correlations and more on theory formation and categorisation of the circumstances in which individual learners can benefit from certain educational interventions.  A body of knowledge advances by testing hypotheses derived from theories.  To end with a quote from the great Richard Feynman (courtesy the fantastic ‘Starts with a Bang‘ blog):

“We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work.” -Richard Feynman


Konur, O. (2006) ‘Teaching disabled students in higher education’, Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3), pp. 351–363.
Laurillard, D. (1997) ‘How Can Learning Technologies Improve Learning?’, Law Technology Journal, 3(2), pp. (c) Warwick Law School; presented at the Higher Education 1998: Transformed by Learning Technology, Swedish–British Workshop 14–17 May 1993, University of Lund, Sweden.
North, D.C. (1994) Institutional Change: A Framework Of Analysis, Economic History, EconWPA

Low-Cost Private Education in Developing Countries: The Beautiful Tree

The Beautiful Tree from James Tooley provides a powerful antidote to the one-sided focus on public education as the only route towards universal education.

Tooley uses historical and geographical arguments to illustrate that public schools are not the only way to educate children.  Public schools were introdCover image of The Beautiful Treeuced by nation states as an instrument to exert more control over education and ‘building society’.  Motives for education have evolved from instilling democracy to preparing an industrial workforce. Standardized education systems with grades, curricula and exams are a reflection of an industrial society.  Before the introduction of schools, however, alternative education systems were in place based on community learning and apprenticeship, such as the Madras method with older students teaching younger ones.  Jean Lave described such forms of learning in developing countries, which formed the base for his concept of ‘Communities of Practice’.  

The title of the book refers to a quote from Gandhi, in which he refers to the introduction of standardized, school-based education by the British colonialists, who claimed that no education system was in place,  as the ‘uprooting of a beautiful tree’.  Neither is public education the only game in town in developing countries.  Tooley describes numerous private schools in slums and poor neighbourhoods, charging parents around 5$ per month.  But why would parents pay for education if  free public education is available?

Tooley presents research showing that  low-cost private schools in poor regions often do a better job in educating the poor than public schools. There are different reasons for this.  The main one is direct accountability, creating clear incentives to provide quality education.  Directors in private schools are under pressure from parents to recruit and train teachers well and to control them.  Teachers are under pressure to perform as parents want value for money and check on their children’s learning.  Directors have more flexibility to reward and lay off teachers.  In public education, accountability is much lower and indirect, through elections and bureaucratic monitoring systems. The result is  rampant absenteeism and low motivation.  Tooley quotes Kenyan figures of 30% absenteeism (about 1 chance in 3 that an unexpected visit finds that a scheduled lesson is not going on), and I think Cambodian figures could well be in the same order.  In Cambodia, many public school teachers double up as teachers in private schools, adhering more importance to the latter.

Private schools charge fees to poor parents. This might seem immoral at first sight, but Tooley dismisses the image of private schools directors as heartless capitalists. Most schools waive fees for the poorest.  Public education is free in name only. Informal  (uniforms, books, exam fees) and hidden (obligations to take additional tutoring, ‘contributions’ for exams) fees make public education often  quite expensive.  Public schools tend to be bigger and less concentrated in poor neighbourhoods than private schools, as they need scaling to cover for higher teacher and administration salary costs.

Finally, as Tooley and Duflo and Banerjee argue, people, even poor people, are willing to pay for education, provided they get value for their money.  Data on the number of poor people choosing to send their children to private schools, despite so-called free public education, are quite staggering.  In Cambodia private schools are popping up everywhere, many charging 5 to 10 dollars a month, an amount feasible for many Cambodians.  Many seem more interested in quality education, rather than free education.

Tooley blames development partners in putting all focus on achieving ‘free public education for all’, crowding out local entrepreneurship with donor money and neglecting quality and accountability.  Parents preferring private education are dismissed as ‘ignoramuses’ (quoting Oxfam), who don’t know what’s good for them. Instead of propping up inefficient government systems, he advocates helping educational ‘searchers’ (a term from Easterly)  through legal support and micro-finance   Targeted vouchers for poor students are more efficient than subsidising everyone. He advocates ‘brand’ development to help parents identify quality, similarly to the brand McDonalds guarantees a certain ‘quality’ of hamburger (hmm, perhaps not the best example).  

It’s a thought-provoking book, questioning many strategies we apply in Cambodia. Inefficiencies in the government system (low salaries, low teacher motivation, low accountability, corruption…) are considered as ‘external’ assumptions and mostly ignored. Donors cooperate with governments and supporting private schools would actively undermine the government’s own education system.  Western approaches to schooling and education are unquestioningly transferred to developing countries.  Private initiatives to  education are condemned as ‘antisocial’ and ‘low quality’.  I recommend Tooley’s book as it challenged assumptions about the role of the state and the school in education, not only in developing countries.