In the classroom, along with her sixth-grade classmates, Yudeisy tells us that what she likes doing the most during the day is watching videos and tutorials on YouTube. She also likes to use her computer and cell phone because she can watch music videos, influencers' clips and interviews with her favorite artists. Yudeisy, along with her classmates in a public elementary school in Santo Domingo, is part of a four-month pilot to reinforce mathematics using software that adapts to the math level of each student.
To be disruptive in education, it is essential to exploit the curiosity of children and provide them with learning opportunities that are engaging and spark their interest. What if we take childhood curiosity as a starting point and channel it towards math learning, in a way that interests them?
This is precisely what the Dominican Republic is attempting. This Caribbean nation is not exempt from the global learning crisis described in the World Development Report 2018. The government is implementing an ambitious education reform aimed at investing more and better in human capital. Only 27 percent of third grade students achieve a satisfactory level of learning in mathematics, according to a diagnostic assessment by the Ministry of Education of the Dominican Republic (MINERD), while only 48 percent of Dominican children born today, once they grow up, will be as productive as they could if they had enjoyed complete education and full health (See Human Capital Index).
Given these challenges, MINERD, with the support of the World Bank and in cooperation with McGraw Hill, conducted a pilot study with 500 sixth-grade students in five public schools located in vulnerable areas of Santo Domingo. The goal was to use adaptive technology to evaluate students’ initial learning level to then walk them through math exercises in a dynamic, personalized way, based on artificial intelligence and what the student is ready to learn. Recent worldwide research has shown that teaching at the student's level is an effective way to increase learning; this has been tested in places such as India. The content of the software, called ALEKS, was adapted to the Dominican six grade math curriculum.
Regardless of the technological solutions that may exist, implementation capacity determines success. Therefore, the pilot also evaluated the Ministry's capacity to deploy this type of disruptive technology.
To ensure successful implementation, MINERD established strategic teams composed of school principals, mathematics and computer teachers, as well as teacher coordinators. The students used the platform as part of the extended school day, for at least 90 minutes per week in existing computer labs, and with one computer per student per session. Simultaneously, the math teacher was present in the laboratory to clarify the students' questions and concerns. This allowed teachers to identify which topics needed reinforcement in the classroom.
While the impact evaluation of this adaptive technology on learning will soon start, there are already some lessons learned:
- Software was interesting enough to encourage its active use by both teachers and students;
- The number of hours of the full-day program used for curricular activities increased; and
- Valuable information was collected regarding the differences in learning levels, even within the same classrooms, and the amount of information collected presents an opportunity for teacher to better cater to students’ learning gaps.
In the future, this information will inform the learning processes in the classroom and in the lab. Additionally, using existing resources, allowed for the integration of the new technologies with the existing educational processes at a low additional cost.
Participating teachers considered the adaptive technology strategies as an aid that improves their teaching and ability to meet the learning needs of all students, while ensuring that there is greater scope for learning among students in the classroom.
At the public education system level, the greatest challenges were internet connectivity and a limited number of computers per classroom. Direct coordination with the school principals helped minimize these bottlenecks during implementation, as they could maximize existing resources.
In terms of learning, after three months of implementation, students with the lowest performance at the beginning showed substantial improvements in knowledge verification, which correlated with how much time students spent using the software. This shows the importance of adjusting content to the level of students to reduce learning lags, and the potential of technology to increase learning outcomes, especially among students lagging behind their peers.
"I would like this type of software to be available for all my subjects," said Yudeisy's classmate who also acknowledged using the platform outside of school hours. The platform's administrators reported seeing students' use spike during weekends and evenings. The students reported better understanding in a range of different topics - basic arithmetic, carrying operations, etc. - because of effective explanations provided by the software complemented by regular teacher instructions that support learning.
The Dominican Republic pilot shows how adaptive technologies at the student level, generate great interest among 21st century students and present a potential path to supporting the learning and teaching of future generations.
*** The team supporting the Ministry included: Melissa Adelman, Rafael de Hoyos, and Anna Popova.