Four cautionary lessons about education technology


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 Charlotte Kesl / World Bank
Technology in education is often seen as a solution. It holds promise, but caution is warranted.
Photo: Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

There is no denying that governments around the world are expanding investments in education technology, from inputs that students use directly (like Kenya’s project to put tablets in schools) to digital resources to improve the education system (like Rio de Janeiro’s school management system). As public and private school systems continue to integrate technology into their classrooms, remember that education technology comes with risks. 

Michael Trucano, my colleague and the World Bank's resident expert on education technology, highlighted four caveats during a wide-ranging conversation with Stephen Ladek on the Terms of Reference podcast.

Education technology has the tendency to exacerbate inequality.

 "One of the things that gets a lot of play, certainly here in the U.S., is the Khan Academy which is this, initially, a series of free videos on YouTube that are small tutorials about the Pythagorean theorem or basic algebra concepts. Putting those online, we've seen that for students who are self-starters and good learners and who are highly motivated, that can be a tool that they use to really help their learning and to move them forward....That's interesting. It points to a fundamental challenge of a lot of these innovations: that they tend to help those who already have various advantages because those people are able to take advantage of them more quickly for a variety of reasons. While introducing innovation this is a challenge we face and I think everyone faces: The rising tide may raise all boats but it doesn't raise them equally and it doesn't raise them at the same speed." [~22:35 in the podcast; emphasis added, transcript edited for clarity]
But this inequality is not inevitable, as Trucano lays out with the example of a Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal education technology program.

Dumb failure is common in education technology. 

"There is a lot of failure in this area. There are two types of failure: There's good failure and there's dumb failure. The dumb failure we see over and over again is just dumping technology into schools and hoping for magic to happen; not having a plan, thinking that things will happen automatically because kids are “digital natives,” a term that obscures as much as it illuminates; thinking that just because technology is there your problem is solved." [~31:50 in the podcast; emphasis added, transcript edited for clarity]
You can read more on this in Trucano's post, "Worst practice in ICT use in education." 

Technology makes teachers more central rather than marginalizing them. 

"Another classic mistake that is made over and over again is this belief—and I hear this unfortunately from Ministers of Education in many places: They say, you know, we have problems with our teachers, we have problems with our teacher union. If only technology could replace teachers, I'd get rid of these problems and I'd be able to manage it. And you know, nowhere in the world do we see technology replacing teachers. It changes some of what teachers do. It changes some of their responsibilities, but nowhere do we see it replacing teachers. Instead, it makes their role more central.[~32:20 in the podcast; emphasis added; transcript edited for clarity.]
This is consistent with a recent review of learning interventions, by Snilstveit et al., which found that “Programs where computer-assisted learning substituted for other lessons were more likely to produce negative outcomes.”

Education technology is not an end in itself. 

"Tech in some ways in schools is a no-brainer but that's neither here nor there, because it's what you do with it. If technology is the answer, what's the question? So where it's assumed this is the answer, the question is different in different places. It should be about what these tools are meant to be used for or what challenges they are meant to 'solve.'" [~36:11 in the podcast; emphasis added; transcript edited for clarity]
School systems around the world are leaping (or have already leapt) into major technological innovations, and this can be great. But look before you leap—and remember these four cautionary lessons. 

Bonus reading:

  • Here's a recent example of an innovation with strong learning impacts from India, with a review of learning impacts of technology innovations in Appendix B, by Muralidharan, Singh, and Ganimian.
  • This review demonstrates visually the wide variation in learning impacts resulting from technological interventions, in Figure Three -- from highly positive to no impact and even significantly negative, by McEwan. 
  • Trucano writes about these issues extensively on his blog, EduTech.
Find out more about World Bank Group’s work in education on Twitter and FlipboardMore resources are available on the Education and Technology website.


David Evans

Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development

Ajamu Adewole
January 25, 2017

I totally agree. I teach adult education and I limit technology to classroom research. Technology should assist the facilitator in the learning process. Learners should be expected to retain information, not depend on the memory of technology.

Jyoti Thyagarajan
January 26, 2017

David, it was wonderful to read your reaction to technology in education. I cannot find a single statement here that I would disagree with. We run a non-profit NGO called Meghshala (translates from Sanskrit to Cloud School!) and we are in over 120 schools in the last semester. And we have proof that backs all your statements. We would love to talk further with you, Regards, Jyoti

David Evans (author)
February 01, 2017

Thank you for sharing your experience. I look forward to learning more about this initiative.

Sheriff Alabi
January 26, 2017

Ensuring accessibility, integrative planning, and regular training in proper use of edtech are crucial to success.

January 31, 2017

"And you know, nowhere in the world do we see technology replacing teachers. "
Trust me, I'm broadly in line with this article, but I feel honour bound to address this particular claim. The Toronto Sun ran a story last year about a Maine high school, allegedly unable to find a language teacher, abandoned the search and decided to use the Rosetta Stone language software instead.

David Evans (author)
February 01, 2017

Excellent point! While I stand by the point that we don’t see technology systematically replacing teachers, this is a useful example of how it may happen in moments of last resort.

Cesar Torres
February 14, 2017

Válidas consideraciones y acertadas las 4 lecciones
hay que tener claro que las TIC para la educación deben tener como norte las capacidades tecnológicas, sociales y ambientales que los estudiantes deben construir, es decir son medio, y de manera marginal fin en sí.