Three unmet promises of digital technologies to improve education and how to deliver on them

19 December 2023


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Pablo Cevallos Estarellas, head of the IIEP-UNESCO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, presents some of the challenges addressed during the Regional Forum on Education Policy 2023. This article was first published by Infobae.

Over the last two decades, countries in Latin America have made significant financial investments to integrate digital technologies into education systems. These efforts were supported by the belief that these technologies would improve education in three dimensions:

  1. The first promise was that digital technologies would promote the educational inclusion of excluded populations, due to access to computers and the internet.
  2. The second promise was that digital technologies would contribute to improving student learning through the use of educational software.
  3. The third – and least known — promise was that digital technologies would facilitate the planning and, most importantly, the management of education systems, through the digitalization of school and ministerial processes.

However, so far, the results across the region, except for very few exceptions, have been disappointing.

Let us analyse each of the three promises based on the research that IIEP-UNESCO has carried out in Latin America.

In relation to educational inclusion, digital technologies promised to play a crucial role in reducing barriers to access and improving retention rates among groups traditionally excluded from the education system. However, despite the investments made, many countries still face deep gaps in access to technology, with huge and persistent inequalities based on socioeconomic level and geographic location. As for school connectivity, most schools still remain offline and many of those that are connected have very poor connection quality.

All of this has contributed to aggravating the paradoxical inequality that the introduction of digital technologies in education has produced in almost every Latin American country.

In reference to the second promise, many people believed that the use of digital technologies in the classroom could improve learning outcomes, even independently of teaching practices. However, the evidence supporting this belief is scarce and inconclusive, as no clear proof has been found on the effects of digital technologies in teaching. This may be related to the fact that, as research in recent years suggests, digital technologies were often used simultaneously while reinforcing traditional educational practices.

In relation to the third promise, I would like to highlight two observations made in many Latin American countries. The first issue is the slow and uneven progress in the digitalization of school management processes. The most recent data indicate that most schools continue to collect data in physical format. The second issue is the limited or non-existent use of educational management and information systems (EMIS) to improve the management of school systems. In fact, many countries in the region still do not have such information systems. In countries where they do exist, they are usually at very early stages of technological development, so they are rarely used.

From all the above, we can conclude that merely introducing digital technologies in education does not, in itself, have the power to improve the system. This, of course, does not deny that they have such potential. It is the people within ministerial teams in charge of education policy-making and implementation who are responsible for ensuring that digital technologies are smartly integrated into education systems, fully knowing their limits and biases, to deploy their full potential.

To discuss how to accomplish this, more than 300 people from 27 national and subnational ministries of education in Latin America and the Caribbean participated in the latest edition of the UNESCO Regional Forum on Education Policy.

During the event, also attended by experts from research centres, international agencies, and civil society organizations, two paths forward were proposed to revitalize the relationship between educational planning and digital technologies in our region.

The first path is developing digital policies in education, coordinated at the national level, to ensure that technologies become part of educational processes and really contribute to generating a positive impact on both the expansion of coverage and the quality of learning. This implies, among other things, reforming the curriculum, adopting new teaching models, training teachers, and achieving a comprehensive hybridization of education.

The second path aims to integrate digital technologies to improve the efficiency, transparency, and quality of educational planning and management. This includes a wide range of actions, from implementing big data to developing early warning systems to protect student trajectories.

In other words, while the first path addresses how to achieve the integration of digital technologies in teaching processes, the second one addresses the potential of these technologies for the planning and management of education systems. Both lines of action have the potential to feed back into each other, creating a virtuous circle that can enhance their impact.

According to the report Educational planning and digital technologies in Latin America recently published by IIEP-UNESCO, an educational planning approach that combines short- and long-term goals, integrating an agile and pragmatic response to management needs with a more long-term strategic vision, is essential to achieve profound and, most importantly, lasting improvements.

To achieve these sustainable improvements, it is essential to articulate educational visions based on the broadest consensus among different sectors of society – visions that make it possible to define state policies (beyond current governments) to guarantee inclusive and equitable quality education for all, which leaves no one behind.