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Jornal The Economist | Click to download teacher
Publicado em 15 de novembro de 2018
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“Books will soon be obsolete in schools,” Thomas Edison announced in 1913: they would, he believed, soon be replaced by silent films. Each new wave of information technology—radio, television, computers—has led to similar predictions. And each time, the old technologies of books, classrooms and teachers have proved startlingly resilient.

Like teachers, digital educational technology comes in many forms, from wonderful to appalling. But, used properly, it now deserves more prominence in schools—especially in poor countries where human teachers are often ignorant, absent or both.
Truant teachers

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals included the ambition that by 2015 all the world’s children would complete primary school. This has largely been achieved: nine out of ten children are now enrolled. Alas, the figure is not as impressive as it sounds. Even though most of the world’s children go to school, an awful lot of them learn pretty much nothing there. According to a recent World Bank study of seven sub-Saharan African countries, half of nine-year-olds cannot read a simple word and three-quarters cannot read a simple sentence. The reason is terrible teaching. The same study found that only 7% of teachers had the minimum knowledge needed to teach reading and writing effectively. When classrooms were inspected to see whether a teacher was present, half the time the answer was no.

Paying teachers more, in the hope of recruiting better ones, is not the answer. In poor countries, teachers are well paid by local standards—annual salaries are four times gdp per person in India and five times in Kenya and Nigeria. (In oecd countries, teachers are paid between 75% and 150% of gdp per person.) Nor does raising or reducing pay seem to make much difference: neither a sharp cut in Pakistan in the late 1990s nor a sharp increase in Indonesia after 2005 had any impact on learning outcomes.

As for absenteeism, if expensive teachers do not turn up to class, governments would, surely, sack them? Easier said than done. Poor governments often lack the wherewithal to check on teachers in distant villages. And in many countries, teachers’ unions are powerful and governments fear their wrath, so members’ jobs are safe.

Several recent studies suggest ed-tech can help (see article). It seems to bring about bigger improvements in poor countries than in rich ones. In a study of a range of interventions in poor countries—including smaller class sizes, nutritional supplements, deworming and incentives for teachers and pupils—tech had the biggest effect.
Some of the scarce resources being spent on teachers could therefore be better spent on ed-tech. That does not mean dumping computers on schools in the hope that children will understand how to use them, a folly on which plenty of money has been wasted. Instead, it means providing schools with software that children can use with minimal help from an adult, that gets things right more often than the teachers do, that adjusts itself to the child’s ability, that sends teachers prompts about what they are supposed to be teaching and that allows the authorities to check on whether the teacher is in the classroom.

Sceptics may wonder whether the poorest places have the necessary infrastructure. But Africa is electrifying apace—in Kenya, electricity coverage has gone up from 27% to 55% of households in three years. Where the grid is not available, solar chargers can work. Schools do not need internet access. Devices can be taken to where there is a connection to upload or download the necessary information. Cost does not have to be a huge problem either. Tusome (“let’s read” in Kiswahili), one of the most successful schemes, costs around $4 per child per year in Kenya, where it is being rolled out across public primary schools. The biggest issue is the government’s commitment: where it is enthusiastic, the chances of success are good.

Technology is no panacea. Good traditional teachers are not obsolete, and are never likely to be. And authorities need to hold teachers to account. But ed-tech can help greatly—by monitoring pupils and teachers alike, assisting the best teachers and, most important, making up for the failings of the worst.

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