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University of Delaware - Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics

By Andrew Sharp April 19, 2023

From advertising to TED Talks, people around the world have absorbed messages about the life-changing power of technology to unlock human potential.

This could be true, but much depends on how you use it. That’s an idea you’ll find in a study published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, by Adrienne Lucas, professor and chair of the Department of Economics at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, and Sabrin Beg, associate professor of economics. They worked with two co-authors in Pakistan, Waqas Halim and Umar Saif.

When technology was used to empower teachers, the researchers found, it could be a cost-effective way to boost education, but if used to bypass teachers it could actually have a deeply negative effect. It’s a finding that could have a big impact on education spending decisions.

In Pakistan, Lucas said, the teaching style tends to be focused on lecturing students, with little classroom participation.

“I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in such a setting for there to be changes in teaching that can have big impacts on student learning,” Lucas said.

Developing countries like Pakistan are struggling to improve education, the researchers wrote, and their governments tend to use a couple strategies. One is to supply technology directly to students in an effort to make up for teachers’ shortcomings. The other is costly investment in teacher training, which may not be effective if governments don’t pour substantial resources into the design and support of the project.

This research has important implications for how to improve education in countries facing similar dilemmas.

“Every country, everywhere in the world, has a constrained budget, right?” Lucas said. “That’s why there are economists. And so this is just thinking about how to use those scarce education resources most effectively.”

That’s where the research comes in. The government of Punjab province in Pakistan developed digital teaching material featuring expert teachers, and wanted to know if it would be more effective to give preloaded tablets with the high quality material to each student, or to give one tablet to the teacher along with a display screen so the teacher could present the material. The digital lessons included explainer videos, review questions and more.

Through a connection of Beg’s in Pakistan, the UD pair was brought on board to conduct the study. They examined student performance among classrooms using a randomized controlled trial in which randomly selected schools used the two different kinds of digital lessons, while control schools operated as usual. The government of Punjab provided the technology.

One outcome that surprised Beg and Lucas was the magnitude of the effects. The study found a stark difference between the outcomes of the different approaches to delivering the digital material.

The eLearn classrooms — the ones focused on providing material to teachers — did, in fact, improve student learning, with students outperforming the control group by a whopping 60 percent. They were also 5 percent more likely to pass the standardized test at the end of the academic year.

The students who each got tablets, but whose teachers could not display the content to the class, actually performed 95 percent worse than the control group.

“Basically, it’s like (these) students almost learned nothing … relative to the control students,” Lucas said.

When each student received a tablet, Beg said, there wasn’t a way for teachers to engage with the technology. “It made it actually maybe harder for the teachers to make it part of their regular classroom teaching, whereas the screens (eLearn Classrooms) did the opposite.”

In other words, “One of the more important takeaways was that teacher engagement seems to be an important ingredient in making technology successful in the classrooms,” Beg said. Also, “It’s not something that will solve all learning crises in developing countries, but that (technology) should be integrated into the classroom.” Appropriately, of course, to avoid the negative effects.

A lot of governments, she said, find technology very promising but don’t know exactly how to integrate it to make it useful.

There’s been a tendency, Lucas said, to bypass teachers using tech or after-school programs that basically create a parallel education system. “But … what this shows is no, these teachers are capable of delivering more learning to their students. And (in this case) the way that this happened was through technology.”

Why did technology work so much better when it focused on teachers? It was essentially professional development, Lucas said, putting an engaging teacher (via video) in the classroom where the in-person teachers could improve by watching their methods and seeing student reaction. Also, the study found teachers working in tandem with technology were more likely to come to class instead of just counting on technology to bear the burden.

As to why giving each student a tablet led to such negative results, the researchers theorized that they may not have known how to use the tablets properly, didn’t have home support they needed, or were using them for non-school purposes (that is to say, downloading games, a habit of children the world over). Lucas said teachers reported issues like the tablets not charging correctly or the students forgetting to bring them.

These are issues teachers in the United States may recognize as well. While this research has promising implications, Lucas was cautious about how it might apply here in a different context. More study is needed. Here, Lucas said, there can be too much technology – we need to be careful that we’re not using tech for tech’s sake.

Their findings have attracted interest from multiple countries, and so could end up influencing education for quite a few young learners. Within Punjab, it has already been implemented in 900 schools.

“We’ve spoken with a few other researchers who are working with other governments,” Beg said. These governments have similar programs as Pakistan and the researchers are interested in adapting the findings.

“I’m working actually directly with some government partners in Tanzania,” Lucas said. “… This speaks to so many different needs of governments, and one of them is how to engage teachers in continuous professional development.”

Beg has a doctorate in economics from Yale, and has published multiple studies involving developing nations. She collaborates frequently with Lucas, who has a doctorate in economics from Brown and also publishes papers on development, education and health. They first met at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where Beg was a senior undergraduate and Lucas a first-year assistant professor.