One of the biggest debates in US public education today is the degree to which quality education correlates with spending. This debate is raging in K-12 education, where state spending per pupil varies significantly. And it is raging in higher education, where tuition for four-year universities has risen 1,120 percent over the past 30 years and student loans have topped $1 trillion.

But the debate is also raging in developing countries, where governments and school administrators are trying to figure out how to educate as many students as affordably and effectively as possible. Unicef estimates that there are still 58 million primary-age students globally who are out of school, with more than half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. A recent article by Brookings Fellow Leisbet Steer reports that it will take an annual $26 billion in donor funding to address this global education gap. 

Yet Steer and many others underestimate the impact that information technology (IT) can have on the cost and quality of education at every level and in every corner of the earth. IT is this century’s most powerful development tool—perhaps especially in education. This revolution comes from the simple fact that there are now more than 2 billion people with access to the Internet and more than 5 billion with mobile phones.

At Bridge International Academies, founded in 2008 with the idea of making the most of research, technology, and data analysis to deliver high-quality education in the world’s most under-resourced places, we are witnessing the effects of the Internet and online access. We are seeing that technology-enabled approaches not only can keep expenditures down, but also can improve instruction quality, teacher accountability, and oversight by principals. Bridge primary school students—all 110,000 plus —are now achieving more than two years of learning in one year, with total tuition per child averaging $70 per year. 

Even more important than lowering costs, however, is that the technology is enabling better learning outcomes by addressing at least two root causes of failure: teacher absenteeism and lack of training. Teachers in developing-country contexts often don’t show up. Kenya, for example, has 47 percent absenteeism among its national teaching ranks, and that is par for many low-income nations. When teachers do show, they are often undertrained, with limited subject mastery. In Kenya, 65 percent of teachers fail exams on the same content they teach. Yet research shows that from pre-K to 8th grade, teachers are indispensable guides and critically important to a child’s learning process.

To be sure, it’s a lot to plan and deliver lessons for seven subjects a day in places where basic resources are lacking, electricity fails, and transportation can be spotty. But across our 405 schools in Kenya, technology allows the use of “master teachers,” who plan lessons across all the subjects and grades. These master teachers understand best teaching practices, national curriculum requirements, and local contexts, and can create extensive teacher guides, or scripts, to help classroom teachers more effectively teach content—even if the teachers themselves struggle with the subject matter. Simple consumer devices such as smart phones and tablets allow master teachers, by subject and grade, to transmit lessons to multiple classrooms, in our case in Kenya reaching 4,500 classroom teachers with each day’s lessons.

Since the process requires that teachers sync up devices to receive lessons, it also confirms teacher attendance. Whether such transparency or the aid of ready lesson plans is the cause, the result is dramatically lower teacher absenteeism than the national average (less than 1 percent, on average, in Bridge schools). The same devices also allow teachers to transmit student assessments to a cloud server, where a team in Cambridge, MA, analyzes them overnight to surface areas where a critical mass of students have missed a question or struggled with a concept.  The analysts remit results to help master teachers determine where to adjust lesson plans.

Technology is also a shortcut for freeing up school principals; they can spend less time on paperwork, and more time observing and mentoring teachers, which in turn boosts quality without growing cost. One approach is a resource-planning system that delegates cash management to mobile and agent banking, houses pupil history, and communicates with parents via SMS. Removing these kinds of administrative tasks allows for even more focus on teaching and learning.

Bridge Academies, which expanded its model this year to Uganda and soon will open in Nigeria and India, is not the only organization using these technology-enabled approaches to improve education and lower costs. Dell, for example, runs its own computer hardware and literacy program, Youth Learning, which launched in India and is now operating in 15 countries. Unicef recently found that young people are using information and communication technology in places as different as Zambia, South Africa, and Vietnam. The study revealed that in Vietnam, 40 percent of children in rural areas used the Internet for educational purposes, with 34 percent sending school-related text messages.

This is just the beginning of a sustainable, high-quality, world-connected approach to education in the developing world. For those of us in the movement, it gives us hope, and it inspires us work hard and fast.

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