Is technology key to improving global health and education, or just an expensive distraction?

robot AI

(Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Stefan Dercon, Professor of Economic Policy, Blavatnik School of Government and the Economics Department, University of Oxford


After decades of attempting to improve failing health and education systems in developing countries, the situation in many areas is still dire. In some sub-Saharan African countries, children achieve as little as 2.3 to 5 years of learning, despite typically spending 8 years in school. More than five million children still die before their fifth birthday. The old approach isn’t working, which is why it’s tempting to think that technology is the quick fix.

Artificial intelligence for medicine and educational technology (ed-tech) for learning are gaining popularity with both the public and investors. People are envisioning a future where children across the world can be taught through virtual reality and patients in remote areas will be treated by robots. Small-scale examples of success are being seized upon as justification for investing in any shiny new bit of tech, in the hope that it will be the one that makes all the difference.

But it’s dangerous to see the success of new technologies as inevitable. In developing countries, technological hype has driven expensive investments in hardware billed as silver bullet solutions. There have been programmes to give every child a laptop, but teachers have lacked the skills and digital training to use them so the computers end up locked inside drawers. High-end medical equipment has gathered dust in hospitals worldwide. Such investments have not only wasted money in countries on tight budgets, but have also created widespread misunderstanding of how best to invest in technological solutions.

Learning outcomes for children in sub-Saharan Africa are just under a third of those of children in North America.

New research that I have been leading has investigated why some quick fix programmes fail, and what it takes to succeed. The interventions that work do two things. They focus not just on hardware, but on the content, data sharing and system-wide connections enabled by digital technology. And they only deploy technology after careful consideration, and when it’s appropriate to tackle a real, identified problem.

A policy of buying a laptop for every child in Peru failed, while a similar programme in China succeeded – because computers were embedded within standard teaching practice and digital content was prepared.

In Uganda, the web-based application Mobile VRS has helped increase birth registration rates from 28% to 70% across the country, enabling decision-makers to track health outcomes and improve access to services for these children. It worked because it targeted the root of the problem – children weren’t getting treated and vaccinated because practitioners didn’t know they existed.

In Kenya, the Ministry of Education has rolled out a programme called Tusome, a literacy platform with digital teaching materials and a tablet-based teacher feedback system. Its huge success stems from the fact that it targets two pre-identified areas that needed improvement – access to learning resources and teacher performance.

These examples give hope that technology really could be the key to closing the health and education gap between rich and poor. But it has to be done right. The first step to large-scale improvement to health and education systems is the effective use of data. Data is the fuel of well-functioning digital systems, and there are some simple pioneering examples.

 

One approach is to use integrated dashboards that collect data for better decision-making. For example, both the Ghana School Mapping platform and the MoSQUIT mobile platform tracking malaria in India enable smarter resource allocation on a large scale. A community health workers’ programme run by Musoin Mali, which sends doctors to identify and treat patients in their homes in the most remote areas, has achieved the lowest child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Technology helped to scale up the programme as digital dashboards for monitoring drove productivity up.

Adaptive learning software that tailors learning based on data collected about a child’s performance is also showing huge promise. An example of this is MindSpark in India, which achieved an increase in maths performance of 38% in five months, with estimated costs as low as $2 a year when scaled up to more than 1000 schools. The technology empowers learners, tailoring lessons to their strengths and working on their weaknesses.

A similar concept is behind onebillion, a programme that has just won Elon Musk’s $5 million XPrize for Global Learning, and is being scaled up across Malawi with the Ministry of Education. Evidence has shown that the programme has the potential to close the gender gap in maths – a crucial step in the journey of giving girls better access to education and the job market.

So is tech really the answer? There are many reasons to be optimistic, but only if the potential for poor choices and failure is kept in mind every step of the way. Technology really could be a potential catalyst for massive positive disruption, but – perhaps paradoxically – this will only happen if it is implemented with care and caution.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

the European Sting Milestones

Featured Stings

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

EU voters not interested in the European Parliament elections. What’s behind this European Titanic?

UN launches new framework to strengthen fight against terrorism

Appreciation of euro to continue

‘€1 million’ fines for rescue boats prompts UN concern for future sea operations

EU Youth Conference in Riga concludes with recommendations for ministers

Instability in Africa’s Sahel, spreading outwards, Security Council told

Vendor Pulse – 2000

Europe turns out more jobs this summer

A renewed agenda for Research and Innovation: Europe’s chance to shape the future

Is there a chance for the West to win the war on terror?

The increasing drug prices in Europe

Eurozone: Retail sales and inflation point to recession

Everyone’s ‘buy-in’ needed to restore peace in Kosovo, UN envoy tells Security Council

The countries with the most satellites in space

Wednesday’s Daily Brief: Diplomacy for Peace Day, #VaccinesWork, the cost of war on Afghans, tech and well-being

Assassinations in Ethiopia amidst regional ‘coup’ attempt, condemned by UN chief

The Bavarians threaten Berlin and Brussels with immigration crisis

Financial system risk is elevated and global standards are essential in managing cross-border infrastructure investment

The Banking Union divides deeply the European Union

800,000 people commit suicide every year: WHO

‘Ground-breaking innovation’ needed in cities, where battle for sustainable development will be won or lost, says UN agency chief

COP21 Breaking News_05 December: UN Secretary-General Announces “Climate Action 2016” Partnership

Parliament compromises on Banking Union but sends market abusers to jail

Adoption of new rules to better protect children caught in cross-border parental disputes

Conflicting statistics and bad banks haunt the Eurozone

Will ECB win against low inflation by not following Quantitave Easing?

Who would pay and who is to gain from the EU-US free trade agreement

DR Congo: ‘No time to lose’ says newly appointed UN Ebola response coordinator

Thousands risk lives fleeing fighting in Syria’s last ISIL stronghold

Further reforms in France can drive growth, improve public finances and boost social cohesion

At Ministerial session, UN regional office in Beirut to focus on technology for sustainable development

A Sting Exclusive: Towards better business opportunities for the EU and its neighbours, Commissioner Hahn live from European Business Summit 2015

COP21 Breaking News_08 December: Global Business Community Comes to Paris with Solutions for Taking On the Climate Challenge Across the Board

Ten reasons to be optimistic in 2019

UN chief welcomes formation of unity government in Madagascar

EU budget: Commission proposes €1.26 billion to reinforce the European Solidarity Corps

Italy’s dilemma after Merkel-Hollande agreed loose banking union

The key takeaways of G7 Summit in Canada

“A global threat lies ahead worsened after the EU’s green light to the Bayer-Monsanto merger”, a Sting Exclusive by the President of Slow Food

Road safety: Data show improvements in 2018 but further concrete and swift actions are needed

The EU cuts roaming charges further while the UK weighs Brexit impact

Haitian President at General Assembly calls for essential development aid as UN mission shifts away from peacekeeping

Crowdfunding: what it is and what it may become

Commission launches debate on a gradual transition to more efficient and democratic decision-making in EU tax policy

Can ECB’s €60 billion a month save Eurozone?

On technology and medical ethics

Ahead of State of the Union the European Youth Forum highlights lack of action on youth employment

Benjamin Franklin was wrong: Amazon can tax evade

UN recorded 64 new allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse in the past three months

As many as 330,000 displaced by heavy fighting in south-west Syria – UN agency

EP President praises Nobel Peace Prize award to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad

EU joint response to disasters: deal reached with Council

‘Democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people’ must be met urges Guterres, following military removal of al-Bashir from power

How music can help children with autism connect

Countdown To GSMA Mobile World Congress Shanghai 2018 Is On

A Sting Exclusive: “Europe must be more ambitious in COP21 and lead on climate finance and sustainable development”, Green UK MEP Jean Lambert points out from Brussels

Is Erdogan losing game and match within and without Turkey?

EU Budget: A Reform Support Programme and an Investment Stabilisation Function to strengthen Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union

Trade deals’ pure realism: it may take 10 years for a post-Brexit agreement

New York high school students are getting free water bottles to cut plastic waste

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s