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

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

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

Four years on and half a billion dollars later – Tax Inspectors Without Borders

5 lessons for the future success of virtual and augmented reality

EU legislation protecting home buyers approved in Parliament

Could a Digital Silk Road solve the Belt and Road’s sustainability problem?

How to stop data leaks

These countries have the most nuclear reactors

Reparations for sexual violence in conflict – ‘what survivors want most, yet receive least’

EU tourism industry expects a new record year in 2014

COP21 Breaking News_05 December: Carbon Price Needed for Climate Change Success

Afghanistan: top UN official denounces ‘extreme’ suffering of civilians in Ghazni

UN highlights importance of skills development on World Youth Skills Day

The status of the Code of Medical Ethics: loading

Brexit Update: EU endorses unprecedented compromise to help Cameron out of the referendum mess he got himself into

On World Bee day, human activity blamed for falling pollinator numbers

EYE to kick off on Friday: 8000+ young people discussing the future of Europe 1 – 2 June

At global health forum, UN officials call for strong, people-focused health systems

With Gaza violence ‘escalating as we speak,’ UN envoy calls for ‘immediate stop’

2014 budget: The EU may prove unable to agree on own resources

Harnessing the power of nature in the fight against climate change

The Philippines is reopening a ‘cesspool’ island after a six month clean up

Parliaments broadly agree on next steps for economic, monetary union

Brain drain 2017: why do medical students need to emigrate to become doctors in 2017?

Larger species are more at risk of extinction than smaller ones – here’s why

The EU Commission predicts a decimated growth in the next years

Postal workers in France are helping elderly people fight loneliness

Commission issues guidance on the participation of third country bidders in the EU procurement market

Backed by UN agency, countries set to take on deadly livestock-killing disease

These are the 3 key skill sets workers will need to learn by 2030

‘Crimes against humanity,’ ‘war crimes’ and risk of new ethnic violence in DR Congo, warn UN experts

EU and China to do more in common if the global scene gets worse

Making the most of the Sustainable Development Goal 3: its overlooked role in medical education

The future of science could be in your gut. Here’s why

Access to health in the developping world

UN chief ‘deeply alarmed’ over military offensive in south-west Syria

Children are so hungry in one British town they are eating from bins

Citing public anger and youth activism, OECD Secretary-General urges governments to heed calls for climate action

Gynecologic care in the 21st century

“The Arctic climate matters: to what degree?”, a Sting Exclusive co-authored by UN Environment’s Jan Dusik and Slava Fetisov

EU Commission – US hasten talks to avoid NGO reactions on free trade agreement

Portugal: €4.66 million in aid for 1,460 dismissed workers and jobless young

This Chinese tech giant’s latest gadget is… a bus

“No labels for entrepreneurs!”, a young business leader from Italy cries out

FROM THE FIELD: Malawi farmers diversify to fight climate change

“The Sea is vast as it admits all rivers”, Ambassador Yang Yanyi of the Chinese Mission to EU gives her farewell address in Brussels

UN chief hopes for new agreement after Israel concludes international observation mission

Preparing Africa for ravages of climate change ‘cannot be an afterthought’ – COP24

Globalization is changing. Here’s how your business can adapt

Cohesion Policy: EU invests €880 million to improve Poland’s railway system

Security Council beats midnight deadline, renews Syria cross-border aid in contentious vote

Greece: Tsipras’ referendum victory does not solve the financial stalemate of the country and its banks

Election-related violence claims 85 lives in Afghanistan: UN report

Why climate change matters for future health professionals

Wind farms now provide 14% of EU power – these countries are leading the way

Bayer-Monsanto merger: the story of the rise of the “endless company”

“As German Chancellor I want to be able to cope with the merger of the real and digital economy”, Angela Merkel from Switzerland; the Sting reports live from World Economic Forum 2015 in Davos

2019 EU Budget: Commission proposes a budget focused on continuity and delivery – for growth, solidarity, security

Climate change as determinant of health: the 21st Century challenge

LETTER FROM AFGHANISTAN: Elections serve up food for thought, for Afghan youth

The creative technology and its advancements

European Semester: The Winter Package explained

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