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

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

Young people worldwide can ‘determine the future of migration,’ says UN senior official

Guterres says UN stands ready to support Brazil’s search and rescue effort in wake of tragic dam collapse

DR Congo President and UN chief meet at a ‘historic moment’ for democracy in the country

UPDATED: Thousands flee fighting around Libyan capital as Guterres condemns escalation, urges ‘immediate halt’ to all military operations

What Merkel and Macron are to tell Trump in Davos?

All States have ‘primary responsibility’ to protect against hate attacks

EU ready to relinquish its internal tax havens

Commission launches new edition of the Cultural and Creative Cities Monitor 2019

Nearly 900 reportedly killed following ‘shocking’ intercommunal attacks in DR Congo

How dearly will Germany pay for the Volkswagen emissions rigging scandal

The influence of the multilateral agreement on migrant health

Tuesday’s Daily Brief: #GlobalGoals progress, essential meds, updates from Cox’s Bazar, Sudan and DR Congo

Future of EU farming: MEPs push for modern common policy with fair funding

UN rights experts call on Philippines Government to halt ‘unacceptable attacks’ on Victoria Tauli-Corpuz

The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming

Scotland wants to create an ethical stock exchange (Post Brexit)

What do the economic woes of Turkey, Argentina and Indonesia have in common?

Brands can be a force for good and for growth. Here’s how

3 ways Africa can improve the health of women and children

Mine action is at ‘the nexus’ of peace, security and development: UN official

What the Fifth Industrial Revolution is and why it matters

Syria: Why did the US now take the Russian offer for a truce? What next?

Vile act of torture prohibited ‘under all circumstances’, UN chief affirms on International Day to support victims

Practicing healthcare: Skills of a good healthcare professional and its effects

Trade is not a weapon. Let’s not use it as one

How will the NATO-EU competition evolve in the post Brexit era?

The European Sting’s 2018 in most critical review

These are the world’s most competitive economies

COP21 Breaking News_08 December: Cities & Regions Launch Major Five-Year Vision to Take Action on Climate Change

Wednesday’s Daily Brief: Women boost work profits, saving biodiversity, UK loses Chagos Islands vote, Gaza funding, malaria-free in Argentina, Algeria

The fatal consequences of troika’s blind austerity policy

EU commits €9 million in humanitarian aid for the most vulnerable families in Myanmar

Further reforms in Japan needed to meet the challenges of population ageing and high public debt

‘The welfare of the Libyan people’ the UN’s sole agenda for the country, says Guterres in Tripoli

UN global education envoy urges new funding for ‘lost generation’ of children forced out of classrooms by conflict

European Labour Authority starts its work

Countries must invest at least 1% more of GDP on primary healthcare to eliminate glaring coverage gaps

China Unlimited Special Report: The trip to China

Working Muslim women are a trillion-dollar market

How fintech is making investment accessible

Voices of Afghan women ‘must be heard at the table in the peace process and beyond’ UN deputy chief tells Security Council

Millennials are transforming African farming

6 facts to know about EU alternative investment funds

Climate change is a security threat. We must act now

How a teen refugee survived a shipwreck and saved a baby’s life

COP21 Breaking News_07 December: “Remove Roadblocks to Climate Action”

Investment and Financing under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): EU and Chinese stakeholders share their views at European Business Summit 2018

‘Reaffirm the sanctity’ of religious sites, says Guterres, launching new plan to ‘counter hate and violence’

Sustainable Infrastructure and Connectivity in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): a stimulating China-EU dialogue at European Business Summit 2018

Why do humanitarian crises disproportionately affect women?

Inclusion, equality a must for ‘long-lasting peace and sustainable development’, UN official tells high-level event in Baku

Electronic cigarettes, a better alternative or a well-advertised product

These are the countries best prepared for the fight against cancer

“Will TTIP solve the massive EU-US unemployment? Absolutely not!” A revealing Sting Exclusive with Tim Bennett from the Transatlantic Business Council

COP25: MEPs push for CO2 neutrality by 2050

Budget MEPs approve €104.2 m in EU aid to Greece, Spain, France and Portugal

‘Health is a right, not a privilege’ says WHO chief on World Health Day

What do toilets have to do with climate change?

2018 Golden Pen of Freedom Awarded to Maria Ressa of the Philippines

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