Technology has helped improved learning outcomes. However, when it comes to laptops, there is no favorable evidence that these (or other internet based devises like tablets and smartphones) increase student’s productivity (http://www.iadb.org/en/research-and-data/publication-details,3169.html?pub_id=IDB-WP-304). There is evidence that using laptops, tablets, and smartphones significantly reduce student’s performance. Again, there is evidence that desk top computers increase students’ performance.
These findings can be interpreted in many ways. Seen in terms of equality of opportunity, one can argue that computer labs in colleges and universities have greater utility and should be given greater attention than laptops in the hands of few bright kids. This is easy to see. One way to make computers a more effective tool of learning is by institutionalizing the use of this technology through computer labs. Without first creating demand from teacher’s side, simply supplying laptops to students may reduce this technology to a toy rather than an instrument of learning.
Conspicuously enough, the main player in the learning process, the teacher, is missing from this (so called) technology drive towards smart education. Making bright kids more productive while ignoring bright teachers is like creating asymmetry in the learning process. Unfortunately, this asymmetry here is working against teachers.
But if laptops have such a dubious efficacy as an educational tool, then why governments in other developing countries are distributing laptops to their students? Let’s try to explore the answer.
The laptop schemes have greater propaganda value. It can be seen through official statistics. It is a routine that governments’ statistics are too large: followed by a chain of zeros. To make sense of them, we need to put them in context: how much of what? Let us apply this to our celebrated laptop scheme.
In 2013-14, the provincial government distributed 100,000 laptops. Whether this number is large or small requires putting it in terms of total number of students in high schools, colleges, and universities in Punjab. As these are the students supposed to be the major beneficiaries of this scheme.
Even if we ignore college students and count only the graduate and post graduate students enrolled in all colleges and universities in Punjab and divide the 100,000 laptops by this number we get 0.17 or 17 percent. In other words, less than 1 out of every 5 degree students were benefiting from this scheme in 2013-14.
Then, the scheme was hailed as a great success, or so we were told. In 2016-17, with more students added in the degree pool over this 4 year period, the provincial government has planned to distribute more laptops i.e. 120,000. But this was not a net increase as the ratio of laptops and students comes out the same i.e. less than 1 out of every 5 degree students in Punjab. There is no change. But propaganda is on the rise.
More worrisome than the constancy of laptop-student ratio is the fact that education expenditures in Punjab are decreasing since 2013. In 2013-14 education and education services was given 26 percent of Punjab’s annual budget and it reduces to a little over 18 percent in 2016. But student population has increased over the years. Thus, the budget of Rs. 313 billion (or 313 followed by 9 zeros), as announced in 2016-17, sounds large. But if consider in terms of total young people (i.e people aged between 15 to 24 years or college plus university student population) it looks unimpressive. Thus, assuming that the proportion of 15-24 years age group remains unchanged in our population since the 1998 census, this age group now has 33,459,030 people in 2015. In more formal language, there were 33.5 million individual aging between 15 to 24 years in Punjab in 2015. And the budget allocated for education is 313 billion or Rs. 9.35 per person of 15-24 years of age. This is the amount that our provincial government has planned to spend in year 2016-17 on all the education services in Punjab (not only on students).
In the current budget the education expenditures further reduced to 17.5 percent of total expenditures which is less than the previous year’s outlay. In per student terms they are definitely lower given the 2 percent annual growth rate of student population. If I add school going children in this calculation then the per student education spending of Punjab government will disappear entirely. Moral of the story: Propaganda rather than education is the real priority of our policymakers.
To conclude, if government is really serious about improving students’ lot it may spend more on strengthening and building the culture of computer labs in our institutes primarily through teacher’s training, rather than distributing handful of devices to handful of students. The recipe is to spend on institutions rather than on devices. The former are enduring and public, the latter short lived and personal.