Technology May Offer Solutions, but Gaps in Implementation Remain

06/14/2012 09:44 am ET | Updated Aug 14, 2012

There is much excitement and hype about blended learning models and using technology to bring high-quality learning experiences to children at little or no cost. As an informal science education practitioner in the field, I see a few big problems in improving education quality -- especially for underrepresented and underserved communities:

  • Schools address only a tiny piece of the problem. Children in general spend 20% of their time in schools. It's great if a school provides access to technology, but children need more. The chart here (see page 113) gives an indicator of the complex interaction of various factors that influence child development. School plays a role -- but a small role.
  • There is a lot of research showing that parents are the key to long-term success. Young children spend much more time with parents or primary care givers than with teachers. So intervention programs need to account for educating parents as well as the children for true, long-term impact.
  • Technology (smart phones, computers, access to the internet) is far from pervasive in low-income communities in the US. For instance, there are no libraries in the Hunts Point area in the South Bronx. Thus tantalizing resources such as Khan Academy and educational apps remain elusive.
  • Parents are primarily focused on providing basic food and shelter to their children. There is little energy left to think about the long-term. Thus online resources seem to take the already motivated and initiated a little further. They are not able to boost the uninitiated to the next level.

Research indicates that early intervention programs can produce modest to large effects on children's cognitive and social development. S. L. Ramey and Ramey (1992) derived six principles based on studies of children from economically impoverished families, children with biological risk factors, children with combined psychosocial and biological risks, and children with developmental disabilities diagnosed in infancy.

  • Principle I: Principle of developmental timing. Generally, interventions that begin earlier in development and continue longer afford greater benefits to the participants than do those that begin later and do not last as long.
  • Principle 2: Principle of program intensity. Programs that are more intensive (indexed by variables such as number of home visits per week, number of hours per day, days per week, and weeks per year) produce larger positive effects than do less intensive interventions. Furthermore, children and parents who participate the most actively and regularly are the ones who show the greatest developmental progress.
  • Principle 3: Principle of direct (vs. intermediary) provision of learning experiences. Children receiving interventions that provide direct educational experiences show larger and more enduring benefits than do children in programs that rely on intermediary routes to change children's competencies (e.g., parent training only).
  • Principle 4: Principle of program breadth and flexibility. Interventions that provide more comprehensive services and use multiple routes to enhance children's development generally have larger effects than do interventions that are narrower in focus.
  • Principle 5: Principle of individual differences in program benefits. Some children show greater benefits from participation in early interventions than do other children. Thus far, these individual differences appear to be related to aspects of the children's initial risk condition.
  • Principle 6: Principle of ecological dominion and environmental maintenance of development. Over time, the initial positive effects of early interventions will diminish to the extent that there are not adequate environmental supports to maintain children's positive attitudes and behavior and to encourage continued learning related to school.

These principles basically say that intervention programs that are earlier, deeper, longer, broader and direct are better. But this comes at a huge cost. For instance, Harlem Children's Zone is a great example of a program that implements these principles. Its operating budget is $68 million and it reaches 15,000 children and 7000 adults annually. Thus the cost/participant is roughly $3000. Such costs are not sustainable for the majority of practitioners in this field -- especially when foundations give grants of $10,000 for one year and the acceptance rates are less than 15%.

Hard, social problems require deep, lifelong commitment from organizations and individuals. Technology presents such a tantalizing solution to these issues, but there seems to be a big implementation gap. In a few years, smart phones and wifi will be ubiquitous, but how are we to solve these problems in the meantime?

Early intervention and early experience. Ramey, Craig T.; Ramey, Sharon Landesman American Psychologist, Vol 53(2), Feb 1998, 109-120.