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Adaptive EdTech in the Dominican Republic

“Even before the pandemic—though it was certainly accelerated with the pandemic—many countries have started to dedicate more funding within their budgets to [digital] devices, to software, and these kinds of things.”

Juan Baron, Senior Economist, Education Global Practice, World Bank Group

Edtech has emerged as a powerful and highly-invested sector for enabling educational access, opportunity, and social mobility in developing countries.

In addition to working to expand edtech learning opportunities in Asia and Africa, developing Latin American countries, such as the Dominican Republic, are also working closely with multilateral organizations to improve learning opportunities through emerging edtech tools such as adaptive technology—tools that deliver customized learning experiences to and address the unique needs of individual students through various learning options as compared to traditional one-size-fits-all learning experiences.

We spoke with an expert working in the space about opportunities and challenges related to the policy and implementation of adaptive educational technology in the Dominican Republic.

Meet the Expert: Juan Baron

Juan Baron, PhD Senior Economist, Education Global Practice, World Bank Group

Juan Baron

Dr. Juan Baron is a senior economist in the World Bank Group’s Education Global Practice, where he works on analytical and lending activities in Latin American and Caribbean countries. He utilizes quantitative and qualitative research methods, including impact evaluation, on a range of topics on labor, gender, and education economics, amongst others.

Before his current role, Dr. Baron worked in the Poverty Unit in East Africa of the World Bank and the Central Bank of Colombia. He holds a PhD in economics from the Australian National University.

Q&A with Juan Baron, PhD What are some of the main factors and challenges influencing edtech development and adoption in the Dominican Republic and more broadly?

Dr. Baron: I’ll talk a little bit about adaptive learning, which is something that I think at the [World] Bank and many other institutions are very excited about, given the work that had been published on this software that is adaptive to use.

I think that a lot of us are interested in adaptive learning also because it facilitates the implementation of teaching to each level which is pedagogically the part that we’re interested in. So it’s given teachers in developing countries the opportunity to do things at various levels, which seems to have very good results in terms of their students’ learning outcomes.

The challenges include language. That is one that is very pressing, especially for languages that are less used in the world. I think we struggle to find good candidates, good resources, or good products that are available and offer all the characteristics of adaptive and personalized work.

The second [challenge] is connectivity and even electricity in some other cases, depending on which countries we are working with.

And then the third one is in the procurement of these kinds of services. Because it’s not really a product that you, the education system, or the [Dominican Republic] Ministry of Education requires. These are services that they need and that they hire for a specific number of children and a specific number of months. So, I think that type of subscription model is something new for these kinds of investments.

We also need lots of details in terms of what constitutes an adaptive learning platform or software. From talking with other multilateral organizations, there is no clarity. Many companies claim that they are adaptive, but they each have different levels of ability, and there are different definitions of what “adaptive learning” is. It is not really clear what someone means when they list their [edtech adaptive learning] product as such to other people, and this is especially with the producers of these platforms.

While I think those are the main issues, I would add that there are so many other initiatives going around and companies knocking on the doors of the Ministry of Education. That means that the Ministry of Education is overwhelmed by the quantity and they need support trying to sift through a lot of the options available in the market that might or might not be adaptive.

Those are the most important challenges that we have been seeing over the last three or four or five years in the Dominican Republic. But those are the challenges that we see many in many other countries in Latin America and elsewhere around the world. Can you explain a bit more about the lack of alignment in defining adaptive educational technology, and how you work with multilateral institutions to navigate that?

Dr. Baron: Yeah, there is a nascent set of people in this development sector, such as banks or other development partners, that are trying to look into what adaptive learning really means when a company uses that term.

Right now, it could mean anything from the truly adaptive platform that tests the student every two or three hours of use, to companies that only do one statement at the beginning, and then they define a path of a curriculum that you then need to go through.

So, I think that is something that still needs to be defined to make more explicit what countries are buying, right? Because a lot of firms try to say their products are adaptive, but there are different levels of adaptability and personalization.

Again that means the adaptive [functions] could happen as often as the software or the platform is used, or it could happen only once or twice during the same period of use. What funding or allocation of resources do you see for edtech opportunities, tools, or programs?

Dr. Baron: At least in the public sector, which is what we work with at the Bank, we do see many opportunities now. Even before the pandemic—though it was certainly accelerated with the pandemic—many countries started to dedicate more funding within their budgets to [digital] devices, to software, and these kinds of things. More and more they are gaining space within the budgets of [Latin American] Education Ministries.

And just remember that the Education Ministries, usually in the region, represent about 20 percent of the expenditure of a country within a national budget. So those are not necessarily small numbers, [though] even a small percentage would be a lot. And I see that more and more [allocated for] in the [Dominican Republic’s] Ministry of Education’s budget. Do you have any advice for policymakers, companies, non-profit organizations, students, or educators engaged in or seeking to develop or leverage the edtech tools and opportunities?

Dr. Baron: I think that in all cases, especially for Ministry and educational policymakers, they need to come up with an implementation strategy. It is not only about buying the software, and it’s not only about buying the hardware—there should be clear pedagogical and implementational plans, monitored and used accordingly.

On top of that, I would say, there is still a lot of evidence that is lacking on the impact of these platforms. Adaptive learning shows very interesting results in different countries, including the Dominican Republic, but more impact evaluations are needed; more analytical work needs to be done.

We need to also understand the behavioral responses of teachers in the classroom. We need to understand when it works and how long children should be exposed to these technologies, vis-a-vis the time that they spend with the teachers in a regular math class or other classes.

So the advice for policymakers is to engage in how the implementation will be done and not necessarily let the service provider define those parameters. In general, they do not know how to work well within public systems and the challenges that public schools face.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.