We often hear that investing more money is the solution to fixing the problems with public education. The problem is that investing money in education is only the first step to achieving good results.
Developing a strategy for educational technology that works for all students is a difficult challenge and almost impossible in my opinion. Mexico has tried to create programs and strategies that so far have not shown much success.
A recent report provided by the SEP (Public Education Secretary) in Mexico mentions that fewer than 40% of the student population successfully pass an achievement test. Even worse, fewer than 10% of the students have a basic understanding of mathematics (see Figure 1).
UX researchers can help identify answers to the following questions regarding education:
- What has gone wrong with education in Latin American countries?
- How can we design better learning tools?
- How can we develop guidelines that other researchers can use to create new and useful tools?
The government is at the core of the problem: the government doesn’t know or understand the students, making it difficult to design good content.
Content vs. Technology
Designing good educational content, including educational software, games, and applications, should be a priority when it comes to developing effective strategies for education. In Mexico, the latest education program invested $63 million (90%of the budget for the project) emulating an education model used in Sweden that involved providing tablets to every child in the country. This was a mistake in Mexico where many students lack the knowledge to use these devices.
Students in Mexico have characteristics, needs, and lifestyles that are very different from those in more developed countries. This makes the task of obtaining results like those in more developed countries like Sweden, a very difficult job.
Extensive research is needed to provide the foundation needed to improve education content and develop effective e-learning tools for Mexico.
Understanding the Student Population in Mexico
The characteristics and demographics of students in Mexico are very different then students who live in more developed countries. For example:
- More than 50% of children live in poverty.
- Not all students speak Spanish; students speak about 65 different languages.
- Only 45% of the population own or have used a computer. Only 50% have used a tablet or smartphone.
- 5% of children between the ages of 6 and 14 years do not attend school.
- Only 51% of students have access to the Internet, mostly in the center and northern regions of the country.
Taking all of these factors into consideration can make providing a good education very difficult. Simply translating applications used in North American schools into Spanish doesn’t work.
Borrowing ideas and learning materials from a variety of different places and sources can help in developing educational content that makes sense for each group of students. Children who live in remote villages or poverty require a different approach to education then other students.
Context is also very important when developing interfaces for applications or educational games. The design must make sense to the students and create a link between what they learn in class and how to use it. For example, learning percentages can help students understand discounts when buying something in the marketplace.
Education in México
There are many problems with the educational model in Mexico. Many books used in schools have not been updated for more than 15 years.
The Secretary of Public Education currently considers teaching students to memorize as many concepts as possible as most important task in education.
A system that only requires students to memorize numbers and letters does not encourage other forms learning and reasoning.
The problem becomes even larger when developing new tools that simply encourage memorization and don’t fully take advantage of new technologies. If students are to discover new ideas and exercise reasoning, they need to be provided with the right tools and materials.
Case Study: Designing a Device for Teaching Mathematics
The cultural diversity and differences in lifestyle in the city of Oaxaca make it an ideal place to study students and learning.
There are private schools that employ an educational model that is different than public schools. There are also rural schools that are located in small villages near the city.
Education during different stages of life can require different types of content. Three groups were identified for our research.
- The first group includes students up to the sixth grade and the research focus is on basic education.
- The second group includes students attending high school and college, and adults over the age of 30.
- The third group is people that were unable to complete their education.
In order to better understand some of the problems these groups experience, we performed a contextual study divided in two phases. First, understanding the students and second, exploring how students use current educational material.
The first phase of the study revealed that there is a great gap in education between the topics and information that students are expected to learn and what they really know. Children might not understand a problem, which can result in a high level of frustration. In addition, they may not be able to complete the practice exercises assigned by the teacher.
None of these problems are new. Parents also need to participate in the study, but many parents don’t have much education and some didn’t even go to school.
Finally, teachers often don’t have educational material that can generate interest and a curiosity for learning.
We tested several different existing devices using an iterative, user-centered design process that allowed us to create a prototype to achieve the following objectives:
- Define a profile of the students
- Provide an alternative design
- Increase the number of children with a basic understanding of mathematics, science, and logic
The devices we were testing were intended to help children learn mathematics, and it had to make the experience of learning both natural and efficient.
Since some children are unable to attend school every day, the device had to be portable so that it can be used anywhere.
The main reasons students do not attend class everyday are:
- Lack of money for transportation
- Needing to help their family at work
- The need to travel long distances between home and school; often walking, and sometimes taking as long as two hours
The device that was tested had the size and characteristics of an inexpensive phone. We chose not to use a smartphone or tablet, because students can be distracted by these devices or consider them something that is fragile and should not be used. Protective bumpers were also added to improve resistance (see Figure 2).
After completing the exercises on the device, students were provided with a reward so they didn’t feel that the task was simply more homework.
We found that the most effective way to make the experience easy and enjoyable for the students was to structure the task into three steps: introduction to the subject, playful activities, evaluation and rewards (see Figure 3).
After using the device, students showed a 35% improvement in the knowledge test. Another important result was that children experienced a lower level of frustration and had a greater interest in learning logic and reasoning when using the device.
Effective Design in Education
It is possible to solve some of the problems with education if we understand the students, their characteristics, weaknesses, and the problems they encounter.
Providing technology, such as tablets, to every student is not necessarily a bad idea. The problem is that the use of technology does not fit into the educational model in Mexico.
We identified four heuristics for an effective design of learning tools in this Mexico.
- Provide good communication with the student: Describing concepts and their use requires simple analogies, examples of their use, and the implementation of concepts familiar to the student.
- Eliminate device problems: Tools and technologies that requires an Internet connection must take into account the fact that a large part of the country does not have access to the Internet. Any data or information that is required should be stored in the device. Avoid requiring the Internet for sending or receiving data.
- Provide different learning options: Students have different needs, and in many cases, even if they are in the same grade, they do not have the same level of knowledge.
- Provide a device appropriate to the content: To achieve efficiency and effectiveness, the device must be appropriate for the content being taught. If the device does not meet the requirements necessary for education and the content, consider modifying the device or developing a different version, even if this requires more time.
The government and educational institutions in Mexico still have many areas for improvement. It is time to update learning strategies and provide new technologies for education.
User experience professionals can identify ideas that address the challenges in education that currently exist. The first step toward improving education is to provide different designs that take into account the diversity among students.
Next, research groups around the world need to collaborate with others to create functional strategies, share knowledge, and avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Finally, ensuring that children and young people can obtain a better education is the highest goal professionals have in education.
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