Reaching the most disadvantaged has become a national and international educational priority.
“Who are the most disadvantaged”? A strong case could be made that the most disadvantaged are those disabled by severe physical or mental handicaps or those with little or no schooling from the lowest economic rungs within a country or around the world.
Given the extensive, persistent, and interlocking personal and social factors that account for school dropout, how can the use of ICT reach the most disadvantaged out-of-school youth and adult learners? This can happen only if ICT is used in the context of comprehensive programmes that address the academic, social, and linguistic needs of these learners. ICT by itself will not make a difference. But the capabilities of ICT can be used to supplement, support, reinforce, and extend these programmes.
The processing capabilities of computers can individualize learning and customize instruction to specific learners. Various productivity tools can be used by students to create significant intellectual products. Multimedia capabilities can provide multiple approaches to learning, can visualize difficult concepts, and connect school learning to real world situations. Simulations and models allow for the deep exploration of complex systems. And the networking capabilities of ICT can connect students to a range of informational and social resources outside of the classroom.
There are two fundamentally different but potentially reinforcing approaches to the use of ICT in support of the learning goals of disadvantaged learners. These can be referred to as the instructive and the constructive approaches. With the instructive approach – often typified by computer-assisted instruction (CAI) – computers and other technologies are used to provide students with direct instruction on some subject matter topic. Often the skills acquired in this way are relatively basic in nature. With the constructive approach, computer tools and other technology resources support students as they solve some problem or produce some product and in so doing acquire higher-level skills. Such skills can include the ability to search for information, reason with models, analyze data, and communicate ideas. In the analysis below, we examine both approaches. In the following section we discuss the ways ICT can be – and is being – used to address the academic, social, and linguistic needs of the disadvantaged.
The most disadvantaged learners often have serious problems as a result of limited literacy skills. They may also have problems because the language that they speak at home is not the dominant language of the formal education system or of their work situation. Effective learning environments accommodate these linguistic and cultural issues by building on current linguistic skills and supporting the acquisition of new skills.
A variety of CAI programmes have been developed that specifically focus on the needs of literacy students. Over that last several years the power of these applications has increased considerably: digital video and audio have been integrated with them, and artificial intelligence technology applications have been incorporated. Literacy tutorials can use the interactive capabilities of computers to help learners build their cognitive skills of decoding and comprehension. Tutorials focusing on decoding skills can be used to teach word recognition, phonetics, pronunciation, grammar, word usage, and vocabulary. These tutorials are often delivered on a disk or CD-ROM. They typically present information on a target skill – such as a description of a decoding strategy. They then give some examples of the use of the strategy and problems or exercises in which the learner applies the strategy.
Clearly, this renewed approach to determining what works requires significant policy and budgetary commitments. But such commitments are also required for the comprehensive services needed by out-of-school youths and adults. Until these commitments are made and acted upon, we will not know with confidence how it is that ICT can reach the most disadvantaged learners and exactly what it is that works.