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“Personal anecdote trumps data”

3 Sep

What “works” in education? Educational stakeholders and international development workers alike strive to answer this question and, ideally, apply their answers through real-world programming that is contextually suited to the specific populations the programmes seek to benefit. The NYT ‘Science Times’ special section on “Learning What Works” highlights attempts made by the Institute of Educational Sciences to discern what truly “works” through the use of randomized control trials (RCTs). To date, 175 trials have been supported by the institute, testing the effectiveness of instructional supplies, curricula, and computerized learning platforms.

I spent most of my graduate studies at NYU learning of the burgeoning value of RCTs in the field of educational development, with some professors incorporating RCTs into their own research during my time there. Coming across this piece in the Learning What Works series illustrates the importance of utilizing these assessment methodologies:

Without well-designed trials, such assessments are largely guesswork. “It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors gave their patients,” the institute’s first director, Grover J. Whitehurst, now of the Brookings Institution, wrote in 2012.

But the “what works” approach has another hurdle to clear: Most educators, including principals and superintendents and curriculum supervisors, do not know the data exist, much less what they mean.

A survey by the Office of Management and Budget found that just 42 percent of school districts had heard of the clearinghouse. And there is no equivalent of an F.D.A. to approve programs for marketing, or health insurance companies to refuse to pay for treatments that do not work.

Unfortunately, this type of research is costly – not only in terms of funding and staffing required to carry out the data collection, but RCTs take a significant amount of time, and as implied by the name, also require a level of control that may not be available in the case of education in emergency situations. This is a challenge faced by ministries of education and education stakeholders alike. However, without proper assessment of programs, the likelihood of education programming doing more harm than good inevitably increases. Regardless of where your heart is and what your intentions may be, some ideas are simply bad ideas. When we ignore the data coming out of the field, there can be no hope for educational development anywhere in the world, in any context. Even the best laid plans and ideas can flop if not paired with sufficient assessments and evaluations (a new book critiquing Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Villages Project highlights exactly that). Research truly is the key to sustainable interventions, and I am very fortunate that my graduate studies and my professors at NYU were able to place such a strong emphasis on that fact.

Don’t worry field, we’re bringing our skills to the table.

Technology in the Field: RapidFTR

22 Aug

I came across this little gem the other day, and thought I would share before the technology becomes obsolete, as technologies so quickly do. This piece was particularly striking to me, not only because it fits in nicely with a growing discussion of how technology will continue to shape the field of development and humanitarian relief in the coming years, but because the technology itself comes straight out of New York University.

While NYU Tisch always stands out in my mind as the training grounds for some of my favorite musicians and filmmakers, it is clearly also home to innovators for the humanitarian world. Former NYU Master’s student Jorge Just used his thesis in Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program as an opportunity to expand upon the new RapidFTR app, designed collectively in NYU’s “Design for UNICEF” class and developed by Mr. Just over three years.

The RapidFTR (Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification) app is a “versatile open-source mobile phone application and data storage system” that can be used by humanitarian workers to “collect, sort and share information about unaccompanied and separated children in emergency situations so they can be registered for care services and reunited with their families.” By taking pictures, collecting sufficient data on the child and then being able to quickly share this information, the app allows for expedited reunification between children and families following displacement. It has been able to reduce the time necessary to register information about separated children from more than six weeks to a matter of hours.

The technology is being further developed and implemented by the Child Protection in Emergencies team at UNICEF with funding from the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (go ahead, drool over their incredible projects for a bit). You can read more about how RapidFTR is being used by the Ugandan Red Cross to reunite Congolese refugee children with their families here, or keep an eye on further progress on RapidFTR’s blog. Just another amazing way that mobile technology is being used to shape the future of the field and the futures of children all over the world.

So the question now is: what app are YOU going to design, and how many lives will it change for the better? If you’re tech savvy, I say it’s time to rise to the challenge.