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Originally written on Sep 20, 2013. Last version modified on July 10, 2014.

Access to Information Technology in Education and its Impact on the
UNDP Human Development Index.
by Javier Casaseca Calvo


The purpose of this essay is to point out how information technology (IT) is acquiring such
relevance in education that a revision of the Human Development Index (HDI) must take place
to prevent mistakes in economic policies. Information technology (IT), defined as the use of
computers and telecommunications equipment [] to send, receive, store and manipulate data
(Daintith, 2009), has increased its presence in economic activities worldwide over the last
decades. Assessing the impact of IT where the output is clearly measurable it is fairly easy but
when it comes to evaluate IT investments in other fields, like education, it is not that clear.
However, the fact that IT is becoming essential in certain educational settings (e.g. online
learning) reveals its importance as an additional factor in achieving learning outcomes and,
ultimately, in human development.
In this sense, one of the most renowned, trusted, and reliable indexes to measure human
development is the HDI, developed by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in
1990 and published yearly. This index includes education as an element that determines human
development but only takes into account years of schooling among adults and school-aged
students, which is a questionable indicator to measure education these days.
This essay will start pointing out the important presence IT has gained in education to
continue with use of the HDI as an index to measure human development where education is
one of its pillars. Then, it will explain the relevance acquired by the HDI as a complementary
index to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) upon which countries make decisions to improve.

Finally, it will end up with a proposal to review the calculation methodology of the HDI where
access to IT in education could be included in order to increase the accuracy of HDI
measurements and the effectiveness of consequent economic policies taken based on the HDI.

1. Presence of IT in education
Today it is hard to deny the presence IT has been gaining in education during the last
decades, even when there is an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of its impact.
According to a 2009 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 97 percent of
teachers had one or more computers located in the classroom (p. 3) and Internet access was
available for 93 percent of the computers located in the classroom (p. 5), both figures referring
to public schools on a daily basis in the United States. The arrival of Internet to the schools has
allowed many educators to access instantly to information in a variety of multimedia formats,
which has brought undeniable freedom from the constraints of traditional physical educational
resources in the classroom. In addition, the proliferation of mobile devices, lighter in weight and
usually more affordable than laptops or desktop workstations, has brought portability and
flexibility to learning inside and outside of the school.
In this context of IT development, distance and online education are becoming true
alternatives to allow worldwide access to education since they dilute significantly traditional
physical and economic barriers. Among online learning, Massive Open Online Courses
(MOOCs) are one of the most appealing options since they offer the possibility for continued,
advanced learning at zero cost, allowing students, life-long learners, and professionals to
acquire new skills and improve their knowledge and employability. (2013 Horizon Report, p. 4)
It is especially important to mention that IT has made possible access to education for many
who lack of the resources and/or are limited by the surrounding infrastructure. In fact, for some
developing countries, feeding their educational systems with technological development and the
necessary skills to use them could mean a considerable difference. For instance, Montaser,

Mortada & Fawzy (2012) suggest that with the proper assistance from educators [educational
technology] represents a chance to leapfrog over certain cumbersome development steps and
constraints to speed up the development process (p. 1). In many cases, even high-developed
countries are turning their eyes into the huge potential that IT represents not only in terms of
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but also in what is known as human development.

2. The measurement of human development through the HDI
The Human Development Index (HDI) development is attributed to Pakistani economist
Mahbub ul Haq who believed that economic and social policies were focused on national
income accounting and a shift was needed to other people-centered policies, promoting human
well being. Along with a group of development economists Mahbub ul Haq created in 1990 the
HDI, a composite score that measures three dimensions: life expectancy, education, and
income (UNDP Human Development Report 1990). In 2010 there was a revision of the way
calculations were made including an adjustment for inequalities but the HDI is still based in
these three pillars:
1) Life expectancy at birth, which for United Nations is an indicator of a long and healthy
2) Education, measured by mean of years of schooling for adults aged 25 years and
expected years of schooling for children of school entering age, and
3) Standard of living, estimated by Gross National Income per capita in purchasing power
parity, a statistical technique to determine currency equivalences among countries.
Therefore, the HDI establishes a minimum and a maximum value for each dimension and then
estimates a composite score between 0 and 1 for each country, being 0 the lowest value and 1
the highest in terms of human development, based on available data for each pillar. I will show a
few examples in the next section of the recent scores from the UNDP Human Development
Report 2013.

Nevertheless, even when the HDI represents probably the only formal alternative to measure
human development, it is clear too that the education pillar is missing the impact IT has caused
in educational settings. It will be discussed later but allow me to anticipate that, in my opinion,
the time for a review has come about how the HDI is estimated, specifically in terms of
measuring education. And the reason is supported by the fact that economic policies are being
approved and modified on a daily basis based on macroeconomic data and indexes like the
GDP and the HDI.

3. GDP and HDI: complementary indexes to guide economic policy
Nobel Prize economist and statistician Simon Kuznets introduced in 1934 the Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) as an index to present how United States was doing in terms of
economic growth. The GDP measured the total value of final purchases by households,
business, and government by summing consumption, investment, government spending, and
net exports in a country during 1 year (Kuznets, 1934). Then years later, during the Bretton
Woods Conference, the GDP was adopted by the participating countries and today it is still the
most extensively used index to measure the strength of a countrys economy.
However, the GDP just measures aggregated economic figures and it is hard to tell how well
individuals are doing. Even Kuznets acknowledged that the wealth of a nation can scarcely be
inferred from the measurement of national income (1934, p. 7). We do not need to be expert
economists to realize that when wealth is not equally distributed among the population, an
increase of a countrys wealth does not mean an increase of individual welfare for all. In fact, it
is especially easy to witness today that an increase in wealth might not have a real impact in
most of the population. A quick look at the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2013 report
shows that 75.4 percent of all wealth in the United States is owned by the richest 10 percent of
its people. Therefore, when the United States experiments an increase of its GDP, it does mean
that the vast majority of Americans hardly notice any improvement.

In addition, a GDP measurement by definition do not account for accumulated stocks,
collective progress, education, healthcare, or environment protection/degradation, which are
elements that impact directly on societies development and satisfaction. This is by itself a
sufficient reason why the GDP alone has limited value to represent an overall picture of
economic growth but when it comes to measure human development, the GDP can barely be
considered a sufficient indicator. As a result, many sociologists and economists started seeking
long ago for complementary ways to measure human development until in 1990 the United
Nations Development Program (UNDP) issued a report including for the first time a ranking of
countries classified by human development based on their HDI, and a yearly report has been
published ever since.
Nowadays, in addition to the world GDP ranking published by World Bank measuring
economic growth in the world, the UNDP also publishes the world HDI ranking of countries
classified by human development. Some countries rank similar positions in both lists but in other
cases the difference between the economic growth and human development is substantial. See
the following table as a mere example:
2013 GDP
2013 HDI
2013 HDI
Brazil 7 85 0.730
Canada 11 11 0.911
China 2 101 0.699
Korea, Republic of 15 12 0.909
Mexico 14 61 0.775
Norway 23 1 0.955
Sierra Leone 156 177 0.359
United States 1 3 0.937
Sources: World Bank and UNDP 2013 annual reports.
Even when the GDP is a key measurement to determine a countrys economic strength, HDI
is acquiring more relevance since, in addition to national income per capita, it draws attention to
two essential aspects of human development: education and health. We have in the United

States a perfect example of how this shift is taking place. This country is today the number one
economy in the world in terms of GDP and is ranked third in the HDI report from 2013. However,
we are witnessing how in the last few years the United States has been trying to put in place
economic policies to impact their health and education systems. The Affordable Care Act or The
National Education Technology Plan are recent examples of these initiatives. We could argue
about the nature, motivations behind, or efficiency of these policies but the fact is health and
education are moving up quickly to the top priorities US government should have in the agenda:
health ranks number one priority in the Americas Priorities and Outlook for 2014 survey and
education and health policies just came under economic growth in the 2014 Gallup survey about
what priorities should have the U.S. President and Congress.
Other underdeveloped and developing countries are also making efforts not only to see their
GDP grow but also investing in healthcare and education, where IT is being a decisive vehicle
to provide improved infrastructure, services, and outcomes. Over the past decade for some of
those countries the growth of IT has been striking: in low HDI countries like Nigeria, Haiti, Nepal
or Pakistan, Internet users growth has soared in average 1,678 percent from 1990 to 2008 and
mobile and fixed-line telephone subscribers growth has rocketed in average 12,952 percent in
the same period (Hamel, 2010, p. 9). Both the notion of health and education are strongly linked
to technology in general and IT in particular: e-diagnosis or online learning are two excellent
examples of how IT can easily change the outcomes in this key areas for human development.
Even when these low HDI countries will create a technological dependency from the providers
of IT devices and services, they will be saving billions of dollars while they develop their own
infrastructure, which could be created to fulfill their specific needs and not mirrored from fully
developed countries.
From international organizations, there is also encouragement to take advantage of the
revolution in IT. In his Millennium Report, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stressed the
importance for developing countries to benefit from opportunities emerging from the digital

revolution [] in key fields like health, education, income generation, gender equity,
environment and humanitarian aid (2000, pp. 33-40). The fact is that many countries are taking
active economic policies to invest in IT that can impact education providing their citizens with
fair access and extended educational opportunities because it is proven that the benefits of IT in
education pay off.
One of the most extensive research about the impact of IT in education was conducted by
Tamin et al. (2011) involving the analysis of 40 years of field research and over 109,000
participants where the authors revealed a significant positive small to moderate effect size
favoring the utilization of technology in the experimental condition over more traditional
instruction (i.e., technology free) (p. 16) Still, in many cases those who benefit from these
policies, specially in low HDI countries, are located in urban areas and there are still high
percentages of people from lower social classes, females, and rural areas who cannot take
advantage of educational opportunities, as Gulati (2008) pointed out. However, this same author
encourages governments to keep investing to promote learning opportunities for those left
behind due to their location, status, or lack of resources and focus on basic and primary
educational infrastructure to support low-cost, higher quality access in rural and deprived
areas. (Gulati, 2008, p.12)
Despite of the downsides of investments to embed education with IT tools, I strongly believe
that the way to unleash true economic and human potential worldwide passes through
improving access to education, where IT plays a critical role. My belief is based in two facts:
first, since the Industrial Revolution it has been proven that better educated and skilled
population bring increases in productivity and total output (measured through GDP). And with
the presence of IT this boost in productivity is even stronger for many countries like the United
States, where economic growth attributable to IT investments between 1990 and 2000 account
for about two-thirds of the acceleration in labor productivity for nonfarm business (Oliner &

Sichel, 2000). Second, recent studies prove that education brings improvements also in what
are known as noneconomic channels (Greenstone et al., 2012, p. 8) providing citizens with
better information about health issues or enabling them to more actively participate in the wider
national and even global society (UNDP Human Development Report 2011, p. 17), which
ultimately alters positively societies human development (measured through HDI).
The question we should ask ourselves now is derived from the previously exposed facts. We
know that IT in education brings additional benefits to economic growth and human
development, and countries take economic policies based on the results of GDP and HDI
indexes. However, given that access to IT in education is not measured in the HDI, are we
providing the most accurate assessment of human development with the actual HDI? In the next
section, I will argue that a revised measurement of the education pillar in the HDI is needed to
prevent faulty economic policies, especially in those low HDI countries that cannot afford any
waste of their tight public funding for education.

4. Time for a revision of the HDI and the role of education in human development
In the present moment, there is an increasingly worldwide conscience about the need to
move the focus from economic growth to human growth, not only to palliate the effects of
persistent inequality in wealth and income distribution but also in order to find solutions to
reduce the pressure on the limited stock of resources available in the planet. In such context, it
is hard to question the value of alternative index like the HDI. However, the fact that it is a
valuable index should not prevent us from thinking about alternatives to improve it.
From what we know from section 2, education is one of the three pillars to estimate the HDI
and, according to the calculation methodology, it is measured by a mean of years of schooling
for adults aged 25 years and expected years of schooling for children of school entering age. In
my opinion, 21
-century societies should not rely only in years of schooling to assess the

education pillar in the HDI, especially since we have been witnesses of the impact IT has had, is
having, and will have in education.
Let us not forget that many economic policies taken by our governments aim to improve the
countrys score in indexes like the GDP and HDI to show that elected representatives performed
a good job while in office. If the goal is to improve education by getting people in school and
improve graduation rates, we might be forgetting that, as citizens of the 21
century, we should
have a more ambitious definition of what education must represent in society. As a human
capital investment, education provides long-term results not only measured in economic figures
but also in non-economic channels (Greenstone et al., 2012, p. 8) that ultimately will impact
economic figures in the long haul too. IT in education is allowing access to learning to more
people than ever before in the course of history and investing in education, and access to IT in
particular, should extent the benefits of education, increasing the potential for human
development and economic growth. As I see it, this flow does not work as a linear input-out
system but more like a virtuous circle where three components are highly interrelated:

Therefore my proposal is to include access to IT in the education pillar of the HDI, which
would help to increase accuracy in terms of assessing the impact of education in human
development. The reason to improve the accuracy of the HDI lies on the fact that governments

and all kind of private companies need to know if their investment efforts pay off. A government,
especially from a low HDI country, wants to get assurance that efforts being taken to improve
their citizens socioeconomic potential are worth to continue in that path. Investment companies
also need to know where opportunities to allocate jobs and investments offer a better chance of
success. Without the right information, those decisions can be made wrongly and the cost of the
missing opportunity (or opportunity cost) could be significant when it comes to education.
However, this proposal does not lack of obstacles and could be hard to achieve given the
questions that arise. For instance, is access to IT in education the best variable to be included
in the education pillar of the HDI? Should we consider others instead or in addition? How are we
going to measure access to IT in education? Will UNDP have access to similar measurements
in all countries? Will access be measured only in schools or also in other places where people
acquire skills for professional development? If low HDI countries have access to high HDI
education systems, will this create technological and intellectual dependency? And these are
just a few questions that can be added to a longer list. In any case, I believe that the issue at
hand is important enough to raise our concern and start thinking in ways to improve the
measurement of education in the HDI.

The HDI is an index that measures human development and is gaining importance as a
complementary macroeconomic variable to the GDP. Today, many countries are taking actions
to improve their education and health systems since mere economic growth cannot be
sustained as in the past, given the high pressure we are putting on planets limited resources.
One pillar of the HDI is education but its measurement does not contemplate the importance
IT is gaining as a vehicle to democratize access to learning worldwide. In this essay I have
offered arguments to propose a revision of the actual calculation methodology in order to
include access to IT in education as a possible variable to consider in addition to years of

schooling. It is a proposal that will find its own downsides to be developed but my conclusion is
that, in order to consider education as a long-term capital human investment and to prevent
waste of public and private resources, the HDI should reflect better the way education is
assessed in this valuable index.


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