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Building Human Capital in Developing Countries: An Interdisciplinary Research Program with Adaptive Technologies

We propose an interdisciplinary research program on human capital development in poor countries, to be housed at the Columbia Global Center in Mumbai. This project involves collaborations between researchers from the Department of Economics, Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, and Teachers College at Columbia University, the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute for Financial Management in India.

The research program is based on a policy intervention, in which we partner with local stakeholders to improve learning outcomes in India—a setting in which most primary school students do not learn basic skills. Our intervention is a novel tablet-based learning platform that provides children with dynamically tailored adaptive content suitable to their individual learning level—using daily practice and testing to master each topic before advancing to the next one. The inexpensive platform is tailored for developing country environments. Results from a pilot study indicate that the platform generates substantial learning gains.

We plan to use the scale-up of this intervention to launch a research program on human capital development. This program draws on methodologies from economics, psychology, education, and machine learning. The first phase of the research program will focus on three studies, which will: test for dynamic complementarities in education; examine whether self-confidence and the capacity for attention are malleable and the role they play in human capital formation; and study how advances in data science can be used to improve educational delivery.

This initiative will be undertaken in partnership with local stakeholders, including NGOs and the government. It will provide an in-depth training opportunity for Ph.D. candidates at Columbia as well as local researchers in India. The President’s Global Innovation Fund grant would be invaluable in providing the seed funding needed to turn this initiative into a sustained research program on human capital development.


South Asia


International & Public Affairs
Economics Department
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