Campus & Community

Radcliffe honors Kouskalis ’08 with Fay Prize for ‘compelling’ thesis

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The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has named Harvard senior and sociology and economics joint-concentrator Eric Kouskalis winner of its 2008 Captain Jonathan Fay Prize. Kouskalis was chosen for the quality and impact of his senior thesis, which featured a compelling argument against the current methods for introducing and deploying computers into South African and Namibian school systems. Barbara J. Grosz, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, presented the Fay Prize at Radcliffe’s annual Strawberry Tea, held on May 28 in the Faculty Room of Harvard University Hall.

“The Radcliffe Institute is pleased to honor Eric Kouskalis for his in-depth research and multifaceted analysis of an important issue for educational policymakers in developing countries,” said Grosz. “With great confidence in his future scholarship, we look forward to watching Eric develop into an influential thinker and problem solver.”

The Radcliffe Institute awards the Fay Prize to members of Harvard’s graduating class who have produced the most outstanding scholarly work or original research in any field, which can take the form of a thesis, class research, or creative arts project. Candidates for the Fay Prize are chosen from among the nominees for Harvard College’s Thomas T. Hoopes Prize, awarded annually for outstanding scholarly work or research.

Kouskalis’ thesis, “Does Not Compute: The Introduction of New Technologies to South African and Namibian Classrooms,” examines the effects on student performance of the introduction of computers into approximately 2,500 schools in Namibia and South Africa. Kouskalis specifically considered how computer deployment affected students’ standardized test scores. This question is of significant educational policy importance to developing countries, as local governments and international aid organizations are presently introducing computers into schools there in hopes of improving student achievement. Kouskalis’ research involved numerous interviews with teachers and principals on-site, from which he gleaned valuable insights into the technical, human, and organizational factors that impede successful computer use in their schools. From this research, he was able to develop insightful analyses, draw conclusions, and provide information that may influence future policy in these countries.

Mary Brinton, the Reischauer Institute Professor of Sociology at Harvard University and Kouskalis’ thesis adviser, commented, “The thesis is distinguished by the clarity of the research question, the tremendous theoretical and policy value of the question, thorough immersion in the relevant social science literatures and, above all, the very skillful use of sophisticated quantitative research strategies coupled with well-informed qualitative analysis.”

Based on his findings, Kouskalis argues that the use of computers in classroom settings in these countries has not improved students’ standardized test scores. He analyzes the reasons for the failure and concludes, for instance, that technical issues — such as delayed and unreliable maintenance of hardware and software — are a greater hindrance to effective computer use in developing countries than they are in developed ones. He suggests that, in addition to simply supplying computers, governments and organizations should ensure that schools are capable of supporting computers’ technical needs.

According to Kouskalis, the key to success is using computers as supplements to traditional classroom learning — where students work independently with computers on assigned tasks — rather than having teachers use them as lesson-delivery tools. These findings could be significant to educational policy in developing countries because they run counter to the status quo and beliefs that simply filling classrooms with computers will improve student performance.

Kouskalis stated that he was “pleasantly surprised and extremely honored to be chosen for the Fay Prize.” He also expressed his deep gratitude to his thesis advisers, his collaborators in Namibia and South Africa, and his friends and family.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Kouskalis spent time in Namibia, working on a variety of education-related development projects. His most recent position was assistant country director for WorldTeach Namibia. At Harvard, he co-founded and served as the program director of the Harvard College Youth Leadership Initiative and was also a student government representative. Following graduation, he’ll work in Kilifi, Kenya, supported by Harvard’s Elliot and Anne Richardson Fellowship. There, he’ll focus his efforts on a social enterprise project in agricultural development with the nonprofit organization KOMAZA. Kouskalis is from Deer Park, N.Y.