Our Top Ten Blog Posts by readership in 2013
This post was originally published on January 8, 2013
The newest trend in Big Data is the personal touch. When both the New York Times and Fast Company have headlines that trumpet: “Sure, Big Data Is Great. But So Is Intuition.” (The Times) and “Without Human Insight, Big Data Is Just A Bunch Of Numbers.” (Fast Company) you know that a major trend is afoot.
So what’s up?
The claims for what Big Data can do have been extraordinary, witness Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s seminal article in October in the Harvard Business Review: “Big Data: The Management Revolution,” which began with the showstopper: “‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure.’” It’s hard not to feel that Big Data will provide the solutions to everything after that statement. As the HBR article noted: “…the recent explosion of digital data is so important. Simply put, because of big data, managers can measure, and hence know, radically more about their businesses, and directly translate that knowledge into improved decision making and performance.”
By following the work rather than tidying it all up with a neat but deceitful retrospective evaluation, they record the true messiness of building social contracts between citizens and states: the ups and downs, the almost-giving-up-and-then-winning, the crucial roles of individuals, the importance of scandals and serendipity.
I’m planning to write a paper on this, but thought I’d kick off with a blog and pick your brains for references, suggestions etc. Everyone these days (funders, bosses etc) seems to be demanding a Theory of Change (ToC), although when challenged, many have only the haziest notion of what they mean by it. It’s a great opportunity, but also a risk, if ToCs become so debased that they are no more than logframes on steroids. So in internal conversations, blogs etc I’m gradually fleshing out a description of a ToC. When I ran this past some practical evaluation Oxfamers, they helpfully added a reality check – how to have a ToC conversation with an already existing programme, rather than a blank sheet of paper?
But first the blank sheet of paper. If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll probably recognize some of this, because it builds on the kinds of questions I ask when trying to understand past change episodes, but throws them forward. Once you’ve decided roughly what you want to work on (and that involves a whole separate piece of analysis), I reckon it’s handy to break down a ToC into four phases, captured in the diagram.
Not a week goes by where I don't receive an unsolicited email from a company touting the benefits of its new 'educational videogame'. Indeed, just last week I opened my inbox to find two separate emails proclaiming how two different mobile gaming apps were destined to "transform learning!!!" Now, in a lot of the cases, I must confess that I am not always sure why something is an 'educational game', and not just a 'game' (although if I am in a difficult mood, I might offer that in too many instances an 'educational game' is 'a game that really isn't much fun'). That said, there is no denying that videogames are big business around the world. So -- increasingly -- is education. Even most people who fear that potential negative effects of some (or even most) videogames on young people would, at the same time, acknowledge the promise and potential for videogames to offer enriching learning experiences. The history of the introduction of educational technologies is in many ways long on promise and potential, however, and short on actual evidence of how they impact learning in tangible and fundamental ways.
Much is made of the potential for ICTs to be used to promote more personalized learning experiences through the introduction of various types of ICT-enabled assessment systems. For me, it has long seemed like the most powerful real-time learning assessment engines have been found in videogames, where actions (or inactions) are often met with near instantaneous responses, to which the player is then challenged to respond in turn. This feedback loop -- taking an action, being presented with information as a result, having to synthesize and analyze this information and doing something as a result -- might meet some people's definition of 'learning'. A good videogame engages its users so strongly that they are willing to fail, and fail, and fail again, until they learn enough from this failure that they can proceed with the game. Even where educational software is not explicitly labeled as a 'game', designers are increasingly introducing game-like elements (badges, achievement bonuses, scoring systems) as a way to promote user (learner? player?) engagement as part of a process known as 'gamification'.
The use of videogames for educational purposes, or at least in educational contexts, is far from an OECD or U.S. phenomenon. Whether I am visiting a school computer lab after hours in central Russia, an Internet cafe filled with students in Indonesia or standing behind some schoolgirls carrying phones between classes in Tanzania, 'educational' videogames seem to be nearly everywhere. Past posts on the EduTech blog have profiled things like the use of video games on mobile phones to promote literacy in rural India and EVOKE, an online game for students across Africa which the World Bank helped sponsor a few years ago. When I speak with young software entrepreneurs in Nairobi or Accra or Manila, they often talk excitedly about the latest educational game they are developing (for markets local and distant).
Do educational games 'work'? Are they 'effective'?
And if so: How can they be used in schools?
Questions such as these are of increasing interest to scholars. Given both their potential for learning, and how aggressively videogames are being marketed to many education systems, they should be of increasing interest to educational policymakers as well. Some recent research brings us a little closer to a time when we can answer some of them.
The trouble with hosting a massive argument, as this blog recently did on the results agenda (the most-read debate ever on this blog) is that I then have to make sense of it all, if only for my own peace of mind. So I’ve spent a happy few hours digesting 10 pages of original posts and 20 pages of top quality comments (I couldn’t face adding the twitter traffic).
On the debate itself, I had a strong sense that it was unhelpfully entrenched throughout – the two sides were largely talking past each other, accusing each other of ‘straw manism’ (with some justification) and lobbing in the odd cheap shot (my favourite, from Chris and Stefan ‘Please complete the sentence ‘More biased research is better because…’ – debaters take note). Commenter Marcus Jenal summed it up perfectly:
Recently I had a lot of conversations about evidence. First, one of the periodic retreats of Oxfam senior managers reviewed our work on livelihoods, humanitarian partnership and gender rights. The talk combined some quantitative work (for example the findings of our new ‘effectiveness reviews’), case studies, and the accumulated wisdom of our big cheeses. But the tacit hierarchy of these different kinds of knowledge worried me – anything with a number attached had a privileged position, however partial the number or questionable the process for arriving at it. In contrast, decades of experience were not even credited as ‘evidence’, but often written off as ‘opinion’. It felt like we were in danger of discounting our richest source of insight – gut feeling.
In this state of discomfort, I went off for lunch with Lant Pritchett (right – he seems to have forgiven me for my screw-up of a couple of years ago). He’s a brilliant and original thinker and speaker on any number of development issues, but I was most struck by the vehemence of his critique of the RCT randomistas and the quest for experimental certainty. Don’t get me (or him) wrong, he thinks the results agenda is crucial in ‘moving from an input orientation to a performance orientation’ and set out his views as long ago as 2002 in a paper called ‘It pays to be ignorant’, but he sees the current emphasis on RCTs as an example of the failings of ‘thin accountability’ compared to the thick version.
Can you tell if a news outlet, an NGO or a government is picturing a person, an event or an issue fairly? It can be very hard to assess visual “balance” when photos are scattered across a website, and appear sporadically over a span of time. There may be an anecdotal impression that there is bias, but visual bias has been very difficult to document.
The social media site Pinterest is now making documentation possible.
Have you heard of Pinterest? According to the site itself, it’s “a Virtual Pinboard” that lets users “organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web. People use pinboards to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and organize their favorite recipes.” Doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of site that would help journalists or academics, governments or NGOs, does it? But Pinterest is turning out to be a stealth tool for researchers.
Final (for now) evaluationtastic installment on Oxfam’s attempts to do public warts-and-all evaluations of randomly selected projects. This commentary comes from Dr Jyotsna Puri, Deputy Executive Director and Head of Evaluation of the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)
Oxfam’s emphasis on quality evaluations is a step in the right direction. Implementing agencies rarely make an impassioned plea for evidence and rigor in their evidence collection, and worse, they hardly ever publish negative evaluations. The internal wrangling and pressure to not publish these must have been so high:
‘What will our donors say? How will we justify poor results to our funders and contributors?’
‘It’s suicidal. Our competitors will flaunt these results and donors will flee.’
‘Why must we put these online and why ‘traffic light’ them? Why not just publish the reports, let people wade through them and take away their own messages?’
‘Our field managers will get upset, angry and discouraged when they read these.’
‘These field managers on the ground are our colleagues. We can’t criticize them publicly… where’s the team spirit?’
‘There are so many nuances on the ground. Detractors will mis-use these scores and ignore these ground realities.’
The zeitgeist may indeed be transparency, but few organizations are actually doing it.
More DFIDistas on the blog: this time Nick York, DFID’s top evaluator and Caroline Hoy, who covers NGO evaluation, comment on Oxfam’s publication of a set of 26 warts-and-all programme effectiveness reviews.
From DFID’s perspective, and now 2 years into the challenges of ‘embedding evaluation’ in a serious way into our own work, we know how difficult it often is to find reliable methods to identify what works and measure impact for complex development interventions. Although it is relatively well understood how to apply standard techniques in some areas – such as health, social protection, water and sanitation and microfinance – there are whole swathes of development where we need to be quite innovative and creative in finding approaches to evaluation that can deal with the complexity of the issues and the nature of the programmes. Many of these areas are where NGOs such as Oxfam do their best work.