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Ten observations about 1-to-1 educational computing efforts around the world

Michael Trucano's picture
I do not fear computers,  I fear the lack of them
I do not fear computers,  I fear the lack of them

This year's Global Symposium on ICT use in education in Gyeongju, Korea focused on "Transforming Education with 1:1 Computing: Learning from Practical Experiences in Providing Students with Their Own Individual Computing Devices".

Many countries are investing enormous amounts of resources and effort to increase the availability of information and communication technologies (ICTs) across their education systems. So-called "1-to-1 computing" initiatives are increasingly prominent as part of such efforts. In some places these are important components of larger educational reform processes that seek to enable and support teaching and learning processes in ways both mundane and profound, traditional and (to adopt a common related buzzword) transformative. In other places these are largely 'hardware dumps', dropping in lots of shiny new devices with little attention to how to integrate them into teaching and learning practices. Common to both circumstances is often an intense belief that 'change' of some sort is necessary if students are to be able to thrive in increasingly technology-saturated, and technology-determined, global economies and societies. While the vision behind many large-scale 1-to-1 educational computing projects may be rather hazy or muddled, they do represent potent symbols for change in many countries. Even if the end goals are not always clearly defined, these efforts are in part a reflection of the belief, as proclaimed by one participant at this year global symposium, that "the status quo is more dangerous than the unknown".

To help set the stage for the discussions that were to follow, I opened the first session at this year's global symposium on ICT use in education by sharing a short series of general, broad observations about trends and lessons from 1-to-1 educational computing efforts around the world. In case they might be of any interest or utility to a wider audience, I thought I would share them here on the EduTech blog. These comments are not meant to be comprehensive in scope, nor are they meant to be focused (like so much of the research and rhetoric around 1-to-1 easily available on the Internet) on the experiences and realities of what 1-to-1 currently looks like in 'highly developed' countries (especially the United States).

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Trends and Lessons from
1-to-1 Educational Computing Efforts Around the World:
Ten observations

1-to-1 Educational Computing -- A report from Korea

Michael Trucano's picture
no, we are talking about  1-to-1 (educational computing), not (five) won to Juan (Mata)
no, we are talking about
'1-to-1' (educational computing),
not (five) 'won to Juan' (Mata)

Not too long ago I did some advisory work in a country considering the purchases of lots of educational tablets. Previously this country had funded lots of computer labs in schools, but they had experienced great difficulties in integrating these facilities into 'normal' teaching and learning activities. Buying devices as part of a '1-to-1 educational computing' initiative, it was felt, would get around many of the difficulties they had experienced with desktop computers in dedicated school computer labs. (I had my doubts about this.)

When observing a class, I noticed that all of the students had the same backpacks. "What's up with that?", I asked.

"Oh, it is very interesting," came the reply. "Those backpacks are purchased by the state for use by low income students. You can see from the fact that all of these backpacks are in the room that the children here are from very low socio-economic levels in society."

I then asked how many of the students had a phone in their backpack. All of them but one (who said he forgot his at home, someone else told me later it had been stolen) said that they did, and most students pulled them out to show me.

After asking a few follow-up questions about what they did with them (Facebook! and texting! were the two most common answers) and once class had resumed, I turned to my conterparts in government and observed that I also "found this all very interesting. You are going to buy lots of small computing devices for these students to use by spending public funds, in part because they are not using the devices that you purchased for them before. Despite the fact they are all poor enough to qualify to receive free government backpacks, all of their families have somehow found the money to buy them mobile phones, which they obviously all use quite heavily. Have you thought about taking advantage of this personal computing infrastructure that is already installed in the pockets and pocketbooks (or backpacks) of the students, and orienting some your investments for different purposes, like upgrading connectivity and/or spending more funds on content and/or training?"

This phenomenon, known as 'bring your own device' (BYOD) or 'bring your own technology (BYOT) in educational technology circles, was just one of many topics discussed and debated at the most recent Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education, which took place in the provincial Korean city of Gyeongju.

In search of the ideal educational technology device for developing countries

Michael Trucano's picture
you have some important choices to make on which path to choose ...
you have some important choices to make
on which path to choose ...

In two weeks I'll visit BETT, the London-based event which is sometimes referred to as the 'world's biggest educational technology trade show'. While I don't know if it is in fact the 'biggest' (ISTE's annual event is huge as well), nor how one calculates magnitude in such cases, there is no doubt that it is indeed really, really, really, big.

I attend BETT most years for a number of reasons. Doing so provides me with a chance to see all of the new cool gadgets and applications in one place. It is pretty easy to schedule meetings packed into a few days with lots of groups and people who are also at BETT; 'back home' it would take months to coordinate such meetings.

Conveniently, BETT takes place immediately after the Education World Forum, where scores of education ministers gather together each year to share experiences about challenges and successes related to education in their countries. This 'convenience' is actually no coincidence: Many ministerial delegations, especially those from middle and low income countries, stay on to tour the exhibition halls at BETT, to see the 'latest and greatest' and be (presumably in some cases) wined and dined by various vendors hoping to build relationships and do some business. While I skip the 'hospitality' stuff (not really my scene), I typically find it very educational to attach myself to, and rotate between, a few ministerial delegations each year as they tour the BETT exhibition spaces. Doing so offers me some exposure and insight into what such groups are interested (and not interested) in, and provides me with a 'fly-on-the-wall' view into the various sales pitches that are made to these sorts of government officials by companies eager to ring in the new year with some big contracts – as well as how such officials respond to such marketing.

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Just as I find the questions that educational officials ask of vendors when they tour the BETT exhibition spaces to be revealing in many ways, I am often intrigued by the related questions that many of these companies then pose to me.

As a result of my work at the World Bank helping to advise on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world, I am, for example, asked from time to time by companies sets of questions that can be summarized as follows:

What would be the 'ideal' educational technology device for use in schools,
and by teachers and students, in developing countries?

Who owns the laptops and tablets used by students and teachers, and how does this affect their use?

Michael Trucano's picture
yes, that’s right, that new tablet is mine, all mine! (or is it?)
yes, that’s right, that new tablet is mine, all mine!
(or is it?)

Many countries and education systems around the world are currently engaged in large-scale efforts to introduce huge numbers of computing devices (PCs, laptops, tablets) into schools and into the hands of teachers and students,  and many more initiatives are under serious consideration. However one might feel about such projects (in general, or in particular instances), there is no denying that these can be quite complex undertakings, rolling out over many years, in multiple stages, with many interdependent components (related to e.g. infrastructure, content, training, assessment), and costing (tens of, sometimes hundreds of) millions of dollars. When planning such initiatives, there are many questions to be asked, large and small. One question that I don’t find is typically given much serious attention relates to what would, at first glance, probably appear to be a rather simple one, with a simple answer:

Who owns the laptops (tablets) that will be distributed to students (teachers)?

I regularly ask this question as part of my interactions with leaders of various such projects around the world. I find that I rarely get a simple or complete answer. This is potentially problematic, as the responses to this question, and a set of related ones, can have a very profound impact on how such projects function in practice, and thus on their (potential) impact as well.

Here’s one example of why this sort of thing is important:

Big educational laptop and tablet projects -- Ten countries to learn from

Michael Trucano's picture
tablets loom increasingly large on the horizon in many places
tablets loom increasingly large
on the horizon in many places

[also available in Thai]

Recent headlines from places as diverse as Kenya ("6,000 primary schools picked for free laptop project") and California ("Los Angeles plans to give 640,000 students free iPads") are just two announcements  among many which highlight the increasing speed and scale by which portable computing devices (laptops, tablets) are being rolled out in school systems all over the world. Based on costs alone -- and the costs can be very large! -- such headlines suggest that discussions of technology use in schools are starting to become much more central to educational policies and planning processes in scores of countries, rich and poor, across all continents.

Are these sorts of projects good ideas? It depends. The devil is often in the details (and the cost-benefit analysis), I find. Whether or not they are good ideas, there is no denying that they are occurring, for better and/or for worse, in greater frequency, and in greater amounts. More practically, then:

What do we know about what works,
and what doesn't (and how?, and why?)
when planning for and implementing such projects,
what the related costs and benefits might be,
and where might we look as we try to find answers to such questions?

Let them eat laptops?*

Michael Trucano's picture

in my hand I have a very precious gift for youAs a result of reading the recent IDB study on the impact of the One Laptop Per Child project in Peru, my World Bank colleague Berk Ozler recently published a great post on the World Bank's Development Impact blog asking "One Laptop Per Child is not improving reading or math. But, are we learning enough from these evaluations?

Drawing insights from his readings of a few evaluations of technology use (one in Nepal [PDF] and one in Romania) he notes that, at quick glance, some large scale implementations of educational technologies are, for lack of a more technical term, rather a 'mess':

"The reason I call this a mess is because I am not sure (a) how the governments (and the organizations that help them) purchased a whole lot of these laptops to begin with and (b) why their evaluations have not been designed differently – to learn as much as we can from them on the potential of particular technologies in building human capital."

Three members of the team at IDB that led the OLPC Peru evaluation have responded ("One Laptop per Child revisited") in part to question (b) in the portion of Berk's informative and engaging post excerpted above.  I thought I'd try to try to help address question (a).

First let me say: I have no firsthand knowledge of the background to the OLPC Peru project specifically, nor of the motivations of various key actors instrumental in helping to decide to implement the program there as it was implemented, beyond what I have read about it online. (There is quite a lot written about this on the web; I won't attempt to summarize the many vibrant commentaries on this subject, but, for those who speak Spanish or who are handy with online translation tools, some time with your favorite search engine should unearth some related facts and a lot of opinions -- which I don't feel well-placed to evaluate in their specifics.) I have never worked in Peru, and have had only informal contact with some of the key people working on the project there.  The World Bank, while maintaining a regular dialogue with the Ministry of Education in Peru, was not to my knowledge involved in the OLPC project there in any substantive way. The World Bank itself is helping to evaluate a small OLPC pilot in Sri Lanka; a draft set of findings from that research is currently circulating and hopefully it will be released in the not too distant future.

That said, I *have* been involved in various capacities with *lots* of other large scale initiatives in other countries where lots of computers were purchased for use in schools and/or by students and/or teachers, and so I do feel I can offer some general comments based on this experience, in case it might of interest to anyone.

Around the World with Portugal's eEscola Project and Magellan Initiative

Michael Trucano's picture

Magellan is not the only famous Portuguese export these daysWhen people think of projects around the world to blanket schools with low cost laptops, initiatives associated with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project often spring first to mind.  On a country level, it is the example of Uruguay that is probably most drawing attention from around the world from people interested in learning about how exactly a country can go about providing computing resources to all of its students, and what might happen as a result.  Indeed, Uruguay is increasingly a 'must visit' stop for education officials from countries planning for massive investments in technology use in their education systems for the first time, as well as from more 'advanced' countries who have not moved forward as quickly as has in attempting to utilize ICTs to transform the way educational activities are delivered and empower students and communities in new ways. (Just last month, the World Bank sponsored delegations from Armenia and Russia to visit the Plan Ceibal headquarters in Uruguay and learn firsthand about the Uruguayan experience from those who have been leading it.)  There is another country whose experience is less well known around the world than Uruguay's, but which is every bit as interesting, but in many different ways: that of Portugal.