The tragedy of our times is that access to quality education is limited. Whether in the US, internationally, education remains a privilege that only select few are entitled to, whereas a majority of this without financial resources are forced to compromise on the quality of education or go without. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty and illiteracy which condemns the poor to stay poor. In the past few years technology has emerged as the single biggest game changer in the field of education. As computing has become cheaper and more powerful, access to technology has increased proportionately. Another trend has been led by those who question traditional education methods and structure. For example many feel that teachers unions lead to a shift in focus away from the child to the pecuniary interests of the teachers. Others argue that the traditional classroom lecture where teachers talk and students listen is no longer effective. These trends have led to some interesting developments. Of these one is the focus of nonprofit organizations on supplying cheap tablets for free in the developing world. Another is the interesting possibility of eliminating school systems and teachers via innovative use of technology.
About four years ago, the World Bank's infoDev program secured funding to do a 'global survey of the use of mobile phones in education in developing countries', based on the belief that the increasing availability of the small, connected computing devices more commonly known as 'mobile phones' was going to have increasing relevance to school systems around the world. For a variety of reasons -- including regrettable internal bureaucratic delays and, more fundamentally, the fact that, when we looked around at what was actually happening on the ground in most of the world, not much was actually going on (yet), and so we concluded that a global survey of expert thought of the potential future relevance of the use of mobile phone in education wouldn't yet be terribly useful -- we ended up scrapping this research project, hoping that others would pursue similar work when the time was ripe. (The funds were re-programmed to support EVOKE, the World Bank's online 'serious game', the second version of which is scheduled to launch in September in Portuguese and English, on both PCs and mobile phones, with a special focus on Brazil.) A few of the organizations involved in the mEducation Alliance, an international collaborative effort in which the World Bank participates that is working to explore cutting edge intersections between mobiles, education and development and to promote collective knowledge sharing, have just published some short papers that have accomplished much of what we had hoped to do with this sort of survey. We'll look at two of these efforts this week on the EduTech blog: the first led by UNESCO, the second (in a follow up post this Friday) by the Mastercard Foundation, working with the GSMA.
The World Bank is revising its Operational Guidelines for Textbooks and Reading Materials [pdf]. Commonly referred to as our 'textbook policy', this is a guidance document for our ‘clients’ and partners in ministries of education and finance, our own staff and (to a lesser extent) broader stakeholder communities interested and involved in the development, procurement, dissemination, and assessment of the use, of learning materials (especially within the context of World Bank-funded projects in the education sector).
The current policy dates from 2002. My first reaction when I heard that the World Bank would be revising its “textbook policy” was to the term itself. In 2012, surely we should be thinking beyond just 'textbooks', more broadly encompassing a wide variety of educational resources than the traditional conception of a printed book landing with a thud on the desk of a student? Despite regular proclamations from certain quarters about the impending ‘death of the printed book’, printed textbooks – especially in the developing countries where the World Bank is active -- aren’t going away any time soon. That said, there is no doubt that the landscape of and business climate for ‘educational publishers’ is changing radically in much of the world, and that this change is being fueled in large part by the increased distribution and adoption of a variety of disruptive technologies, which are increasingly to be found in schools and local communities, even in some of the poorest.
How might, or should, a new World Bank ‘textbook policy’ be relevant and useful in such a world going forward? How narrowly – or expansively – should it consider its guidance related to learning materials? To what extent should such a policy attempt to signal or highlight the potential relevance or importance of certain trends, approaches or perspectives – especially as they relate to the emergence of a variety of new technologies?
When 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.
At an event last year in Uruguay for policymakers from around the world, a few experts who have worked in the field of technology use in education for a long time commented that there was, in their opinion and in contrast to their experiences even a few years ago, a surprising amount of consensus among the people gathered together on what was really important, what wasn't, and on ways to proceed (and not to proceed). Over the past two years, I have increasingly made the same comment to myself when involved in similar discussions in other parts of the world. At one level, this has been a welcome development. People who work with the use of ICTs in education tend to be a highly connected bunch, and the diffusion of better (cheaper, faster) connectivity has helped to ensure that 'good practices and ideas' are shared with greater velocity than perhaps ever before. Even some groups and people associated with the 'give kids computers, expect magic to happen' philosophy appear to have had some of their more extreme views tempered in recent years by the reality of actually trying to put this philosophy into practice.
That said, the fact that "everyone agrees about most everything" isn't always such a good thing. Divergent opinions and voices are important, if only to help us reconsider why we believe what we believe. (They are also important because they might actually be right, of course, and all of the rest of us wrong, but that's another matter!) Even where there is an emerging consensus among leading thinkers and practitioners about what is critically important, this doesn't mean that what is actually being done reflects this consensus -- or indeed, that this consensus 'expert' opinion is relevant in all contexts.
What does it take to introduce e-books and e-readers into communities in low income countries -- and is this a good idea?
Judging by the increasing number of inquiries we receive here at the World Bank on this topic, we are not alone in asking such questions. If you want help in trying to answer these and related queries based on evidence from pioneers in this area, you will most likely find yourself at some point in contact with the folks at the Worldreader NGO. Co-founded by one of the former senior executives at Amazon, Worldreader is working with its partners to "bring millions of books to underserved children and families in the developing world". Jonathan Wareham, a professor at ESADE in Barcelona who serves on the Worldreader - Spanish Foundation Board and collaborates with the organization on various research activities into the use of e-readers and e-books, recently stopped by the World Bank to talk about what Worldreader is learning from its work in Africa.
I may spend my entire day staring at a computer screen, but when I'm not at work, I'm an avid magazine reader. Because of that, I've become increasingly interested in how the magazine industry is responding to the changes in media consumption and content delivery.