The World Bank is concluding an analysis of over 800 policy documents related to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education from high, middle and low income countries around the world in order to gain insight into key themes of common interest to policymakers. This is work is part of the institution's multi-year efforts under its Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative to provide policy-relevant guidance for education decisionmakers in a number of policy 'domains' (including areas such as workforce development; school finance; teachers; management information systems; equity and inclusion; and student assessment).
This analysis of ICT/education policies under the SABER-ICT research initiative suggests that there is a set of eight common themes which are, in various ways, typically addressed in such documents. The specific related policy guidance related to each theme often differs from place to place, and over time, as do the emphasis and importance ascribed to this guidance. Nevertheless, some clear messages emerge from an analysis of this collected database of policy documents, suggesting some general conventional wisdom about 'what matters most' from the perspective of policymakers when it comes to technology use in their education systems, and how this changes as ICT use broadens and deepens.
It should be noted that what appears to matter most to policymakers, at least according to the official policy documents that they draft and circulate related to ICT use in education, may not in fact be what *actually* matters most from the perspectives of students, teachers, school leaders, parents and local communities, politicians, local industry, academics, researchers and other various key stakeholders and beneficiaries.
Whether one agrees with apparent policy intent or not, being able to identify such intent can be a catalyst for important discussions and analysis:
Is this really what's most important? Does this policy rhetoric match our on-the-ground reality?
If not: What can or should be done?
What's the impact of technology use on education, and on learning?
This simple question is rather difficult to answer, for a number of reasons. The quick answer -- that 'it depends on how you are using it, and to what end' -- may be unsatisfying to many, but is nevertheless accurate. That said, before you attempt to assess impact, it can be rather helpful first to understand how technologies are being used (or not used) in actual practice. And before you can do this, it is useful to know what is actually available for use today, as well as some of the key factors which may influence this use. Being able to compare this state of affairs with those found in other countries around the world can help you put this knowledge into some comparative context. (Are we typical, or an outlier? Are we ahead, or behind?)
Building on these efforts, it is expected that the first comprehensive global initiative will commence next year to regularly collect basic data related to technology use in education in *all* countries, big *and* small, rich *and* poor.
What sort of data might be important to collect, and what can be collected in practice?
Are the existing set of 'indicators' put forward by the UIS relevant and useful, or should they be reduced/enlarged/amended, based on what has been learned as part of efforts to collect and analyze them in recent years?
To help explore such questions, the UIS brought together a 'technical advisory panel' comprising an acronymic soup of organizations (including ADEA, ALECSO, CETIC, European Schoolnet, ITU, KERIS, OECD, TAGI, UNESCO, World Bank) earlier this month to review lessons from the first set of regional data collection efforts and to provide comments on, and suggest possible changes to, a consolidated list of related ICT/education 'indicators' and related questionnaire [pdf]. A new global survey of technology use in education, meant to be part of the regular, on-going data collection efforts of UIS in the education sector coordinated through national statistical offices, is due to launch in September 2015.
As we near the halfway point of the second decade of the 21st century, it is difficult not to marvel at all of the new technologies that have insinuated their way into daily lives of increasing numbers of people around the world. An upcoming publication from the World Bank, the World Development Report for 2016, will explore the Internet's "impact on economic growth, on social and economic opportunity, and on the efficiency of public service delivery". The EduTech blog regularly features and comments on specific projects and research about how the Internet (as well as related technologies, technology platforms and technology-enabled approaches) is being utilized to benefit education in developing countries around the world (as well as some instances where it is having no benefit at all).
As insightful as lessons from efforts like those related to using mobile phones to promote literacy in Papua New Guinea or providing all students with their own laptops in Uruguay might be, however, it is worthwhile to take a step (or two, or twenty) back in an attempt to see the outlines of the big(ger) picture. While it is true that groups around the world continue to implement innovative solutions to simulate Internet connectivity in places where it still doesn't exist in schools (through the caching of content on local servers or portable drives, for example), this is almost always a stop-gap measure until something better comes along, namely: reliable, robust, fast, inexpensive connections to the Internet.
On-the-ground, practical experiences with introducing and using new digital technologies in education systems around the world over the past two decades have led many to conclude that a 'second digital divide' has emerged, separating those with the skills and competencies to benefit from the use of these new technologies from those who are not benefitting, or not benefitting to the same extent. There can be little doubt that such a second divide exists, and that this divide, which is focused on the impact of technology use, may well be more difficult to bridge than the original 'digital divide', which related primarily to access to technology. While in the end we are rightly concerned with outcomes, and impacts, inputs still matter. With this in mind, and with full acknowledgement that connectivity is not an end in itself, but rather a means to a larger end, it might be worth asking:
How many schools around the world are connected to the Internet?
Until recently we had little hard (or even soft) data to help us answer what would appear, on its face, to be a rather simple question. Things are improving in this regard, however. As it stands today, your best source of insight in this regard is probably a document with the delightfully bureaucratic title, Final WSIS Targets Review: Achievements, Challenges and the Way Forward, that you may have missed when it appeared last June. In case it may be of interest (a former boss of mine used to say: We pay you to read this stuff so that we don't have to!), I thought I'd take a quick look at it here.
If you've ever been involved in discussions about current uses of technology in education -- and, given that you are currently reading a post on the World Bank's EduTech blog, it's probably safe to assume that you have -- you've probably noticed that, at some point in the back-and-forth, someone will inevitably be unable to resist talking about what's coming next. The history of technology use in education is, in part, a history of predictions about the use of technology in the future.
For the past few decades, many people around the world have almost instinctively looked toward Asia to get glimpses and insight into what the next wave of consumer technologies might look like and do, and how young people might use them. From the 'computer nerds' who frequented the Akihabara section of Tokyo in the 1980s to the young Filipinos whose affinity for SMS earned their country its designation as the 'texting capital of the world' around the turn of the century to today's designation of Indonesia as the 'social media capital of the world', the center of gravity for emerging uses of new technologies by young people has often been in the East. It is indeed no coincidence that the World Bank has co-sponsored an annual event bringing education policymakers to Seoul each fall to help discuss and plan for their country's potential uses of new technologies in schools in the future.
Of course, the stereotypically tech-savvy, mobile-phone wielding, hyper-connected youth in the big cities of East Asia, reviewing vocabulary on their smartphones while commuting on the subway or studying to the wee hours of the night on broadband connections at home, occupy one end of a very wide and diverse spectrum. Rural youth for whom the Internet is more aspiration than avocation and whose schools may not even have electricity, let alone a computer, or for whom 'computer time' means the two hours a month spent in a crowded school computer lab learning how to use a word processing program while waiting, waiting, waiting for their desperately slow Internet connection to bring up a single web page: Such young people and circumstances represent the reality of current technology use in education across Asia as well.
If we hypothesize that many future uses of technology in education might first appear in Asia, where might we want to look to get some first glimpses as what is likely to come to our own schools (wherever they may be)? If you want to know what a place might look like tomorrow, a good place to start might be by looking at what things look like there today. With that in mind:
How and to what extent are countries across Asia currently utilizing information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their education systems?
Two recent publications from UNESCO provide much useful data and documentation to help those trying to come up with possible answers to this question.
When I was back in school, and long before I had come across names like Wilbur Schramm or Manuel Castells, I remember learning about the power of new information and communication technologies to help change societies. Even from the (perhaps rather limited) perspective of someone growing up in a prairie state in the American Midwest, whether it was the role of pamphlets in the American Revolution or the more contemporary examples of audiocassettes in the Iranian revolution or photocopiers helping to spread samizdat culture and messages in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, it was clear that the emergence, adaptation and innovative uses of new 'ICTs' could help committed groups of people upend the existing status quo.
(Whether such 'upending' is a good thing or not depends, I guess, on your perspective, and the specific circumstances and context. Flip through the pages of UNESCO's Community radio handbook, for example, and you may well be inspired, but read a recent paper from a researcher at Harvard about the role of RTLM radio in the Rwandan genocide and you will be chilled to the bone. Technology is a magnifier of human intent and capacity, as my friend Kentaro Toyama likes to say.)
More recently, the events of the 'Arab Spring' have been popularly attributed, in part, to the use of new ICTs and ICT tools like Twitter and SMS. Whether or not one agrees with this attribution (and about this there is much scholarly debate), there is no denying that rhetoric around 'ICTs' and the Arab Spring has increasingly marked and colored discussions about the use of educational technologies in many Arab countries. In announcing a recent report documenting technology use in education in the region, for example, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) begins by noting that, "Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, arguably the most significant ICT-assisted “learning” phenomena of the recent past, data from five countries provide a snapshot of ICT integration in education." It continues:
"Great strides have been made in the last decade to harness the power of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to help meet many development challenges, including those related to education. However, evidence shows that some countries in the Arab States continue to lag behind in fully implementing ICT in their education systems.
According to a UIS data analysis, which was based on a data collection process sponsored and conducted by the UNESCO Communication and Information Sector and the Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organization (TAG-Org), policies for the implementation and use of ICT in primary and secondary education systems have not necessarily translated into practice. This is revealed in the newly released data from five participating countries."
Almost a decade ago, delegates from over 175 countries gathered in Geneva for the first 'World Summit on the Information Society', a two-part conference (the second stage followed two years later in Tunis) sponsored by the United Nations meant to serve as a platform for global discussion about how new information and communication technologies were impacting and changing economic, political and cultural activities and developments around the world. Specific attention and focus was paid to issues related to the so-called 'digital divide' -- the (growing) gap (and thus growing inequality) between groups who were benefiting from the diffusion and use of ICTs, and those who were not. One of the challenges that inhibited discussions at the event was the fact that, while a whole variety of inequalities were readily apparent to pretty much everyone, these inequalities were very difficult to quantify, given the fact that we had only incomplete data with which to describe them. The Partnership on Measuring ICT for Development, an international, multi-stakeholder initiative to improve the availability and quality of ICT data and indicators, was formed as a result, and constituent members of this partnership set out to try to bridge data gaps in a variety of sectors. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) took the lead on doing this in the education sector, convening and chairing a Working Group on ICT Statistics in Education (in which the World Bank participates, as part of its SABER-ICT initiative) to help address related challenges. At the start, two basic questions confronted the UIS, the World Bank, the IDB, OECD, ECLAC, UNESCO, KERIS and many other like-minded participating members of the working group (out of whose acronyms a near-complete alphabet could be built):
What type of data should be collected related to ICT use in education?
Not to mention:
What type of data could be collected,
given that so little of it was being rigorously gathered
across the world as a whole,
relevant to rich and poor countries alike,
in ways that permitted comparisons across regions and countries?
Comparing ICT use in education across all countries was quite difficult back then. In 2003/2004, the single most common question related to the use of ICTs in education I was asked when meeting with ministers of education was: What should be our target student:computer ratio? Now, one can certainly argue with the premise that this should have been the most commonly posed question (the answer from many groups and people soon became -- rather famously, in fact -- '1-to-1', e.g. 'one laptop per child'). That said, the fact that we were unable to offer globally comparable data in response to such a seemingly basic question did little to enhance the credibility of those who argued this was, in many ways, the wrong question to be asking. Comparing ICT use in education across all countries remains difficult today -- but in many regards, this task is becoming much easier.
Schools should be connected to the Internet. Most people, I suspect, would agree with that statement (although a few dissenters may contend that such a statement does not go far enough, and that all schools *must* be connected to the Internet.) Indeed: Lots of countries around the world have been, and are, engaged in efforts to connect all of their schools to the Internet -- and for those schools that are already connected, to connect them faster.
The efforts of the United States in this regard that began under the 'e-rate' program in the 1990s have been much studied and emulated around the world, and countries as diverse as Malaysia, Morocco and Turkey have sought in various ways to utilize Universal Service Funds to help connect the un-connected. Korea has perhaps gone the furthest in rolling out very fast connectivity to all of its schools. Armenia will soon (if has not done so already) have completed connecting all of its schools to the Internet; when I last checked (in late 2012), Uruguay had almost done so as well. Given current technology infrastructure and available funds, not all countries are of course yet able to connect all schools, even if they consider this to be a priority. (Even in a country as developed as Uruguay, 70 schools were reported still to be without electricity in early 2012 -- not being connected to the electrical grid can make efforts roll out connectivity to all a little more difficult ....) In countries where almost all schools can be connected via existing means, a lack of supporting government policies and/or incentives for groups to connect the unconnected schools can mean that, even where connections to the Internet are technically feasible, they may not be commercially or practically feasible. Some recent work by the World Bank found that 95% of all schools in Indonesia could theoretically be connected to the Internet now, if the political will could be found and provided certain policies and incentives were put into place. (Connecting the remaining 5% of schools -- no small number, in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia, with over 13,000 (!) islands and 250,000 schools -- would be much more difficult, as many of the schools in this 5% category are quite remote, and there are as a result often significant, and very costly, infrastructure challenges to overcome.)
OK, if all schools should (or must) be connected to the Internet, what should be the nature of that connection?
Again, most people would probably agree that, in 2013, all schools should have broadband connections to the Internet. This is, in fact, a common theme in many of the national policies related to ICT use in education one encounters around the world, especially in the more 'advanced' (OECD) countries, and increasingly in middle income countries as well. Reasonable people may (and do!) disagree about the extent to which school connectivity should be prioritized compared with other pressing needs in the education sector, but, while there may be a lack of consensus on the relative importance, the general importance of connecting schools, and indeed in doing so at broadband speeds, is a widely held goal in much of the world (even if it is not always practical in the near term). That said:
What exactly does 'broadband' mean when we are talking about connecting schools to the Internet?
It turns out there is no simple answer to this query. Indeed, there are lots of different answers, depending on where you are and the context in which you are posing such a question.
For the last year or so, we have been collecting policy documents related to ICT use in education from around the world, with a specific interest in trying to document policy intent in developing countries, especially in East Asia. This is one component of a larger initiative at the World Bank called Systems Approach for Better Education Results, or SABER. As part of our SABER-ICT project, we are trying to help policymakers as they attempt to assess and compare their own policies against those of comparator countries around the world. Here's a very real scenario:
An education minister approaches the World Bank and asks for help in formulating an 'ICT in education' policy, in preparation for what is intended to be a large scale investment in educational technologies. She asks us:
What might be important to include in such a policy?
At a fundamental level, attempts to answer many of the pressing policy questions we have about the use of ICTs in educational settings around the world -- and the impact of such use -- are complicated by the fact that we still do not have reliable, globally comparable data in this area. As hard as it may be to believe -- especially given the large investments being made in this area and the increasing strategic importance of this topic in many countries -- basic answers to many basic questions about the use of technology in schools around the world remain largely unanswered. Such questions include:
How many schools are connected to the Internet (and what is the quality of that connection)?
How many teachers have been trained to use ICTs?
How many schools have access to sufficient reliable power?
How many computers are being used for learning purposes in schools?
In what subjects are computers meant to be used, and to what extent?