UNESCO estimates that barely 30 percent of Africa’s women pursue research in science and engineering fields. I am inspired by one of them – a woman who is among the few female PhDs in the West African nation of Togo, and is helping more girls in her country enroll into science and technology fields.
For all of the recent explosion in data related to learning -- as a result of standardized tests, etc. -- remarkably little is known at scale about what exactly happens in classrooms around the world, and outside of them, when it comes to learning, and what the impact of this has.
This isn't to say that we know nothing, of course:
The World Bank (to cite an example from within my own institution) has been using standardized classroom observation techniques to help document what is happening in many classrooms around the world (see, for example, reports based on modified Stallings Method classroom observations across Latin America which seek to identify how much time is actually spent on instruction during school hours; in many cases, the resulting data generated are rather appalling).
Common sense holds various tenets dear when it comes to education, and to learning; many educators profess to know intuitively what works, based on their individual (and hard won) experience, even in the absence of rigorously gathered, statistically significant 'hard' data; the impact of various socioeconomic factors is increasingly acknowledged (even if many policymakers remain impervious to them); and cognitive neuroscience is providing many interesting insights.
But in many important ways, education policymaking and processes of teaching and learning are constrained by the fact that we don't have sufficient, useful, actionable data about what is actually happening with learners at a large scale across an education system -- and what impact this might have. Without data, as Andreas Schleicher likes to say, you are just another person with an opinion. (Of course, with data you might be a person with an ill-considered or poorly argued opinion, but that’s another issue.)
|side observation: Echoing many teachers (but, in contrast to teaching professionals, usually with little or no formal teaching experience themselves), I find that many parents and politicians also profess to know intuitively ‘what works’ when it comes to teaching. When it comes to education, most everyone is an ‘expert’, because, well, after all, everyone was at one time a student. While not seeking to denigrate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, or downplay the value of common sense, I do find it interesting that many leaders profess to have ready prescriptions at hand for what ‘ails education’ in ways that differ markedly from the ways in which they approach making decisions when it comes to healthcare policy, for example, or finance – even though they themselves have also been patients and make spending decisions in their daily lives.|
One of the great attractions of educational technologies for many people is their potential to help open up and peer inside this so-called black box. For example:
- When teachers talk in front of a class, there are only imperfect records of what transpired (teacher and student notes, memories of participants, what's left on the blackboard -- until that's erased). When lectures are recorded, on the other hand, there is a data trail that can be examined and potentially mined for related insights.
- When students are asked to read in their paper textbook, there is no record of whether the book was actually opened, let along whether or not to the correct page, how long a page was viewed, etc. Not so when using e-readers or reading on the web.
- Facts, figures and questions scribbled on the blackboard disappear once the class bell rings; when this information is entered into, say, Blackboard TM (or any other digital learning management system, for that matter), they can potentially live on forever.
|A few years ago I worked on a large project where a government was planning to introduce lots of new technologies into classrooms across its education system. Policymakers were not primarily seeking to do this in order to ‘transform teaching and learning’ (although of course the project was marketed this way), but rather so that they could better understand what was actually happening in classrooms. If students were scoring poorly on their national end-of-year assessments, policymakers were wondering: Is this because the quality of instruction was insufficient? Because the learning materials used were inadequate? Or might it be because the teachers never got to that part of the syllabus, and so students were being assessed on things they hadn’t been taught? If technology use was mandated, at least they might get some sense about what material was being covered in schools – and what wasn’t. Or so the thinking went ....|
Yes, such digital trails are admittedly incomplete, and can obscure as much as they illuminate, especially if the limitations of such data are poorly understood and data are investigated and analyzed incompletely, poorly, or with bias (or malicious intent). They also carry with them all sorts of very important and thorny considerations related to privacy, security, intellectual property and many other issues.
That said, used well, the addition of additional data points holds out the tantalizing promise of potentially new and/or deeper insights than has been currently possible within 'analogue' classrooms.
But there is another 'black box of education' worth considering.
In many countries, there have been serious and expansive efforts underway to compel governments make available more ‘open data’ about what is happening in their societies, and to utilize more ‘open educational resources’ for learning – including in schools. Many international donor and aid agencies support related efforts in key ways. The World Bank is a big promoter of many of these so-called ‘open data’ initiatives, for example. UNESCO has long been a big proponent of ‘open education resources’ (OERs). To some degree, pretty much all international donor agencies are involved in such activities in some way.
There is no doubt that increased ‘openness’ of various sorts can help make many processes and decisions in the education sector more transparent, as well as have other benefits (by allowing the re-use and ‘re-mixing’ of OERs, teachers and students can themselves help create new teaching and learning materials; civil society groups and private firms can utilize open data to help build new products and services; etc.).
What happens when governments promote the use of open education data and open education resources but, at the same time, refuse to make openly available the algorithms (formulas) that are utilized to draw insights from, and make key decisions based on, these open data and resources?
- Are we in danger of opening up one black box, only to place another, more inscrutable back box inside of it?
Armed with only a high school certificate, Daoud Shah Noor, 42, started working at the Ministry of Finance in 2012. The sole supporter of his family, he was unable to attend university because of prohibitively high tuition prices. Just four years on, Daoud is studying for his Master’s degree at the Dunya University, where he had graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.
“Before university I was not professional in my work. Now I am doing the job more professionally and in a better way,” says Daoud, who comes from Parwan Province. Daoud is a beneficiary of the Public Financial Management Reform (PFMR), a project that aims to strengthen public financial management through effective procurement, treasury and audit structures, and high standards of financial monitoring, reporting, and control.
A good number of African governments have shown how technologically-forward thinking they are by announcing one-tablet-per-child initiatives in their countries. President John recently announced that tablets for Ghana’s schoolchildren were at the center of his campaign to improve academic standards. Last year, President Kenyatta of Kenya abandoned a laptop project for tablets.
One of the early, decidedly modest goals for this event was simply to bring together key decisionmakers from across Asia (and a few other parts of the world -- it would become more global with each passing year) in an attempt to help figure out what was actually going on with technology use in education in a cross-section of middle and low income countries, and to help policymakers make personal, working level connections with leading practitioners -- and with each other. Many countries were announcing ambitious new technology-related education initiatives, but it was often difficult to separate hope from hype, as well as to figure out how lofty policy pronouncements might actually translate to things happening at the level of teachers and learners 'on-the-ground'.
As the first country to move from being a recipient of World Bank donor assistance to become a full-fledged donor itself, Korea presented in many ways an ideal host for the event. (Still is!) The Korean story of economic development over the past half century has been the envy of policymakers in many other places, who see in that country's recent past many similarities to their own current situations. Known for its technological prowess (home to Samsung and many other high tech companies) and famous in education circles for the performance of its students on international assessments like PISA, educational technology issues could be found at the intersection of two important components in a Venn diagram of 'Brand Korea'.
Since that first global symposium, over 1400 policymakers from (at least by my quick count) 65 countries have visited Korea annually as part of the global symposium to see and learn first hand from Korean experiences with the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education, to be exposed to some of the latest related research around the world, to share information with each other about what was working -- and what wasn't -- and what might be worth trying in the future (and what to avoid). Along the way, Korea has come to be seen as a global hub for related information and knowledge, and KERIS itself increasingly is regarded by many countries as a useful organizational model to help guide their own efforts to help implement large scale educational technology initiatives.
While international events bringing together policymakers to discuss policy issues related to the use of new technologies in education are increasingly common these days, across Asia and around the world, back in 2007 the Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education represented the first regularly scheduled annual event of its type (at least to my knowledge; there were many one-off regional events, of course, many of the good ones organized by UNESCO) bringing together policymakers from highly developed, middle and low income countries.
Participating in the event for each of the past ten years has offered me a front row seat to observe how comparative policy discussions have evolved over the past decade in a way that is, I think, somewhat unique. What follows is a quick attempt to descibe some of what has changed over the years. (The indefatigable Jongwon Seo at KERIS is, I think, the only other person to have participated in all ten global symposia. As such, he is a sort of spiritual co-author of these reflections -- or at least the ones which may offer any useful insights. I'm solely responsible for any of the banal, boring or inaccurate comments that follow.)
While child mortality rates have plummeted worldwide, . Children who are stunted (having low height-for-age) suffer from a long-term failure to grow, reflecting the cumulative effects of chronic deficits in food intake, poor care practices, and illness. The early years of life, especially the first 1,000 days, are critical; if a child’s growth is stunted during this period, the effects are irreversible and have lifelong and intergenerational consequences on their future human capital and potential to succeed.
For the water and sanitation community the year 2009 marked a turning point in our understanding of the role that Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) has on child stunting. A provocative Lancet article (Humphrey 2009) put forth the hypothesis that a key cause of child stunting is asymptomatic gut infection caused by ingestion of fecal bacteria. Small children living in poor sanitary environments are especially at risk, through frequent mouthing of fingers and objects during exploratory play, playing in areas contaminated with human and animal feces and ingesting contaminated food and water (Ngure et al. 2013). Researchers now estimate that up to 43 percent of stunting may be due to these gut infections, known as environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) (Guerrant et al. 2013).
Just last week estimates were released suggesting that (Danaei et al. 2016). In a key departure from previous work, the researchers defined risk as the sanitation level of a community, rather than an individual. This is consistent with mounting evidence showing that a community’s coverage of sanitation is more important than any one household’s (Andres et al. 2013). Across different studies, data sets and outcomes the evidence consistently shows that a threshold of around 60–70 percent household usage within a community is needed before the health and nutrition benefits of sanitation begin to accrue. Studies that have focused on an individual’s toilet use as a predictor, rather than a community’s use, may have vastly underestimated the impacts (Hunter and Prüss-Ustün 2016).
As we advance our understanding of the ways in which a poor sanitary environment impacts growth in small children, we can better design water and sanitation interventions to target these pathways. While there is a role for multi-sectoral interventions, which can simultaneously target the underlying determinants of child undernutrition, such as food security, access to health services, and childcare practices — there are ways that the water sector can adapt its own approaches so that they are more nutrition-sensitive, and more impactful on nutrition. Here are four key actions:
It is conventional wisdom in many quarters -- indeed, for some people it approaches the level of 'incontrovertible fact' -- that young people are 'digital natives', possessed of some sort of innate ability to understand and utilize digital devices and applications merely because of their youth, because they have 'grown up surrounded by technology', in ways that older folks can't -- and perhaps never will. Anecdotes from amazed and proud parents and grandparents detailing how adept little Johnny (or Gianni, or Krishna, or Yidan, or Fatima, or Omar, or Maria) is at manipulating his (or her) parents' mobile phone or tablet "even though s/he doesn't even know how to read yet!" are commonly heard in conversations around the world.
In a very influential essay that appeared about 15 years ago ("Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" [pdf]), Mark Prensky coined the term 'digital natives', asserting that "students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet" and that, as a result, "today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors". In contrast, "[t]hose of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants." While Prensky's views on this topic have evolved over the years and become more nuanced (those interested in his particular views may wish to visit his web site), this original definition and delineation of what it means to be a digital native and a digital immigrant remains quite potent for many people.
At the same time, and for over a decade, this assertion has come under consistent challenge and criticism from many academics, who contest various aspects of the 'digital natives myth', as well as the policy and design implications that often flow from them. The observable differences at the heart of the digital native narrative relate more to culture, or to geography, to socio-economic status or even just to personal preferences than they do to age, critics argue. No doubt some of these folks may glance at this post and ask: 'Digital natives', haven't we moved on from that stuff? When it comes to related academic discourse, the answer to this question is probably a qualified 'yes, at least in some circles'.
That said, in my experience, the digital natives hypothesis remains alive and well in many educational policymaking circles (as it does with many parents -- and grandparents, and marketers, and with many kids themselves), especially in places around the world that are just now beginning to roll-out or consider the use of educational technologies at a wide scale. Indeed, while meeting with education ministries on three different continents over the course of the last month, I've had very senior education officials in three different governments explain to me how the concept of 'digital natives' was central for their vision for education going forward. These recent conversations -- and many others -- prompted me to write this quick blog post (as well as one that will follow).
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – Jan Willem Rosenboom
The University of Leeds – Barbara Evans
Emory University – Christine Moe & Eduardo Perez
The World Bank – Sophie Trémolet, Valérie Sturm, Clémentine Stip
WaterAid – Andrés Hueso
Plan International – Darren Saywell
A successful city is economically and culturally vibrant, healthy, safe, clean and attractive to business and tourism, and provides quality of life to its citizens. This vision is appealing but remains hard to realize as developing cities have to cope with changing demographics and climate with limited financial and human resources. The sustainable development goals have given a new impetus for cities to be inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG11), ensure citizens’ health and wellbeing (SDG3) and secure access to sustainable water and sanitation services (SDG6).
World Toilet Day on November 19th is the opportunity to remind ourselves of a few facts and propose a set of guiding principles for a renewed and revitalized urban sanitation agenda.
Leah is a diligent 13-year-old student in rural Liberia. She walks to the school near her village every day. She pays attention in class. She hopes to be a teacher one day. Yet, there is a problem. Leah is still in first grade.
As I write these lines, I am sitting in an airplane returning from my first mission in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. My mission was for the education sector, and included visiting a few lower secondary public schools. As I listen to the pilot’s welcoming message, I find myself thinking about the children I met at the schools, and trying to assess the odds of their becoming pilots, engineers or scientists.