The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) released the results of its latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) yesterday, November 29. TIMSS 2015 assessed more than 600,000 students in grades four, eight, and the final year of secondary school across 60 education systems.
In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, there are more than twice as many students per teacher than in Europe and North America. The pupil-teacher ratio is different but related to class size, and is often used to compare the quality of schooling across countries.
Ed’s note: This guest blog is by Ben Durbin, Head of International Education for the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).
In September this year, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) published an impressive new review of education programmes in low and middle-income countries. It is a rich resource, which stands out in its sheer scope, covering studies investigating a diverse set of interventions and educational outcomes.
It has taken almost three years for Adnan to get back to school. After fleeing Syria, and an uncertain stay in Turkey, then another in Austria, he and his mother finally found asylum in Berlin in June.
It is his first week in class. He sits at the back, behind 11 students, taking in the scene. He listens and watches but doesn’t understand a word of what the teacher is saying in German. It is exhilarating to be there, nonetheless. At 15 years old, he is already tall and well-built. He is too big for his desk.
It’s almost as if he has grown up too quickly.
One challenge that many countries face along the way is that their procurement procedures are misaligned with what industry is able to provide, and with how industry is able to provide it. Technology changes quickly, and procurement guidelines originally designed to meet the needs of 20th century schooling (with a focus on school construction, for example, and the procurement of textbooks) may be inadequate when trying to operate in today's fast-changing technology environments. Indeed, in education as in other sectors, technological innovations typically far outpace the ability of policymakers to keep up.
Faced with considering the use of new, 'innovative' tools and approaches that hadn't been tried before at any large scale within its country's schools, education policymakers may reflexively turn to precedent and 'old' practices to guide their decisions, especially when it comes to procurement. This is usually seen within government ministries as a prudent course of action, given that such an approach is consistent with the status quo, and that related safeguards are (hopefully) in place. As a result, however, they may end up driving forward into the future primarily by looking in the rear view mirror.
When considering the scope for introducing various types of technology-enabled 'innovations' (however one might like to define that term) into their education systems, many governments face some fundamental challenges:
- They don't know exactly what they want.
- They don't have the in-house experience or expertise to determine if what they want is practical, or even feasible, nor do they know what everything should cost.
In such circumstances:
- What is a ministry of education to do?
- How can it explore innovative approaches to the procurement of 'innovative' large scale educational technology programs in ways that are practical, appropriate, cost-effective, likely to yield good results, informed by research and international 'good practice', and transparent?
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.)