It’s been said that learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century. Sound a little exhausting? The fact is that there are fewer and fewer jobs being created that rely on rote tasks and memorization. There are more and more jobs that require creativity, teamwork, problem solving, and ongoing learning. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. Children need to start acquiring these skills and attitudes early on, which is why education systems around the world are increasingly focused on reforms that involve setting and measuring new goals for learning that will better ensure their graduates’ success in today’s world.
You might have heard the horrific news that almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were recently kidnapped by members of the militant group Boko Haram, who abducted them from their school while decked in military uniforms.
Their offense? Going to school.
This grim story highlights the pressing issue of education in the developing world.
So I thought I’d look at the stats. First: primary completion rate, which is the number of students in the last year of primary compared to the number of children of the correct age for that year – and one of the measures that is used to assess progress to “MDG2” – to achieve universal primary education. As of 2010, the estimate for Nigeria was 76%, higher than the Sub-Saharan Africa average of 69%, but well below the world average of 91%. And Nigerian girls were almost 10 percentage points behind Nigerian boys’ primary completion rate in that year. Interestingly, in 2006, the primary completion rate was as high as 90%, putting Nigeria slightly above the world average. The rate has since declined, possibly due to a steady increase in the size of Nigeria’s youth population, which can put a strain on resources linked to education. About 44% of the population was under 14 years of age in 2012.
Primary completion rate, total (% of relevant age group)
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
Could Mobile Phones Save Millions From Illiteracy?
According to UNESCO, the answer is yes. Or at least, they could help. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization periodically publishes detailed report about mobile phones usage in some of the poorest regions of the world. This time, for the study Reading in the Mobile Age, the organization tried to understand not only if people in developing countries use mobiles at all, but also, if they use them in a way that could help fight illiteracy. The research found out that, while mobile phones are still used primarily for basic communication, they are also, increasingly, a gateway to long-form text. Often, for millions, the only chance of reading a text where books are almost unknown.
Press Freedom at the Lowest Level in a Decade
While there were positive developments in a number of countries, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa, the dominant trends were reflected in setbacks in a range of settings. The year’s declines were driven by the desire of governments— articularly in authoritarian states or polarized political environments—to control news content, whether through the physical harassment of journalists covering protest movements or other sensitive news stories; restrictions on foreign reporters; or tightened constraints on online news outlets and social media. In addition, press freedom in a number of countries was threatened by private owners—especially those with close connections to governments or ruling parties—who altered editorial lines or dismissed key staff after acquiring previously independent outlets.
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.
Some 135 countries have constitutional provisions for free and nondiscriminatory education for all. Seventy-three countries guarantee the right to medical services. And 41 countries have either enshrined the right to water in their constitutions or have framed the right in national legislation. All of these actions are aimed at protecting the rights of poor people.
Yet, it is poor people who are losing out on access to these services. In Mali, whereas almost everyone has access to a primary school, and 67 percent from the richest quintile complete primary school, only 23 percent from the poorest quintile do. The percentage completing higher levels of education is in the single digits. In rural India, in the period since the Right to Education act was passed, student learning outcomes in public schools have been declining. Equatorial Guinea, with a per-capita income of $20,000, has a child mortality rate of 118 per 1,000 births, comparable to that of Togo with a much lower per-capita income. As a result of intermittent (or nonexistent) water supply through networks, poor people in South Asia and Africa have to buy water from vendors at 5-16 times the meter rate.
The total number of out-of-school children worldwide has declined from 108 million in 1999 to 57 million today. While this is tremendous progress, a critical question remains: Are they learning? According to the latest estimates from UNESCO, more than 250 million school-aged children cannot read.
But there is some good news. In a previous post I highlighted my recent paper with Noam Angrist, “An expansion of a global data set on educational quality: a focus on achievement in developing countries,” where we use existing sources of test score information to show that there are less-developed countries that have made major educational gains. In that post our comparison of test score gains from 1995-2010 for 128 countries gives the following list of top performers over the last 15 years: Jordan, Kenya, Madagascar, Trinidad and Tobago, and Tanzania, to name a few.
As part of my job at the World Bank helping to advise governments on what works, and what doesn't, related to the use of new technologies in education around the world, especially in middle- and low-income countries, I spend a fair amount of time trying to track down information about projects -- sometimes quite large in scale and invariably described as 'innovative' in some way -- that were announced with much fanfare which received a great deal of press attention, but about which very little information is subsequently made widely available.
Most of these projects prominently featured some new type of technology gear, whether low cost laptops for students or new ways to connect people in remote places to the Internet or low-power e-reader devices. Other projects featured new software (English learning apps for phones! Free science curricula for teachers! A learning management system that enables personalized learning!). A sub-set of these projects -- the really ambitious and 'visionary' ones -- combined both hardware and software, and a variety of services to support their introduction and use.
I do this follow up for two very basic reasons:
(1) I am generally interested in learning from these sorts of projects, wherever they may be happening; and
(2) I am asked about them a lot.
These conversations generally go one of two ways:
"Whatever happened to that project in [fill in country name] -- how are things going there these days?"
"Things are proceeding [well / not so well], and a bit more slowly than originally envisioned. Here's what you need to know ..."
"Can you give me an update on the exciting stuff that is happening with computers in schools in ___?"
"You mean the ___ project? Actually, that never actually happened." "No, that's not true, I read that ---"
"Yes, you probably did read that. You may well have heard about it during a presentation by [insert name of vendor] as well. But I assure you: I talk regularly with [the ministry of education / companies / NGOs / researchers] there: Nothing actually happened there related to this stuff in the past, and nothing is happening there related to this stuff now. Will something happen there in the future? Undoubtedly something will ... perhaps even something as potentially 'transformative' as was promised ... although whether it happens in the way it was originally marketed or advertised: Your guess is as good as mine."
In retrospect, the rather short half-life of an unfortunate number of such aborted projects can largely be measured not by things actually implemented 'on the ground', but rather by PowerPoint presentations and press releases. (A rather charitable characterization of what happened in some such cases, but one that is not always or necessarily more accurate, might be that people were 'overly optimistic' or that someone or some group 'was simply ahead of her/their time'. Technology folks sometimes just dismiss such efforts as 'vaporware'.)
When it comes to educational technology projects, most of the press attention tends to come when new initiatives of these sorts are announced, with some momentum continuing on for awhile in the early days of a project, especially when, for example, kids get new tablets for the first time, an occasion that presents a nice, and ready-made, photo opportunity (not that such things are ever conceived of as photo opportunities, of course!). Then, often: Silence.
Projects that do get implemented, and last for awhile, tend eventually to be crowded out of the popular consciousness by the latest and greatest new (new!) thing -- and, when it comes to the use of technology in education, one thing can be certain:
There is always a next new (new!) thing.
(In addition to lots of press attention, the well-known One Laptop Per Child project was the subject of many papers and presentations from academics in the early days that were largely speculative -- e.g. here's what could happen -- and theoretical -- e.g. here's a pedagogical approach whose time has come. Only recently have we started to see more deliberative, rigorous academic work looking at actual implementation models, and what has happened as a result.)
For me, the most interesting part of the use of technology in education isn't the planning for it (although I spend a lot of time helping people who do that sort of thing) nor the evaluation of the impact of such use (I spend a lot of time on that stuff as well).
The most interesting part is implementation -- because it's so messy; because a fidelity to certain theoretical constructs and models often comes into rude collision with reality; because that's where you really *learn* about what works, and what doesn't, and what impact the whole enterprise may be having. How are kids, and teachers, actually using the stuff? What unexpected problems are people having -- and how are they being addressed? What is changing or happening that is interesting or surprising that wasn't part of the original plan, but which is potentially quite exciting?
One place where things have actually happened related to technology use in education, and where they continue to happen, at a rather large scale, is Portugal.
Back in 2012, we had a small event here at the World Bank that attempted to share some of the lessons learned from recent Portuguese experiences in introducing new technologies into the education sector (seeAround the World with Portugal's eEscola Project and Magellan Initiative). The U.S.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) released a report last month as a follow-up to a study visit to Portugal in late 2013. While written from a North American perspective and for a North American audience, "Reinventing Learning in Portugal: An Ecosystem Approach" provides a useful lens through which an outsider, regardless which continent she calls home, can start to take stock of some of the high level lessons from the ongoing Portuguese experience.
(Side note: I would also be quite interested to read a companion report at some point that focuses on what went wrong in Portugal, and what changed as a result; I am a big believer in the power and value of learning from failure.)
Countries interested in learning about the 'impact' of efforts to introduce and sustain the use of technologies to benefit education in Portugal might do well to understand the context of what has happened in Portugal, and the circumstances that may make it either unique, or a good comparator, to their own national circumstances.
Now that the dust has settled around the PISA results we have been thinking about the reasons behind Indonesia's poor showing. For those of you who haven't seen them, Indonesia ranked lower than all participating countries except Peru in mathematics and science, and was fifth from last on reading. Perhaps more worrying were the low absolute levels of learning reported for 15-year-olds. In mathematics, three-quarters of students were rated at or below the lowest benchmark – a level associated with only rudimentary levels of proficiency and a lack of higher order thinking skills.