With the buzz from this year's influential TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference (9-13 February) now starting to fade, I thought it might be interesting to re-visit some of the highlights from past conferences on topics related to ICT and education. While presentations at the conference cover a wide variety of topics, some 'TEDtalks' provide quite illuminating, and sometimes quite provocative, glimpses and insights into how technology *might* be used in various innovative ways to enhance education in the future. I am regularly amazed at the number of times that people in ministries of education all around the world ask me about something they first learned about through TED. While we were, yet again, not in attendance this year, the conference organizers have done the wonderful (and laudable!) job of making available the 'TEDtalks' through the TED web site for free.
Information and Communication Technologies
Despite increasing attention to the impact of ICT on teaching and learning in various ways, the ICT/education field continues to be littered with examples of poor evaluation work. A few of them arrive in my in-box every week.
There are many potential reasons advanced for the general poor quality of much of this work. One is simple bias -- many evaluations are done and/or financed by groups greatly invested in the success of a particular initiative, and in such cases findings of positive impact are almost foregone conclusions. Many (too many, some will argue) evaluations are restricted to gauging perceptions of impact, as opposed to actual impact. Some studies are dogged by sloppy science (poor methodologies, questionable data collection techniques), others attempt to extrapolate finds from carefully nurtured, hothouse flower pilot projects in ways that are rather dubious. (The list of potential explanations is long; we'll stop here for now.)
Going forward, isn't it more likely that the ICT tool of choice for students in developing countries will be the mobile phone, and not the computer? This is a question of hot debate in many circles. Whatever the eventual resulution of this debate (and no doubt it will not yield a simple either/or answer), there are still precious few widespread examples of the use of phones for education purposes in classrooms in developing countries. It's inevitable that various forms of low cost handheld computing and communication devices for students (and perhaps one of these will be something still called a 'phone') will proliferate in schools in developing countries in the coming decade. But perhaps the mobile phone's impact in the education sector will be more widely, and quickly, felt in another way?
infoDev has released its two-volume Survey of ICT & Education in the Caribbean. This work, which includes an overview of regional trends and initiatives, as well as sixteen country reports, complements earlier work that infoDev did in Africa and that UNESCO released (way back in 2004) for the Asia-Pacific region.
This study finds that:
In general, the experiences and situations among the countries examined vary only within a limited range. Countries differ in terms of their goals for the introduction of ICT and in the pathways they have chosen to achieve those goals. And, certainly, some governments and some institutions have invested more, attempted more, and achieved more than others. However none of the countries included in the Survey have “lapped the field” by achieving either system-wide adoption of ICT or the ICT-supported transformation of teaching and learning.
How do you develop the skills in your workforce necessary to compete in dynamic, fast-moving sectors of the global economy? I just returned from India, where I joined colleagues from Africa in a series of site visits, learning events and presentations in the Indian IT hubs of Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore in seeking answers to this (and related) questions. More specifically, the trip provided a rich opportunity to learn more about the 'India success story' of the last 20 years in the areas of IT, IT-enabled services and business process outsourcing (BPO), gathering policy and practice lessons of potential relevance and application to Africa. In many countries, including many African countries, proposals for the widespread introduction of computers in schools is explicitly tied to goals to develop so-called 'knowledge workers' to work in nascent IT industries. How explicit is this link in reality?
The Nasscom India Leadership Forum in Mumbai is the annual meeting platform at which senior representatives from firms in the Indian software and Indian BPO industries share information, discuss and debate issues. The Forum is well-covered in the Indian press, and increasingly internationally as well, and the event web site's group blog is a rich source of divergent opinions and perspectives. Key note speeches from people inside and outside of the industry (including Narayana Murthy, C.K. Prahlad and Shashi Tharoor) were of notably high quality.
It is an interesting time for Nasscom: How will an industry that has only known good times deal with the current economic downturn? How will individual Indian firms fare? While the mood at the conference itself was notably serious (especially for an industry event), some tier one Indian companies actually expect to benefit from the downturn. Many European countries (far behind the US and the UK in terms of outsourcing) are expected to examine costs more closely, which is expected to open up these markets more to Indian BPO providers. At the same time, new outsourcing destinations are emerging, within India and internationally. This is happening not just because of the hunt for lower prices and new talent, but also to gain a foothold in new emerging markets.
World Bank Economist Felipe Barrera-Osorio, working with Leigh Linden of Columbia University, has just published a very useful and rigorous study on the impact of ICT use in Colombia.
The Use and Misuse of Computers in Education: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Colombia (PDF) looked at 97 schools and 5,201 children over two years of participation in the Computers for Schools program.
While some readers may immediately latch onto the finding that the program "had little effect on students’ test scores", I found the potential explanation for this lack of positive impact to be even more valuable:
"The main reason for these results seems to be the failure to incorporate the computers into the educational process. Although the program increased the number of computers in the treatment schools and provided training to the teachers on how to use the computers in their classrooms, surveys of both teachers and students suggest that teachers did not incorporate the computers into their curriculum."
En route to Mumbai, I thought I'd pass around some summary information about the new "$10 education laptop" officially announced this week in India.
This has received a great deal of press attention, much of which appears to be (after doing some further investigation) ill-informed / speculative.
Lost in much of the hype has been what is perhaps the more interesting story -- the apparent public commitment by the Indian government to provide subsidized connectivity for schools, colleges and universities, and a related large investment in the development of "e-content", as part of a new "National Mission in Education through Information and Communication Technology (ICT)". Part of this includes the development of a new national ICT in school education policy.