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10 principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments

Michael Trucano's picture

there must be an I, a C, and a T here somewhere ...There are, broadly speaking, two strands of concurrent thinking that dominate discussions around the use of new technologies in education around the world. At one end of the continuum, talk is dominated by words like 'transformation'. The (excellent) National Education Technology Plan of the United States (Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology), for example, calls for "applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement."

This is, if you will, a largely 'developed' country sort of discourse, where new technologies and approaches are layered upon older approaches and technologies in systems that largely 'work', at least from a global perspective. While the citizens of such countries may talk about a 'crisis' in their education systems (and may indeed have been talking about such a crisis for more than a generation), citizens of many other, much 'less developed' countries would happily switch places.
 

If you want to see a true crisis in education, come have a look at our schools, they might (and do!) say, or at least the remote ones where a young teacher in an isolated village who has only received a tenth grade education tries to teach 60+ children in a dilapitated, multigrade classroom where books are scarce and many of the students (and even more of their parents) are often functionally illiterate.


Like so many things in life, it all depends on your perspective. One country's education crisis situation may be (for better or for worse) another country's aspiration. While talk in some places may be about how new technologies can help transform education, in other places it is about how such tools can help education systems function at a basic level.

The potential uses of information and communication technologies -- ICTs -- are increasingly part of considerations around education planning in both sorts of places. One challenge for educational policymakers and planners in the remote, low income scenario is that most models (and expertise, and research) related to ICT use come from high-income contexts and environments (typically urban, or at least peri-urban). One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and (sort of) 'made to fit' into more challenging environments. When they don't work, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant (and some folks go so far to state that related discussions are irresponsible as a result).

There is, thankfully, some emerging thinking coalescing around various types of principles and approaches that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of ICT in education initiatives in such environments. As part of my duties at the World Bank, I have been discussing a set of such principles and approaches with a number of groups recently, and thought I'd share them here, in case they might be of wider interest or utility to anyone else. Are they universally applicable or relevant? Probably not. But the hope is that they might be useful to organizations considering using ICTs in the education sector in very challenging environments -- especially where introducing these principles and approaches into planning discussions may cause such groups to challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom about what 'works', and how best to proceed.

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As with many lists of this sort that have featured on the EduTech blog in the past, the items presented below are not meant to be comprehensive in scope. Targeted specifically at people planning for uses of ICTs in the education sector, these principles and approaches are meant to complement and extend other, more developed thinking (informed in many cases by a rigorous evidence base) at the World Bank of the sort found in our education strategy ("Invest early, invest smartly, and invest for all"), our ICT strategy and publications such as Efficient Learning for the Poor: Insights from the Frontier of Cognitive Neuroscience.  In no particular order, and with those caveats in place, here are:

10 principles or approaches to consider
when planning to introduce ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments

1. The best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford
The introduction of a new technology is considered on its own to be 'innovative' in many circumstances. Parachuting in the 'latest and greatest' device or gadget may have strong political appeal, and fatten the bottom lines of certain firms, and may possibly even be effective in some cases, but instead of instinctively trying to 'innovate' using new technologies, which bring with them lots of challenges, it may be useful to ask, How can we innovate using what we already have? In poor, rural, isolated communities, the technologies already at hand are almost always mobile phones and radios. Before considering the latest and great new gadget, why not see what quick gains might be made by utilizing technologies which already exist (and are being used, and sustained) in such communities? It might be that using such technologies in complementary ways (an interactive radio program, for example, supported by SMS-based outreach to and between teachers) might achieve many of the objectives that a single, 'new' technology can. Or maybe not. But it's worth asking the question.

2. Start down and out, and then move up and in
What types of educational technology projects are most likely to scale -- those that are piloted in relatively 'privileged' environments until they 'work', and then expanded to reach other, less advantaged communities, or projects that take the opposite approach? If it (the technology, the model, the approach) works in a privileged environment, success may be a product of a number of factors that that don't apply in other, less advantaged places. If you want to go to scale with your educational technology initiative, first start down and out before you move up and in. Your learning curve will be steeper in the short run. The 'model' you end up with may have more modest goals when compared with what can be achieved in some of the most privileged and advantaged schools and communities. But it just might work *everywhere*. Or, if not everywhere, at least it might work in a lot more places than if you had started 'up and in', and then tried to move 'down and out'.

3. Treat teachers like the problem … and they will be
Over the years I have talked with lots of people who see teachers (and teachers' unions) as a 'problem' that needs to be 'solved'. One 'solution' increasingly considered is to figure out ways to use ICTs as a sort of metaphorical stick with which to prod teachers into various sorts of actions. This impulse is perhaps understandable in places that suffer endemic challenges related to (for example) teacher absenteeism, which is certainly a very serious problem in certain (often poor, rural) communities. That said, it may not be all that productive at a practical level. A well known study done by researchers at the MIT Poverty Action Lab a number of years ago (and well worth reading, in my opinion) looked at a program in Udapur, India in which "teachers were instructed to have their picture taken each day with students and were paid only when the cameras recorded them present." According to the authors, in this case "objective monitoring with incentives worked" -- in other words, a mechanism was found to motivate teacher attendance. On numerous occasions, in conversation with policymakers in many different countries, I have heard this study cited as proof that technology (in this case, a digital camera) can be a 'solution' to the problem of teacher absenteeism. Perhaps. But there is a real danger in many such discussions of confusing the symptons with the underling pathology. So-called 'silver bullet solutions' (aim the right weapon at a problem and you can 'kill' it) figure prominently in the checkered history of educational technologies. Things are seldom so simple, however. Yes, the fact that mobile phones with cameras are increasingly ubiquitous in rural communities around the world does mean that it may be possible for community members to stand outside schools and take pictures of teachers as they enter and exit (a scenario I have had pitched to me on three separate occasions -- in one case students were meant to wield the cameraphones themselves) and send them on to education authorities or post on a web site for public shaming. But there just might be some unintended consequences from such activities .... Another option might be to explore how ICTs can be used to support teachers with positive incentives linking them to other teachers via text messaging groups to help form professional support communities, or to help them save time in lesson preparation by providing additional learning resources via television (or delivered all at once on a USB stick), or to help improve their mastery of the subjects which they teach through interactive radio instruction. Sticks can sometimes work ... but so can carrots. Do you want to use ICTs to punish, or to nourish?

4. It’s the content, not the container
All too often, educational technology initiatives focus largely on the technology itself. It is possible to become so enamoured with the technology (and so distracted by device-related questions: should we buy tablets or laptops?) that insufficient attention is given to how to use whatever devices are eventually deployed to their full effect. As we move to a greater proliferation of devices, combined with the fact that we will be accessing more content from multiple places, a greater value will be placed on the content, and how that content is used, rather than on any one particular device. Viewed from this perspective, the future of education is in the content, not the 'container'.  It's about more than just content, of course -- it's also about the connections and the communities (students collaborating with each other, teachers supporting other teachers) that technologies can help enable, catalyze and support as well.

5. If you are pointed in the wrong direction, technology may help you get there more quickly
In many cases, 'technology' can be seen as the 'solution' -- but it is not exactly clear what problem the technology is meant to help solve, and how exactly it will do this. As the ICT in Education Toolkit states, "Technology is only a tool: No technology can fix a bad educational philosophy or compensate for bad practice. In fact, if we are going in the wrong direction, technology will get us there faster. Providing schools with hardware and software does not automatically reform teaching and improve learning. Much depends on educational practices and how ICTs are used to enhance them."

6. Anticipate, and mitigate, Matthew Effects
A Matthew Effect in Educational Technology is frequently observed: Those who are most able to benefit from the introduction of ICTs (e.g. children with educated parents and good teachers, who live in prosperous communities, etc.) are indeed the ones who benefit the most. Just because investments in educational technology use are justified by rhetoric claiming that such use will benefit 'the poor' doesn't mean that this will actually happen. In fact, the opposite many well occur. Too many planning efforts related to large scale investments in ICT use in education dwell too long on what is possible, while ignoring much of what is predictable, and in the end what is practical to do doesn't benefit the poor and disadvantaged all that much. It doesn't have to be that way -- but you may need to take some proactive steps (and monitor the impact of what you're doing regularly) to mitigate these potential effects.

7. To succeed in doing something difficult, you may first need to fail (and learn from this failure)
Trying to help isolated, poor communities improve their schools and the education that they offer to their children is a nontrivial endeavor. If the related challenges were easy to overcome, one expects that more of them would have been. Unfortunately, such places may be no stranger to 'failed' projects of various sorts, and the reasons for such failures may be varied and complex. The history of the use of technology in education also features lots of 'failures'. Indeed, 'failure' is a defining characteristic of many educational technology projects ... including the successful ones. A key ingredient for success is often an ability, and willingness, to recognize and learn from failure -- and then change course as needed. How can one learn from failure? A commitment to learn through experimentation and iteration, supported by robust and regular monitoring and evaluation, can certainly help. The flexibility to be able to make changes, and the humility to admit that you may not know everything at the planning stages of whatever it is you hope to accomplish, doesn't hurt either.

8. Put sustainability first
Often times, the first goal of an educational technology project is to show that it 'works'. Only once this is demonstrated does attention turn to issues of sustainability. Sustainability should be a first order concern -- especially in remote, low resource communities. If you design something to work for two years, and it does indeed work for two years, what have you really accomplished at that point? The incentives, tools and mechanisms for sustainability should be considered up front, and introduced and tested from day one. Donations of equipment can be vital in helping to initiate an educational technology project -- they can rarely be counted on to sustain one. If something can break -- it will. If a dependence is created on outside expertise -- inevitably this outside expertise will disappear at some point. Plan for equipment to break, plan for outside expertise to withdraw, plan for novelty to wear off -- what will happen then?

9. We know a lot about worst practices -- we should make sure we don't repeat them
While there is still much to learn about 'what works' related to cost-effective, locally appropriate, impactful uses of ICTs in education in poor, isolated communities around the world, there is a significant body of knowledge and experience about what doesn't work. Dumping hardware in schools (and hoping that 'magic' will happen), thinking about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware, making a big bet on an unproven technology or single vendor without planning about hope to avoid 'lock-in' -- these sorts of things are recipes for heartache. Working in challenging environments is difficult, there is no need to make it more so by repeating the sorts of mistakes that others have made time after time, in place after place. Not only is there no need to 're-invent the wheel' in this regard, (as Alan Kay advised) don’t re-invent the flat tire!

10. ________
As with other 'lists of ten' published on the EduTech blog, #10 has been deliberately left blank here, both as an acknowledgement that there are other potentially useful principles and approaches to consider, and as an invitation to add your own below, based on your own experiences.


Other items of potential related interest:

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of students and their teacher in Tibar, Timor-Leste (East Timor) ("there must be an I, a C, and a T here somewhere ...") was taken by Joao dos Santos for the World Bank (Photo ID: JDS-TL003 World Bank). It is available via the World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Comments

Submitted by Biju Rao on

Really useful and interesting! Has applicability to all field-based projects that work in poor environments.

Submitted by Tanya on

There is a growing consensus that the term ICT should really vanish from the development dictionary. What developing countries urgently need to improve the quality and coverage of education systems is: (i) substantially increase the level of investment in the sector (as percentage of the GDP, ideally twice or more of what is invested in defense), (ii) recruit teachers that have both passion for teaching and solid pedagogical foundations, pay them well and keep them updated and engaged on a regular basis, and (iii) embrace, nurture and reward innovative transformation at all levels, especially by renewing sector leadership and decision making layers, revamping the curricula, establishing evidence-based quality and performance assessment methodologies, adopting attractive career development incentives for teachers, and substantially improve infrastructure and related ecosystems. Once you have that in place, innovation and transformation - including new technology adoption (not just ICTs) - will take place across the board on a regular basis.

Hi Tanya,

Thanks for your comment.

Whether or not, as you state, "ICT should by now have vanished from the development dictionary", there is no denying that it is widely used. If there is better, more convenient shorthand, I would most certainly use it. (Please do feel free to suggest a better formulation!)

I think you may have missed the reference to the World Bank's education sector strategy at the top of the post, which addresses some of the items you mention. One of the challenges of writing a blog post is to keep things concise -- linking over to the strategy itself, and noting that my comments above were meant to complement and extend what is said in the strategy (as well as in publications like 'Efficient Learning for the Poor') was one way to try to keep my word count down.

I am not going to disagree here with anything substantive that you included in your comment. Your three recommendations seem rather sensible to me. But let me offer another perspective.

Let's imagine for a moment that there is an education system somewhere in the world where your three recommendations may not be terribly practical in the short to medium term, at least they relate to current realities and immediate needs faced by students in the most remote, poorest communities, while acknowledging that they are of critical importance over a longer time horizon.

Have you articulated some goals and approaches relevant in the longer term? Absolutely. Should an education system be thinking along these lines *now*, even if they may not be achievable for many, many years? Yes. But until then: Am I to understand that ICTs (or whatever you choose to call them) aren't even worth talking about? Even in cases where we are, for example, challenged by a ministry of education to suggest approaches that may be better calibrated to be useful in the type of contexts identified in the italicized quoation near the top of this blog post?  Let's imagine that, for better or for worse, a government has decided to try to 'use ICTs' (a formulation that I concede you do not like, but which the government itself is using -- as you did in your comment above) to help address *some* of the unmet needs of students and teachers in these sorts of communities. What would you say to them? You can advise them to do the three things you recommend. You could recommend that they not talk about "ICTs", as once these other things are in place, new technology adoption will take place. But in the interim ... what exactly?

According to this recent report, Tanzania currently has a deficit of almost 50,000 teachers http://www.ei-ie.org/en/news/news_details/2428. Are discussions related to the use of technologies of various sorts, regardless of the convenient shorthand we use to label them, not relevant to considerations in such a place related to how to recruit, train, and support thousands and thousands of new teachers in the coming years (let along to help current teachers upgrade their existing skills and content mastery)? If so: Might there be some important differences in how an education system (including not only the government, but also civil society and community groups, as well as private sector firms) may wish to plan activities that may be enabled or complemented in some way through the use of technologies in middle class communities in the capital, versus what is most useful and effective in schools in poor, rural communities? The bias and conceit of this blog (and this blog post in particular) is that such considerations are relevant. Not (only) relevant because we at the World Bank think they should be, but because we are, for better and for worse, regularly asked to help various groups as they think through and explore the potential for utilizing things like mobile phones, computers and radios in pursuit of the types of goals you outline in your comments (and in pursuit of many other ones as well).

You are right, I think, to posit that a number of things may need to be in place in order for 'transformation' to take place. A lot of countries are considering approaches in which 'ICTs' play a critical enabling role in helping to put such things in place. My plea, I guess, is that, where (for example) a decision has already been made to 'use ICTs' along the way, consideration also be made of how such use of information and communication technologies can be better (if not best) directed to help meet the needs of students and teachers in poor, rural communities in ways that are useful, practical and sustainable.

Cheers,
 Mike

Submitted by Tanya on

Dear Mike,

My comment's main point is that international devepoment institutions, policy makers, sector leaders and practitioners need to deiconize ICTs and should rather look more carefully at the larger picture. The WB and other international development organizations have indeed been successful at placing ICTs center stage in the last fifteen years or so. So it's not surprising that governments keep coming back for help to implement ICT-centered projects. However, as explained below that just makes the problem worse.

The problem in my view is not ICT in itself, it's the iconization of it as a vehicle or enabler of transformation, frequently ignoring the deeper causes of poor quality and coverage of education, as well as of suboptimal performance among teachers and students.

Resources for education are very scarce in most developing countries, and to make that problem even worst every administration generally ignores the root causes, wasting time and resources in technology driven solutions that promise short-term results. And that vicious cycle needs to be broken.

In the mid and long term, investments in education could have greater impact if wisely focused on fixing the underlying systemic problems, some of which are mentioned in my original comment, rather than narrowly looking at how to implement the ever evolving ICT tools more widely.

The WB should rather help countries become smarter at making decisions and wiser at investing scarce resources with a longer term vision, rather than cater to shortlived trendy approaches clearly driven by profit making interests of large corporations - in this case ICT suppliers and vendors.

Tanya: You sound like a regular reader of the EduTech blog! These are indeed some of the regular themes and messages that we explore here on the blog. Thanks again, for your comments, and for spending a few minutes of your busy day here on the site. -Mike

Submitted by JoeN on

The rhetorical abuse of "transformation" in connection with educational technology is a ubiquitous problem. In my experience, and in their defence, in both OECD and developing world contexts, companies bidding to supply educational technology are always asked to explain how they will "transform" schools, learning or teaching. No surprise then that they do indeed try their best to do that. The UK's costly and now defunct adventure into building hundreds of new schools was predicated on the myth that technology could indeed "transform" education.

I have huge sympathy with Tanya's plea to "deiconize ICT" not just in the developing world, and have even published research on how this "iconization" happens. I have only come across one example of an educational community that was immune to this. A stunning new, award winning secondary school in Finland that had only 35 PCs in the entire building, including those used by administrative staff. When the head teacher was asked by a critical UK visitor, why their ICT provision was so poor, he didn't even understand the question.

It is that gulf of understanding: between what highly qualified, experienced, professional teachers think and what techno-zealots think, that creates the problem.

Submitted by B.Kangogo on

Mike,
keep on writing more ICT.

Submitted by Ayorinde P. Oduroye on

Dear Mike,

Thanks for the discussion. I really enjoyed it, it is also helpful in the work I am doing. Presently, I am writing my PhD Thesis on "Information Literacy and ICT Skills as Correlates of Lecturers’ Teaching Effectiveness In Private Universities In Southwest Nigeria". I am a staff and PhD student at Babcock University, Nigeria. Some the theories and principles you mentioned are valuable.

I hope to be able to share my work with you in the nearest future. Please, feel free to let me know where I can be of help. The use of ICT in education at all levels is my passion especially for developing countries.

Once again, thanks for the good job you are doing.

Submitted by Elaine on

Hello,

I am new to this site and find your post very interesting and the comments which follow at least as interesting. I am puzzling over the relevance and sustainability of ICTs in work which we are doing (context: Uganda - working in the catchment area of a primary teacher training college). I can see the power of what is possible but trip over when I think about how it might carry on...and should it carry on? We are recording teaching practice, pupil activity and school environments and using the results in training for the teachers whose work has been recorded - individually and in groups - as well as using stills photography to give stimulate individual responses to documents produced at college level.

I am more than puzzled when some colleges and other education institutions are given up to eighty new computers at one time via the Uganda Communications Commission. First there's the issue of why? Then where could they possibly go - and what would need to move to accommodate them? Then how would the new equipment be able to be maintained? Who has the technical expertise to maintain them and the money to do so? Who has the pedagogical skills, vision and commitment to ensure that such a resource is used properly?

The UK visitor referred to by Joen seems to have been out of step with current thinking in the UK - but I think that there is a seductiveness for institutions which allows them to welcome offers, like that of dozens of computers, without thinking about the wisdom of the offer and the wisdom of accepting the offer.

My college was offered 80 computers by the UCC and I found myself saying the the principal, 'Why not suggest that you will only accept halt the number if they would provide desks, chairs and other kit so that the computers could be used.' In the end, the college did not accept the offer of the computers. I think that that was the right decision.

FYi The good folks at The Globe & Mail have re-publised a shorter version of this blog post on their web site at
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/the-best-technology-the-one-you-already-have/article14639216/.
I have added a comment below that article, noting that, while the words in the body of the article are all mine, the title is not --> that was added by one of the editors there. If you care about such things (and I expect you may well not), you can read my related comment over there. Given that the blog post above continues to get referral traffic from the Globe & Mail site (for which I am grateful!), I thought I would add this caveat here, just for the record.

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