Recent headlines from places as diverse as Kenya ("6,000 primary schools picked for free laptop project") and California ("Los Angeles plans to give 640,000 students free iPads") are just two announcements among many which highlight the increasing speed and scale by which portable computing devices (laptops, tablets) are being rolled out in school systems all over the world. Based on costs alone -- and the costs can be very large! -- such headlines suggest that discussions of technology use in schools are starting to become much more central to educational policies and planning processes in scores of countries, rich and poor, across all continents.
Are these sorts of projects good ideas? It depends. The devil is often in the details (and the cost-benefit analysis), I find. Whether or not they are good ideas, there is no denying that they are occurring, for better and/or for worse, in greater frequency, and in greater amounts. More practically, then:
What do we know about what works,
and what doesn't (and how?, and why?)
when planning for and implementing such projects,
what the related costs and benefits might be,
and where might we look as we try to find answers to such questions?
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.