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February 2014

A 'mobile first' approach to educational technology

Michael Trucano's picture

'Mobile dmobiles moving about ... but to what end?evices' are increasingly to be found in schools, and utilized for learning purposes, around the world. In most cases, related discussions taking place in ministries of education focus on the use of portable tablets and small laptops as complements to, and extenders of, existing approaches to the use of technology to help meet a whole host of education and learning objectives. At the same time, mobile devices of many other sorts -- most notably the mobile phone -- are proliferating at a much greater rate in larger society. Linkages between the devices being used outside of schools, and the technology to be found within schools, are often quite tenuous, where they exist at all.

Policies and plans related to the use of our current generation of electronic mobile devices are sometimes considered in ways distant or divorced from the way that the previous generation of 'mobile devices' used in education: books, notebooks, pencils. At other times, they are considered in exactly the same way, as if the new opportunities and affordances appearing as a result of technological advances are best considered as mere adjuncts to, or continuations of, some of the approaches and practices which have marked and defined what has happened in schools over the past one hundred years or so.
 

Is there really anything different (potentially) going on now,
and if so, what might this be,
and why (and how) might we care about this difference)?

I just returned from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the world's largest exhibition and conference for the mobile industry, in which over 75,000 people representing mobile phone network operators, device manufacturers, technology providers, vendors and content owners from across the world gather to do business, announce new products and services, and discuss What's Next. In addition to walking through the acres of exhibition space, attending briefing sessions and meetings on activities and developments all over the world, and listening to lots of well-rehearsed marketing messages, the specific reason for my attendance at this year's event was to make a speech at the MWC's official ministerial programme, an event for senior government officials featuring debates and knowledge sharing sessions on a variety of topics of related interest. In case it might be of any interest to a wider audience (the ministerial programme itself was a closed event, not open to the public), I present below my speech below. One of the animating impulses behind the EduTech blog is to try, in a decidedly small and modest way, to promote greater transparency and openness by sharing some of the conversations and themes and perspectives that are being discussed 'behind closed doors' in various places in a more public forum. With that in mind ...

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Paying teacher salaries with mobile phones

Michael Trucano's picture

no worries, everything here and orderly and under control, all money is being accounted for in a clear and timely mannerI often find that a sure way to generate rather heated discussions in many quarters is to bring up the topic of teacher salaries. They're too low! or: They're too high! They should be linked to [insert some sort of 'performance indicator']! or: Attempts to link them to [insert name of a performance indicator] are misguided (and perhaps even dangerous)!

I'll leave it to others more informed and expert than I am to weigh in on such (often quite contentious) debates. However one might approach such discussions, and whatever conclusions one might draw from them, there isn't a lot of debate about one issue related to teacher salaries that has been well documented, and widely (and rightly) deplored.

Many teachers around the world suffer as a result of poorly-functioning systems to pay the salaries [pdf] they are due [ppt]. This is especially problematic, and notable, given that teacher salaries have for many decades constituted huge percentages of the overall education budgets in many countries. As a World Bank publication from a few years ago (Teachers for Rural Schools : Experiences in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda) laments, "Teachers in remote schools are [compared with their colleagues in more urban areas] more likely to be the direct victims of administrative failures, which undermine teacher morale and damage the system. One frequently mentioned administrative failure is the delay in paying teachers’ salaries and allowances." An 'administrative failure' of this sort can have many causes. Even where sufficient budget exists to pay teachers, flawed teacher salary systems, poor internal controls, logistical challenges related to transport, and corruption can conspire to ensure that in many places, especially in rural areas in poor countries, teacher salaries are sometimes paid only infrequently, often with great delay. The results of this can be devastating for education systems -- to say nothing of the impact on individual teachers, schools, students and local communities.

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Back when I worked with the World Bank's infoDev program, one of my responsibilities was to serve as a point person on 'mobile money' issues, briefing groups on emerging lessons and experiences from nascent activities to use mobile phones to transfer money from one person to another. I left infoDev in 2008, just as activities in this regard were really starting to heat up (Kenya's M-Pesa program, the best known 'mobile money success story', launched in 2007), but continued to meet semi-regularly with folks -- colleagues from the World Bank and other international donor agencies, government officials, NGOs and foundations, businesspeople, researchers -- who were interesting in exploring how new mobile payment options might be used in inventive ways to help address some longstanding developmental challenges. (Those totally new to the topic may benefit from watching this short video from CGAP, which demonstrates how mobile money activities look in practice.) Most of these conversations, as it happens, included considerations of how money transfers via mobile phones might be used to ensure that teachers got paid, in full and on time. As I prepare for a trip next week to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I realize haven't fielded one substantive information request related to this topic in the past three years.

Up until about 2010, I met quite often with groups who were looking for creative ways to help address the 'paying salaries to teachers in rural areas challenge' and who had seized on the idea of taking advantage of the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones in such areas to help fashion some sort of 'solution'.  In the last three years, however, the volume around these sorts of discussions in many quarters has almost died out. Part of this might be explained by the fact that there are now many 'experts' on mobile money issues, people much more expert and well informed than I am about related issues, and so I simply might be 'out of the loop'. (Back in the 'early days' of work on this topic, I could never shake the nagging feeling that the reason that I was approached by so many groups for related information and advice was at least partially a result of the 'in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king' phenomenon.) That said, given that a regular part of my daily work at the World Bank is to field questions related to the use of new technologies in education in all sorts of ways around the world, and that a lot of my job isn't so much about in providing answers, but about helping people formulate better questions, the fact that this question seems no longer to be a topic of much discussion makes me wonder:

Whatever happened to the idea of paying teacher salaries with mobile phones?

Interactive Educational Television in the Amazon

Michael Trucano's picture

a road map -- er, river map -- for the expansion of educational opertunities in rural Brazil?According to figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, "Countries will need an extra 1.6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015 and 3.3 million by 2030". The 2013/4 Global Monitoring Report provides a useful discussion of the consequences of this deficit, as well as some strategies for overcoming it.  There are, unfortunately, no 'quick fix' solutions here. We didn't get ourselves into this mess overnight, and we won't get out of it overnight either. While longer term efforts tackle this challenge in multiple ways over time, recruiting new teachers and upgrading the skills of others, it is probably also useful to ask:

How do you teach children in places where there are no teachers?

Many proposed answers to this include some consideration of the use of information and communication technologies. Some groups have offered that it may be most efficacious to simply introduce technologies that help enable students to teach themselves, bypassing teachers altogether. That is certainly one approach, but one with, to date, a rather checkered history of success in many instances (although not all), and one that is consistent with a worry that teacher union officials have expressed to me many times over the years: that many of their members fear that they are being, or will be, replaced by new technologies. Rhetoric from certain politicians (I'll refrain from adding a link or three here, but a few minutes with your favorite search engine should help you locate a number of them yourself) and projections from some ministry of finance officials (informed, one suspects, in some cases by data from the marketing departments of certain technology firms) do little to alleviate such concerns. In some cases, the introduction of new technologies undeniably *does* replace certain specific functions or roles that teachers currently perform, or have performed in the past (especially related to what are essentially clerical or administrative functions -- this replacement is presumably not always such a bad thing). In my experience, introducing new technologies in schools actually makes the role and function of teachers more central and critical, but that is perhaps a topic for another blog post.

Faced with severe, in some cases quite extreme, deficits of qualified teachers, especially in remote communities and in subjects like mathematics, science and foreign languages, many countries are in engaged in long term efforts to recruit and train more teachers and upgrade the skills and content masteries of 'low-skilled' teachers already in their system.  They are exploring how ICTs can be leveraged to help in these efforts. Where there are pressing needs *now* for teachers that can not be met through conventional approaches or according to the traditional timelines dictated by the capacity and effectiveness of their teacher training institutes, there are looking to see how technologies can help reach students today in schools without qualified teachers -- or in some cases, without any teachers at all.