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April 2014

Checking in with Portugal's big projects to support technology use in education

Michael Trucano's picture
sometimes looking inside an unfamiliar place can provide you with a new perspective on what's happening outside as well
sometimes looking inside an unfamiliar place
can provide you with a new perspective on
what's happening outside as well

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 ..."

 or, alternatively:

"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 (see Around 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.

A quick review of what's happened in Portugal:

Using mobile phones in data collection: Some questions to consider

Michael Trucano's picture
as you move through the data, new questions might present themselves
as you move through the data,
new questions might present themselves

Recent posts on the EduTech blog have explored some of the general opportunities, issues and challenges that are common to many efforts to use mobile phones as part of data collection efforts and have identified some of the key lessons as a result of projects which have used mobile phones to collect data in the education sector in Uganda.

Even where there is common agreement on the potential utility of deploying mobile phones as part of a particular data collection effort, as well as a consensus understanding about relevant challenges that may complicate such an effort, decision makers may still be unsure about how to start their related planning efforts – or how best to change course once such efforts are underway.

In many instances, an intriguing proposal by a vendor of a particular product or service may help instigate initial considerations to use mobile phones as part of data collection efforts; news reports and information sharing between key practitioner groups may as well. Whatever catalyzes consideration of the use of mobile phones as aids in data collection efforts – in some cases it may simply be a general dissatisfaction with the status quo – here are some general questions that may be worth asking:

Using mobile phones to collect data in the education sector in Uganda

Michael Trucano's picture
one way to collect data of a certain sort while mobile
one way to collect data of a certain sort while mobile
Much has been made of the potential use of mobile phones to help collect, verify and disseminate information quickly, widely and cheaply in support of activities in the education sector.
 
What do we know about how such use looks in practice,
and what are we learning from emerging efforts in this area?


At an event last month at the World Bank, my colleagues Sukhdeep Brar and Gaurav Relhan shared some lessons from a few recent and on-going education activities in Uganda, providing some potentially quite useful insights for those seeking answers this question. The full video for this event, as well as the PowerPoint file presented, is available online. For those of you who are pressed for time, or are just not sure if clicking those links is worth the effort, here is a quick synopsis of what was shared and discussed.

Using mobile phones in data collection: Opportunities, issues and challenges

Michael Trucano's picture
there are lots to ways to collect data while mobile
there are lots to ways to collect data while mobile
The explosive growth in the availability of mobile phones in societies around the world – even in some of the poorest, most remote communities – is increasingly leading many groups to explore how these devices might be used effectively as part of large scale data collection efforts in many sectors, including education. Utilizing small, portable electronic computing devices to help collect data is not new, of course. For over two decades, laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) have featured in initiatives to (e.g.) collect census information, interview consumers of various goods and services and poll potential voters. That said, such efforts often faced constraints related to, among other things: costs; the relative novelty of such devices among key segments of the population; the need to provide device-specific user training; and difficulties in exchanging data between these devices and other components of a larger system for data collection. If, as it has been argued, the best technology is often the one you already have, know how to use, can maintain and can afford, for most of the world, the mobile phone fits these criteria quite well. As of late 2013, rates of mobile phone penetration stood at 96% globally (128% in developed countries and 89% in developing countries). According to the International Telecommunications Union, “today there are almost as many almost as many mobile-cellular subscriptions as there are people in the world.” 
 
Given their ubiquity, increasing functionalities, and decreasing related acquisition and operating costs, it is not surprising that mobile phones have been employed in a variety of ways to aid data collection efforts around the world. While many people may believe that such efforts require the use of a high-end (and expensive) smart phones, phones of all sorts have been deployed successful to different ends in different contexts.

Very simple, low-end ‘dumb phones’, for example, can utilize simple text messaging (or SMS) or voice to (e.g.) send out short queries by phone to a bank of phone numbers, prompting users to reply with a short response, which can be either predefined (‘text 1 for yes, 2 for no’)  or open-ended. Smartphones can be used in much more sophisticated ways by presenting rich media survey questions directly to respondents or to help guide the actions of an ‘enumerator’ (someone who administers a survey in person) by presenting a user-friendly interface to help an enumerator input and transmit data in structured ways. Such phones may also contain help files and training aids for the enumerators. In between the high and low end, ‘feature phones’ (a catch-all category of sorts for phones which can do more than make basic voice calls and send and received text messages, but do not have the advanced functionality of smart phones) can make use of simple graphical forms (e.g) on screen as prompts for questions, and can store/transmit structured data as a result of responses.

Data input or captured into phones may be transmitted or shared in many ways (including SMS, MMS, USSD, Bluetooth, wireless Internet, or the exchange of physical memory cards). Where mobile connectivity is not available, data can be stored on the phone and transmitted later once a phone is within sufficient range of a cell tower.
 
How and why might mobile phones
be useful in large-scale data collection efforts,
and what comparative advantages might their use have when compared to other options?
 
A number of attributes and characteristics of mobile phone use in such activities (as well as the use of other small, low-cost portable devices such as tablets, especially where such devices can be connected to mobile and wireless networks) may lead them to be considered, especially when compared with the use of more traditional, paper-based survey instruments: