Syndicate content

July 2014

Bad practices in mobile learning

Michael Trucano's picture
something doesn't seem quite right with this particular implementation ...
something doesn't seem quite right
with this particular implementation ...

The World Bank's EduTech blog explores issues related to the use of information and communication technologies (computers, laptops, tablets, the Internet, ...) to benefit education in middle and low income countries around the world. While I tend to view, with a fair degree of skepticism, many of the statistics which purport to document just how many people have visited a particular web site, it seems that the EduTech blog was recently visited by its one millionth reader. When viewing the mass of blog posts in their entirety, together with our visitor logs and other relevant data, it is quite clear that BY FAR the single most popular post remains one I did over four years ago on 'worst practice in ICT use in education'. What was relevant back in 2010 appears still to be quite relevant today.

(This isn't always the case: If memory serves, I quickly drafted and published that particular blog post because I was having trouble completing one 'Exploring the Use of Second Life in Education' -- I'm guessing that the half-life for *that* one, had it even been finalized and published, would have been pretty short!)

Recent news articles -- whether reporting that the one tablet per child project in Thailand 'has been scrapped' or the decision of the school district in Hoboken, New Jersey (USA) to 'throw away all its laptops' -- suggest that debris continues to pile up on the landscape of 'failed' attempts to use new technologies effectively in education in various ways. The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera has a short story called "Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead". Sometimes I feel like this title could be adapted for use in an introductory essay to a book documenting many of the unfortunate 'educational technology deployments' that have been irresistable fodder for politicians and headline writers alike (and clickbait for folks on Twitter) over the past decade.

And yet .... just because because we continue to hear variations on a sadly familiar theme, I don't know that the best response is to admit defeat, throw up our hands, throw everything away and go back to the 'good old days'. Learners would not be terribly well served if educational planners in 2014 simply decided to emulate the impulses and actions of Silesian weavers back in 1844 and smash all the machines in reaction to the spread of new technologies. Attempting to stuff this particular genie back in the bottle isn't only impractical: I would hazard a guess that it is well nigh impossible.

The recent article on the Hoboken experience labels it a 'failed experiment'. Personally, I am not sure that this label fits in this particular case. In an experiment, it seems to me that you are usually trying to learn something. This rather large purchase of technology seems to me like yet another solution in search of a problem that no one bothered to actually tried to define in any meaningful way. I suspect that, at a fundamental level, the problem wasn't (really) with the technology. In other words: It seems more like human failure to me.

A short note to the new philanthropist looking to support education and technology initiatives in the developing world

Michael Trucano's picture
I have some important decisions in front of me
I have some important decisions
in front of me

I get contacted from time to time by 'new' philanthropists looking to do something positive and productive with their wealth. Usually this is someone who has made a lot of money in the technology industry and who is now starting her or his own family foundation.

Chronologically speaking, many of these people are closer to what one would consider the age at which someone starts a career than the age at which one 'retires'. In other words: They are often rather young.

Based on my (admittedly limited) experience, many of these sorts of folks are often firm believers in the value of education (even if they themselves dropped out of formal schooling early to focus on writing code), in the transformative potential of technology (something which has profoundly and positively impacted their lives personally, offering them opportunities and riches they could never have dreamed of) and in the desire to do something globally (the person may be an immigrant her/himself, be married to an immigrant, have worked with lots of people from different countries or cultures, and/or just have done a lot of international travel).

Last year, for example, I was contacted by someone (writing on behalf of someone else) who wished to (I am slightly paraphrasing here) "explore innovative ways that technology can be harnessed to help overcome longstanding challenges in education around the world". (As for how such folks find me, they usually say: I stumbled across the EduTech blog.)

Given that I have been approached a number of times in a similar sort of way quite recently, and that I serve on a number of externally advisory boards where this sort of thing is discussed, I thought I'd share this scenario here, as well as little bit about some of the things I sometimes say in response, in case it might be of interest to anyone else:

Let's say I had the equivalent of a few million U.S. dollars
available to do something innovative at the intersection of
education and technology somewhere in the 'developing world'.

If it works out, a lot more money could potentially be used
to support activities further, and more systematically,
over a longer period of time.

If it doesn't work out -- well, that would not be great, of course,
but I am willing to take some risks.

 I want to be innovative,
and would really like to do something
that no one else is doing.

What should my new foundation do, and how should we do it?


I must confess that, whenever I am asked these sorts of questions, I find it to be a rather exciting, and perhaps even a little terrifying, scenario. (Often times such adjectives are not mutually exclusive!) When presented with a blank canvas of this sort, where and how does one start to paint?

Promising uses of technology in education in poor, rural and isolated communities around the world

Michael Trucano's picture
don’t worry: your solutions -- and possibly your salvation – have finally arrived!
don’t worry: your solution (salvation?)
has finally arrived!

One persistent challenge for educational policymakers and planners related to the potential use of informational and communication technologies (ICTs) in remote, low income communities around the world is that most products, services, usage models, expertise, and research related to ICT use in education come from high-income contexts and environments.

One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and 'made to fit' into what are often much more challenging environments. When they don't work, or where they are too expensive to be replicated at any scale, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant -- and possibly irresponsible.

That said, lessons are being learned as a result of emerging practices, both good and bad, in the use of ICTs in education in low resource, poor, rural and isolated communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of educational technology initiatives in such environments. (It may even turn out that the technological innovations that emerge from such places many have a wider relevance …. but that is a topic for another discussion.)

Products like the BRCK (a connectivity device designed and prototyped in Nairobi, Kenya by many of the people behind Ushahidi to better address user needs in places where electricity and internet connections are, for lack of a better word, ‘problematic’) and MobiStation (a solar-powered 'classroom in a suitcase' which features a projector and lots of off-line educational content developed by UNICEF Uganda) remain notable exceptions to the lamentable reality that, for the most part, ‘solutions’ touted for use in schools in e.g. rural Africa, or in isolated communities in the Andes, are designed elsewhere, with little understanding of the practical day-to-day realities and contexts in which such technologies are to be used. Many people who have lived and worked in such environments are quite familiar with well-meaning but comparatively high cost efforts often informed more by the marketing imperatives embedded in many corporate social responsibility efforts than by notions of cost-effectiveness and sustainability over time or the results of user-centered design exercises.