Given the lack of rigorous evidence to guide related decision making, a big investment in educational technologies has in many ways been the true ‘faith-based initiative’ in many education systems over the past two decades. While there are still gaping holes in our collective knowledge base about what works, and what doesn’t, related to many uses of ‘edtech’, we (thankfully) know substantially more today than we did even a few years ago.
Such knowledge doesn’t come a moment too soon! While estimates about the size of national and regional edtech markets canvarywidely, depending on how one chooses to define the term and whose white papers you choose to believe, there is no denying that this stuff is (for better or for worse, depending on your perspective) big business around the world – and growing bigger. It’s important to note that big investments in educational technologies aren’t only happening in places like the United States or South Korea, Germany or China or Australia. The emails that land each week in my in-box are testament to just how widespread a phenomenon this has become:
That said, while access to devices, connectivity and digital learning content is spreading quickly around the world, knowledge about how to harness increased levels of access to technology in ways relevant and practical for policymakers and educators in so-called ‘developing countries’ is not spreading anywhere near as quickly.
The vast majority of research and documentation related to the use of educational technologies around the world is generated from within ‘highly developed’ countries (most of them in Europe, North America and East Asia), animated and informed by research questions and the needs of education communities and education systems in these same countries.
Beginning later in 2019, a new, multi-year initiative will seek to change this existing paradigm.
In many cases, the answer is: It depends on who's asking!
I once spent an entire day with a team responsible for submitting data to the education minister about how many computers were in that country's schools, and what the related student-computer ratio was. The minister wanted to promote a new policy proposing a target 'student-computer ratio', and wanted to know how practical (or outlandish) her initial thoughts in this regard might be.
Thankfully, team members did have access to pretty reliable data about how many schools the country had, and how many students were in these schools (a shocking number of countries don't have reliable data on these counts). Led by a statistician, who liked to be rather more exact about things than a number of the politicans she worked for, the team was wrestling with questions like:
In many low and lower middle income countries around the world, large scale purchases of computing devices for use in schools are just beginning to happen. Given that efforts of this sort have occurred in other education systems for manyyears (and in some 'highly developed' countries, fordecades), there is a real opportunity for countries new to such efforts to learn from past mistakes made by others -- and not to repeat them.
Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fundamental question of whether or not a country should be investing its scarce resources in, for example, a new program to roll out laptops or tablets to all of its students or teachers. Let's say, for better or for worse, that this decision has already been made (and hopefully that it was a good decision!).
And: Let's leave for another discussion a topic regularly explored on the World Bank's EduTech blog: What might it mean for these devices to be used 'effectively'? Instead, what if we ask:
What are some of the 'little details' that can actually have a big impact on whether the devices supplied to schools are actually used at all?
Past posts on the World Bank's EduTech blog have attempted to document and analyze many of these 'little details'. Here's one that we haven't explored before:
Who owns the computer equipment in schools, who pays for the stuff that gets broken, who decides, and how is this information communicated?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, of course. As with so many things in life, context is king. Tolstoy famously wrote that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In my experience, the exact opposite is often true when it comes to education systems attempting to introduce new technologies into schools for the first time: All (eventually) unhappy education systems are (too often) alike; every happy education system is happy in its own way.
Here's a quick example of one education system that quickly became 'unhappy' with the initial results of its high profile effort to provide laptops to teachers. I'll call this country 'Laptopia', the generic name I use in training exercises when referring to real-life examples where little would be named by identifying the country specifically. (For what it's worth: When I shared the story below with two colleagues, both of them were sure they knew to which country I was referring. Both named different countries, and both were wrong.)
Oh, you work at the World Bank, someone recently remarked to me.
It must be great to have access to so much information and data about so many things.
Yes, that's certainly a perk of the job, I responded, although it can be overwhelming at times.
What's more interesting, and exciting, at least to me (and, truth be told, overwhelming as well), is the access to so many fascinatingquestions.
(For what it's worth: Most of the information and data with which we are traditionally associated are actually 'open' these days, freelyaccessible to anyone with a web browser as a result of our access to information policy).
Here's a (lightly anonymized, slightly disguised) sample of questions that arrived in my in-box just today:
For the first time in a few decades, our country is about to build lots of new schools: Should we be designing them any differently in order to accommodate the use of new technologies?
What are some compelling examples of how 'edtech' has been 'scaled up' to promote greater equity and inclusiveness that are relevant to our country?
We want to put all our textbooks online -- how should we do this?
We need to hire an expert in governance issues in education systems who can help us better understand the opportunities and challenges that new technologies will pose for us in the future: Can you suggest some related terms of reference, and a shortlist of candidates who speak our language and are familiar with operating contexts in our country and region?
What specs should we include in our big new tender for tablets?
(By the time I've completed this blog post, I expect a few more will have been sent to me as well.)
Whether these should be the types of things we get questions about -- that's another matter. There are no bad questions ... but of course some questions are better than others. Before we attempt to respond to a specific information request, we first pause and consider if we are being asked the 'right question'.
In steering people to the 'right question', or at least to a better question (or, as we like to phrase it when we respond, 'That's a great question! And here's another question that you may also wish to consider ...'), we have concluded that it usually helps to be able to address the one that they have already posed.
To help with this, we are trying to better organize what we know, based on our own work and more generally, to better address the things that we -- and the 100+ governments with which we actively work around the world -- don't know.
As part of this process, we have developed a master list of master list of 50+ key topics related to the use of new technologies in education of potential operational relevance to the World Bank in its strategic advice, lending activities and research going forward. It is not meant to be comprehensive in its consideration of topics related to the use of technology in education, and does not represent a 'framework for how to think about edtech'. Instead, it seeks to document and organize related requests for information and advice into distinct categories. It is not based on what the World Bank has done and supported in the past, but rather on questions we receive related to what governments are looking to do in the future. Reasonable people can and will no doubt disagree about whether we are being asked the 'right' questions or not. (We have strong opinions on this ourselves!)
The World Bank is seeking to hire two people to work on research, advisory and operational activities with governments around the world, exploring the effective and appropriate use of information and communication technologies (“ICTs”) to meet a variety of objectives related to teaching and learning. These are full time positions (i.e. not consultancies), based in Washington, DC:
We are especially interested in people with strong, demonstrable operational experience in the planning, management and/or implementation of large scale educational technology projects. Experience working in educational settings in low and middle-income countries and with public institutions would be ideal, especially across multiple regions of the world. These people will work as part of a small, dynamic, fast-paced ‘edtech’ team led by me and a colleague, in support of a geographically disbursed set of 22 regional World Bank staff (the 'edtech fellows') who are leading and advising on large scale education projects with ministries of education and other key stakeholder groups in middle and low income countries around the world.
If you're not familiar with the World Bank (or even if you are), here's some quick background information related to:
Personalized learning. Laptops. Artificial intelligence. Digital textbooks. Learning to code. Having access to the best teachers and educational materials, anytime, anywhere, no matter where you are. The potential and promise of technology use in education ('edtech') is clear, even if it is often oversold.
When implemented well, educational software applications can help students to learn at their own pace. The use of devices like tablets can help children develop important digital skills and computer know-how that they’ll need to succeed in our knowledge-based economy -- and in life. Separating the hope from the hype, however, and figuring out how to put into practice what seems som compelling in theory (or in a slick presentation from a vendor touting its latest and greatest 'edtech solution') -- that's not so easy. Many potential related challenges, such as high costs, increased burdens on teachers, and many (many!) implementation difficulties, are well known and documented. Far too many high-profile technology-related education initiatives have had little measurable impact on student reading or math ability — sometimes predictably, despite the best of intentions. Technology, as the historian Melvin Kranzberg famously remarked, is neither positive nor negative -- nor is it neutral. While it is very possible that the introduction of new technologies in education can help certain groups leap ahead in ways not previously possible, if care is not taken, it is quite probable that other groups will be left (further) behind.
For better or for worse -- perhaps it's more accurate to say, for better and for worse, given this checkered track record -- countries, communities, families and learners are investing more and more in educational technology tools of all sorts. In most places around the world, the question is no longer, should we use technology in education, but rather, how can we use technology, affordably and effectively, to help prepare our children to lead healthy, happy productive lives?
More evidence is needed to better understand the impact of technology use on teaching and learning and the ways in which a variety of hardware and software tools -- as well as faster, more widespread and reliable Internet access -- can accelerate learning across the so-called 'developing world', helping children develop the foundational skills they need for success. Yet it's clear that, in too many communities around the world, 'business as usual' is not working, or not working fast enough. The world is changing, in large part due to technological advances. As a result, new approaches ('business unusual', if you will) are being considered and rolled out, and most of these involve the use of new technologies in some way. How can we ensure that we are doing this 'right', and how will we know?
These two jobs are about all of this stuff -- and more. For more specific information, please do see the full official job descriptions, which contain directions on how to apply. The closing date to apply is 28 October 2018. That's right:This Sunday! (Depending on your time zone, the exact deadline will fall on different parts of the day, so do check the job announcements to make sure you submit your information in time.)
In my experience working with education officials around the world over the past two decades, the confidence of senior leadership in an education system's approach to computer and data security is often inversely proportional to how much time, energy and expense have been devoted to considering security issues, to say nothing of the robustness and comprehensiveness of related approaches being deployed.
As part of my job at the World Bank, I help ministries of education think through issues related to the use of new technologies in education. Along the way, there has been, in my experience and generally speaking, comparatively little attention, energy and resources paid to issues of computer and data security as part of the rollout of digital technologies in education in many parts of the world, and especially in middle and low income countries, where I spend the bulk of my time.
At a basic level, this should not be too surprising. Resources are often quite scare, as is related know-how. Most initiatives focus first on introducing computers (and later tablets and other gadgets) into schools, and on rolling out and improving connectivity. Many countries new to the use of computers in schools are challenged to adequately handle some of the most basic security-related tasks, like installing (and keeping updated) anti-virus packages on individual devices. And to be honest: The initial stakes are often quite low. Only over time, once a critical mass of infrastructure is in place -- and is being used -- do thoughts turn to any significant extent to issues of computer and data security. But still: Unlike passing out shiny new tablets to schoolchildren or cutting the ribbon on a new educational makerspace, strengthening an education system's security practices typically doesn't make for compelling photo opportunities. For education ministers who typically enjoy short tenures in their jobs, it's often quite logical to leave such issues for the next lady (or guy) to handle.
That said, as connectivity spreads and improves, and as education systems move beyond a patchwork of often small and uncoordinated pilot projects to become more dependent on their ICT infrastructure at the classroom, school and system level, 'security' is gradually added to the list of responsibilities of a few staff, related budget line items are established, and sometimes small units are formed inside education bureaucracies.
Even then, though, digital security concerns usually tend not to be prioritized by ministries of education, and much of what is done is reactive in nature. In my experience, only when one of two types things take place do computer security issues get real attention: (1) when there is a move to computerized, especially online, testing; and/or (2) when something important is 'hacked'. (There is a third catalyst for action -- government regulation -- but that typically occurs only after one or both of these first two things have occurred.)
During dialogues with government around 'edtech issues', it's been my standard practice to try to insert a bullet point related to 'security' onto the formal agenda. For the most part, this has been tolerated ("of course we think security is important!"), but (if I am being honest) not always particularly welcome, and it is often the last agenda item, the kind of thing where the related discussion gets cut short and people close by saying, "We wish we had more time to discuss this."
In the past two years, however, things have begun to change a bit. While still never the focus of our discussions, people from a number of ministries of education with which I have worked have begun to bring up this issue proactively. Often, related exchanges begin with some form of the question, "We are thinking about introducing online testing but are wondering if we might get hacked -- how worried should we be, and what can we do to prevent this from happening?"
My response to this sort of question is usually is something along the lines of, "You are right to be worried, and there are a lot of things you can and should be doing as a result." (Whether or not online testing is actually a good idea is a separate question, and discussion.) We then quickly talk through a number of the standard high level issues, topics and concerns, touch on the feasibility and cost of a number of related first (and second, and third, and fourth ...) steps that need to be taken, and at the end draw up a list of names and organizations for potential follow-up. Before the discussion 'ends' (a discussion about computer security never actually 'ends', of course; once opened, Pandora's Box can never be fully closed), I make sure to make the following statement, and pose a related question:
Prevention is important. Obviously! I am glad to see that this is increasingly prominent on your agenda. If you have a checklist of things you are concerned about, and a list of how you are addressing them, we can take a look at it and talk through some potential related issues, to the extent that this might be useful. We can also talk about some other countries where some bad things have happened, in case any of those stories might be of interest.
But, no matter how successful you are when it comes to protecting your digital infrastructure and your data, if you are using connected digital technologies in your education system, at some point in the future:
For the past two decades, I've worked on issues at the intersection of the education and technology sectors in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world. It's been a fascinating job: Over the past 20 years, I've been an advisor to, evaluator of, and/or working-level participant in, educational technology ('edtech') initiatives in over 50 such countries. When it comes to ICT use in education, the promised revolution always seems to be just around the corner. Indeed: I am regularly pitched ideas by people who note that, while many past promises about the potential of the use of new technologies in education have failed to pan out, they are confident that "this time, it's different".
At the same time, I am quite often asked to help other folks identify intriguing initiatives that might, individually and/or collectively, illuminate emerging trends and approaches in this sector:
"I'm interested in examples of innovative educational technology projects from around the world, especially those primarily focused on helping teachers and learners in developing countries. In other words: Not the usual suspects. Can you suggest a few projects and companies that I might not know about -- but should?"
I receive a version of this request most every week (sometimes even multiple times in a single day). Given the frequency of such inquiries, I thought I'd quickly highlight 20 such efforts from around the world, in the hope that people might find this useful. The hope is to point readers in the direction of some interesting projects that they might not know much about, but from which there is much we can learn.
While I am not sure if, indeed, things will turn out to be 'different this time around', the overall volume of such projects, and the sophistication of many of them, are quite notable. There is more happening, in more places, than ever before. A number of efforts have been informed (in good ways) by past failures. That said, others will no doubt attempt to 'reinvent the flat tire' and display a characteristic common to Einstein's definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Hopefully none of the groups profiled below will fall into that trap, but I suspect that a few of them might.
The list here, a mix of for-profit and non-profit initiatives, is deliberately idiosyncratic and non-representative (see the many caveats and explanations that follow below the list). Some of these projects are no doubt doomed to 'fail'; others will most likely be restructured more than once as they try, to borrow the words of Deng Xiaopeng, to "cross the river by feeling the stones". And maybe, just maybe, a few of them might actually turn out to be as 'transformative' as they hope to be.
With that said, and in alphabetical order, here are:
20 innovative edtech projects from around the world
Few would argue with the contention that access to the Internet will be increasingly important to teaching and learning (and to learners and teachers) in the future.
Yes, we all know that there was learning before the Internet, and that you can learn without using the Internet. Let's stipulate all of this up front. And yes, there are plentiful examples of the Internet being used in ways that are harmful or which degrade the learning environment -- as well as examples of the Internet not being used at all, even though it is available and paid for.
That said, it is 2017. No matter where you are, conversations about broadening the access to the Internet to help meet the needs of learners and educators are growing louder in ministries of education, part of broader, related discussions around connectivity in the communities and populations that they serve.
When it comes to providing access to the Internet within educational settings, and for educational purposes:
What should we be talking about in 2017 that we haven't talked about in the past?
To what extent should we be expanding the access debate -- and to what extent should we be having different debates entirely?
Some technologies are maturing and others are emerging, past failures (of omission and commission) are becoming more apparent, and political will is increasingly in evidence in many places.
With this in mind, might a 're-think' be in order?
When, two decades ago, I first started helping people who were investigating the uses of new technologies in education, many of the initial inquiries I received were quite similar. Whether it was from governments in some of the most developed countries in Europe or Asia, or from non-profit groups (and some governments) in some of the least developed countries in Africa or Latin America, people had very specific questions about hardware. What processor should we buy for our computer? How much memory do we need? Over time, as we all became more experienced and savvy about choices related to where to invest scarce resources, questions about devices and their specific attributes gave way to those about processes and approaches -- and about people and institutions.
Recent work at the World Bank has investigated a specific type of institution -- the national educational technology agency -- and its often critical role in support of large scale ICT/education efforts in many countries around the world. Often times, such an institution operates at arm's length from (for example) the ministry of education, with the ministry providing the agency with strategic direction (and funding). Models vary (we document a number of them in a recent book), but, generally speaking, these tend to be organizations focused on >> doing <<. Over time, such institutions become centers of technological competence that can far outstrip what is found within the leadership of their country's ministry of education. They are technical organizations, staffed in large part (but not exclusively) by technical people.
During a series of off-the-record discussions with groups of education ministers earlier this year who were 'struggling with the ICT stuff’, one of the ministers (who had previously worked in the private sector, and whose spouse had worked for a tech firm) shared his interest in creating a CIO (Chief Information Officer) position within his ministry. He wanted someone with dedicated resposbility to help him make sense of all of the things that were changing as a result of new technologies, to help set related strategic directions within the ministry, and to oversee this implementation. About the only thing that the ministers in both ministerial discussions agreed on that day (other than that they were having challenges in dealing with teachers unions -- always a common topic for bonding and commiseration for these sorts of folks, I find) was that they liked the idea of having a CIO.
What exactly does a Chief Information Officer (CIO) do,
and why might ministries of education consider creating such a position?
Opinions and approaches vary regarding how to ‘best’ utilize new technologies to support teaching and learning in ways that are engaging, impactful and ‘effective’.
A recent paper from J-PAL (Education Technology: An Evidence-Based Review) finds that rigorous evidence about what works, and what doesn’t, in this area is decidedly mixed. While what works seems to be a result of many factors (what, where, when, by whom, for whom, why, how), what doesn’t work is pretty clear: simply buying lots of equipment and connecting lots of schools.
Why does this continue to happen, then?
Many in the ‘edtech community’ feel that policymakers simply don’t understand that buying lots of equipment won’t actually change much (aside from its impact on the national treasury), and that if they did understand this, they’d do things differently.
In my experience, the reason that many places end up just buying lots of equipment, dumping it into schools and hoping for magic to happen (a widely acknowledged and long-standing ‘worst practice’ when it comes to technology use in education) isn’t necessarily that the people making related decisions are dumb or uninformed or corrupt (although of course those scenarios shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand in some places).