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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.

The Development and Evolution of National Educational Technology Agencies Over Time

Michael Trucano's picture
a different sort of life cycle
a different sort of life cycle

As part of our work advising such groups over the years, we have observed that national ICT/education agencies -- the organizations found in many countries which serve as the focal groups coordinating large scale efforts to introduce, use and support new technologies in schools -- pass through a general ‘life-cycle’ over the course of their existence, with five semi-distinct stages of development.

Each stage may bring with it a new set of functional responsibilities and mandates, different staffing (including leadership) and budgeting requirements, and entail varied levels of oversight and relationships with other groups, causing organizational structures to adapt, and be adapted, over time.

This life-cycle hypothesis has been proposed as a simple tool to help people who play critical roles in the planning for large scale national educational technology initiatives to develop an understanding of how their organizations may compare with other organizations doing similar sorts of things in other parts of the world, and how they might expect that their organizations may evolve and change over time. Such an evolution can potentially have a profound impact on a variety of key decisions that policymakers may have to make related to funding, staffing, functions and coordination with a variety of key stakeholder groups over time. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether it is 'good' or 'bad' that a particular organization finds itself at one of these five identified stages. There also appears to be no hard and fast rule about how long individual institutions may stay at a particular stage in the life cycle. Some organizations may move quickly from one stage to another, others may stay in a particular stage for many years, even (potentially) decades. Most organizations observed around the world, especially those in middle and low income countries, find themselves today somewhere between the stages of 'childhood' and 'adolescence', with a heavy focus on the technology itself (buying it, rolling it out, supporting and maintaining it) and less of a focus on trying to integrate the technology into standard or transformed teaching and learning practices. While it is worth noting that this technology focus is not necessarily bad (or good) -- judgments of this sort are presumably more useful when made relative to certain specific contexts, and not in the abstract -- it is usually true that this focus is a direct consequence of the views of policy makers about how technology can and should be used in education.

Why Establish a National Educational Technology Agency?

Michael Trucano's picture
OK, you go this way, we'll go that way ... no, wait a minute, that isn't working ... maybe we need some formal organization here ...
OK, you go this way, we'll go that way ...
no, wait a minute, that isn't working ...
maybe we need some formal organization here ...

In most countries around the world, a single institution is core to the implementation of national initiatives related to the use of new technologies ('ICTs') in education. Whether we are talking about large scale rollouts of things like tablets or laptops, or educational computing efforts of the more 'traditional' variety, a single organization often serves as a focal point for many related efforts to introduce, support, maintain direct, coordinate, fund, manage and/or evaluate national efforts to utilize information and communications technologies (ICTs) in innovative -- and, if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps not so innovative -- ways in schools.

A few years ago, the World Bank, in partnership with the government of Korea, convened a meeting in Seoul to bring together the heads of many of these sorts of organizations to share experiences about what has worked, what hasn't, what people wish they had done differently, and what new challenges might lie ahead.

It turns out that this topic was of very immediate relevance in a number of countries which were considering starting up a 'national ICT/education agency', for lack of a better term, but were searching about for useful models and lessons that might help them in their efforts. We'll publish some related analytical work later this year, including a set of ten cases studies documenting efforts in this regard around the world.

As we finalize this work, and in case it might be of relevance to anyone, we thought it might be useful share some of the varied answers we are finding to a question that many countries have asked themselves in the recent past, and which many more countries are considering right now:

Why, and how, might a country decide to establish
a single organization dedicated to the use of ICTs in education?

Evaluating the Khan Academy

Michael Trucano's picture
this is fascinating, but wouldn't it be better online?
this is fascinating, but wouldn't it be better online?
Over the past five years, there has perhaps been no educational technology initiative that has been more celebrated around the world than the Khan Academy. Born of efforts by one man to provide tutoring help for his niece at a distance, in 2006 the Khan Academy became an NGO providing short video tutorials on YouTube for students. It is now a multi-million dollar non-profit enterprise, reaching over ten million students a month in both after-school and in-school settings around the world with a combination of offerings, including over 100,000 exercise problems, over 5,000 short videos on YouTube, and an online 'personalized learning dashboard'. Large scale efforts to translate Khan Academy into scores of languages are underway, with over 1000 learning items currently available in eleven languages (including French, Xhosa, Bangla, Turkish, Urdu, Portuguese, Arabic and Spanish). Founder Sal Khan's related TED video ("Let's use video to reinvent education") has been viewed over three million times, and the Khan Academy has been the leading example cited in support of a movement to 'flip the classroom', with video lectures viewed at home while teachers assist students doing their 'homework' in class.

As efforts to distribute low cost computing devices and connectivity to schools pick up steam in developing countries around the world, many ministries of education are systematically thinking about the large scale use of digital educational content for the first time. Given that many countries have already spent, are spending, or soon plan to spend large amounts of money on computer hardware, they are often less willing or able to consider large scale purchases of digital learning materials -- at least until they get a better handle on what works, what doesn't and what they really need. In some cases this phenomenon is consistent with one of the ten 'worst practices' in ICT use in education which have been previously discussed on the EduTech blog: "Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware". Whether or not considerations of digital learning materials are happening 'too early' or 'too late', it is of course encouraging that they are now happening within many ministries of education.

As arguably the world's highest profile digital educational content offering in the world -- and free at that! -- with materials in scores of languages, it is perhaps not surprising that many ministries of education are proposing to use Khan Academy content in their schools.

The promise and potential for using materials from Khan Academy (and other groups as well) is often pretty clear. Less is known about the actual practice of using digital educational content in schools in middle and low income countries in systematic ways.
 
What do we know about how Khan Academy is actually being used in practice, and how might this knowledge be useful or relevant to educational policymakers in developing countries?

Sachet educational publishing in a digital and mobile world

Michael Trucano's picture
I'll take one packet of Pythagorean Theorem and one packet of verb conjugations, please
I'll take one packet of Pythagorean Theorem
and one packet of verb conjugations, please

In the course of my job at the World Bank helping ministries of education in middle and low income countries think about, analyze, plan for, implement and evaluate issues, ideas and projects at the intersection of the worlds of technology and education, I spend a fair amount of time considering issues related to the digital publishing of educational materials. The World Bank has over the years funded the purchase of lots of textbooks around the world and we maintain active dialogues with scores of education ministries, helping to provide related advice and technical assistance.

In many countries, especially poor ones where disposable income is very low and where there is not an established culture of leisure reading, the educational publishing industry is sometimes largely indistinguishable from the publishing industry as a whole, and government purchases of textbooks (and/or government directives about which textbooks families or schools should purchase, where such things are not centrally procured) have huge, often determining influence on the direction of the publishing industry in general. In order to better understand how all of this impacts educational publishing, I talk regularly with lots of 'traditional' educational publishers, big and small, both international and local. I also talk a lot with technology companies who do things that look a lot like educational publishing to me, or who provide the tools and services to enable and support related activities.

Last year I participated in two fascinating events a few weeks apart, the EdTech Industry Summit in San Francisco and a symposium convened by the International Publishers Association (IPA) at the London Book Fair. (I was lucky enough to be at the IPA symposium this year as well.) At these meetings, the agendas and items discussed were largely the same, but were often approached from quite different perspectives. For the sake of argument here -- and I admit I am greatly oversimplifying things by making this characterization -- EdTech Summit participants were mainly 'tech companies', while the London Book Fair event was mainly attended by 'traditional publishers'. (I concede that such distinctions are increasingly difficult, and less useful, to make as time goes on; in my opinion all publishers are technology companies these days, whether they self-identify as such or not and/or whether outsiders see them that way.)

At both events, a data point that was quoted quite often was that '1% of national education budgets around the world are devoted to the purchasing of textbooks and other learning materials'. While I have never been able to find this assertion supported by hard data, I have heard it expressed so many times over the years by people who work in or around the educational publishing industry that I have taken it as almost 'conventional wisdom'. Whether this figure is actually .5% or 2% or 4% (or whatever), what has struck me when in conversation with many vendors is that many traditional publishers have, in the face of the steady rise in many countries around the world of large scale purchases of laptops and tablets for students and teachers, worried that technology purchases are eating into traditional budgets for the purchases of textbooks.

As one traditional publisher put it to me at the London event in 2013, "we need to figure out how to protect this 1% so that it is not tapped to buy iPads". Contrast this with a statement made to me by an enthusiastic founder of an edtech start-up in San Francisco, who said that the goal of firms like his was to "eventually capture 20% of education budgets" by transforming the way education is delivered as a result of the use of new technologies. Whether or not such figures are accurate, they for me exemplify a difference in perspective and ambition that is consistent with many stereotypical characterizations of brash young tech entrepreneurs in their hoodies (and/or khakis) versus the tweedy old-school booksellers whose business model that I have been told on many occasions -- especially by those not that business -- was one for "dinosaurs".

(While conceding that the business models for selling books will have to change rather radically going forward, a concession to which no educational publisher I know would object in the age of e-readers and hypertext, of apps and APIs, I am fairly confident that extinction rates for edtech startups will remain much greater than that of book publishers for the foreseeable future, although in the end I wouldn't be too surprised if the most successful 'tech' firms doing business in this space end up buying up a lot of the 'publishers' -- some of whom will themselves be buying and merging with 'tech' firms along the way.)

If we accept the premise that educational publishing industry in the 'developed' countries of Europe and North America are being, and will continue to be, increasingly radically disrupted -- a contention with which I expect few people would disagree -- what might this mean for business models for educational publishing in less developed, 'poor' countries? Will the related business models from OECD contexts simply, and eventually, be transplanted to middle and low income countries? Or: Might some new business models for digital educational publishing emerge from less developed countries, based on specific local contexts and consumer demands in an increasingly digital -- and mobile -- age?

Surveying ICT use in education in Asia

Michael Trucano's picture
we're not all uniform in our use of ICTs
we're not all uniform in our use of ICTs

If you've ever been involved in discussions about current uses of technology in education -- and, given that you are currently reading a post on the World Bank's EduTech blog, it's probably safe to assume that you have -- you've probably noticed that, at some point in the back-and-forth, someone will inevitably be unable to resist talking about what's coming next. The history of technology use in education is, in part, a history of predictions about the use of technology in the future.

For the past few decades, many people around the world have almost instinctively looked toward Asia to get glimpses and insight into what the next wave of consumer technologies might look like and do, and how young people might use them. From the 'computer nerds' who frequented the Akihabara section of Tokyo in the 1980s to the young Filipinos whose affinity for SMS earned their country its designation as the 'texting capital of the world' around the turn of the century to today's designation of Indonesia as the 'social media capital of the world', the center of gravity for emerging uses of new technologies by young people has often been in the East. It is indeed no coincidence that the World Bank has co-sponsored an annual event bringing education policymakers to Seoul each fall to help discuss and plan for their country's potential uses of new technologies in schools in the future.

Of course, the stereotypically tech-savvy, mobile-phone wielding, hyper-connected youth in the big cities of East Asia, reviewing vocabulary on their smartphones while commuting on the subway or studying to the wee hours of the night on broadband connections at home, occupy one end of a very wide and diverse spectrum. Rural youth for whom the Internet is more aspiration than avocation and whose schools may not even have electricity, let alone a computer, or for whom 'computer time' means the two hours a month spent in a crowded school computer lab learning how to use a word processing program while waiting, waiting, waiting for their desperately slow Internet connection to bring up a single web page: Such young people and circumstances represent the reality of current technology use in education across Asia as well.

If we hypothesize that many future uses of technology in education might first appear in Asia, where might we want to look to get some first glimpses as what is likely to come to our own schools (wherever they may be)? If you want to know what a place might look like tomorrow, a good place to start might be by looking at what things look like there today.  With that in mind:

How and to what extent are countries across Asia currently utilizing information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their education systems?

Two recent publications from UNESCO provide much useful data and documentation to help those trying to come up with possible answers to this question.

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:
 

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