Last year an article on Mashable made waves among some of the people I follow on Twitter. Kindergarten Teacher Earns $700,000 by Selling Lesson Plans Online (a later article bumped the figure up to over a million dollars) may admittedly describe a rather outlier occurrence. That said, it did bring attention to some emerging issues related to the educational content developed by teachers as part of their jobs, and the fact that such work may have economic value that can be quantified and realized in ways that, as a result of the introduction of new technologies and technology-enabled services (and the emerging markets that such things can catalyze and fuel), would have been thought impossible even a handful of years ago.
Not many people go into the teaching profession to make a lot of money. Few students expect to receive any monetary reward for anything they produce in school (beyond perhaps a few congratulatory rupees now and then from their proud grandparents). However, as more and more digital content and data are generated as a result of normal day-to-day teaching and learning activities in schools, might these data and this content have economic value that can be monetized, and if so:
Who stands to benefit?
Who has the rights to this content and these data,
and what might they do (and not do) with them?
Schools should be connected to the Internet. Most people, I suspect, would agree with that statement (although a few dissenters may contend that such a statement does not go far enough, and that all schools *must* be connected to the Internet.) Indeed: Lots of countries around the world have been, and are, engaged in efforts to connect all of their schools to the Internet -- and for those schools that are already connected, to connect them faster.
The efforts of the United States in this regard that began under the 'e-rate' program in the 1990s have been much studied and emulated around the world, and countries as diverse as Malaysia, Morocco and Turkey have sought in various ways to utilize Universal Service Funds to help connect the un-connected. Korea has perhaps gone the furthest in rolling out very fast connectivity to all of its schools. Armenia will soon (if has not done so already) have completed connecting all of its schools to the Internet; when I last checked (in late 2012), Uruguay had almost done so as well. Given current technology infrastructure and available funds, not all countries are of course yet able to connect all schools, even if they consider this to be a priority. (Even in a country as developed as Uruguay, 70 schools were reported still to be without electricity in early 2012 -- not being connected to the electrical grid can make efforts roll out connectivity to all a little more difficult ....) In countries where almost all schools can be connected via existing means, a lack of supporting government policies and/or incentives for groups to connect the unconnected schools can mean that, even where connections to the Internet are technically feasible, they may not be commercially or practically feasible. Some recent work by the World Bank found that 95% of all schools in Indonesia could theoretically be connected to the Internet now, if the political will could be found and provided certain policies and incentives were put into place. (Connecting the remaining 5% of schools -- no small number, in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia, with over 13,000 (!) islands and 250,000 schools -- would be much more difficult, as many of the schools in this 5% category are quite remote, and there are as a result often significant, and very costly, infrastructure challenges to overcome.)
OK, if all schools should (or must) be connected to the Internet, what should be the nature of that connection?
Again, most people would probably agree that, in 2013, all schools should have broadband connections to the Internet. This is, in fact, a common theme in many of the national policies related to ICT use in education one encounters around the world, especially in the more 'advanced' (OECD) countries, and increasingly in middle income countries as well. Reasonable people may (and do!) disagree about the extent to which school connectivity should be prioritized compared with other pressing needs in the education sector, but, while there may be a lack of consensus on the relative importance, the general importance of connecting schools, and indeed in doing so at broadband speeds, is a widely held goal in much of the world (even if it is not always practical in the near term). That said:
What exactly does 'broadband' mean when we are talking about connecting schools to the Internet?
It turns out there is no simple answer to this query. Indeed, there are lots of different answers, depending on where you are and the context in which you are posing such a question.
I have recently been involved in discussions with three countries that are considering *huge* new investments to introduce lots of new technologies in their primary and secondary education systems. Such discussions typically focus quite a bit on what technologies will be purchased; what additional products, services and support will need to be provided if the technology is to be used effectively; and how to pay for everything. Increasingly (and encouragingly), there is also talk of how to measure the impact of these sorts of investments. To measure 'impact' (however you choose to define it), you of course need to know what has actually happened (or not happened). When you are putting computers in all schools, or rolling out lots of new digital learning content, or training lots of teachers, how do you know that these sorts of things are actually taking place?
From Africa to China, from the use of mobile phones to a big evaluation report on the OLPC project -- with a short detour down Sesame Street and a bunch of stuff about digital textbooks thrown into the mix -- the World Bank EduTech blog covered a lot of ground in 2012. Begun in 2009 as one of the World Bank's first regular blogs, EduTech has tried to explore issues related to the use of information and communication technologies to benefit education in developing countries via a series of informal posts on a variety of topics, informed by lots and lots (and lots) of discussions with groups in countries around the world doing interesting things. Along the way, we have realized that, for better or worse, and at least with regards to ICT use in education, we are able to connect via the blog with many people in ways that our more traditional (often long, although hopefully not long-winded) formal World Bank publications and dialogues struggle to achieve. By 'thinking aloud in public', we have also tried (in an admittedly very modest way) to use the blog to open up conversations about various themes to wider audiences, and to share emerging thinking and discussions on topics that in the past were often (regrettably) shared only 'behind closed doors' within small circles of people and institutions.
2012 saw the fewest number of discrete posts on the World Bank EduTech blog, and yet the blog as a whole experienced its highest overall readership. While it is flattering that our stuff occasionally (and increasingly) finds good-sized audiences online, we don't put too much stock in individual readership metrics -- nor are we terribly interested in them, to be honest. While we are of course happy with the broad readership that the blog attracts some weeks inside our little niche topic area (while at the start we used to be happy if we could attract 1000 or so readers to a post, in 2012 we would sometimes get that within a few hours of the appearance of a new blog entry), most weeks our target audience is actually just a handful of key decision makers in one place whom we hope to make aware of something that is happening in another part of the world that might be of relevance to their work. So, while it is gratifying to find out that a post was read by 500 or 5000 (or 50,000!) people, in all honesty we are most pleased if it was seen by a target group of people who may actually number only five -- especially if and where it may influence their thinking in a positive and useful way.
We deliberately try not to focus our attention on any one topic for too long (a short attention span no doubt helps in this regard), but rather to highlight research, initiatives, questions and conversations with which we are engaged at a particular point in time, in the hope that doing so in public is useful to other people dealing with similar challenges in their work. As we have done in the past, we thought we'd begin the new year by counting down the list of top EduTech blog posts over the prior 12 months as a sort of quick review for a general audience. Criteria for inclusion are rather idiosyncratic, and include a combination of page views and RSS hits, re-postings in other fora, and related exchanges via email and in person have informed our entirely unscientific attempt to rank-order offerings from 2012.
The World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) annually brings together "more than 1,000 prominent education, corporate, political and social leaders from over 100 countries to explore how collaboration in many forms and at many levels can become the driving force of efforts to inspire innovation in education and to design long-term strategies for its renewal". Now it its fourth year, WISE is one high profile example of how the small but natural gas-rich Middle Eastern nation of Qatar is seeking to establish itself as a locus for discussion and dialogue on a number of key global issues (another example is the hosting of next week's global climate change conference), with a particular interest in education (in addition to WISE, Qatar is also home to Education City) and sport (in addition to high profile Qatari sponsorship of the FC Barcelona jerseys and investment in the French soccer club PSG, the country will host the 2022 World Cup.)
The annual WISE Prize for Education, which comes with a gold medal and USD $500,000 and was awarded this year to Madhav Chavan of the Indian NGO Pratham, is an attempt to, in the words of the sponsoring Qatar Foundation, "[raise the] status of education by giving it similar prestige to other areas for which major international awards exist such as science, literature, peace and economics". (Think of the WISE Prize as a sort of Nobel Prize or Fields Medal for education and you'll get a sense of the ambition at work here.)
For the last year or so, we have been collecting policy documents related to ICT use in education from around the world, with a specific interest in trying to document policy intent in developing countries, especially in East Asia. This is one component of a larger initiative at the World Bank called Systems Approach for Better Education Results, or SABER. As part of our SABER-ICT project, we are trying to help policymakers as they attempt to assess and compare their own policies against those of comparator countries around the world. Here's a very real scenario:
An education minister approaches the World Bank and asks for help in formulating an 'ICT in education' policy, in preparation for what is intended to be a large scale investment in educational technologies. She asks us:
What might be important to include in such a policy?
In the decade since the term 'open education resources' was formally identified and adopted by UNESCO, related "teaching, learning or research materials that are in the public domain or released with an intellectual property license that allows for free use, adaptation, and distribution" have been slowly but surely creeping into mainstream use in many education systems around the world. North America has recently seen prominent announcements about projects to provide free, online open textbooks in British Columbia and California, following similar sorts of headlines out of Poland earlier in the year. In June, the so-called 'Paris Declaration' [pdf] was released as part of a prominent international effort both to "increase government understanding of the significance of open education resources and to encourage more governments to support the principle that the products of publicly funded work should carry such licenses." In conversations with education ministries in many low and middle income countries over the past year, I have seen a marked increase in the interest in exploring the relevance of the 'OER movement' to national efforts to procure and develop digital learning resources. Traditional educational publishers have been monitoring such efforts closely, identifying both potential threats to existing business models, and in some cases, ingredients for potentially new business models as well.
How might we be able to track related initiatives around the world?
ICT-related procurements in the education sector, especially large scale ones, are not easy. A recent World Bank Internal Evaluation Group report noted that "ICT procurement has been highlighted as a major implementation constraint in several country and regional portfolio reviews and is a critical dimension of design." Rapid changes in technology mean that many ministries of education have a hard time keeping up with what's current in the market, let alone what might be coming next.
Even in places where anti-corruption measures are well considered and implemented, government auditors and external watchdog groups may be challenged to identify dodgy practices in some ICT-related areas. (Have you ever read the fine print on large scale bandwidth contracts for schools? Such things are often not for the feint of heart.) It is not unknown to hear whisperings about vendors -- or consultants close to them -- providing 'assistance' of various sorts in writing a request for proposals (or certain technical specs that appear in such RFPS), and of course vendors often hope that their showcase pilot projects may inspire ministries of education to think in certain ways about what is possible, and even desirable. For many ministries of education, the line between 'influence' and 'undue influence' in such cases can be very clear in some circumstances, but rather hazy in others.
As part of a very interesting Q&A period after a presentation at the World Bank a few years ago, mention was made about some of the challenges faced in a state in southern India which was exploring whether so-called thin client solutions might be worth considering in its schools. Essentially, the issue was this: Traditional practice when procuring computers for schools had focused on ensuring that each computer met a defined set of minimum technical specifications. In an alternative, 'thin client' set-up, it was possible to use workstations that had less robust specifications, provided they were connected to a powerful server whose processing power substitutes for that of the client computer. To oversimplify:
[-] 'traditional' approach: lots of pretty powerful computers [-] 'alternative' approach: lots of relatively underpowered computers, connected to one very powerful computer
The point here is not to imply that one type of arrangement is on its face better or worse. Rather, it is to highlight that, if you write an RFP in a certain way -- in our example here, requiring that *every* computer meet a certain relatively high technical specification (processing speed, hard drive size, etc.) -- you may exclude proposals that feature non-traditional or 'alternative' or new approaches.
One way around this is to put more emphasis on functional specifications, rather than technical specifications, in certain components of your RFP. Not sure what this means in practice? When discussing such issues with ministries of education, I often point to an RFP at the heart of a procurement process in the U.S. state of Maine as a way to highlight an approach to procurement that is, at least in terms of most of the places where the World Bank works helping to advise education leaders, rather rare. While I am certainly no procurement expert -- thankfully we have plenty of very good ones at the World Bank to whom I can refer people -- I offer the comments below based on many discussions with ministries of education about their challenges in this regard, in case doing so might be of any interest.
The World Bank is currently working with a few countries that are planning for the procurement of lots of digital learning materials. In some cases, these are billed as 'e-textbooks', replacing in part existing paper-based materials; in other cases, these are meant to complement existing curricular materials. In pretty much all cases, this is happening as a result of past, on-going or upcoming large scale procurements of lots of ICT equipment. Once you have your schools connected and lots of devices (PCs, laptops, tablets) in the hands of teachers and students, it can be rather useful to have educational content that runs on whatever gadgets you have introduced into to help aid and support teaching and learning. In this regard, we have been pleased to note fewer countries pursuing one of the prominent worst practices in ICT use in education that we identified a few years ago: "Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware."
At least initially, many education authorities in middle- and low-income countries seem to approach the large-scale procurement of digital learning materials in much the same way that they viewed purchases of textbooks in the past. On its face, this is quite natural: If you have tried and tested systems in place to buy textbooks, why not use them to buy 'e-textbooks' as well? (We'll leave aside for a moment questions about whether such systems to procure textbooks actually worked well -- that's another discussion!) As with many things that have to do with technology in some way, things become a little more complicated the more experience you have wrestling with them.
Most likely, it will largely look like the school of today -- but that doesn't mean it should. Few will deny that it will most likely, and increasingly, contain lots of technology. Some may celebrate this fact, others may decry it, but this trend appears inexorable. To what extent will, or should, considerations around technology use influence the design of learning spaces going forward?
Of course, with the continued rise of online 'virtual' education, some schools don't (or won't) look like traditional 'schools' at all. Various types of structured or semi-structured learning already take place as part of things that we consider to be 'courses', even if sometimes such things don't conform to some traditional conceptions of what a 'course' is or should be. The massive online open course (or MOOC) in artificial intelligence offered by Stanford has received much recent attention, but the phenomenon is not necessarily new (even if its current exemplars are marked by many characteristics that are indeed new, or much more developed, than those previously to be found in, for example, large 'distance learning' courses).
Let's leave aside the case of the 'virtual school' for a moment and assume that there will continue to be a need for a physical space at which students and educators will gather and interact. (Such places may be access points to virtual education, or featured various types of so-called 'blended learning', where face-to-face interactions are complemented by interactions in the virtual world -- or vice versa.) Indeed, let's assume, for our purposes here, that the school as a concept will presumably be along for many decades to come, and that it will have a physical representation of some sort. What might such a school look like, especially in the era of ICTs?