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Planning for an edtech RFP: Technical vs. functional specs

Michael Trucano's picture

should she be more interested in ensuring that he meets her technical or functional specifications if this partnership is to work?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.

Textbooks of the future: Will you be buying a product ... or a service?

Michael Trucano's picture

tell me again why we didn't buy the digital version?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.

Re-thinking School Architecture in the Age of ICT

Michael Trucano's picture

in Colombia, entering a school of the past ... or the future?What will the school of the future look like?

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?

ICT and rural education in China

Michael Trucano's picture

answers on how best to proceed may come in all shapes and sizesLast year on this blog, I asked a few questions (eLearning, Africa and ... China?) as a result of my participation in a related event in Dar Es Salaam where lots of my African colleagues were ‘talking about China’, but where few Chinese (researchers, practitioners, firms, officials) were present. This year's eLearning Africa event in Benin, in contrast, featured for the first time a delegation of researchers from China, a visit organized by the International Research and Training Centre for Rural Education (INRULED), a UNESCO research center headquartered at Beijing Normal University (with additional outposts at Baodin, Nanjing and Gansu). Hopefully this is just the beginning of a positive trend to open up access to knowledge about what is working (and isn’t working) related to ICT use in education in places in rural China that might more resemble certain situations and contexts in many developing countries than those drawn from experiences in, for example, Boston or Singapore (or from Shanghai and Beijing, for that matter). Establishing working level linkages between researchers and practitioners (and affiliated institutions) in China and Africa, can be vital to helping encourage such knowledge exchanges.

Developing ICT Skills in African Teachers

Michael Trucano's picture

is this the dawn of a new era?What guidance is there for countries across Africa that are 'computerizing' their schools (or planning to do so) to help ensure that teachers know how to use ICTs productively?

To help provide some answers to this and related questions, the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (IICBA) recently released its ICT-enhanced teacher standards for Africa (ICTeTSA), the result of a multi-study and consultation process with 29 countries across the continent. By releasing this document, UNESCO-IICBA doesn't meant to advocate that developing ICT-related competencies and skills be the highest priority for African teachers -- there are certainly many other more pressing and immediate concerns with the teacher corps in many African countries. It does, however, note that a teacher education and development program will not be complete if it does not address the use of ICTs by teachers, now and in the future.  Across Africa, teachers are core to the educational process, and ICTs are become more and more relevant in many educational contexts.

Ten trends in technology use in education in developing countries that you may not have heard about

Michael Trucano's picture
not everyone is riding these big waves ... yet
not everyone is riding these big waves ... yet

Much of what we read and hear discussed about 'emerging trends' in technology use in education is meant largely for audiences in industrialized countries, or for more affluent urban areas in other parts of the world, and is largely based on observations on what is happening in those sorts of places. One benefit of working at a place like the World Bank, exploring issues related to the use of ICTs in education around the world, is that we get to meet with lots of interesting people proposing, and more importantly doing, interesting things in places that are sometimes not widely reported on in the international media (including some exciting 'innovations at the edges').

We are often asked questions like, "What trends are you are noticing that are a bit 'under the radar'?" In case it might be of interest to wider groups and/or provoke some interesting discussion and comment, we thought we'd quickly pull a list of these sorts of things together here.

Let them eat laptops?*

Michael Trucano's picture

in my hand I have a very precious gift for youAs a result of reading the recent IDB study on the impact of the One Laptop Per Child project in Peru, my World Bank colleague Berk Ozler recently published a great post on the World Bank's Development Impact blog asking "One Laptop Per Child is not improving reading or math. But, are we learning enough from these evaluations?

Drawing insights from his readings of a few evaluations of technology use (one in Nepal [PDF] and one in Romania) he notes that, at quick glance, some large scale implementations of educational technologies are, for lack of a more technical term, rather a 'mess':

"The reason I call this a mess is because I am not sure (a) how the governments (and the organizations that help them) purchased a whole lot of these laptops to begin with and (b) why their evaluations have not been designed differently – to learn as much as we can from them on the potential of particular technologies in building human capital."

Three members of the team at IDB that led the OLPC Peru evaluation have responded ("One Laptop per Child revisited") in part to question (b) in the portion of Berk's informative and engaging post excerpted above.  I thought I'd try to try to help address question (a).

First let me say: I have no firsthand knowledge of the background to the OLPC Peru project specifically, nor of the motivations of various key actors instrumental in helping to decide to implement the program there as it was implemented, beyond what I have read about it online. (There is quite a lot written about this on the web; I won't attempt to summarize the many vibrant commentaries on this subject, but, for those who speak Spanish or who are handy with online translation tools, some time with your favorite search engine should unearth some related facts and a lot of opinions -- which I don't feel well-placed to evaluate in their specifics.) I have never worked in Peru, and have had only informal contact with some of the key people working on the project there.  The World Bank, while maintaining a regular dialogue with the Ministry of Education in Peru, was not to my knowledge involved in the OLPC project there in any substantive way. The World Bank itself is helping to evaluate a small OLPC pilot in Sri Lanka; a draft set of findings from that research is currently circulating and hopefully it will be released in the not too distant future.

That said, I *have* been involved in various capacities with *lots* of other large scale initiatives in other countries where lots of computers were purchased for use in schools and/or by students and/or teachers, and so I do feel I can offer some general comments based on this experience, in case it might of interest to anyone.

Sondeando el aprendizaje móvil alrededor del mundo (parte uno y dos)

Carla Jimenez Iglesias's picture

lo que constituye un ‘aparato móvil’ puede estar algunas veces en el ojo del que lo mira"Sondeando el aprendizaje móvil alrededor del mundo (parte uno)

Hace cerca de cuatro años, el programa del Banco Mundial infoDev aseguró el financiamiento para hacer un ‘sondeo global del uso de móviles en la educación en países en vías de desarrollo’, con base en la creencia de que la creciente disponibilidad de los pequeños dispositivos conectados, más conocidos como ‘teléfonos móviles’, iba a tener cada vez mayor relevancia para los sistemas escolares alrededor del mundo. Cuando vimos lo que estaba ocurriendo en este sentido en la mayor parte del mundo, observamos que (aún) no estaba pasando nada efectivamente, y así concluimos que no sería todavía demasiado útil hacer un sondeo global de conocimiento experto sobre la potencial relevancia futura del uso de teléfonos móviles en la educación. Por esto, así como por lamentables retrasos burocráticos internos, terminamos abandonando este proyecto de investigación, con la esperanza de que otros pudieran continuar un trabajo similar cuando el tiempo fuese propicio. (El financiamiento se reprogramó para apoyar a EVOKE, el ‘juego serio’ en línea del Banco Mundial. La segunda versión del mismo está programada para lanzarse en setiembre en portugués e inglés, tanto para PCs como para móviles, con un énfasis especial en Brasil.) Unas cuantas organizaciones involucradas en la Alianza de m-Educación, un esfuerzo internacional de colaboración en el que participa el Banco Mundial para explorar intersecciones de punta entre móviles, educación y desarrollo, y para promover el uso compartido de conocimiento colectivo, recién ha publicado unos breves ensayos que han logrado gran parte de lo que se quiso hacer con este tipo de sondeos. Echaremos una mirada a estos esfuerzos esta semana en el blog EduTech: el primero de ellos es dirigido por UNESCO, el segundo  por la Fundación Mastercard, que trabaja con la Asociación GSM.

Surveying Mobile Learning Around the World (part two)

Michael Trucano's picture

your perspective on mobiles depends on your point of viewThis week we are looking at two sets of new reports that provide insights into the area of 'mobile learning' -- especially the use of handheld devices like mobile phones to help meet a variety of educational objectives. Earlier this week we devoted a post to twelve new reports from UNESCO that provide a broad overview of what is happening in different regions of the world in this area. Shaping the Future – Realizing the potential of informal learning through mobile [pdf], which was released at last week's eLearning Africa event in Benin, provides a nice complement to the UNESCO working paper series.  Whereas the UNESCO reports collectively provide some very useful insights on the supply side, surveying notable 'm-learning' programs currently underway around the world, Shaping the Future examines the demand side of the equation:

"In late 2011, researchers went into four very different emerging markets – Ghana, Morocco, India and Uganda – and asked 1,200 people (aged 15-24) about their day-to-day lives, their ambitions, their education, the way they use mobile now and how mobile could help them achieve their aspirations in the future. At the same time, over 250 young people from those countries took part in detailed focus group discussions where, with great generosity, they shared their hopes, worries and beliefs with us."

Surveying Mobile Learning Around the World (part one)

Michael Trucano's picture

what constitutes a 'mobile device' can sometimes be in the eye of the (be)holderAbout four years ago, the World Bank's infoDev program secured funding to do a 'global survey of the use of mobile phones in education in developing countries', based on the belief that the increasing availability of the small, connected computing devices more commonly known as 'mobile phones' was going to have increasing relevance to school systems around the world.  For a variety of reasons -- including regrettable internal bureaucratic delays and, more fundamentally, the fact that, when we looked around at what was actually happening on the ground in most of the world, not much was actually going on (yet), and so we concluded that a global survey of expert thought of the potential future relevance of the use of mobile phone in education wouldn't yet be terribly useful -- we ended up scrapping this research project, hoping that others would pursue similar work when the time was ripe. (The funds were re-programmed to support EVOKE, the World Bank's online 'serious game', the second version of which is scheduled to launch in September in Portuguese and English, on both PCs and mobile phones, with a special focus on Brazil.) A few of the organizations involved in the mEducation Alliance, an international collaborative effort in which the World Bank participates that is working to explore cutting edge intersections between mobiles, education and development and to promote collective knowledge sharing, have just published some short papers that have accomplished much of what we had hoped to do with this sort of survey.  We'll look at two of these efforts this week on the EduTech blog: the first led by UNESCO, the second (in a follow up post this Friday) by the Mastercard Foundation, working with the GSMA.

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