Excited discussions about 'MOOCs' are reaching a fever pitch in some quarters. Separating the hope from the hype related to the phenomenon known as Massive Open Online Courses, in which tens, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of students from around the world participate in (or at least register for) the same university course over the Internet, is not an easy task. There is, to be sure, much here to be potentially excited about.
That said, most of news (and hype) is coming out of North America, and the prominent perspectives on MOOCs are, to a great extent, coming out of North America as well. While voices from Silicon Valley and elite educational institutions in the United States (amplified by prominent media personalities) have been the loudest to date, a fair component of the 'hope' surrounding MOOCs has to do with their potential to improve educational opportunities for students in so-called 'developing countries'.
Trying to keep up with MOOC-related announcements and news stories, let alone all of the opinions on them and speculations on their future, could be a full time job. (I suspect it probably is a full time job for some people, actually. If you are interested in this sort of thing but don't have that much time, you may be interested in a recent EduTech post on Making Sense of MOOCs -- A Reading List.) Wander through this din of excitement, however, and you discover pockets of relative silence.
What are some of the emerging perspectives of key groups in developing countries related to MOOCs?
A few years ago I participated in a fascinating online course. I had earlier read a thought-provoking article called Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age by a Canadian academic named George Siemens, and was intrigued to stumble across references to a related online discussion that was taking place, led by Professor Siemens and another Canadian researcher named Stephen Downes. OK, to be honest, I am not sure that I actually participated in the course (and I wasn't actually sure if it was a course in the traditional sense ... although it was certainly a community), given that my 'participation' consisted of a haphazard scanning of emails and RSS feeds being generated by people whose were much more engaged in the effort than I was. That said, both the content and approach piqued my curiosity, and I spent enough time browsing through related materials that I was able to tell my boss with a straight face that I was doing some 'online learning'.
I saw Siemens speak at eLearning Africa, was suitably impressed, and later tried to figure out a way to bring him to the World Bank to talk about his work as part a new series we were trying to put together on 'eduradicals'. I was particularly interested in learning more about, and exposing colleagues to, the concept of a 'massive open online course', which (it turns out) was the label that was being applied to what Siemens and Downes (and a few thousand other people) had been engaged in. In this I rather spectacularly failed, as most people with whom I spoke thought that the whole enterprise I was trying to describe, while conceptually quite interesting, was unlikely to be of practical interest or relevance in the near term to the policymakers with whom we were engaged in developing countries. My failure in this instance was, I believe, more a consequence of my inability to articulate to my colleagues in a convincing way just what exactly the possibilities were of this 'connectivist' learning theory and of one a 'model' by which this theory might be explored and put into practice -- which was one of the first (and possibly the very first) MOOCs.
The excitement about the promise and potential of Massive Open Online Courses is white hot in many quarters. For those who aren't familiar with the phenomenon:
A MOOC is an online course, usually at the university level, offered for free over the Internet which aims for large-scale (some courses have enrolled over 100,000 students at a time), 'open' (anyone can join) participation over the Internet.
Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, one of the largest and best-known MOOCs (the two other 'leaders in this space are Udacity and edX) stopped by the World Bank in late February to talk about what Coursera is doing, and learning. While MOOCs have enrolled students from developing countries pretty much from the start, there have not yet been many attempts to systematically include MOOCs as part of targeted education efforts in low income countries. What might such an attempt look like?
With support from the World Bank, a new pilot initiative in Tanzania is seeking to incorporate Coursera offerings as part of a broader initiative to help equip students with market-relevant IT skills. Employers in Tanzania complain that there is a mismatch of skills in the local labor market. Many jobs go unfilled because there are deficits of people with the relevant skills in the local market. There is a growing need for IT and ICT knowledge and skills necessary meet growing demand for technically skilled workers across Tanzanian corporations. For this and other reasons, Tanzania is trying to improve the quality of its higher education system. Currently a very small number of highly capable African students go abroad to meet their related educational and training needs. At the same time, Tanzania is hoping to improve its capacity to attract high caliber students from across the region to study at Tanzanian universities. What, then, to do?
A delegation of French businesses, together with some of their African partners, visited the World Bank last month to share lessons emerging from their recent efforts to utilize "digital technology to provide quality education for all", and to outline some of their related upcoming initiatives and activities.
The focus of much of the small workshop, which included World Bank staff working in the education sector and the ICT sector (and a few of us whose work straddles both areas), was on the activities of 2iE, an international, nonprofit higher education and training institute which provides training programs, courses and degrees in the areas of water and sanitation; the environment; energy and electricity; civil engineering and mining; and managerial sciences. 2iE, which the World Bank has supported in various ways over the years, is affiliated with the French network of “grandes ecoles” and trains 2000 students from Africa at its campuses in Burkina Faso.
Few projects to introduce ICTs at scale across an entire education system have received as much global attention as that of Plan Ceibal in Uruguay, which has (among other things) provided free laptop computers to all public school students.
Anticipating that some of the lessons learned in Uruguay may be relevant to scores of other countries (developing and developed alike) in the years to come, we at the World Bank have been keenly following related developments in this small South American nation over the past half-decade. In additional to maintaining the typical sorts of on-going dialogues we have with countries around the world on education issues, last year the World Bank sponsored a study tour for policymakers from Armenia and Russia to visit Uruguay and see with their own eyes what has been going on, and to talk directly with some of the people who have helped make it all happen. We also helped coordinate an online 'ideas festival' to help connect educators across Latin America to share lessons about 1-to-1 computing initiatives, with a special focus on Uruguay. A presentation on Plan Ceibal by the president of the initiative, Miguel Brechner, at one of the previous global symposia on ICT use in education that the World Bank co-sponsors each year with the Korean Ministry of Education and KERIS each year in Seoul, remains one of the highest rated sessions in the six year history of that event.
That said, there has not been a terrific amount of information available in English about the project for global audiences. Those handy with online translation tools can perhaps make their way around the information-rich Plan Ceibal site (and may stumble across the occasional report in English, like this one [pdf] summarizing official results from the first national monitoring and evaluation exercise). Dedicated readers of the EduTech blog, as well as sites like the independent OLPCnews.com web site, will probably have read some of periodic posts looking at various aspects of the Ceibal program. YouTube fans may have come across some of the related subtitled videos available on that popular site (like this one), many of them on the dedicated Canal Ceibal channel, or of presentations by Miguel Brechner at events like WISE 2012 or ALT-C.
Such information sources, while certainly useful, are by their very nature backward looking. A fascinating new report commissioned and recently released by Plan Ceibal aims to help chart the way forward for the project. Ceibal: Next Steps [pdf], written by Michael Fullan, Nancy Watson and Stephen Anderson, provides very useful short summaries of the first two phases of pioneering Uruguayan initiative before offering four concrete recommendations to help guide the project as it enters its 'third phase' of activity, which Fullan and company have labeled "focused implementation".
This report is highly recommended for people with an interest in learning more about the Ceibal project, as well as for those wondering about potential examples of what might most usefully come 'after' the initial period rolling out and supporting hardware and software infrastructure that defines most large scale 'big bang' attempts to introduce ICTs across an education system.
Considering potential 'next steps' for Uruguay may help shed some light on emerging issues and options potentially relevant to other countries. This may be especially true for middle and low income countries which, while perhaps currently not as far along in the process in rolling out ICTs and connectivity as Uruguay is, would do well to consider what they may want to do after they have declared their initial large scale roll-outs of hardware, software, digital content and initial teacher training to be a 'success' -- and are then faced with the more difficult ongoing challenges of utilizing these investments to help bring about more fundamental and long-lasting changes to teaching and learning practices inside and outside of schools.
The Library of Congress recently announced a set of literacy awards to recognize and honor pioneering efforts in the United States and around the world. That's all well and good, you might say, literacy is certainly a worthy cause, but what does this have to do with ICT use in education in developing countries, the topic explored on the EduTech blog? Potentially a lot.
Much is made these days of the need to foster the development of so-called '21st century skills'. Indeed, for the past few years I have sat through few presentations where this particular three word phrase has not been mentioned prominently at some point. Reasonable people may disagree about what these skills are, exactly (but there are lotsofideas), and/or about some of the groups promoting related discussions and initiatives. Whatever one's opinion on such things may be, however, there is no denying that ICTs -- and the ability to use ICTs (productively, effectively) -- are often prominently considered in many related conversations and advocacy efforts, which often also highlight the increasing importance of the acquisition of so-called 'new literacy' skills (variously defined, but often related to the use of ICTs in ways integral and tangential: computer literacy, media literacy, etc.) to ways of life that are increasingly impacted by the emergence of new information and communication technologies.
What it means to be 'literate' in 2013 may be different than it was in 1913 or 1963 (and it will perhaps be different still in 2063). That said, there is little argument that, whatever the year, and wherever you are, basic literacy skills are fundamental to one's education and ability to navigate successfully through life.
What do we know about the use of ICTs
to help promote and develop literacy?
(I am not talking about such things like 'computer literacy', mind you, but rather literacy of the old-fashioned sort: the ability to read and write.)
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.