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Calculating the costs of digital textbook initiatives in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture
it can be hard at times to see what's coming
it can be hard at times to see what's coming

A few countries across Africa are considering rather ambitious initiatives to roll out and utilize digital textbooks, a general catch-all term or metaphor which I understand in many circumstances to be ‘teaching and learning resources and materials presented in electronic and digital formats’.

How much will such initiatives cost?

Reflexively, some ministries of education (and donors!) may think this is a pretty straightforward question to answer. After all, they have been buying textbooks in printed formats for a long time, they have a good handle on what such materials traditional cost, and so they may naturally presume that they can think about the costs of ‘digital textbooks’ in pretty similar ways.

Many people are surprised to discover that calculating costs associated with the introduction and use of digital teaching and learning materials is often a non-trivial endeavor. At a basic level, how much an education system spends will depend on what it intends to do, its current capacity to support such use – and of course what it can afford. As they investigate matters more deeply (and sit through many presentations from publishers and other vendors, sometimes wowed at what is now possible and available while at the same time rather confused about what is now possible and available), education officials seeking to acquire digital teaching and learning materials for use at scale across an education system may find costing exercises to be, in reality, rather challenging and (surprisingly) complex when compared to their ‘standard’ textbook procurement practices.
 

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Many countries (sensibly) support a few small pilot projects to introduce digital teaching and learning materials as a way to learn (among other things) what the related costs are. Unfortunately, experience has shown that costs associated with piloting a discrete digital educational materials initiative may not easily correlate with the costs of such a project at scale, and so simple projections of costs based on experiences with pilot projects may result in calculations that are inaccurate – potentially wildly so. This isn’t to say that such pilots are not useful – they certainly are! – but only that their limitations should also be acknowledged.  In some cases, costs of certain project components should be expected to decrease at scale as a result of various economies of scale inherent in things like the bulk purchasing of goods (textbooks, computers, etc.) or services (technical support, bandwidth). Other cost components – such as the need for increased coordination, expenses associated with assuring that the needs of students with special needs are met, the necessity of revamping existing policies and procedures -- may only emerge when a project to introduce digital teaching and learning materials is pursued at scale.

When initially attempting to identify and quantify such costs, it may be helpful first to consider grouping them into three broad components or cost categories. (Specific cost figures themselves may vary widely by market and jurisdiction, so this general blog post will feature no actual numbers – sorry about that.) The first two categories or components – the cost of the content itself, as well as device costs related to hardware necessary to use this content – are commonly (if often incompletely) considered. A third cost – related to the development and sustaining of a necessary ecosystem to support the use of digital teaching and learning materials – can in some circumstances be just as important, but often does not factor fully (if at all) into initial cost calculations.

In general, it is important to note that methodologies which can help identify, estimate and computer total cost of ownership/operation (TCO) over time, and not just upfront capital costs, should be employed when attempting to assess, estimate and quantify costs related to the procurement and use of digital teaching and learning materials.
Content-related costs

Costs related to the acquisition of digital teaching and learning materials are often easy to understand at a basic level, and may be calculated in ways that are roughly similar to how those of traditional textbook procurement are calculated. Indeed, on its face, isn’t buying a digital textbook much like buying a printed textbook? (Some potential answers to this: Maybe. Sort of. Not at all.)
Where digital educational content is acquired from vendors, it may be offered in a variety of ways:
  • It may be sold for use over a given period of time, or in perpetuity.
    It is worth noting that this content may be offered for sale separate from the related intellectual property rights (as is typical),  may be made available under joint IP (less common, more expensive), or the IP may be transferred to the education system outright (rare -- unless mandated by government, and usually expensive)
  • It may be offered as a subscription service.
    In some such cases, a vendor may propose to off-set certain costs through the use of embedded advertising.
  • It may be bundled with other goods or services. For example, content and devices may be sold (or leased) together, possibly with a given level of technical support and maintenance. A vendor may offer to provide related training (e.g. for teachers or technical support personal).
  • Notably, and increasingly, a vendor may offer to sell or lease the content embedded within a larger digital content or learning management system (typically referred to as a CMS or an LMS). When doing so, it may offer to host the content on its own servers. It may offer to embed an education system's existing digital content, including potentially content from other vendors, into this CMS. (Where a vendor offers not only content itself, but to provide a content or learning management system as well, it may or may not make available the source code of this content management system or offer and easy migration path should an education system decide to move this content to another CMS. Associated costs in this regard will need to be considered as well.)
Last year I spent some time with education officials in a country outside Africa to help them work through what seemed an almost bewildering array of related options that one vendor was proposing to an education authority. As technologies and business models continue to evolve, one would expect that many more combinations and permutations will emerge as well.

An education system may of course wish to develop digital teaching and learning content itself by expanding its existing in-house capacity to develop educational content. Costs associated with this approach vary widely, based on the context, but they can be considerable. Experience of some countries that have followed this path has shown that quality may vary widely as well, but that is a separate issue, as is the fact that there are very real ramifications of a decision to go this route on the potential viability and health of local educational publishing industries.

Many education systems in Africa are increasingly considering the use of “free content”, especially so-called ‘open educational resources’ made available for use and re-use without cost. Where ‘free’ educational content is used, the costs of the acquisition of the rights to use the content is zero.
 
Some education systems consider, in part, the use of user-generated content, i.e. content created by teachers and students themselves. In such cases, initial acquisition costs may be quite low, provided the capacity exists for teachers and students to be able to develop this content. Where this capacity does not exist, investments may need to be made (in training, in facilities to develop the content) in order to be able to acquire this ‘free content’. Where user-generated content is meant to be an important component of an education system’s digital content acquisition strategy, clear policies and guidelines should exist related to the related intellectual property. (Is it, for example, owned by the education system itself, or owned by the creator but usage rights are granted for free to the educational system or where the content is used for education purposes?)

No matter how content is initially acquired and paid for, there may be additional costs related (among other things) to:
  • Vetting the content for accuracy, appropriateness given to local contexts, customs and cultural mores, and its relevance to existing curricula;
  • Contextualizing this content as appropriate or necessary;
  • Embedding this content within an education system’s existing content or learning management system;
  • Classifying or tagging individual content items according to a given metadata scheme, in order to signifying attributes like ownership, usage rights, links to curricular objectives, data formats, content types (e.g. text, image, audio, video), etc.; as well as
  • Distribution (whether physical, digital, or some combination of the two) and inventory management.
It is important to note that these costs may exist whether or not an education system decides to purchase content or uses 'free' resources. Indeed, in some cases the costs related to these sorts of things may be effectively embedded in the price of the 'digital textbooks' that publishers and other vendors provide. Whether or not this premium is worth paying will depend on the context or circumstance – but is important to acknowledge that, whether embedded or explicit, such costs typically exist.

 
seems a rather sensible idea ...
seems a rather sensible idea ...
These additional cost components are not unique to digital educational content, of course. Some ministries examine these sorts of cost components related to both printed and digital materials, as part of efforts to compare them.  This can be a valuable exercise. That said, it is important to note that this is not really an ‘apples to apples’ comparison. When you are doing something digitally, you are often doing something -- in fact many things -- that are quite different than is the case when utilizing only traditional printed materials.

Consider, for example, calculations of costs associated with user-generated content. However an educational planner may decide to run the numbers, it is worth noting that, when students or teachers themselves are developing content, there is value in the process itself beyond what is 'produced' at the end. Indeed, experience with a few past initiatives that we supported at the World Bank in Latin America and Africa that sought to provide teacher-generated content, the greatest value was in the end not seen in the quality of the content produced and its usability across the education system (in some cases, the content itself was rated quite poorly against such metrics), but rather as a mechanism for continued professional development of teachers, whose understanding of and use of educational materials in some cases changed quite dramatically after they themselves had turned from consumer into creator. How much, or how little, value an education system may wish to assign to this is a topic of reasonable debate – but planners would do well not to deny that such value exists.

It should also be noted that, at least in the short run or in the early stages of the use of digital teaching and learning materials, these costs will be in addition to costs associated with the use of traditional printed materials in cases where digital materials are not meant to fully replace printed materials.

Device-related costs

One cost category that is easy to understand, and typically (increasingly) reasonably well understood, is that of the end user device on which digital teaching and learning materials are viewed or utilized, together with the necessary supporting technical infrastructure. Important considerations when attempting to calculate costs related to end user devices include the projected useful life of the device itself; the need for equipment repair, maintenance and replacement; and non-content software purchases, security and upgrades. In addition, there will be costs related to the distribution of the devices themselves and, often, training for end users. There may well be additional costs related to maintaining a baseline level of electricity in order to ensure that the devices themselves can operate. In environments without access to reliable electricity, costs related to the provision of things like local generators and/or solar chargers may need to be considered. TCO -- total cost of ownership (operation) -- tools are increasingly available to help calculate such costs.

It may be that, for some education ministries, device costs do not factor into costing exercises related to digital teaching and learning materials, as such costs are (as one official once lectured me) ‘more appropriately assigned to other budgets’. Fair enough – but that only means that such costs are shifted to others, not that they have disappeared.

Ecosystem-related costs

In addition to costs related to digital teaching and learning materials themselves, and the devices on which such content is meant to be viewed, used or delivered, there are a number of costs related to the ecosystem in which such use occurs. Depending on the specific context, and the technology or technologies employed, these costs can be negligible – or considerable.
  • When buying textbooks, little impact is typically seen on budgets for school infrastructure. This may not be the case for the use of digital teaching and learning materials. The physical plant of a school may need to be improved to ensure adequate climate control (proper temperature, humidity, and dust levels), adequate physical security, and electrical capacity. Rooms themselves may need to be reconfigured; additional furniture may need to be purchased; and support equipment (e.g. charging stations, laptop carts) may need to be purchased and installed.
  • At a system level, additional costs may need to be incurred related to coordination of initiatives featuring the use of digital teaching and learning materials. This relate both to the coordination of the initiatives themselves, coordination with other initiatives inside or across various government programs or ministries, and coordination with various actors and stakeholder groups outside government (notably, civil society, academia and the private sector).  National or regional public relations or information dissemination campaigns linked to the introduction of new digital teaching and learning initiatives are also not uncommon. Additional training and outreach activities (including not only for teachers and learners, bu also for e.g. school principals and local community groups) may be required. Where connectivity is considered essential for the success of an initiative, related costs will need to be considered, as will potential upgrades to the electrical grid to enable this connectivity and to power the devices themselves.
  • More fundamental in some cases – and often overlooked in many developing countries – is the need for a vibrant set of local actors who can provide related products, services and support. The existence of healthy and competitive local publishing and technology industries, for example, may be key prerequisites for success if the use of digital teaching and learning materials is to become integral to the functioning of an educational system. In addition, the use of digital teaching and learning materials at scale may bring with them the need to formulate (or re-formulate existing) policies, guidelines, laws and regulations in various ways, especially related to things like data security and privacy.
It is important to note that some or many of these larger system-level or ecosystem costs may traditionally lie outside the budget, or indeed outside purview or responsibility, of ministries of education, but may or will need to be incurred in some way by some entity.
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My hope in writing this blog post is not to argue what sorts of costs related to the acquisition and use of digital and teaching materials in education systems across Africa may be most important to consider and calculate. Rather, it is to highlight a few (there are others) types of costs and cost categories that may not, in my experience, be considered at all.

As in the rest of the world, most of the headlines across Africa related to the use of digital technologies in schools focus on the various cool new gadgets and devices that are being introduced. If related experiences from other parts of the world provide any lessons, however, it is that, as the devices themselves proliferate, evolve and become cheaper, it is usually the content, not the container, that is in the end more important. The costs to acquire, maintain and replace the devices themselves can be quite substantial. The political will required to mobilize funding for device-centric initiatives alone might well exhaust the appetite of taxpayers (or the ministry of finance). That said, however much is spent on hardware, neglecting to fully consider and budget for costs related to the content that will ultimately help realize the value of massive investments in (take your pick) computers, laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards may yield a result that is penny wise, pound foolish.
 

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Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a bird burying its head in the sand ("it can be hard at times to see what's coming") is adapted from an image from comes from the Wikipedian Korall via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. The second image of an inspirational poster reminding everyone to help cut costs ("seems a rather sensible idea ...") comes from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (ARC Identifier 534247) and is in the public domain.

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