Yesterday the World Bank hosted a great discussion related to strategies for tackling the high cost and low availability of textbooks, with a specific focus on needs and contexts across Sub-Saharan Aftrica.
As a complement to yesterday's discussions, a number of posts related to the use of digital teaching and learning materials that have appeared on the World Bank's EduTech blog have been collected here, to make them easier to find, and in case making them available in this way can help in a small way to help enrich any related conversations.
(Please note that additional links will be added to this page over time as relevant related posts appear on the blog.)
For the past seven years the World Bank's EduTech blog has sought to "explore issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit education in developing countries".
While there are plenty of sources for news, information and perspectives on the uses (and misuses) of educational technologies in the so-called 'highly industrialized' countries of North America, Europe, East Asia and Australia/New Zealand, regular comparative discussions and explorations of what is happening with the uses of ICTs in middle and low income (i.e. so-called 'developing') countries around the world can be harder to find, which is why this remains the focus of the EduTech blog.
The term 'developing countries' is employed here as convenient (if regrettable) shorthand in an attempt to reinforce the context in which the comments and questions explored on the blog are considered, and as a signal about its intended (or at least hoped for) audience. That said, given how much we still don't know and the fact that things continue to change so rapidly, when it comes to technology use in education, as a practical matter we all live in 'developing countries'.
When speaking about some of the early EduTech blog posts, one rather prominent and outspoken commenter (rather comfortably ensconced at an elite U.S. research university, for what that might be worth) said basically that 'there is nothing new here, we've been aware of all of these issues for some time'.
This might possibly be true – if you are a tenured professor sitting in Cambridge, perhaps, or a technology developer working out of Helsinki, Mountain View or Redmond.
(One could nonetheless note that being aware of something, and doing something useful and impactful as a result of this awareness, are not necessarily the same thing, a lesson that seems to need to be learned and re-learned again and again, often quite painfully and expensively, as 'innovations' from 'advanced' places are exported to other 'less advanced' places around the world with results that can at times be rather difficult to determine. It is also perhaps worth briefly recalling the insightful, if ungrammatical, words of the U.S. humorist Mark Twain, who observed back in the 19th century that, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.")
However, these are often relatively new discussions – and often very different discussions, it should be noted! – in other, less 'economically privileged' parts of the world. As computing devices and connectivity continue to proliferate, practical knowledge and know-how about what works, and what doesn't, when it comes to technology use in education is increasingly to be found in such places. It is to participate in, learn from and help catalyze related discussions that the EduTech blog was conceived and continues to operate.
While the posts in 2015 were published less frequently, they were on average much longer than in the past ("too long!", some might say) and largely explored themes (e.g. 'tablets', 'teachers', 'coding') drawing on experiences across multiple countries, rather than profiling specific individual projects or activities in one place, which was often the case in previous years.
It perhaps shouldn't need to be said (but I'll say it anyway, as I am obliged to do) that, whether taken individually or collectively, nothing here was or is meant to be definitive, exhaustive or 'official' in its consideration of a particular topic or activity. The EduTech blog serves essentially as a written excerpt of various ongoing conversations with a wide variety of groups and people around the world and as a mechanism for 'thinking aloud in public' about these conversations. Nothing is formally 'peer-reviewed' before it appears online, and the views expressed are those of the author(s) alone, and not the World Bank. (If you find a mistake, or just really disagree with something that appears on the EduTech blog, please feel free to blame the guy who writes this stuff, and not his bosses or the institution which employs him).
With those introductory comments out of the way, here are the ...
I began my career exploring the uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education in Ghana, Uganda and a number of other places in Africa in the late 1990s, and have continued to stay engaged with lots of passionate and innovative groups and people working with ICTs in various ways to help meet a variety of challenges related to education across the continent. Because of this history, and continued connections to lots of folks doing related cool stuff, I am from time to time asked:
"So, what's happening with technology use in education in Africa these days?"
That said, while the impulse from some corners to refer to 'Africa' may be both unfortunate but nevertheless predictable, being asked this sort of question at least provides an opportunity to unpack this question in ways that are (hopefully) useful and interesting. The EduTech blog was conceived in part, and in a decidedly modest way, to help direct the gaze of some folks to some of the interesting questions and challenges being addressed in different ways in different communities in Africa related to ICT use in education by groups who are, along the way, coming up with some interesting answers and solutions.
The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), the arm of the United Nations charged with collecting global data related to education (and some other sectors as well), recently came out with a report that provides some useful data that collectively can help outline the general shape of some of what is happening across the African continent when it comes to the availability and use of educational technologies. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Basic e-Readiness in Schools is certainly not the first such report that has taken a continent-wide perspective, but it is notable in a number of regards -- not only because it is the most recent such effort, but also because it is intended as a precursor to more regular data, systematic data collection efforts going forward.
Written by Peter Wallet (with the assistance of Beatriz Valdes Melgar), the report presents data and related analysis from a survey co-sponsored by UIS, the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS) and the Brazilian Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society (CETIC.br -- the group responsible for the annual Survey of ICT and Education in Brazil). The report notes that, unfortunately, "data on ICT in education in the region are sparse. Collecting more and better quality statistics will be a priority in the post-2015 development agenda given the growing role of ICT in education. In response, the UIS is working with countries to establish appropriate mechanisms to process and report data, and to better measure the impact of technology on the quality of education." With that caveat and announcement out of the way, the report then utilizes the UIS Guide to Measuring Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Education as a framework with which to examine what could be discovered about the existence of related national policies, data about learner-computer ratios, school electrification and connectivity, and ICT-related instruction and curricula in ways consistent with other regional reports that the UIS has published on Asia, Latin America and a number of Arab countries. (Here's a list of international surveys of this sort from UIS and others for anyone who might be interested, as well as some general information about efforts of this sort.)
Since 2009, the World Bank's EduTech blog has attempted to "explore issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit education in developing countries".
While the 30+ posts in 2014 spanned a wide range of topics, a few themes emerged again and again. The emerging relevance and use of mobile phones (in various ways and to various ends) in the education sector continued to be a regular area of discussion, as were efforts to collect (more, better) data to help us understand what is actually happening around the world related to technology use in education, with a specific interest in circumstances and contexts found in middle and low income 'developing' countries.
While technology use is typically considered a characteristic of more 'advanced' countries and education systems, the EduTech blog deliberately sought in 2014 to complicate this belief and bias a bit by looking at efforts specifically meant to be relevant (and which were in some cases indigenous) to some of the 'least advanced' places in the world.
Before getting on to this year's 'top ten' list, a few reminders (which might be familiar to some of you who have read the earlier annual EduTech blog round-ups: I've copied some of this verbatim):
Posts on the EduTech blog are not meant to be exhaustive in their consideration of a given topic, but rather to point to interesting developments and pose some related questions that might be of interest.
These blog posts should not be mistaken for peer-reviewed research or World Bank policy papers (although some of the content may later find its way into such publications). The views expressed on the EduTech blog are those of the author(s) alone, and not those of the World Bank. (In other words: Blame the guy who wrote them, and not his bosses or institution, for anything you find inaccurate or disagreeable here.)
The blog itself is animated by a belief that, by 'thinking aloud in public', we can try (in an admittedly very modest but hopefully useful way) to open up conversations about various themes to wider audiences, sharing emerging thinking and discussions on topics that often have been, and regrettably often remain, discussed largely 'behind closed doors' within small circles of people and institutions.
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.
I often find that a sure way to generate rather heated discussions in many quarters is to bring up the topic of teacher salaries. They're too low! or: They're too high! They should be linked to [insert some sort of 'performance indicator']! or: Attempts to link them to [insert name of a performance indicator] are misguided (and perhaps even dangerous)!
I'll leave it to others more informed and expert than I am to weigh in on such (often quite contentious) debates. However one might approach such discussions, and whatever conclusions one might draw from them, there isn't a lot of debate about one issue related to teacher salaries that has been well documented, and widely (and rightly) deplored.
Many teachers around the world suffer as a result of poorly-functioning systems to pay the salaries [pdf] they are due [ppt]. This is especially problematic, and notable, given that teacher salaries have for many decades constituted huge percentages of the overall education budgets in manycountries. As a World Bank publication from a few years ago (Teachers for Rural Schools : Experiences in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda) laments, "Teachers in remote schools are [compared with their colleagues in more urban areas] more likely to be the direct victims of administrative failures, which undermine teacher morale and damage the system. One frequently mentioned administrative failure is the delay in paying teachers’ salaries and allowances." An 'administrative failure' of this sort can have many causes. Even where sufficient budget exists to pay teachers, flawed teacher salary systems, poor internal controls, logistical challenges related to transport, and corruption can conspire to ensure that in many places, especially in rural areas in poor countries, teacher salaries are sometimes paid only infrequently, often with great delay. The results of this can be devastating for education systems -- to say nothing of the impact on individual teachers, schools, students and local communities.
Back when I worked with the World Bank's infoDev program, one of my responsibilities was to serve as a point person on 'mobile money' issues, briefing groups on emerging lessons and experiences from nascent activities to use mobile phones to transfer money from one person to another. I left infoDev in 2008, just as activities in this regard were really starting to heat up (Kenya's M-Pesa program, the best known 'mobile money success story', launched in 2007), but continued to meet semi-regularly with folks -- colleagues from the World Bank and other international donor agencies, government officials, NGOs and foundations, businesspeople, researchers -- who were interesting in exploring how new mobile payment options might be used in inventive ways to help address some longstanding developmental challenges. (Those totally new to the topic may benefit from watching this short video from CGAP, which demonstrates how mobile money activities look in practice.) Most of these conversations, as it happens, included considerations of how money transfers via mobile phones might be used to ensure that teachers got paid, in full and on time. As I prepare for a trip next week to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I realize haven't fielded one substantive information request related to this topic in the past three years.
Up until about 2010, I met quite often with groups who were looking for creative ways to help address the 'paying salaries to teachers in rural areas challenge' and who had seized on the idea of taking advantage of the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones in such areas to help fashion some sort of 'solution'. In the last three years, however, the volume around these sorts of discussions in many quarters has almost died out. Part of this might be explained by the fact that there are now many 'experts' on mobile money issues, people much more expert and well informed than I am about related issues, and so I simply might be 'out of the loop'. (Back in the 'early days' of work on this topic, I could never shake the nagging feeling that the reason that I was approached by so many groups for related information and advice was at least partially a result of the 'in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king' phenomenon.) That said, given that a regular part of my daily work at the World Bank is to field questions related to the use of new technologies in education in all sorts of ways around the world, and that a lot of my job isn't so much about in providing answers, but about helping people formulate better questions, the fact that this question seems no longer to be a topic of much discussion makes me wonder:
Whatever happened to the idea of paying teacher salaries with mobile phones?
2013 marked the fifth year of the World Bank's EduTech blog, which has been dedicated to "exploring issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit education in developing countries". The posts in 2013 spanned a rather eclectic set of topics and issues, from MOOCs to mobile phones to Matthew Effects (and those are just the 'M's!). Viewed collectively, it is hoped that these posts provide a little insight into the variety of discussions and activities in which the World Bank has been engaged over the past year, assisting policymakers and practitioners in middle and low income countries as they investigate how new technologies can help education systems tackle long-standing challenges in new (and sometimes not-so-new) ways.
As in past years, in 2013 the EduTech blog served various purposes, but has remained at its core driven by a belief that by 'thinking aloud in public', we can try (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. There were fewer (27) posts over the course of the year, but many of them were much longer (some may argue that many of them were in fact too long, and indeed a number of them served as first drafts of sorts for upcoming papers and book chapters).
Before presenting this year's 'top ten' list, some quick boilerplate reminders: Posts on the EduTech blog are not meant to be exhaustive in their consideration of a given topic, but rather to point to interesting developments and pose some related questions. They should not be mistaken for peer-reviewed research or World Bank policy papers. The views expressed on the EduTech blog are those of the author(s) alone, and not those of the World Bank.
Across Africa, a variety of devices are increasingly being used to disseminate and display teaching and learning materials in electronic and digital formats. As costs for such devices continue to fall, and as the devices themselves become more widely available and used across communities, the small pilot, and largely NGO-led, projects that have characterized most efforts to introduce educational technologies in schools across Africa will inevitably be complemented, and in many cases superseded, by large-scale national initiatives of the sorts now taking place in Rwanda and Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of devices are being, or will soon be, distributed to schools.
Few would argue that the use of such devices do not offer great promise and potential to improve the access to and quality of education by providing access to more educational content than is currently available inside and outside of schools. Internet connectivity can provide access to millions of educational materials available on the Internet; low cost, handheld e-reading devices can hold more than a thousand books. Depending on the availability of connectivity, or local resourcefulness in transferring materials to devices manually, digital content used in schools can be updated more regularly than is possible with printed materials. Depending on the device utilized, this content can be presented as ‘rich media’, with audio, video and animations helping content be displayed in ways that are engaging and interactive. It is possible to track electronically how such content is used, and, depending on the technologies employed, to present content to teachers and learners in personalized ways. In some cases , this content can be delivered at lower costs than those incurred when providing traditional printed materials.
Given the increased availability and diffusion of consumer computing technologies across much of the continent in less than a decade, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of widespread misconceptions about the promise and potential of using digital technologies and devices across Africa to increase access to learning materials appear to have taken hold. On one level, this is consistent with the ‘hype cycle’ model of technology diffusion in which, according to Gartner, a technology breakthrough is soon followed by a period of time of “inflated expectations” about what sort of changes might be possible as a result.
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.
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?