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A few myths and misconceptions about digital teaching and learning materials in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

attempting to see just over the horizonAcross 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to introduce educational technologies in schools across Africa will inevitably be complemented, and in many cases superseded, by large-scale national initiatives of the sorts now taking place in Rwanda and Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of devices are being, or will soon be,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.

Calculating the costs of digital textbook initiatives in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

it can be hard at times to see what's comingA 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.
 

Education & Technology in 2025: A Thought Experiment

Michael Trucano's picture

thinking big thoughtsIn many places around the world, the costs associated with investments in educational technologies are perceived to be prohibitive (and often higher than one may initially calculate).  That said, there are few places where such investments are not under active consideration.

On this blog, I have criticized

"the often singleminded focus, even obsession, on the retail price of ICT devices alone, which is in many ways a distraction from more fundamental discussions of the uses of educational technologies to meet a wide variety of educational goals in ways that are relevant, appropriate and cost-effective."

I have also wondered,

"What are the costs of not investing in ICT use in education? Can we afford them?"

Reasonable people can and will disagree about what the associated costs are for ICT/education initiatives -- as well as how to calculate them, and what these costs might/should be, relative to other potential uses of scarce funds (teacher and administrative salaries, books, school infrastructure, health and feeding programs for students, etc.)

Reasonable people can also disagree on what the impact to date of such investments has been -- a frequent topic here on this blog.

But let's leave aside such discussions and debate for now.

As part of engagements in various countries, I sometimes propose the following 'thought experiment' to provoke policymakers to take a step back (or two -- or five!) and think more broadly about why they are looking to introduce ICTs in their schools.  As part of this process, I present the following scenario:

Let's assume that, by 2025, *all* hardware and software costs related to the use of information and communication technologies to support learning were zero.

How might this change the way you consider the use of ICTs to support the goals of your education system?

If we removed considerations of cost from the equation, how might we conceive of the use of technologies in education? Would our approach then be consistent with our approach today?

 

What Are the Costs of Not Investing in ICTs in Education?

Michael Trucano's picture

empty pockets?Kentaro Toyama has started 2011 off 'with a bang' on our sister Education Technology Debate site, which is sponsored by our friends at infoDev and UNESCO. 

There is much to comment on in Kentaro's post, 'There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education' -- to say nothing of the insights and assertions in the 100+ comments that follow it, many of them from people who are quite well known in the field.  Subsequent contributions on the ETD site from Larry Cuban, Cristobal Cobo, Claudia Urrea and Lowell Monke should provide further grist for debate and discussion.

Kentaro lays out a number of arguments in his piece.  One of them is the following:

"I’ve so far argued that technology in education has a poor historical record; that computers in schools typically fail to have positive impact (with the rare exceptions occurring only in the context of competent, well-funded schools); that information technology is almost never worth its opportunity cost; and that quality education doesn’t require information technology."

 
My aim here is not to contest (or support) any of the assertions in Kentaro's piece (I'd recommend you look in the comments section of the ETD site for this sort of thing).  Rather, it is to note that, in many instances, Kentaro's assumptions about what drives policy may well be beside the point.