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Education World Forum

Big Data in Education in 2025: A Thought Experiment

Michael Trucano's picture
all this talk of petabytes and exabytes is making me confused .... and hungry
all this talk of petabytes and exabytes
is making me confused .... and hungry

Each January, about 85 government ministers or so -- together with some members of their staffs, leaders of the education departments in international organizations, large NGOs and multinational companies, and other 'high level decision makers' -- gather in London to speak informally about topics of common interest during the Education World Forum, which bills itself as the 'world's largest gathering of education and skills ministers'. It's a rather unique and impressive collection of people with the power to make decisions affecting hundreds of millions of students and teachers around the world. This annual meeting was previously called the 'Learning and Technology World Forum'; despite dropping the word 'technology' from its official title a few years ago, talk of tech was inescapable during this year's Forum, whether onstage or in the hallways. If I were asked to identify three general themes that permeated discussions throughout this year's three-day event, they would be 'technology', 'systems' and 'data'.

For many groups, the Education World Forum offers a high profile venue to announce new initiatives, launch new publications, and present findings from recent research. My boss at the World Bank, Elizabeth King, for example, officially launched a new 'SABER' education data technology tool during her keynote speech on the second day ("When it comes to learning, education systems matter"). While the links between these three themes were perhaps not always explicit in Beth's speech, the important role that new technologies will play in helping education systems to collect and analyze key data about the health of the education system, especially as pertains to whether or not students are learning (and, if so, how), was echoed and amplified by many of the other speakers in both EWF plenary sessions and related side events.

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While the Forum has become increasing open over the years, embracing the use of social media throughout much of the agenda, for example, and quickly making available on YouTube key speeches and presentations, the off-the-record ministerial exchange sessions that happen on the second day are, as per the EWF social media policy, meant to be a largely Twitter-free zone. The hope is that, if/when/where given space to ask the 'dumb' questions of their peers, and freed from having it reported that someone, in response, provided some 'dumb' answers, Forum participants might feel comfortable enough to have what turn out to be some rather smart conversations about topics for which they had not been prepped, and about which no formal position papers had been prepared back home.

At one of the informal Forum ministerial exchange sessions a few years ago, rather exasperated that much of the conversation was concentrated on discussions of the lowest costs that various countries had paid for student laptops, I posed the following scenario, and question, as a sort of 'thought experiment':

In search of the ideal educational technology device for developing countries

Michael Trucano's picture
you have some important choices to make on which path to choose ...
you have some important choices to make
on which path to choose ...

In two weeks I'll visit BETT, the London-based event which is sometimes referred to as the 'world's biggest educational technology trade show'. While I don't know if it is in fact the 'biggest' (ISTE's annual event is huge as well), nor how one calculates magnitude in such cases, there is no doubt that it is indeed really, really, really, big.

I attend BETT most years for a number of reasons. Doing so provides me with a chance to see all of the new cool gadgets and applications in one place. It is pretty easy to schedule meetings packed into a few days with lots of groups and people who are also at BETT; 'back home' it would take months to coordinate such meetings.

Conveniently, BETT takes place immediately after the Education World Forum, where scores of education ministers gather together each year to share experiences about challenges and successes related to education in their countries. This 'convenience' is actually no coincidence: Many ministerial delegations, especially those from middle and low income countries, stay on to tour the exhibition halls at BETT, to see the 'latest and greatest' and be (presumably in some cases) wined and dined by various vendors hoping to build relationships and do some business. While I skip the 'hospitality' stuff (not really my scene), I typically find it very educational to attach myself to, and rotate between, a few ministerial delegations each year as they tour the BETT exhibition spaces. Doing so offers me some exposure and insight into what such groups are interested (and not interested) in, and provides me with a 'fly-on-the-wall' view into the various sales pitches that are made to these sorts of government officials by companies eager to ring in the new year with some big contracts – as well as how such officials respond to such marketing.

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Just as I find the questions that educational officials ask of vendors when they tour the BETT exhibition spaces to be revealing in many ways, I am often intrigued by the related questions that many of these companies then pose to me.

As a result of my work at the World Bank helping to advise on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world, I am, for example, asked from time to time by companies sets of questions that can be summarized as follows:

What would be the 'ideal' educational technology device for use in schools,
and by teachers and students, in developing countries?

Education & Technology in 2025: A Thought Experiment

Michael Trucano's picture
thinking big thoughts
thinking big thoughts

In 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?