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Research questions about technology use in education in developing countries

Michael Trucano's picture
let's investigate this systematically ...
let's investigate this systematically ...

Back in 2005, I helped put together a 'quick guide to ICT and education challenges and research questions' in developing countries. This list was meant to inform a research program at the time sponsored by the World Bank's infoDev program, but I figured I'd make it public, because the barriers to publishing were so low (copy -> paste -> save -> upload) and in case doing so might be useful to anyone else.

While I don't know to what extent others may have actually found this list helpful, I have seen this document referenced over the years in various funding proposals, and by other funding agencies. Over the past week I've (rather surprisingly) heard two separate organizations reference this rather old document in the course of considering some of their research priorities going forward related to investigating possible uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help meet educational goals in low income and middle countries around the world, and so I wondered how these 50 research questions had held up over the years.

Are they still relevant?


What did we miss, ignore or not understand?

The list of research questions to be investigated going forward was a sort of companion document to Knowledge maps: What we know (and what we don't) about ICT use in education in developing countries. It was in many ways a creature of its time and context. The formulation of the research questions identified was in part influenced by some stated interests of the European Commission (which was co-funding some of the work) and I knew that some research questions would resonate with other potential funders at the time (including the World Bank itself) who were interested in related areas (see, for example, the first and last research questions). The list of research questions was thus somewhat idiosynscratic, did not presume to be comprehensive in its treatment of the topic, and was not intended nor meant to imply that certain areas of research interest were 'more important' than others not included on the list.

That said, in general the list seems to have held up quite well, and many of the research questions from 2005 continue to resonate in 2015. In some ways, this resonance is unfortunate, as it suggests that we still don't know answers to a lot of very basic questions. Indeed, in some cases we may know as little in 2015 as we knew in 2015, despite the explosion of activity and investment (and rhetoric) in exploring the relevance of technology use in education to help meet a wide variety of challenges faced by education systems, communities, teachers and learners around the world. This is not to imply that we haven't learned anything, of course (an upcoming EduTech blog post will look at two very useful surveys of research findings that have been published in the past year), but that we still have a long way to go.

Some comments and observations,
with the benefit of hindsight and when looking forward

The full list of research questions from 2005 is copied at the bottom of this blog post (here's the original list as published, with explanation and commentary on individual items).

Reviewing this list, a few things jump out at me:

Broadband for schools?

Michael Trucano's picture
if only this tree were outside my school!
if only this tree were outside my school!

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.

Can you really teach someone to read with a computer alone?

Michael Trucano's picture

one technology to teach reading still works pretty well ...For a few years, the World Bank's infoDev program has sponsored a monthy online 'EduTech Debate' (ETD) which functions as a sort of rough complement to the Bank's own EduTech blog.  The goal of the ETD has been to provide a forum for the sharing of information and perspectives on various emerging topics related "low-cost ICT initiatives for educational systems in developing countries".  From the very start, the World Bank's role -- and certainly our voice (to the extent that we have one on these topics) -- has been in the background, and, by design, one only rarely sees a World Bank staff member post on the site, or contribute a comment to the sometimes lively exchanges of opinions that individual posts ignite.  We do follow the discussions quite closely, however, and sponsoring the debate has been a useful way for infoDev, the World Bank and UNESCO to be tuned in to some conversations we might not otherwise know are occurring, and to connect with interesting organizations and practitioners doing interesting things around in the world.

The most recent debate has looked at the potential role that ICT can play in promoting the acquisition of basic literacy skills.  Especially in places where literacy levels are very low -- where the formal education system has, in many significant ways, failed in one of its fundamental roles -- might ICTs offer some new approaches (and tools) that can help get children reading?  Noting (for example) the large number of very basic iPhone apps targeted at children in OECD countries to teach basic letter recognition, phonics, and vocabulary, an increasing number of groups are exploring doing similar things in less privileged environments.  But is it really that easy?

Education & Technology in Africa: Creating Takers ... or Makers?

Michael Trucano's picture
moving forward with innovation and ingenuity
moving forward with innovation and ingenuity

I was honored to be asked to deliver one of the keynote addresses at this year's eLearning Africa event at the end of May. (If you'll be in Dar for the event, I look forward to seeing you there!)  The organizers asked me to submit an abstract for my presentation by last week.  In the belief that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and in the spirit of what I take to be the increasing appetite of the World Bank to be more 'open' about what information it makes available publicly, I thought I would (mix metaphors and) send up a trial balloon of sorts here on this blog, sharing one of the themes I am hoping to explore in my short talk, in the hope that doing so will make my presentation stronger and more relevant to the audience. If past experience is any guide, there will be no shortage of people who comment (below, on their own blogs, via email and Twitter) about where and how I've got things wrong.

Before I get to that, though, some background:

Debating Technology Use in Education

Michael Trucano's picture

finding a place to air one's viewsInitially conceived by a diverse set of partner organizations during one of the follow-up meetings to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as a way to continue in public a number of on-going discussions that were largely occurring in private, since 2009 infoDev's EduTech Debate web site has featured contributions from an eclectic mix of experts and practitioners on a variety of topics related to the uses of ICTs in education, especially as they relate to developing countries. Drawing inspiration from an online debate sponsored by the Economist in late 2007, the ETD site has featured disagreements (and occasional agreements) on around themes like impact assessment, gender, sustainability and a variety of specific technology tools.

Re-visiting some of the issues explored in that Economist debate, in 2011 the EduTech Debate site kicks off by hosting a high level discussion around the question, Are ICT investments in schools an education revolution or fool’s errand?

Surveying ICT Use in Education in India and South Asia

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Survey of ICT and Education in India and South AsiaThe World Bank's infoDev program recently released the latest volume in its periodic surveys of the use of information and communication technology in the education sector around the world.

Following on earlier efforts that examined the Caribbean and Africa (and UNESCO-Bangkok's much earlier examination of the Asia-Pacific region), ICT for Education in India and South Asia catalogues what is happening related to the use of educational technologies in this important part of the world.

[Disclaimer: I helped initiate this series when I was at infoDev, and was a reviewer for this latest work, and so am not a neutral disinterested observer here!]

The series of reports include:

Educational Technology in India: Boon or Bust?

Michael Trucano's picture

cross-posted on the infoDev web site

On 21 April 2010 infoDev will launch the first draft of its Survey of Information and Communication Technology for Education in India & South Asia.

The launch, to take place at the World Bank office at Lodi Estate in New Delhi, India, will be accompanied by a lively Oxford-style debate on the motion:

"Most investment in technology
in schools is wasted.

The event is open to the public and will be webcast (visit the event web page to register to attend the event and/or to receive webcast details via email).

"ICT is both an icon and an engine of innovation"

Michael Trucano's picture

image courtesy of infoDevAt the end of last week's blog post I mentioned the new Educational Technology Debate web site sponsored by infoDev and UNESCO.  Every month, this site will offer up a topic for consideration, and two discussants will stake out positions on (roughly) opposite sides to kick off what is meant to be a lively on-line 'back-and-forth' in the subsequent weeks.  The first question for debate asks,