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M-Pesa

Sachet educational publishing in a digital and mobile world

Michael Trucano's picture
I'll take one packet of Pythagorean Theorem and one packet of verb conjugations, please
I'll take one packet of Pythagorean Theorem
and one packet of verb conjugations, please

In the course of my job at the World Bank helping ministries of education in middle and low income countries think about, analyze, plan for, implement and evaluate issues, ideas and projects at the intersection of the worlds of technology and education, I spend a fair amount of time considering issues related to the digital publishing of educational materials. The World Bank has over the years funded the purchase of lots of textbooks around the world and we maintain active dialogues with scores of education ministries, helping to provide related advice and technical assistance.

In many countries, especially poor ones where disposable income is very low and where there is not an established culture of leisure reading, the educational publishing industry is sometimes largely indistinguishable from the publishing industry as a whole, and government purchases of textbooks (and/or government directives about which textbooks families or schools should purchase, where such things are not centrally procured) have huge, often determining influence on the direction of the publishing industry in general. In order to better understand how all of this impacts educational publishing, I talk regularly with lots of 'traditional' educational publishers, big and small, both international and local. I also talk a lot with technology companies who do things that look a lot like educational publishing to me, or who provide the tools and services to enable and support related activities.

Last year I participated in two fascinating events a few weeks apart, the EdTech Industry Summit in San Francisco and a symposium convened by the International Publishers Association (IPA) at the London Book Fair. (I was lucky enough to be at the IPA symposium this year as well.) At these meetings, the agendas and items discussed were largely the same, but were often approached from quite different perspectives. For the sake of argument here -- and I admit I am greatly oversimplifying things by making this characterization -- EdTech Summit participants were mainly 'tech companies', while the London Book Fair event was mainly attended by 'traditional publishers'. (I concede that such distinctions are increasingly difficult, and less useful, to make as time goes on; in my opinion all publishers are technology companies these days, whether they self-identify as such or not and/or whether outsiders see them that way.)

At both events, a data point that was quoted quite often was that '1% of national education budgets around the world are devoted to the purchasing of textbooks and other learning materials'. While I have never been able to find this assertion supported by hard data, I have heard it expressed so many times over the years by people who work in or around the educational publishing industry that I have taken it as almost 'conventional wisdom'. Whether this figure is actually .5% or 2% or 4% (or whatever), what has struck me when in conversation with many vendors is that many traditional publishers have, in the face of the steady rise in many countries around the world of large scale purchases of laptops and tablets for students and teachers, worried that technology purchases are eating into traditional budgets for the purchases of textbooks.

As one traditional publisher put it to me at the London event in 2013, "we need to figure out how to protect this 1% so that it is not tapped to buy iPads". Contrast this with a statement made to me by an enthusiastic founder of an edtech start-up in San Francisco, who said that the goal of firms like his was to "eventually capture 20% of education budgets" by transforming the way education is delivered as a result of the use of new technologies. Whether or not such figures are accurate, they for me exemplify a difference in perspective and ambition that is consistent with many stereotypical characterizations of brash young tech entrepreneurs in their hoodies (and/or khakis) versus the tweedy old-school booksellers whose business model that I have been told on many occasions -- especially by those not that business -- was one for "dinosaurs".

(While conceding that the business models for selling books will have to change rather radically going forward, a concession to which no educational publisher I know would object in the age of e-readers and hypertext, of apps and APIs, I am fairly confident that extinction rates for edtech startups will remain much greater than that of book publishers for the foreseeable future, although in the end I wouldn't be too surprised if the most successful 'tech' firms doing business in this space end up buying up a lot of the 'publishers' -- some of whom will themselves be buying and merging with 'tech' firms along the way.)

If we accept the premise that educational publishing industry in the 'developed' countries of Europe and North America are being, and will continue to be, increasingly radically disrupted -- a contention with which I expect few people would disagree -- what might this mean for business models for educational publishing in less developed, 'poor' countries? Will the related business models from OECD contexts simply, and eventually, be transplanted to middle and low income countries? Or: Might some new business models for digital educational publishing emerge from less developed countries, based on specific local contexts and consumer demands in an increasingly digital -- and mobile -- age?

Paying teacher salaries with mobile phones

Michael Trucano's picture
no worries, everything here is orderly and under control, all money is being accounted for in a clear and timely manner
no worries, everything here is orderly and under control,
all money is being accounted for in a clear and timely manner

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 many countries. 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.

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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?