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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?

Using video to improve teaching -- and support teachers

Michael Trucano's picture
smile and say 'PISA!'
smile and say 'PISA!'

Much of the discussion related to how new technologies can be used in classrooms in low and middle income countries focuses on the use of PCs, desktops and tablets. Less discussed, I often find, is the strategic potential of various so-called peripheral devices, which are (in my experience) typically only considered within the context of how they can be used to enhance or extend the functionality of the 'main' computing devices available in schools.

Many education systems (for better or for worse) have specific 'hardware' budgets, and, when they are looking to tap these budgets to introduce more hardware into schools, in my experience they often look to buy more of what they already have, supplemented in places by things like interactive whiteboards, or networked printers, as a complement to what is already available in a school.

When talking with educational planners contemplating how to use funds specifically dedicated to purchase computer hardware, I often counsel them to think much more broadly about what they may wish to buy with these monies, within a larger context of discussing things like how such equipment can be utilized to meet larger educational objectives, what sorts of training and maintenance support may be needed, and how the use of this technology can complement other, non-technology-enabled activities in a classroom. As part of such discussions, I often find myself attempting in various ways to challenge policymakers and planners to think beyond their current models for technology use.

One general type of gadget that I only rarely hear discussed is so-called 'probeware', which refers to set of devices which are typically used in science classes to measure various things -- temperature, for example, or the pH level of soil, or the salinity of water. Despite the increasing emphasis in STEM subjects in many countries, and what is often a rhetorical linkage between the use of computers in schools and STEM topics, I rarely find that World Bank client countries are considering the widespread use of probeware in a strategic way as part of their discussions around ICT use in schools. That said, one suspects that such an interest is coming, especially once the big vendors direct more of their attentions to raising awareness among policymakers in such places (much like the interactive whiteboard vendors began to do a half-decade or so ago).

While probeware is a new type of peripheral for many education policymakers, there is another peripheral that policymakers are already quite familiar with, and which is already used in ad hoc ways in many schools, but which rarely seems to be considered at a system level for use in strategic ways. Once you have a critical mass of computers is in place, and in place of buying one additional PC, might it be worth considering (for example) utilizing video cameras instead? Video can be put to lots of productive uses (and some perhaps not-so-productive uses). Considering three concrete examples from around the world may shed some light on how video can be used to improve teaching -- and support teachers.

A new wave of educational efforts across Africa exploring the use of ICTs

Michael Trucano's picture
young men on the move in Bobo-Dioulasso
young men on the move in Bobo-Dioulasso

A delegation of French businesses, together with some of their African partners, visited the World Bank last month to share lessons emerging from their recent efforts to utilize "digital technology to provide quality education for all", and to outline some of their related upcoming initiatives and activities.

The focus of much of the small workshop, which included World Bank staff working in the education sector and the ICT sector (and a few of us whose work straddles both areas), was on the activities of 2iE, an international, nonprofit higher education and training institute which provides training programs, courses and degrees in the areas of water and sanitation; the environment; energy and electricity; civil engineering and mining; and managerial sciences. 2iE, which the World Bank has supported in various ways over the years, is affiliated with the French network of “grandes ecoles” and trains 2000 students from Africa at its campuses in Burkina Faso.

ICTs and Literacy (the old fashioned kind)

Michael Trucano's picture
lego ergo sum, or I read, therefore I am
lego ergo sum, or I read, therefore I am

The Library of Congress recently announced a set of literacy awards to recognize and honor pioneering efforts in the United States and around the world. That's all well and good, you might say, literacy is certainly a worthy cause, but what does this have to do with ICT use in education in developing countries, the topic explored on the EduTech blog? Potentially a lot.

Much is made these days of the need to foster the development of so-called '21st century skills'. Indeed, for the past few years I have sat through few presentations where this particular three word phrase has not been mentioned prominently at some point. Reasonable people may disagree about what these skills are, exactly (but there are lots of ideas), and/or about some of the groups promoting related discussions and initiatives. Whatever one's opinion on such things may be, however, there is no denying that ICTs -- and the ability to use ICTs (productively, effectively) -- are often prominently considered in many related conversations and advocacy efforts, which often also highlight the increasing importance of the acquisition of so-called 'new literacy' skills (variously defined, but often related to the use of ICTs in ways integral and tangential: computer literacy, media literacy, etc.) to ways of life that are increasingly impacted by the emergence of new information and communication technologies.

What it means to be 'literate' in 2013 may be different than it was in 1913 or 1963 (and it will perhaps be different still in 2063). That said, there is little argument that, whatever the year, and wherever you are, basic literacy skills are fundamental to one's education and ability to navigate successfully through life.

What do we know about the use of ICTs
to help promote and develop literacy?

(I am not talking about such things like 'computer literacy', mind you, but rather literacy of the old-fashioned sort: the ability to read and write.)

Sondeando el aprendizaje móvil alrededor del mundo (parte uno y dos)

Carla Jimenez Iglesias's picture

lo que constituye un ‘aparato móvil’ puede estar algunas veces en el ojo del que lo mira"Sondeando el aprendizaje móvil alrededor del mundo (parte uno)

Hace cerca de cuatro años, el programa del Banco Mundial infoDev aseguró el financiamiento para hacer un ‘sondeo global del uso de móviles en la educación en países en vías de desarrollo’, con base en la creencia de que la creciente disponibilidad de los pequeños dispositivos conectados, más conocidos como ‘teléfonos móviles’, iba a tener cada vez mayor relevancia para los sistemas escolares alrededor del mundo. Cuando vimos lo que estaba ocurriendo en este sentido en la mayor parte del mundo, observamos que (aún) no estaba pasando nada efectivamente, y así concluimos que no sería todavía demasiado útil hacer un sondeo global de conocimiento experto sobre la potencial relevancia futura del uso de teléfonos móviles en la educación. Por esto, así como por lamentables retrasos burocráticos internos, terminamos abandonando este proyecto de investigación, con la esperanza de que otros pudieran continuar un trabajo similar cuando el tiempo fuese propicio. (El financiamiento se reprogramó para apoyar a EVOKE, el ‘juego serio’ en línea del Banco Mundial. La segunda versión del mismo está programada para lanzarse en setiembre en portugués e inglés, tanto para PCs como para móviles, con un énfasis especial en Brasil.) Unas cuantas organizaciones involucradas en la Alianza de m-Educación, un esfuerzo internacional de colaboración en el que participa el Banco Mundial para explorar intersecciones de punta entre móviles, educación y desarrollo, y para promover el uso compartido de conocimiento colectivo, recién ha publicado unos breves ensayos que han logrado gran parte de lo que se quiso hacer con este tipo de sondeos. Echaremos una mirada a estos esfuerzos esta semana en el blog EduTech: el primero de ellos es dirigido por UNESCO, el segundo  por la Fundación Mastercard, que trabaja con la Asociación GSM.

Surveying Mobile Learning Around the World (part two)

Michael Trucano's picture

your perspective on mobiles depends on your point of viewThis week we are looking at two sets of new reports that provide insights into the area of 'mobile learning' -- especially the use of handheld devices like mobile phones to help meet a variety of educational objectives. Earlier this week we devoted a post to twelve new reports from UNESCO that provide a broad overview of what is happening in different regions of the world in this area. Shaping the Future – Realizing the potential of informal learning through mobile [pdf], which was released at last week's eLearning Africa event in Benin, provides a nice complement to the UNESCO working paper series.  Whereas the UNESCO reports collectively provide some very useful insights on the supply side, surveying notable 'm-learning' programs currently underway around the world, Shaping the Future examines the demand side of the equation:

"In late 2011, researchers went into four very different emerging markets – Ghana, Morocco, India and Uganda – and asked 1,200 people (aged 15-24) about their day-to-day lives, their ambitions, their education, the way they use mobile now and how mobile could help them achieve their aspirations in the future. At the same time, over 250 young people from those countries took part in detailed focus group discussions where, with great generosity, they shared their hopes, worries and beliefs with us."

Surveying Mobile Learning Around the World (part one)

Michael Trucano's picture

what constitutes a 'mobile device' can sometimes be in the eye of the (be)holderAbout four years ago, the World Bank's infoDev program secured funding to do a 'global survey of the use of mobile phones in education in developing countries', based on the belief that the increasing availability of the small, connected computing devices more commonly known as 'mobile phones' was going to have increasing relevance to school systems around the world.  For a variety of reasons -- including regrettable internal bureaucratic delays and, more fundamentally, the fact that, when we looked around at what was actually happening on the ground in most of the world, not much was actually going on (yet), and so we concluded that a global survey of expert thought of the potential future relevance of the use of mobile phone in education wouldn't yet be terribly useful -- we ended up scrapping this research project, hoping that others would pursue similar work when the time was ripe. (The funds were re-programmed to support EVOKE, the World Bank's online 'serious game', the second version of which is scheduled to launch in September in Portuguese and English, on both PCs and mobile phones, with a special focus on Brazil.) A few of the organizations involved in the mEducation Alliance, an international collaborative effort in which the World Bank participates that is working to explore cutting edge intersections between mobiles, education and development and to promote collective knowledge sharing, have just published some short papers that have accomplished much of what we had hoped to do with this sort of survey.  We'll look at two of these efforts this week on the EduTech blog: the first led by UNESCO, the second (in a follow up post this Friday) by the Mastercard Foundation, working with the GSMA.

CheckMySchool.org, websites that call you, and other innovations connecting schools to communities

Michael Trucano's picture

The World Bank recently hosted two events showcasing innovative tools and practices that can be used to help build bridges between schools and their local communities, helping to promote and support greater transparency, good governance and citizen engagement along the way.

The CheckMySchool (CMS) initiative in the Philippines (“promoting social accountability one school at a time”) is one of those projects that people intuitively ‘get’. Why not use tools like the web, Facebook, and mobile phones to help inform communities about the types of resources that their schools are supposed to have – and offer a way for them to report back when something is not as it should be?

Ten things about computer use in schools that you don't want to hear (but I'll say them anyway)

Michael Trucano's picture

I don't want to hear thisAt an event last year in Uruguay for policymakers from around the world, a few experts who have worked in the field of technology use in education for a long time commented that there was, in their opinion and in contrast to their experiences even a few years ago, a surprising amount of consensus among the people gathered together on what was really important, what wasn't, and on ways to proceed (and not to proceed).  Over the past two years, I have increasingly made the same comment to myself when involved in similar discussions in other parts of the world.  At one level, this has been a welcome development.  People who work with the use of ICTs in education tend to be a highly connected bunch, and the diffusion of better (cheaper, faster) connectivity has helped to ensure that 'good practices and ideas' are shared with greater velocity than perhaps ever before.  Even some groups and people associated with the 'give kids computers, expect magic to happen' philosophy appear to have had some of their more extreme views tempered in recent years by the reality of actually trying to put this philosophy into practice.

That said, the fact that "everyone agrees about most everything" isn't always such a good thing.  Divergent opinions and voices are important, if only to help us reconsider why we believe what we believe. (They are also important because they might actually be right, of course, and all of the rest of us wrong, but that's another matter!) Even where there is an emerging consensus among leading thinkers and practitioners about what is critically important, this doesn't mean that what is actually being done reflects this consensus -- or indeed, that this consensus 'expert' opinion is relevant in all contexts.

Educational technology and innovation at the edges

Michael Trucano's picture

the business of tomorrow, today?As part of my duties at the World Bank, I talk with lots (and lots!) of people and groups.  Mostly, I talk to people within the World Bank and in other development institutions (this is part of my official responsibilities, to support the work of such people as a 'subject expert'); to our counterparts in governments around the world (we say 'clients' but I am not a big fan of this formulation); and with lots of consultants and practitioners*.

(*Some of you may quickly identify a pretty important group that is missing here: 'users', or beneficiaries.  This is a pretty big, if not fundamental, omission, in my view. Talking with practitioners is a sort of proxy for talking with end users and beneficiaries ... I guess ... but certainly an insufficient and inadequate one. Mistaking those who pay for, and those who implement, development programs with those who actual 'use' or benefit from them is a recipe for potential disaster ... perhaps a topic for a future blog post.)

I also speak with lots of companies.  Sometimes I am obliged to do this, because (to be blunt, and honest) the company is 'important' and politically well connected.  Sometimes I really want to do this, because the company is doing something quite new and/or cool, or is doing something quite well.  (I should note that these things aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, of course.) I frequently talk with companies at the request of colleagues or counterparts in government ("these guys are telling us x and y ... should we believe them?"). I also do it to better understand what is happening in various markets; I often find that firms (as with NGOs) have a better sense of what is happening in government schools related to the use of technology than do ministries of education.

Occasionally I speak not to individual companies, but to large industry groups.  Because presentations to these types of groups often occur behind 'closed doors' of various sorts, I thought I'd share here some of what I tell them, in case it might be of any interest.  (One of the reasons that this blog exists is to try to open up certain conversations that typically occur behind closed doors to wider audiences.)

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