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Paying teacher salaries with mobile phones

Michael Trucano's picture

no worries, everything here and orderly and under control, all money is being accounted for in a clear and timely mannerI 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?

Interactive Educational Television in the Amazon

Michael Trucano's picture

a road map -- er, river map -- for the expansion of educational opertunities in rural Brazil?According to figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, "Countries will need an extra 1.6 million teachers to achieve universal primary education by 2015 and 3.3 million by 2030". The 2013/4 Global Monitoring Report provides a useful discussion of the consequences of this deficit, as well as some strategies for overcoming it.  There are, unfortunately, no 'quick fix' solutions here. We didn't get ourselves into this mess overnight, and we won't get out of it overnight either. While longer term efforts tackle this challenge in multiple ways over time, recruiting new teachers and upgrading the skills of others, it is probably also useful to ask:

How do you teach children in places where there are no teachers?

Many proposed answers to this include some consideration of the use of information and communication technologies. Some groups have offered that it may be most efficacious to simply introduce technologies that help enable students to teach themselves, bypassing teachers altogether. That is certainly one approach, but one with, to date, a rather checkered history of success in many instances (although not all), and one that is consistent with a worry that teacher union officials have expressed to me many times over the years: that many of their members fear that they are being, or will be, replaced by new technologies. Rhetoric from certain politicians (I'll refrain from adding a link or three here, but a few minutes with your favorite search engine should help you locate a number of them yourself) and projections from some ministry of finance officials (informed, one suspects, in some cases by data from the marketing departments of certain technology firms) do little to alleviate such concerns. In some cases, the introduction of new technologies undeniably *does* replace certain specific functions or roles that teachers currently perform, or have performed in the past (especially related to what are essentially clerical or administrative functions -- this replacement is presumably not always such a bad thing). In my experience, introducing new technologies in schools actually makes the role and function of teachers more central and critical, but that is perhaps a topic for another blog post.

Faced with severe, in some cases quite extreme, deficits of qualified teachers, especially in remote communities and in subjects like mathematics, science and foreign languages, many countries are in engaged in long term efforts to recruit and train more teachers and upgrade the skills and content masteries of 'low-skilled' teachers already in their system.  They are exploring how ICTs can be leveraged to help in these efforts. Where there are pressing needs *now* for teachers that can not be met through conventional approaches or according to the traditional timelines dictated by the capacity and effectiveness of their teacher training institutes, there are looking to see how technologies can help reach students today in schools without qualified teachers -- or in some cases, without any teachers at all.

Teachers, Teaching & ICTs

Michael Trucano's picture

it's part art, part craft ... and there's some science in there tooFor the past seven years, the Korean Education & Research Information Service (KERIS) has hosted an annual global symposium on ICT use in education, bringing senior policymakers and practitioners from around the world to Seoul to share emerging lessons from attempts to introduce and utilize information and communications technologies to help meet a wide variety of goals in the education sector. Each year this event, which is one important component of a strong multi-year partnership between the World Bank education sector and the Korean Ministry of Education, focuses on one particular theme. This year's symposium examined the 'changing role of teachers' and featured presentations from, and discussions with, policymakers from 22 countries. This was also the dominant theme of the first global symposium back in 2007 -- but, oh my, how the nature and content of the discussions have changed!

At that first symposium, much of the talk from policymakers in middle and low income countries was still of promise and potential, of the need to begin preparing for what was inevitably going to come. Where there were specific lessons and models and research to share, these were largely those from places like the United States, the UK, Australia -- and of course from Korea itself! For most of the policymakers from middle and low income countries participating in the event, helping to prepare and support teachers as they sought to use ICTs in various ways in support of their teaching, and to support student learning, was something being explored in various 'pilot' activities, and a topic perhaps given some (at least rhetorical) attention in national education policy documents. It wasn't yet a real area of large and sustained activity and expenditure -- largely because there just weren't that many computers in most schools, and what computers that were present were mostly to be found in computer labs, presided over by 'computer teachers' of various sorts. As this year's event made clear, the introduction of PCs, laptops, tablets, and interactive whiteboards is something that is now happening *right now* in very large numbers in countries of all sorts, and ministries of education are ramping up and reforming their teacher training efforts as a result.

A few quick highlights from this year's symposium:

Using video to improve teaching -- and support teachers

Michael Trucano's picture

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.

Developing ICT Skills in African Teachers

Michael Trucano's picture

is this the dawn of a new era?What guidance is there for countries across Africa that are 'computerizing' their schools (or planning to do so) to help ensure that teachers know how to use ICTs productively?

To help provide some answers to this and related questions, the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (IICBA) recently released its ICT-enhanced teacher standards for Africa (ICTeTSA), the result of a multi-study and consultation process with 29 countries across the continent. By releasing this document, UNESCO-IICBA doesn't meant to advocate that developing ICT-related competencies and skills be the highest priority for African teachers -- there are certainly many other more pressing and immediate concerns with the teacher corps in many African countries. It does, however, note that a teacher education and development program will not be complete if it does not address the use of ICTs by teachers, now and in the future.  Across Africa, teachers are core to the educational process, and ICTs are become more and more relevant in many educational contexts.

Worst practice in ICT use in education

Michael Trucano's picture

doing these things will not make you happyIn business and in international development circles, much is made about the potential for 'learning from best practice'.  Considerations of the use of educational technologies offer no exception to this impulse.  That said, 'best practice' in the education sector is often a rather elusive concept (at best!  some informed observers would say it is actually dangerous).  The term 'good practice' may be more useful, for in many (if not most) cases and places, learning from and adapting 'good' practices is often much more practical -- and more likely to lead to success.  Given that many initiatives seem immune to learning from either 'best' or even 'good' practice in other places or contexts, it may be most practical to recommend 'lots of practice', as there appears to be a natural learning curve that accompanies large scale adoption of ICTs in the education sector in many countries -- even if this means 'repeating the mistakes' of others.

But do we really need to repeat the mistakes of others? If adopting 'best practice' is fraught with difficulties, and 'good practice' often noted but ignored, perhaps it is useful instead to look at 'worst practice'.  The good news is that, in the area of ICT use in education, there appears to be a good deal of agreement about what this is!