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Bad practices in mobile learning

Michael Trucano's picture
something doesn't seem quite right with this particular implementation ...
something doesn't seem quite right
with this particular implementation ...

The World Bank's EduTech blog explores issues related to the use of information and communication technologies (computers, laptops, tablets, the Internet, ...) to benefit education in middle and low income countries around the world. While I tend to view, with a fair degree of skepticism, many of the statistics which purport to document just how many people have visited a particular web site, it seems that the EduTech blog was recently visited by its one millionth reader. When viewing the mass of blog posts in their entirety, together with our visitor logs and other relevant data, it is quite clear that BY FAR the single most popular post remains one I did over four years ago on 'worst practice in ICT use in education'. What was relevant back in 2010 appears still to be quite relevant today.

(This isn't always the case: If memory serves, I quickly drafted and published that particular blog post because I was having trouble completing one 'Exploring the Use of Second Life in Education' -- I'm guessing that the half-life for *that* one, had it even been finalized and published, would have been pretty short!)

Recent news articles -- whether reporting that the one tablet per child project in Thailand 'has been scrapped' or the decision of the school district in Hoboken, New Jersey (USA) to 'throw away all its laptops' -- suggest that debris continues to pile up on the landscape of 'failed' attempts to use new technologies effectively in education in various ways. The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera has a short story called "Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead". Sometimes I feel like this title could be adapted for use in an introductory essay to a book documenting many of the unfortunate 'educational technology deployments' that have been irresistable fodder for politicians and headline writers alike (and clickbait for folks on Twitter) over the past decade.

And yet .... just because because we continue to hear variations on a sadly familiar theme, I don't know that the best response is to admit defeat, throw up our hands, throw everything away and go back to the 'good old days'. Learners would not be terribly well served if educational planners in 2014 simply decided to emulate the impulses and actions of Silesian weavers back in 1844 and smash all the machines in reaction to the spread of new technologies. Attempting to stuff this particular genie back in the bottle isn't only impractical: I would hazard a guess that it is well nigh impossible.

The recent article on the Hoboken experience labels it a 'failed experiment'. Personally, I am not sure that this label fits in this particular case. In an experiment, it seems to me that you are usually trying to learn something. This rather large purchase of technology seems to me like yet another solution in search of a problem that no one bothered to actually tried to define in any meaningful way. I suspect that, at a fundamental level, the problem wasn't (really) with the technology. In other words: It seems more like human failure to me.

Top World Bank EduTech Blog Posts of 2013

Michael Trucano's picture
will it ever end? five years of the World Bank's EduTech blog
will it ever end? five years of the World Bank's EduTech blog

2013 marked the fifth year of the World Bank's EduTech blog, which has been dedicated to "exploring issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit education in developing countries". The posts in 2013 spanned a rather eclectic set of topics and issues, from MOOCs to mobile phones to Matthew Effects (and those are just the 'M's!). Viewed collectively, it is hoped that these posts provide a little insight into the variety of discussions and activities in which the World Bank has been engaged over the past year, assisting policymakers and practitioners in middle and low income countries as they investigate how new technologies can help education systems tackle long-standing challenges in new (and sometimes not-so-new) ways.

As in past years, in 2013 the EduTech blog served various purposes, but has remained at its core driven by a belief that by 'thinking aloud in public', we can try (in an admittedly very modest way) to use the blog to open up conversations about various themes to wider audiences, and to share emerging thinking and discussions on topics that in the past were often (regrettably) shared only 'behind closed doors' within small circles of people and institutions. There were fewer (27) posts over the course of the year, but many of them were much longer (some may argue that many of them were in fact too long, and indeed a number of them served as first drafts of sorts for upcoming papers and book chapters).

Before presenting this year's 'top ten' list, some quick boilerplate reminders: Posts on the EduTech blog are not meant to be exhaustive in their consideration of a given topic, but rather to point to interesting developments and pose some related questions. They should not be mistaken for peer-reviewed research or World Bank policy papers. The views expressed on the EduTech blog are those of the author(s) alone, and not those of the World Bank.

For those interested in such things:
 - More background and context on the World Bank's EduTech blog 
 - Top EduTech blog posts: 2012 - 2011 - 2010 - 2009
 - Annual EduTech blog compilations (in pdf): 2012 - 2011 - 2010 - 2009
 - A list of the top EduTech blog posts of all time can be found on this page

OK, now on to the ...
 

Investing in digital teaching and learning resources: Ten recommendations for policymakers

Michael Trucano's picture
ok, what should I be considering at this point ...?
ok, what should I be considering at this point ...?
Following up on previous blog posts exploring issues related to planning for new investments in digital teaching and learning materials to be used across education systems, I thought I'd share some of the general recommendations that have often featured in related discussions with policymakers in which I have been involved, in case they might be of utility or interest to anyone else.

This list certainly isn't comprehensive. As with all posts on the EduTech blog, the standard disclaimers should apply (e.g. these are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent official views of the World Bank, etc.). It is perhaps worth noting that these sorts of suggestions are typically made and discussed within a specific context: A country has decided, for better or for worse, that it will consider significant new investments in digital teaching and learning materials. With this decision already made, policymakers are looking for some additional perspectives and inputs to help guide their thinking as they move forward.

In other words: These sorts of recommendations typically are not meant to inform higher level discussions about fundamental strategic priorities in the education sector (although, where they may help trigger reconsideration of some broader decisions made at higher levels, that may not always be such a bad thing). They are not meant to help, for example, policymakers assess whether or not to spend money on digital textbooks versus buying related hardware, let alone whether or not investments in digital learning resources should be made instead of spending money on things like school feeding programs, improvements in instruction at teacher training colleges, or hiring more teachers. Rather, they are more along the lines of:
 
So you have decided to buy a lot of 'digital textbooks'?
Here is some potential food for thought.

 
With that context and those caveats in place, here are ten general recommendations that education officials contemplating the use of digital teaching and learning materials at scale across a country’s education system may wish to consider during their related planning processes:
 

A few myths and misconceptions about digital teaching and learning materials in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture
attempting to see just over the horizon
attempting to see just over the horizon

Across Africa, a variety of devices are increasingly being used to disseminate and display teaching and learning materials in electronic and digital formats.  As costs for such devices continue to fall, and as the devices themselves become more widely available and used across communities, the small pilot, and largely NGO-led, projects that have characterized most efforts to introduce educational technologies in schools across Africa will inevitably be complemented, and in many cases superseded, by large-scale national initiatives of the sorts now taking place in Rwanda and Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of devices are being, or will soon be, distributed to schools.

Few would argue that the use of such devices do not offer great promise and potential to improve the access to and quality of education by providing access to more educational content than is currently available inside and outside of schools. Internet connectivity can provide access to millions of educational materials available on the Internet; low cost, handheld e-reading devices can hold more than a thousand books. Depending on the availability of connectivity, or local resourcefulness in transferring materials to devices manually, digital content used in schools can be updated more regularly than is possible with printed materials. Depending on the device utilized, this content can be presented as ‘rich media’, with audio, video and animations helping content be displayed in ways that are engaging and interactive. It is possible to track electronically how such content is used, and, depending on the technologies employed, to present content to teachers and learners in personalized ways. In some cases , this content can be delivered at lower costs than those incurred when providing traditional printed materials.

Given the increased availability and diffusion of consumer computing technologies across much of the continent in less than a decade, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of widespread misconceptions about the promise and potential of using digital technologies and devices across Africa to increase access to learning materials appear to have taken hold. On one level, this is consistent with the ‘hype cycle’ model  of technology diffusion in which, according to Gartner, a technology breakthrough is soon followed by a period of time of “inflated expectations” about what sort of changes might be possible as a result.

10 principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments

Michael Trucano's picture
there must be an I, a C, and a T here somewhere ...
there must be an I, a C, and a T here somewhere ...

There are, broadly speaking, two strands of concurrent thinking that dominate discussions around the use of new technologies in education around the world. At one end of the continuum, talk is dominated by words like 'transformation'. The (excellent) National Education Technology Plan of the United States (Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology), for example, calls for "applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement."

This is, if you will, a largely 'developed' country sort of discourse, where new technologies and approaches are layered upon older approaches and technologies in systems that largely 'work', at least from a global perspective. While the citizens of such countries may talk about a 'crisis' in their education systems (and may indeed have been talking about such a crisis for more than a generation), citizens of many other, much 'less developed' countries would happily switch places.
 

If you want to see a true crisis in education, come have a look at our schools, they might (and do!) say, or at least the remote ones where a young teacher in an isolated village who has only received a tenth grade education tries to teach 60+ children in a dilapitated, multigrade classroom where books are scarce and many of the students (and even more of their parents) are often functionally illiterate.


Like so many things in life, it all depends on your perspective. One country's education crisis situation may be (for better or for worse) another country's aspiration. While talk in some places may be about how new technologies can help transform education, in other places it is about how such tools can help education systems function at a basic level.

The potential uses of information and communication technologies -- ICTs -- are increasingly part of considerations around education planning in both sorts of places. One challenge for educational policymakers and planners in the remote, low income scenario is that most models (and expertise, and research) related to ICT use come from high-income contexts and environments (typically urban, or at least peri-urban). One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and (sort of) 'made to fit' into more challenging environments. When they don't work, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant (and some folks go so far to state that related discussions are irresponsible as a result).

There is, thankfully, some emerging thinking coalescing around various types of principles and approaches that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of ICT in education initiatives in such environments. As part of my duties at the World Bank, I have been discussing a set of such principles and approaches with a number of groups recently, and thought I'd share them here, in case they might be of wider interest or utility to anyone else. Are they universally applicable or relevant? Probably not. But the hope is that they might be useful to organizations considering using ICTs in the education sector in very challenging environments -- especially where introducing these principles and approaches into planning discussions may cause such groups to challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom about what 'works', and how best to proceed.

Surveying ICT use in education in Europe

Michael Trucano's picture

igniting new approaches to learning with technologyOne consistent theme that I hear quite often from policymakers with an interest in, and/or responsibility for, the use of ICTs in their country's education system is that they want to 'learn from the best'. Often times, 'best' is used in ways that are synonymous with 'most advanced', and 'most advanced' essentially is meant to describe places that have 'lots of technology'. Conventional wisdom in many other parts of the world holds that, if you want to 'learn from the best', you would do well to look at what is happening in places like the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Singapore. (Great internal 'digital divides' of various sorts persist within some of these places, of course, but such inconvenient truths challenge generalizations of these sorts in ways that are, well, inconvenient.) Policymakers 'in the know' broaden their frame of reference a bit, taking in a wider set of countries, like those in Scandinavia, as well as some middle income countries like Malaysia and Uruguay that also have 'lots of technology' in their schools. Whether or not these are indeed the 'best' places to look for salient examples of relevance to the particular contexts at hand in other countries is of course a matter of some debate (and indeed, the concept of 'best' is highly problematic -- although that of 'worst' is perhaps less so), there is no question that these aren't the only countries with lots of ICTs in place (if not always in use) in their education systems.

What do we know about what is happening across Europe
related to the use of ICTs in schools?

The recently released Survey of Schools: ICT in Education Benchmarking Access, Use and Attitudes to Technology in Europe’s Schools provides a treasure trove of data for those seeking answers to this question. Produced by the European Schoolnet in partnership with the University of Liège in Belgium, with funding from the European Commission, the publication features results from the first Europe-wide survey of this sort across the continent in six years:

Top World Bank EduTech Blog Posts of 2012

Michael Trucano's picture
the World Bank EduTech blog - providing our own spin on things since 2009
the World Bank EduTech blog:
providing our own spin on things since 2009

From Africa to China, from the use of mobile phones to a big evaluation report on the OLPC project -- with a short detour down Sesame Street and a bunch of stuff about digital textbooks thrown into the mix -- the World Bank EduTech blog covered a lot of ground in 2012. Begun in 2009 as one of the World Bank's first regular blogs, EduTech has tried to explore issues related to the use of information and communication technologies to benefit education in developing countries via a series of informal posts on a variety of topics, informed by lots and lots (and lots) of discussions with groups in countries around the world doing interesting things. Along the way, we have realized that, for better or worse, and at least with regards to ICT use in education, we are able to connect via the blog with many people in ways that our more traditional (often long, although hopefully not long-winded) formal World Bank publications and dialogues struggle to achieve. By 'thinking aloud in public', we have also tried (in an admittedly very modest way) to use the blog to open up conversations about various themes to wider audiences, and to share emerging thinking and discussions on topics that in the past were often (regrettably) shared only 'behind closed doors' within small circles of people and institutions.

2012 saw the fewest number of discrete posts on the World Bank EduTech blog, and yet the blog as a whole experienced its highest overall readership. While it is flattering that our stuff occasionally (and increasingly) finds good-sized audiences online, we don't put too much stock in individual readership metrics -- nor are we terribly interested in them, to be honest. While we are of course happy with the broad readership that the blog attracts some weeks inside our little niche topic area (while at the start we used to be happy if we could attract 1000 or so readers to a post, in 2012 we would sometimes get that within a few hours of the appearance of a new blog entry), most weeks our target audience is actually just a handful of key decision makers in one place whom we hope to make aware of something that is happening in another part of the world that might be of relevance to their work. So, while it is gratifying to find out that a post was read by 500 or 5000 (or 50,000!) people, in all honesty we are most pleased if it was seen by a target group of people who may actually number only five -- especially if and where it may influence their thinking in a positive and useful way.

We deliberately try not to focus our attention on any one topic for too long (a short attention span no doubt helps in this regard), but rather to highlight research, initiatives, questions and conversations with which we are engaged at a particular point in time, in the hope that doing so in public is useful to other people dealing with similar challenges in their work. As we have done in the past, we thought we'd begin the new year by counting down the list of top EduTech blog posts over the prior 12 months as a sort of quick review for a general audience. Criteria for inclusion are rather idiosyncratic, and include a combination of page views and RSS hits, re-postings in other fora, and related exchanges via email and in person have informed our entirely unscientific attempt to rank-order offerings from 2012.

Ten trends in technology use in education in developing countries that you may not have heard about

Michael Trucano's picture
not everyone is riding these big waves ... yet
not everyone is riding these big waves ... yet

Much of what we read and hear discussed about 'emerging trends' in technology use in education is meant largely for audiences in industrialized countries, or for more affluent urban areas in other parts of the world, and is largely based on observations on what is happening in those sorts of places. One benefit of working at a place like the World Bank, exploring issues related to the use of ICTs in education around the world, is that we get to meet with lots of interesting people proposing, and more importantly doing, interesting things in places that are sometimes not widely reported on in the international media (including some exciting 'innovations at the edges').

We are often asked questions like, "What trends are you are noticing that are a bit 'under the radar'?" In case it might be of interest to wider groups and/or provoke some interesting discussion and comment, we thought we'd quickly pull a list of these sorts of things together here.

Textbook policies in an increasingly digital age

Michael Trucano's picture

"Should we continue along our current path, or acknowledge that others are blasting off in other directions?The World Bank is revising its Operational Guidelines for Textbooks and Reading Materials [pdf].  Commonly referred to as our 'textbook policy', this is a guidance document for our ‘clients’ and partners in ministries of education and finance, our own staff and (to a lesser extent) broader stakeholder communities interested and involved in the development, procurement, dissemination, and assessment of the use, of learning materials (especially within the context of World Bank-funded projects in the education sector).

The current policy dates from 2002. My first reaction when I heard that the World Bank would be revising its “textbook policy” was to the term itself.  In 2012, surely we should be thinking beyond just 'textbooks', more broadly encompassing a wide variety of educational resources than the traditional conception of a printed book landing with a thud on the desk of a student? Despite regular proclamations from certain quarters about the impending ‘death of the printed book’, printed textbooks – especially in the developing countries where the World Bank is active -- aren’t going away any time soon. That said, there is no doubt that the landscape of and business climate for ‘educational publishers’ is changing radically in much of the world, and that this change is being fueled in large part by the increased distribution and adoption of a variety of disruptive technologies, which are increasingly to be found in schools and local communities, even in some of the poorest.

How might, or should, a new World Bank ‘textbook policy’ be relevant and useful in such a world going forward? How narrowly – or expansively – should it consider its guidance related to learning materials? To what extent should such a policy attempt to signal or highlight the potential relevance or importance of certain trends, approaches or perspectives – especially as they relate to the emergence of a variety of new technologies?

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.

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