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Universal Service Fund

Expanding the conversation in education around 'access' to the Internet

Michael Trucano's picture
I don't know exactly what's wrong, I feel like we're not connecting anymore
I don't know exactly what's wrong,
I feel like we're not connecting anymore
Few would argue with the contention that access to the Internet will be increasingly important to teaching and learning (and to learners and teachers) in the future.

Yes, we all know that there was learning before the Internet, and that you can learn without using the Internet. Let's stipulate all of this up front. And yes, there are plentiful examples of the Internet being used in ways that are harmful or which degrade the learning environment -- as well as examples of the Internet not being used at all, even though it is available and paid for. 

That said, it is 2017. No matter where you are, conversations about broadening the access to the Internet to help meet the needs of learners and educators are growing louder in ministries of education, part of broader, related discussions around connectivity in the communities and populations that they serve.

When it comes to providing access to the Internet within educational settings, and for educational purposes:
  • What should we be talking about in 2017 that we haven't talked about in the past?
  • To what extent should we be expanding the access debate -- and to what extent should we be having different debates entirely?
Some technologies are maturing and others are emerging, past failures (of omission and commission) are becoming more apparent, and political will is increasingly in evidence in many places.
 
With this in mind, might a 're-think' be in order?
 
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Universal Service Funds & connecting schools to the Internet around the world

Michael Trucano's picture
maybe there's another way to support this?
maybe there's another way to support this?

We need to connect our schools to the Internet. While it may not (yet) be viable to do so in many countries, few education policymakers would question this general aspiration.

Of course, questions related to the speed and nature of this connection are being articulated and considered in different ways around the world, with answers determined by a mix of factors, including what is technologically feasible, what is pedagogically useful and, in the end, what is affordable. Calculations around what it may cost to connect schools to the Internet, and to keep them connected, in ways that are useful and relevant to learners and teachers (as well as to administrators and families), differ widely from place to place -- as do approaches on how to pay for these costs.

Over the past two decades, I have spent a lot of time helping to facilitate policy planning sessions with governments around issues related to technology use in education. Whether this work was part of efforts by the World Links program, linked to the use of the ICT in Education Toolkit supported by infoDev and UNESCO, or as part of more mainstream World Bank advisory activities, mechanisms and approaches by which countries can connect their schools to the Internet have always been a major area of discussion.

It may seem like a small thing, but one of the signature successes of many of these planning efforts wasn't the development of a related policy document outlining a vision and approach for how new technologies could and would be used to support a variety of education objectives. That was almost always the stated goal, but, as anyone who has worked in policymaking circles knows well, committing something to paper is no guarantee that what was drafted will ever actually be implemented -- nor that what's implemented will in the end have any beneficial impact 'on-the-ground'. No, in many cases the most important thing that happened in practice was to connect a diverse set of actors from outside the education sector together with the 'usual suspects' from within education ministries. The fact that you had, in the same room and at the same time, education officials sitting together with officials from the telecom authority, and the IT and finance ministries, as well as representatives from civil society and the private sector -- often times we found that this was the first time ever that all of these groups had talked collectively about how they might work in coordination to help meet some of the shared goals that all of them had related to technology use and education.

One mechanism that is integral to initiatives to connect schools in some countries (and thus which features prominently in these sorts of planning discussions), but which is largely unknown in others (and thus doesn't feature at all), is the use of so-called Universal Service Funds to help pay for such efforts.

For those not familiar with the concept or practice: