Each year on 8 September, groups around the world gather together to celebrate "International Literacy Day", which is meant to highlight the importance of reading, and of being able to read. In the words of UNESCO, the UN organization which sponsors International Literacy Day, "Literacy is one of the key elements needed to promote sustainable development, as it empowers people so that they can make the right decisions in the areas of economic growth, social development and environmental integration." As contentious as issues around education around the world can be at times, there is little debate about the fundamental importance of literacy to most human endeavors.
New technologies can play important roles in helping to enable efforts and activities to teach people to learn how to read -- and to provide people with access to reading materials. As part of its communications outreach on International Literacy Day this year, for example, UNESCO highlighted recent experiences in Senegal targeting illiterate girls and women, where it has found that "mobile phones, computers, internet and TV make literacy courses much more attractive for illiterate women."
The potential for mobile phones and other mobile devices like e-readers to aid in literacy efforts has been a recurrent theme explored on the EduTech blog. In so-called 'developing countries', books may be scarce and/or expensive in many communities -- and reading materials that *are* locally available may not be of great interest or relevance to many potential readers. The fact that increasing numbers of people in such communities are carrying small portable electronic devices with them at all times capable of displaying text, and which indeed can hold tens, even thousands of digital 'books', has not gone unnoticed by organizations seeking to increase literacy and promote reading.
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 manycountries. 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.
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?
While I have not seen any research evidence to support this particular contention, I have been in a number of presentations over the years about the 'Finnish success in education' in which the fact that Finnish children watch cartoons with subtitles is mentioned as a contributing factor to their literacy development. Even if there are no peer-reviewed journal articles about the impact of this practice in Finland (if anyone knows of any, please do feel free to send them along!) or many other places (subtitling on television has of course been a common practice in many countries of the world for quite some time), there is some pretty compelling evidence from a little initiative in India that has been reaching big audiences for over a decade that this sort of thing can make a small but meaningful difference in the lives of many illiterate and low literate people. Sometimes innovation is the result of doing something 'old' in a 'new' place (often with a slight twist).
Back in November, PlanetRead was awarded the first-ever 'International Prize' as part of the new U.S. Library of Congress Literacy Awards [disclosure: I am a member of the advisory board for these awards] in recognition of its pioneering work in the practice of Same Language Subtitling (SLS), "the idea of subtitling the lyrics of existing film songs (or music videos) on TV, in the ‘same’ language that they are sung in. Call it Karaoke on Bollywood for mass reading! A deceptively simple innovation, SLS is already delivering regular and inescapable reading practice to 150 million weak-readers in India."
One notable characteristic of each of the three inaugural winners of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards is that they largely work outside of traditional 'educational' institutions as part of their efforts to promote reading. In the case of Reach Out and Read, this means connecting with parents and young children in pediatric exam rooms. 826 National supports store front writing and tutoring centers in local communities. PlanetRead focuses its outreach on a place where, like or not, many people spend a lot of their free time: watching television. Brij Kothari, the founder of PlanetRead, joked during the awards ceremonies at the Library of Congress, some people might say that TV is the enemy of reading, to which we reply: embrace the enemy!
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.
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 lotsofideas), 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.)
In recent chats with officials from [an un-named country], I learned of the desire of educational policymakers there to leap frog e-learning through m-learning. This made an impression on me -- and not only because it succinctly was able to encapsulate four educational technology buzzwords within a five-word "vision statement". In many ways, this encounter helped confirm my belief that a long-anticipated new era of hype is now upon us, taking firm root in the place where the educational technology and international donor communities meet, with "m-" replacing "e-" at the start of discussions of the use of educational technologies.
In the classic Ernest Hemingway novel The Sun Also Rises, Scottish war veteran Mike Campbell is asked how he went bankrupt. His answer: "Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly."
This pithy response is in many regards an accurate description of how the World Bank has considered of the use of mobile technologies as part of its support for international development efforts over the past decade. As part of its 'Innovation Days' event this week, the World Bank showcasing new approaches to some long-standing development challenges. Judging by many of the exhibits and discussions going on related to the use of mobile phones, it is clear that what was for a number of years a rather fringe topic of conversation among small pockets of people here -- primarily those working in the ICT sector and on microfinance -- has now exploded into the consciousness of World Bank and other international donor staff working in most sectors.
Back in 2008, a World Bank study on Textbooks and School Library Provision in Secondary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa [pdf] noted that "There is little or no evidence in any of the 19 countries reviewed of any systematic approach to, or consideration of, the full range of secondary textbook cost reduction strategies", adding that "Only 1 out of 19 countries studied (Botswana) had adequate textbook provision at close to a 1:1 ratio for all subjects and all grades."
In other words: There aren't enough textbooks for most students in Africa, and what is available is too expensive.
A number of groups are looking at this reality and wondering if the use of inexpensive e-book readers may be able to help. One such group at the World Bank is exploring an e-book pilot initiative in Nigeria (which has been examined previously on the EduTech blog). This pilot is looking at what it might take to deliver textbooks in digital formats for reading by secondary school students on dedicated e-readers, and what might happen as a result. It is not just looking at the use of official textbooks, however. The project team is also seeking to investigate the potential impact on educational achievement of making small libraries of digital books available to students on e-readers. In doing so, it is intrigued by studies such as Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations, which found that