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Education

Innovative educational technology programs in low- and middle-income countries

Michael Trucano's picture
so many ideas ... are any 'out-of-the-box'?
so many ideas ...
are any 'out-of-the-box'?

Much is made of the need for 'innovation' in education. Bullet points containing words like 'disruption' and 'transformation' increasingly characterize presentations at big education gatherings -- especially in North America, and especially where educational entrepreneurs and 'Silicon Valley-types' are to be found. The popular press is replete with (sometimes breathless) articles about the 'revolutionary' potential of some new technology to impact teaching and learning in ways that are often quite exciting. Indeed: There can be little doubt that the increased diffusion of low(er) cost, (more) powerful, connected IT devices across and within communities offers exciting possibilities and potential to do things differently -- potentially in a good way.

For many people, the use of technology in education constitutes a de facto 'innovation'. Whether or not this belief is actually accurate, or useful, is a legitimate question for discussion. That said, there is no denying that many of the educational innovations celebrated (or at least touted) today are enabled by the use of such technologies in some way.

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Around the world, there few more conservative and traditional sectors than those related to public education. In many ways this is totally understandable, and appropriate. Investments in education represent investments in the future -- of our children, of our future citizens and workers and leaders and community members. We don't want to gamble with or experiment with the way we educate our children and try out too many new things, or so goes one line of thinking. The potential downside, or failure, carries with it consequences that are just too great.

And yet: We know that, for millions children around the world, the education they are getting today isn't actually all that great. Some frightening stats from just one page of the latest Global Monitoring Report [pdf], drawing on recent research from RTI:

  • In Nicaragua in 2011, around 60% of second-graders could not identify numbers correctly and more than 90% were unable to answer a subtraction question.
  • In Malawi, 94% of second-graders could not respond correctly to a single question about a story they read in Chichewa, the national language.
  • In Iraq, 25% of third-graders were unable to tell the sound of a letter in Arabic.

And if you think that the situations in certain education systems are bad: Around the world, many children and adolescents -- 124 million, according to the latest figures from UNESCO -- are out of school and not getting any formal education at all.

In many cases then -- too many -- education systems aren't actually working all that well. In others -- like the global 'high performers' that are regularly held up as 'best practice' examples for other countries to emulate (Finland, Shanghai, Korea, Singapore) -- there is the danger that what worked well in the past (or what appears to be working well now) might not work so well in the future. The future is changing -- shouldn't we change the way we prepare for it? The riskiest course of action might well be one where people and institutions don't take risks.

Where business as usual is decidedly not working today,
or where it is feared that business as usual may not work tomorrow ...
what are some examples of business unusual from which
we might draw inspiration -- as well as practical insight?

Many good examples of this sort are regularly cited from experiences in highly developed, industrialized economies of North America, Europe and East Asia. No doubt much can be, and will be, profitably learned from what is happening such places. That said, the challenges facing education systems and families around the world are particularly acute where the needs are greatest: in many low- and middle-income countries, and especially within remote communities and traditionally disadvantaged populations.

Examples of 'innovation in education' from such places might just be more relevant to policymakers in Phnom Penh or Quito than are ones which originate in, say Palo Alto or Cambridge. (And, it is perhaps worth noting, that, if you believe that innovation often arises 'at the edges', where constraints compel people to be inventive in their approaches to solving problems in ways that folks in more resource-rich environments may never consider, it may just be that policymakers in Paris and Canberra may learn something to learn from what's happening in 'developing countries' as well.)

What examples do we have of innovative uses of educational technologies in such places?

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Tablets in education

Michael Trucano's picture
tablets: the cure for what ails education?
tablets: the cure for
what ails education?

While it can sometimes be difficult to understand just what exactly the related question or challenge is, in many education systems around the world, the 'answer' or 'solution' put forward is increasing the same:

'Tablets!'

Indeed, it seems that, over the past few years, not a week has gone by without some sort of high profile announcement about a new educational tablet initiative somewhere -- or about changes to an existing such project.

Excitement about the promise and potential of information and communication technology (ICT) devices for use in teaching and learning has been around for a few decades, but only recently has this been translated into large scale purchases of such devices for use in schools outside of industrialized, 'highly developed' countries. What's happening where, you ask?

Here are some random, but fairly representative, reports from recent years about this undeniable trend:

Not all the news is about tablets going *out* to schools; devices can flow in the reverse direction as well:

It's true that not everything that is announced actually comes to pass. Timelines are often a moving target, and the scope and/or scale of a project as initially conceived can change radically. But the trend is clear.

Why are educational policymakers authorizing the purchases of so many tablets in so many education systems around the world?

Banning and unbanning phones in schools

Michael Trucano's picture
forbidden ... or encouraged?
forbidden ... or encouraged?
When planning for new initiatives that will introduce and/or utilize information and communications technologies (ICTs) in some way, a simple general rule of thumb is worth considering:

The best technology is often the one you already have, know how to (and do) use, and can afford. In many places around the world, this technology is the mobile phone.

This is not to contend that 'new' technology devices should not be considered -- far from it! Rather, this general guidance is meant to serve as a reminder for planners and decisionmakers to consider how it might be possible to take advantage of and leverage *existing* technologies, and the activities and processes these technologies enable, before committing to introduce totally new (or foreign) technology tools into a given environment. Just because something is new doesn't mean that it is automatically better. Of course: It doesn't mean that it is worse, either.

At a conceptual level, when considering what technology devices are to be utilized as part of a given project or activity, mobile phones may often be the 'best' technology. But: Does that make the mobile phone an appropriate or practical technology choice for use in schools, and/or by students and teachers?

It depends.

When it comes to mobile phones and the education sector, things aren't so simple, and answers vary considerably by place -- and are changing. In some countries and schools, mobile phones are not allowed at all for students (and in some cases for teachers as well) and/or their use is limited to certain circumstances inside (and in some instances even outside) of school. In other places, phones are allowed with few restrictions. In yet other places, long time bans on phones are being reversed. Even where bans are in place, phones are still to be found in schools, for better and for worse, and they are used for a variety of purposes (again, for better and for worse).
 
What are some current perspectives and practices related to
the use of mobile phones in schools and education systems around the world?

Lessons from the drafting of national educational technology policies

Michael Trucano's picture
let me make sure to press the right levers in the right order so that I’m in harmony with everyone else
let me make sure to press the
right levers in the right order so that I’m
in harmony with everyone else

Begun in 2004 by the ICT/education team at UNESCO-Bangkok, who were later joined by AED, Knowledge Enterprise and the infoDev program of the World Bank (where I worked), the ICT in Education Toolkit for Policy Makers, Planners and Practitioners was utilized as part of policy planning and review processes in over thirty middle and low counties in the course of the following decade.

In support of face-to-face and online interactions that typically lasted for many months (and in a few cases, years), mainly in countries in East Asia and the Pacific, the Toolkit provided interactive instruments and step-by-step guidelines to assist education policy makers, planners and practitioners in the process of 'harnessing the potential of ICTs to meet educational goals and targets efficiently and effectively'.

The toolkit was designed with the needs of two specific groups in mind: (1) Key decisionmakers in countries and educational institutions as they struggled with the challenge of introducing and integrating ICTs into education; and (2) program officers and specialists in international development agencies as they identified, prepared and appraised ICT-in-education projects or ICT components of education projects.

The ICT in Education Toolkit itself is no longer in use -- with the great changes in technology over the past ten years, maintaining an online toolkit of this sort proved to be too difficult. That said, a number of key lessons emerged from this effort which might be quite relevant to policymakers going forward who are seeking to provide policy guidance, direction and oversight on issues related to the use of new technologies in education systems.

Here are some of them:

Research questions about technology use in education in developing countries

Michael Trucano's picture
let's investigate this systematically ...
let's investigate this systematically ...

Back in 2005, I helped put together a 'quick guide to ICT and education challenges and research questions' in developing countries. This list was meant to inform a research program at the time sponsored by the World Bank's infoDev program, but I figured I'd make it public, because the barriers to publishing were so low (copy -> paste -> save -> upload) and in case doing so might be useful to anyone else.

While I don't know to what extent others may have actually found this list helpful, I have seen this document referenced over the years in various funding proposals, and by other funding agencies. Over the past week I've (rather surprisingly) heard two separate organizations reference this rather old document in the course of considering some of their research priorities going forward related to investigating possible uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help meet educational goals in low income and middle countries around the world, and so I wondered how these 50 research questions had held up over the years.

Are they still relevant?

And:

What did we miss, ignore or not understand?

The list of research questions to be investigated going forward was a sort of companion document to Knowledge maps: What we know (and what we don't) about ICT use in education in developing countries. It was in many ways a creature of its time and context. The formulation of the research questions identified was in part influenced by some stated interests of the European Commission (which was co-funding some of the work) and I knew that some research questions would resonate with other potential funders at the time (including the World Bank itself) who were interested in related areas (see, for example, the first and last research questions). The list of research questions was thus somewhat idiosynscratic, did not presume to be comprehensive in its treatment of the topic, and was not intended nor meant to imply that certain areas of research interest were 'more important' than others not included on the list.

That said, in general the list seems to have held up quite well, and many of the research questions from 2005 continue to resonate in 2015. In some ways, this resonance is unfortunate, as it suggests that we still don't know answers to a lot of very basic questions. Indeed, in some cases we may know as little in 2015 as we knew in 2015, despite the explosion of activity and investment (and rhetoric) in exploring the relevance of technology use in education to help meet a wide variety of challenges faced by education systems, communities, teachers and learners around the world. This is not to imply that we haven't learned anything, of course (an upcoming EduTech blog post will look at two very useful surveys of research findings that have been published in the past year), but that we still have a long way to go.
 

Some comments and observations,
with the benefit of hindsight and when looking forward

The full list of research questions from 2005 is copied at the bottom of this blog post (here's the original list as published, with explanation and commentary on individual items).

Reviewing this list, a few things jump out at me:

Key themes in national educational technology policies

Michael Trucano's picture
interesting ... this policy says this, and that policy says that ...
interesting: this policy says this,
​and that policy says
that ...
The World Bank is concluding an analysis of over 800 policy documents related to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education from high, middle and low income countries around the world in order to gain insight into key themes of common interest to policymakers. This is work is part of the institution's multi-year efforts under its Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative to provide policy-relevant guidance for education decisionmakers in a number of policy 'domains' (including areas such as workforce development; school finance; teachers; management information systems; equity and inclusion; and student assessment).
 
This analysis of ICT/education policies under the SABER-ICT research initiative suggests that there is a set of eight common themes which are, in various ways, typically addressed in such documents. The specific related policy guidance related to each theme often differs from place to place, and over time, as do the emphasis and importance ascribed to this guidance. Nevertheless, some clear messages emerge from an analysis of this collected database of policy documents, suggesting some general conventional wisdom about 'what matters most' from the perspective of policymakers when it comes to technology use in their education systems, and how this changes as ICT use broadens and deepens.
 
It should be noted that what appears to matter most to policymakers, at least according to the official policy documents that they draft and circulate related to ICT use in education, may not in fact be what *actually* matters most from the perspectives of students, teachers, school leaders, parents and local communities, politicians, local industry, academics, researchers and other various key stakeholders and beneficiaries.

Whether one agrees with apparent policy intent or not, being able to identify such intent can be a catalyst for important discussions and analysis:
 
Is this really what's most important?
Does this policy rhetoric match our on-the-ground reality?
If not:
What can or should be done?
 
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Edtech and MOOC Times in China

Michael Trucano's picture
The Chinese word for MOOC is ... MOOC
The Chinese word for MOOC is ... MOOC

If you want to see the future of online education, lots of people will tell you to head out to Silicon Valley or New York City or Cambridge (either of them) or London -- or to some other ('highly developed') place that tends to be written about by the (English-speaking) press. Fair enough: You can find lots of cool stuff going on in such locations.

I tend to think that it can be even more interesting to talk with local groups and people exploring 'innovation at the edges', especially those who are trying to solve educational challenges in places outside of the 'highly developed industrialized economies' of North America and Europe, Australia and Japan. If you believe that some of the most interesting innovations emerge at the edges, talking with NGOs, start-ups and companies in places like Nairobi or Cape Town, Mumbai or Bangalore, Jakarta or Karachi, who are trying to address educational needs, contexts and challenges of a different nature and magnitude than one finds in, say, Germany or Canada or Korea, can be pretty eye-opening. Observing what is happening in 'developing countries' -- where, after all, most of the world lives -- can provide a quite different perspective on what the 'future of education' might look like. This is especially the case in places where people are not trying to port over educational applications, content and experiences developed e.g. for desktop PCs and laptops, but are rather pursuing a mobile first approach to the use of technologies in education.

If you want to get a glimpse of what the (or at least "a") future of online education might look like in much of the world, you might want to direct your gaze to consider what's happening in a place that combines attributes from, and shares challenges with, education systems in both 'highly developed' and 'less developed' countries, somewhere with a significant urban population as well as large populations in rural areas. A place, in other words, like ... China.

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More comments on using the Internet to connect students and teachers around the world for 'virtual exchanges'

Michael Trucano's picture
connecting
connecting
A few years ago I was visiting a high school in central Russia and stopped by a chemistry class near the end of the day. It looked, more or less, like a chemistry class that one might see in many places around the world: kids in white lab coats pouring stuff into beakers, taking measurements and scribbling results on their notepads (and then doing the same thing again, and again).

The students were hurrying to collect their data so that they could compare them with other groups in the class -- and, it turned out, with the results 'from Toronto'. 'Toronto?' I asked, a little confused. 'What do you mean?'

I was told that the class was linked via Skype to a chemistry class in a high school outside Canada's largest city, which was doing the exact same experiment. 'Go have a look', one of the Russian kids said, nodding his head toward a computer monitor on a nearby table that showed a row of beakers much like those on the tables near me. The Russian student turned on the nearby microphone, called out a name ... and two heads popped up on the screen, attached to bodies halfway around the world. The students greeted each other, made a quick joke about the Maple Leafs and Ak Bars (the respective local hockey teams), and then started discussing the experiment.

The teacher later told me that she had been communicating with teachers in other countries whom she had found on the Internet and had been using Skype for about a year to connect to some of their classrooms, in order to demonstrate to her kids how science is really a global language, and how important it is to share your findings with the whole world. The local education officials who were with me on the school tour got very excited about all of this -- they had never seen such a thing. Yes, when I think about it, it is pretty neat, the teacher responded. Despite the occasional communication problem or technical glitch, however, her students really didn't really think this was a very big deal. Many of them were used to playing videogames with kids in other countries over the Internet already, she said, and to them this was in some ways just more of the same.

A post on the EduTech blog last week offered ten comments, questions and perspectives on connecting students and teachers around the world to each other to facilitate such 'virtual exchanges'. Here are ten more:

[As I noted when presenting the earlier list: I don't pretend to be an 'expert' on this stuff -- although I have learned from many folks whom I think probably deserve such a label) -- and no doubt there is at least one potential exception to every rule of thumb or guideline or piece of advice I present below. As with the earlier list, I make no claims to comprehensiveness; some important things are no doubt discussed incompletely, and others perhaps not at all. That said, hopefully there is something here that some of you might find useful -- or which provokes you in useful ways.]
 
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Using the Internet to connect students and teachers around the world for 'virtual exchanges'

Michael Trucano's picture
technology at the middle of a human connection
technology at the middle
of a human connection

Almost twenty years ago, the World Bank president was scheduled to visit some schools in Uganda. Around that time, the Bank was exploring the possibility of investing in videoconferencing to connect its offices, and those of its counterparts in government ministries, to each other as a way to promote more regular dialogue (and, it is probably worth noting, to save some travel costs as a result).

Wouldn't it be excellent, Jim Wolfensohn asked, if we could somehow connect these kids in Uganda to schools back in the United States in some way using the Internet so that they could talk to each other and exchange ideas -- can this be done?

A World Bank colleague (who was soon to become my boss) said, 'yes sir, absolutely, we can do this.' At the time, it turned out that he actually had no idea how to get this done ... but he and a few other bright people eventually figured it out, the schools were connected, and Ugandan and American kids talked with each other via video in real time, more or less successfully. (Videochatting over the Internet back in 1996/1997 was an often frustrating endeavor, but, given enough energy and more than a little luck, it did -- kind of, sort of, sometimes -- work.) Out of this small 'success' was born the 'school-to-school initiative', which soon was renamed the 'World Links for Development' program and which over the next decade worked with ministries of education in 20+ middle and low countries around the world to help connect schools, teachers and students to the Internet -- and to each other.

Obviously, much has changed from 1996 to 2015. Information and communication technology itself has, of course, changed dramatically: There is more of it; it is more powerful; it is faster; it is cheaper; it is available to many more people; and many more people know how to, and do, use it as part of their daily lives. Just because the tools to make connections between teachers and learners across national borders have improved a lot, however, doesn't mean that it is easy to actually make and sustain such connections over time in ways that are useful -- and sometimes even exciting.

Because of my experience with World Links (and a number of other similar efforts), I am often approached by groups looking (to quote from one related representative email inquiry) to 'connect teachers and students around the world in order to engage in enriching collaborative learning projects together to promote global peace and understanding and develop 21st century skills and competencies'. To the extent it might be of interest to anyone (and just possibly to save myself and others the time it takes to meet to discuss such things in person or over email), I thought I'd share some hard-won lessons and perspectives about what seems to work (and what doesn't) when it comes to connecting teachers and students around the world to each other so that they can achieve whatever it is they hope to achieve as a result of such connections.

I don't pretend to be an 'expert' on this stuff (although I have learned from many folks whom I think probably deserve such a label), and no doubt there is at least one potential exception to every rule of thumb or guideline or piece of advice I present below. The list of things discussed here  makes no claims to comprehensiveness. That said, hopefully there is something here that some of you might find useful -- or which provokes you in useful ways.

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Prizes, literacy and innovations in education

Michael Trucano's picture
an innovation supporting a revolution?
an innovation supporting a revolution?

"Innovation!"

The buzz around this buzzword in education (the need for it, the celebrations of it, the challenges in catalyzing it) continues to get louder and louder, and the word itself seems to get invoked with increasing (almost de facto) frequency as part of discussions about the need for change.

Indeed:

How are we to meet and overcome many of the pressing, endemic, and sometimes seemingly intractable challenges facing learners, educators, education policymakers and education systems around the world if we aren't being innovative in how we define (and redefine) our problems -- and in how we propose to go about solving them?

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There are many groups, events and activities that seek to document, share knowledge about, analyze and assess various 'innovations in education' around the world. The annual World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar, for example, focuses explicitly on this theme. R4D's Center for Education Innovations does as well, in partnership with many international groups, including UNICEF (which has a special initiative on 'innovations in education' and whose much-lauded Innovations unit is for many of us a model for excellence within the international donor and aid community). The OECD's widely-read report last year on Measuring Innovations in Education seeks to offer "new perspectives to address th[e] need for measurement in educational innovation through a comparison of innovation in education to innovation in other sectors, identification of specific innovations across educational systems, and construction of metrics to examine the relationship between educational innovation and changes in educational outcomes."

Some observers may feel that this explicit focus on 'innovation in education' is overblown. We don't fund a lot of things sufficiently that we already know work, why don't we first concentrate on that stuff? Others may note that some 'innovations' in education promoted today have actually been around for decades, and thus perhaps no longer really qualify as 'innovations'. Sometimes the only 'innovation' in a particular 'new' approach is to utilize some new technology to do pretty much exactly what was done before, but now 'digitally', and in a way requiring a power cable or batteries. (I am not too sure that much of these thigns are really all that 'innovative', but many people who keep sending me related proposals seem to be convinced that they are.) Still others detect in many discussions around the need for 'innovation in education' the guiding hand of 'corporate education reformers' and/or of technology vendors with products to sell, and, as a result of past experiences, ideological leanings, an inherent tendency towards skepticism or a satisfaction with the status quo, and/or political calculus, reflexively push back (if not indeed recoil).

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'Innovations in education' are about much more than just technology use, of course -- but there is also no denying that new information and communications technologies (ICTs) of various sorts continue to enable and catalyze many of the innovations that are being explored in the sector, whether they relate to e.g. teacher training; assessment; data collection and management; payment mechanisms; stakeholder engagement and transparency; or changes in the teaching and learning processes themselves; and whether they originate in the public, non-profit or corporate sectors (or even, as for example is the case of distributed communities of people working together to help build new software or educational content in ways that are 'free' or 'open', out of no traditional or easily definable 'sector' at all).

Sometimes the ICTs are hard to miss (as is the case with Uruguay’s pioneering Plan Ceibal), and sometimes they are behind the scenes (innovative low cost private schooling schemes like those pioneered by groups like Bridge Academies, for example, depend heavily on the use of ICTs to promote efficiency and cut costs), but increasingly they are there. Many traditional groups active in advocating for funding efforts to help end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity (the twin goals of the World Bank) are increasingly challenged to identify, make sense of and support the diffusion of 'innovations in education' in ways that are useful and efficient and cost-effective – and potentially, from time to time, even transformative.

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