Since 2009, the World Bank's EduTech blog has attempted to "explore issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit education in developing countries".
While the 30+ posts in 2014 spanned a wide range of topics, a few themes emerged again and again. The emerging relevance and use of mobile phones (in various ways and to various ends) in the education sector continued to be a regular area of discussion, as were efforts to collect (more, better) data to help us understand what is actually happening around the world related to technology use in education, with a specific interest in circumstances and contexts found in middle and low income 'developing' countries.
While technology use is typically considered a characteristic of more 'advanced' countries and education systems, the EduTech blog deliberately sought in 2014 to complicate this belief and bias a bit by looking at efforts specifically meant to be relevant (and which were in some cases indigenous) to some of the 'least advanced' places in the world.
Before getting on to this year's 'top ten' list, a few reminders (which might be familiar to some of you who have read the earlier annual EduTech blog round-ups: I've copied some of this verbatim):
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 that might be of interest.
These blog posts should not be mistaken for peer-reviewed research or World Bank policy papers (although some of the content may later find its way into such publications). The views expressed on the EduTech blog are those of the author(s) alone, and not those of the World Bank. (In other words: Blame the guy who wrote them, and not his bosses or institution, for anything you find inaccurate or disagreeable here.)
The blog itself is animated by a belief that, by 'thinking aloud in public', we can try (in an admittedly very modest but hopefully useful way) to open up conversations about various themes to wider audiences, sharing emerging thinking and discussions on topics that often have been, and regrettably often remain, discussed largely 'behind closed doors' within small circles of people and institutions.
Last month saw the release of the latest annual Survey of ICT use in Brazilian Schools. Now in its fourth year, this initiative from Brazil's Center of Studies on Information and Communication Technologies (or CETIC, to use its acronym in Portuguese) is emerging as a model for how many other countries are considering conducting -- and funding -- regular data collection activities related to the increasing availability and use of various educational technologies within their education systems. The survey results, as well as a number of accompanying essays, are presented in one volume [pdf] in both Portuguese and English.
In addition to offering a current ‘snapshot' of what's happening in schools, now that four years of data have been collected related to a number of common themes, the survey finds that some trends are becoming apparent. One trend which will come as no surprise to those who know Brazil is that there are some significant variations in many data by region. (Whereas municipal Rio de Janiero is in many regards a leader in educational technology use in South America, for example, the practical reality of ICT use in schools in northern and northeastern Brazil is much different.)
Some high level findings from this most recent survey:
Schools in urban areas have an average of 19 computers, serving an average of just over 650 students. Most of these are in administrative offices and dedicated computer labs. While classroom and mobile access are growing quickly, with 30% of teachers reporting that classrooms are now the main venue for computer use in their school, labs remain the main point of access to computing facilities overall. (For what it's worth, almost half of Brazilian households report having a computer.)
95% percent of schools with computers are connected to the Internet (no word if any computer-less schools are connected!), although the speed of these connections leaves more than a little to be desired: Only 39% of schools meet the minimum target of 2 Mbps for schools in Brazil.
Almost half of public school teachers with their own laptops brought them to school, and most professional development related to technology use for teachers is a result of their own efforts (and thus not the result of government training programs).
For the first time, teachers were surveyed on the reasons behind their use of digital teaching and learning resources, and it appears that most of this use is self-motivated (i.e. a result of personal choice by teachers, and not something mandated, or necessarily even encouraged, by official education authorities). As the report states, "The ICT Education survey presents a scenario of relative autonomy for teachers in terms of educational content, given that the proportion of teachers that combine isolated contents such as images and texts is higher, surpassing access to video lectures and readymade presentations. The data indicate the importance of teacher initiative in the use of digital content in their teaching practices, as well as a concern for the demands of and benefits to students and colleagues. The reduced mention of institutionalized incentive – whether from the school administration or government authorities – indicates an important field for the development of public policies in the area."
As public policies in this area continue to evolve across Brazil, the actions of a number of private foundations in supporting innovative uses of educational technologies are helping to suggest possible ways forward. A notable group in this regard is the Sao Paulo-based Fundação Lemann. Denis Mizne, who heads the Lemann Foundation (to use its English language name, which is how I'll refer to it here), stopped by the World Bank back in September and shared emerging lessons from initiatives supported by his foundation and partners to translate and implement the Khan Academy for use in Brazilian schools.
Support for the Khan Academy is one of a number of projects from the Lemann Foundation that are exploring innovative answers to the question, "How can we make sure we are making the best use of the short time available for instruction within schools in Brazil?"
I have transcribed my notes from the Mizne talk below, together with some short explanatory background as might be relevant, in case they might be of interest to a wider audience than just those who attended the related presentation in person at the World Bank.
What's the impact of technology use on education, and on learning?
This simple question is rather difficult to answer, for a number of reasons. The quick answer -- that 'it depends on how you are using it, and to what end' -- may be unsatisfying to many, but is nevertheless accurate. That said, before you attempt to assess impact, it can be rather helpful first to understand how technologies are being used (or not used) in actual practice. And before you can do this, it is useful to know what is actually available for use today, as well as some of the key factors which may influence this use. Being able to compare this state of affairs with those found in other countries around the world can help you put this knowledge into some comparative context. (Are we typical, or an outlier? Are we ahead, or behind?)
Building on these efforts, it is expected that the first comprehensive global initiative will commence next year to regularly collect basic data related to technology use in education in *all* countries, big *and* small, rich *and* poor.
What sort of data might be important to collect, and what can be collected in practice?
Are the existing set of 'indicators' put forward by the UIS relevant and useful, or should they be reduced/enlarged/amended, based on what has been learned as part of efforts to collect and analyze them in recent years?
To help explore such questions, the UIS brought together a 'technical advisory panel' comprising an acronymic soup of organizations (including ADEA, ALECSO, CETIC, European Schoolnet, ITU, KERIS, OECD, TAGI, UNESCO, World Bank) earlier this month to review lessons from the first set of regional data collection efforts and to provide comments on, and suggest possible changes to, a consolidated list of related ICT/education 'indicators' and related questionnaire [pdf]. A new global survey of technology use in education, meant to be part of the regular, on-going data collection efforts of UIS in the education sector coordinated through national statistical offices, is due to launch in September 2015.
As we near the halfway point of the second decade of the 21st century, it is difficult not to marvel at all of the new technologies that have insinuated their way into daily lives of increasing numbers of people around the world. An upcoming publication from the World Bank, the World Development Report for 2016, will explore the Internet's "impact on economic growth, on social and economic opportunity, and on the efficiency of public service delivery". The EduTech blog regularly features and comments on specific projects and research about how the Internet (as well as related technologies, technology platforms and technology-enabled approaches) is being utilized to benefit education in developing countries around the world (as well as some instances where it is having no benefit at all).
As insightful as lessons from efforts like those related to using mobile phones to promote literacy in Papua New Guinea or providing all students with their own laptops in Uruguay might be, however, it is worthwhile to take a step (or two, or twenty) back in an attempt to see the outlines of the big(ger) picture. While it is true that groups around the world continue to implement innovative solutions to simulate Internet connectivity in places where it still doesn't exist in schools (through the caching of content on local servers or portable drives, for example), this is almost always a stop-gap measure until something better comes along, namely: reliable, robust, fast, inexpensive connections to the Internet.
On-the-ground, practical experiences with introducing and using new digital technologies in education systems around the world over the past two decades have led many to conclude that a 'second digital divide' has emerged, separating those with the skills and competencies to benefit from the use of these new technologies from those who are not benefitting, or not benefitting to the same extent. There can be little doubt that such a second divide exists, and that this divide, which is focused on the impact of technology use, may well be more difficult to bridge than the original 'digital divide', which related primarily to access to technology. While in the end we are rightly concerned with outcomes, and impacts, inputs still matter. With this in mind, and with full acknowledgement that connectivity is not an end in itself, but rather a means to a larger end, it might be worth asking:
How many schools around the world are connected to the Internet?
Until recently we had little hard (or even soft) data to help us answer what would appear, on its face, to be a rather simple question. Things are improving in this regard, however. As it stands today, your best source of insight in this regard is probably a document with the delightfully bureaucratic title, Final WSIS Targets Review: Achievements, Challenges and the Way Forward, that you may have missed when it appeared last June. In case it may be of interest (a former boss of mine used to say: We pay you to read this stuff so that we don't have to!), I thought I'd take a quick look at it here.
Many countries are investing enormous amounts of resources and effort to increase the availability of information and communication technologies (ICTs) across their education systems. So-called "1-to-1 computing" initiatives are increasingly prominent as part of such efforts. In some places these are important components of larger educational reform processes that seek to enable and support teaching and learning processes in ways both mundane and profound, traditional and (to adopt a common related buzzword) transformative. In other places these are largely 'hardware dumps', dropping in lots of shiny new devices with little attention to how to integrate them into teaching and learning practices. Common to both circumstances is often an intense belief that 'change' of some sort is necessary if students are to be able to thrive in increasingly technology-saturated, and technology-determined, global economies and societies. While the vision behind many large-scale 1-to-1 educational computing projects may be rather hazy or muddled, they do represent potent symbols for change in many countries. Even if the end goals are not always clearly defined, these efforts are in part a reflection of the belief, as proclaimed by one participant at this year global symposium, that "the status quo is more dangerous than the unknown".
To help set the stage for the discussions that were to follow, I opened the first session at this year's global symposium on ICT use in education by sharing a short series of general, broad observations about trends and lessons from 1-to-1 educational computing efforts around the world. In case they might be of any interest or utility to a wider audience, I thought I would share them here on the EduTech blog. These comments are not meant to be comprehensive in scope, nor are they meant to be focused (like so much of the research and rhetoric around 1-to-1 easily available on the Internet) on the experiences and realities of what 1-to-1 currently looks like in 'highly developed' countries (especially the United States).
Trends and Lessons from
1-to-1 Educational Computing Efforts Around the World:
Not too long ago I did some advisory work in a country considering the purchases of lots of educational tablets. Previously this country had funded lots of computer labs in schools, but they had experienced great difficulties in integrating these facilities into 'normal' teaching and learning activities. Buying devices as part of a '1-to-1 educational computing' initiative, it was felt, would get around many of the difficulties they had experienced with desktop computers in dedicated school computer labs. (I had my doubts about this.)
When observing a class, I noticed that all of the students had the same backpacks. "What's up with that?", I asked.
"Oh, it is very interesting," came the reply. "Those backpacks are purchased by the state for use by low income students. You can see from the fact that all of these backpacks are in the room that the children here are from very low socio-economic levels in society."
I then asked how many of the students had a phone in their backpack. All of them but one (who said he forgot his at home, someone else told me later it had been stolen) said that they did, and most students pulled them out to show me.
After asking a few follow-up questions about what they did with them (Facebook! and texting! were the two most common answers) and once class had resumed, I turned to my counterparts in government and observed that I also "found this all very interesting. You are going to buy lots of small computing devices for these students to use by spending public funds, in part because they are not using the devices that you purchased for them before. Despite the fact they are all poor enough to qualify to receive free government backpacks, all of their families have somehow found the money to buy them mobile phones, which they obviously all use quite heavily. Have you thought about taking advantage of this personal computing infrastructure that is already installed in the pockets and pocketbooks (or backpacks) of the students, and orienting some your investments for different purposes, like upgrading connectivity and/or spending more funds on content and/or training?"
I once did some advisory work for a country's finance ministry in advance of a national presidential election where the two leading candidates were both promising to buy lots of laptops for students if elected. The Minister of Finance wanted to be prepared to respond to what he considered to be a likely related request for lots (!) of money, whichever way the election turned out.
This was a bit strange for me, as I more typically help out ministries of education (or ministries of ICT) as they prepare projects for which they would be requesting funding (from the finance ministry and/or parliament). Instead of serving as a resource for the folks who prepare such funding proposals, my role in this case was instead to prep the folks who would get this funding request so that they would be better able to analyze and vet the request, whenever it inevitably arrived. (Within the World Bank, this is one of the roles I serve -- I had just never done this for a ministry of finance directly.)
While my governmental counterpart in this case was perhaps a bit out of the ordinary, this general scenario is one I see repeated in place after place. The devices themselves may change over time (first PCs, then laptops, now increasingly tablets, and soon [insert name of whatever comes next]), but this impulse to buy lots of shiny new devices and distribute them to schools (or directly to students or teachers or families) shows no sign of abating soon.
Let's say that you're a senior advisor in the ministry of education and you get word that your country's president is about to announce a big new project to 'buy every student her own tablet computing device so that she can develop the 21st century skills necessary to compete for jobs in the global economy'. Perhaps the leader of your country just returned from visiting a European country and was impressed to see all of the devices in the school that she visited. Maybe she was won over by the compelling marketing pitch of a particular vendor. Perhaps she has heard that the leader of the opposition is planning on calling for this sort of initiative and she wants to preemptively make it her own. Or maybe she just got her first iPad and was really impressed and has decided that everyone should have one of these things! (For what it's worth, these are all real life examples ... although I have deliberately mixed up the gender pronouns in at least one case.)
No matter the genesis of this newfound interest, you sense that, whatever you were working on last week/month/year will have to be put on hold, because your life is about to become
What should you do? What do you need to know? Has anyone else tried such a thing, and if so, what have they learned? Whom do you need to contact for information/advice, and what sorts of questions should you ask them -- and ask yourself?
MOOCs -- massively open online courses of the sort that can simultaneously enroll thousands, even tens of thousands, of learners simultaneously -- have been a hot topic of discussion for a few years now in both the worlds of education and 'international development' (and, for what it's worth, the subject of numerous related posts here on the World Bank's EduTech blog). Recent news that edX, one of the prominent MOOC platforms, is to start offering courses aimed at high school students suggests that the potential usefulness and impact of things like MOOCs may soon extend beyond the realm of higher education, out of which MOOCs originally emerged and where most related activity has occurred to date.
There is much (potentially) to be excited about here. Few would argue against having greater access to more learning opportunities, especially when those opportunities are offered for 'free', where there is latent unmet demand, and where the opportunities themselves are well constructed and offer real value for learners. As with MOOCs at the level of higher education, however, we perhaps shouldn't be too surprised if these new opportunities at the high school level are first seized upon *not* by some of the groups with the greatest learning needs -- for example, students in overcrowded, poorly resourced secondary schools in developing countries, or even students who would like a secondary education, but for a variety of reasons aren't able to receive one -- but rather by those best placed to take advantage of them. This has been largely been the case for initial adopters of MOOCs. (One of the first studies of this aspect of the 'MOOC Phenomenon', which looked at MOOCs from the University of Pennsylvania, found that students tended to be "young, well educated, and employed, with a majority from developed countries.")
As a practical matter, some of the first types of beneficiaries may, for example (and I am just speculating here), be homeschooling families in North America (while not necessarily comparatively 'rich' by local standards, such families need to be affluent enough to be able to afford to have one parent stay at home with the kids, and generally have pretty good Internet connectivity); international schools around the world (which can offer a broader range of courses to students interested in an 'American' education); and the families of 'foreign' students looking to apply to college in the United States (the edX course “COL101x: The Road to Selective College Admissions” looks, at least to my eyes, tailor made for certain segments of the population of learners in places like China, Korea, Hong Kong, etc.). In other words, at least in the near term, a Matthew Effect in Educational Technology may be apparent, where those who are best placed to benefit from the introduction of a new technology tool or innovation are the ones who indeed benefit from it the most.
Longer term, though, it is possible to view this news about movement of a major MOOC platform into the area of secondary education as one further indication that we are getting further along from the 'front end of the e-learning wave' (of which MOOCs are but one part) to something that will eventually have a greater mass impact beyond what is happening now in the 'rich' countries of North America and the OECD.
Learning with new technologies has of course been around for many decades but, broadly speaking, has not (yet) had the 'transformational' impact that has long been promised. "Gradually, then suddenly" is how one of Ernest Hemingway's characters famously describes how he went bankrupt. Might this be how the large scale adoption of educational technologies will eventually happen as well in much of the world?
f so, one credible potential tipping point may be a 'black swan' event that could push all of this stuff into the mainstream, especially in places where it to date has been largely peripheral: some sort of major health-related scare. (For those unfamiliar with the term, which was popularized by Nicholas Taleb, a 'black swan' is a rare event that people don't anticipate but which has profound consequences). One of the first ever posts on the EduTech blog, Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics, looked at some of what had been learned about how teachers and learners use new technologies to adapt when schools were closed in response to outbreaks involving the H1N1 influenza virus: the 'swine flu' that afflicted many in Mexico about six years ago; and an earlier outbreak of 'bird flu' in China. I have recently been fielding many calls as a result of the current outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa asking essentially, 'Can we do anything with technology to help our students while our schools are closed?', and so I thought it might be useful to revisit, and update, that earlier post, in case doing so might be a useful contribution to a number of related discussions are occurring.
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.
Based on my interactions with educational policymakers, and those who advise them, it seems to be a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that there is insufficient research into models of educational technology use, the impact of such use, and related costs. This is not to say that there is *no* useful research into the use of technology in education around the world, of course. Online tools like ERIC and SSRN can help you find some useful studies; the popular press and the blogosphere increasingly reference such work (sometimes even in ways where you can actually track down the referenced studies!); there are of course a lot of academic, industry and professional journals dedicated to the subject; and a healthy amount of 'grey' literature circulates informally (including stuff commissioned by companies that is never formally published). Firms also circulate 'white papers' touting the 'impact' of their products and services, something which I tend to place into its own separate category, given the commercial and marketing imperatives that often animate such work. That said, just because a lot of 'research' is produced doesn't mean that such research is helpful to meet the practical information demands of educational policymakers, planners and educators.
Even if you *are* of the opinion that there is indeed a lot of useful, policy- and practice-relevant research out there related to the use of technologies in education, the fact remains that most of our collective knowledgebase has been constructed as a result of studying and attempting to learn from experiences in 'highly developed' (OECD) countries. While there is always danger when trying to draw generalized lessons from a research study that examines a specific context, it would seem reasonable to me that the difficulties when looking to draw lessons from experiences in Quebec that might be relevant to Kansas or Canberra pale in comparison to those when trying to extend such lessons to policymakers making decisions which will affect students and teachers in places like Quito or Kampala -- let alone rural Cambodia.
Thankfully, there are a number of promising moves afoot which hope to direct more energy and resources to investigate issues and circumstances of relevance to those exploring the use of ICTs in education in middle and low income learning environments and contexts around the world. (As such efforts kick off, and especially as related studies emerge, we would hope to feature them on the EduTech blog.) Until we start to see results from these sorts of efforts, however, the practical reality is that, in most cases, policymakers in middle and low income countries who wish to draw lessons 'from the research' in order to inform their policymaking related to potential educational technology initiatives will continue to try to contextualize results from research in higher income countries in the attempt to divine what lessons (if any) might be relevant to their own circumstances, even in places where contexts for use and typical use cases may be quite different.
A previous EduTech blog post, "Evaluating the Khan Academy", explores some of the lessons that have emerged as a result of research by SRI into the use of Khan Academy in a number of schools in Northern California. For those who don't know it: The Khan Academy is a widely known and much celebrated educational website which features thousands of short video tutorials on educational topics, as well as linked sets of over 100,000 practice problems and a 'personal learning dashboard'. Policymakers from a number of countries have approached the World Bank for specific advice and guidance on how they might make use of Khan Academy resources within their schools, and during the course of related conversations (some of which were catalyzed by a talk given by SRI's Robert Murphy at the World Bank earlier this year, which was discussed in a subsequent blog post) we have passed along and discussed the Research on the Use of Khan Academy in Schools published by SRI -- as well as a report that appeared a few months ago from EDC that looked at the use of Khan Academy in Chile. While individual lessons and insights drawn from an analysis of the use of Khan Academy content at sites examined in the SRI and EDC reports may or may not be more broadly generalizable to other contexts, examining the various usage models documented and explored in those studies may help raise *questions* that might be relevant to educators and policymakers who work in other contexts.
What are some useful questions that policymakers in middle and low income countries might ask as they attempt to contextualize insights from the use of the Khan Academy in California and Chile as part of their efforts to investigate and plan for the use of digital learning resources from the Khan Academy (and from other sources as well) within their own education systems?