For the last year or so, we have been collecting policy documents related to ICT use in education from around the world, with a specific interest in trying to document policy intent in developing countries, especially in East Asia. This is one component of a larger initiative at the World Bank called Systems Approach for Better Education Results, or SABER. As part of our SABER-ICT project, we are trying to help policymakers as they attempt to assess and compare their own policies against those of comparator countries around the world. Here's a very real scenario:
An education minister approaches the World Bank and asks for help in formulating an 'ICT in education' policy, in preparation for what is intended to be a large scale investment in educational technologies. She asks us:
What might be important to include in such a policy?
In the decade since the term 'open education resources' was formally identified and adopted by UNESCO, related "teaching, learning or research materials that are in the public domain or released with an intellectual property license that allows for free use, adaptation, and distribution" have been slowly but surely creeping into mainstream use in many education systems around the world. North America has recently seen prominent announcements about projects to provide free, online open textbooks in British Columbia and California, following similar sorts of headlines out of Poland earlier in the year. In June, the so-called 'Paris Declaration' [pdf] was released as part of a prominent international effort both to "increase government understanding of the significance of open education resources and to encourage more governments to support the principle that the products of publicly funded work should carry such licenses." In conversations with education ministries in many low and middle income countries over the past year, I have seen a marked increase in the interest in exploring the relevance of the 'OER movement' to national efforts to procure and develop digital learning resources. Traditional educational publishers have been monitoring such efforts closely, identifying both potential threats to existing business models, and in some cases, ingredients for potentially new business models as well.
How might we be able to track related initiatives around the world?
ICT-related procurements in the education sector, especially large scale ones, are not easy. A recent World Bank Internal Evaluation Group report noted that "ICT procurement has been highlighted as a major implementation constraint in several country and regional portfolio reviews and is a critical dimension of design." Rapid changes in technology mean that many ministries of education have a hard time keeping up with what's current in the market, let alone what might be coming next.
Even in places where anti-corruption measures are well considered and implemented, government auditors and external watchdog groups may be challenged to identify dodgy practices in some ICT-related areas. (Have you ever read the fine print on large scale bandwidth contracts for schools? Such things are often not for the feint of heart.) It is not unknown to hear whisperings about vendors -- or consultants close to them -- providing 'assistance' of various sorts in writing a request for proposals (or certain technical specs that appear in such RFPS), and of course vendors often hope that their showcase pilot projects may inspire ministries of education to think in certain ways about what is possible, and even desirable. For many ministries of education, the line between 'influence' and 'undue influence' in such cases can be very clear in some circumstances, but rather hazy in others.
As part of a very interesting Q&A period after a presentation at the World Bank a few years ago, mention was made about some of the challenges faced in a state in southern India which was exploring whether so-called thin client solutions might be worth considering in its schools. Essentially, the issue was this: Traditional practice when procuring computers for schools had focused on ensuring that each computer met a defined set of minimum technical specifications. In an alternative, 'thin client' set-up, it was possible to use workstations that had less robust specifications, provided they were connected to a powerful server whose processing power substitutes for that of the client computer. To oversimplify:
[-] 'traditional' approach: lots of pretty powerful computers
[-] 'alternative' approach: lots of relatively underpowered computers, connected to one very powerful computer
The point here is not to imply that one type of arrangement is on its face better or worse. Rather, it is to highlight that, if you write an RFP in a certain way -- in our example here, requiring that *every* computer meet a certain relatively high technical specification (processing speed, hard drive size, etc.) -- you may exclude proposals that feature non-traditional or 'alternative' or new approaches.
One way around this is to put more emphasis on functional specifications, rather than technical specifications, in certain components of your RFP. Not sure what this means in practice? When discussing such issues with ministries of education, I often point to an RFP at the heart of a procurement process in the U.S. state of Maine as a way to highlight an approach to procurement that is, at least in terms of most of the places where the World Bank works helping to advise education leaders, rather rare. While I am certainly no procurement expert -- thankfully we have plenty of very good ones at the World Bank to whom I can refer people -- I offer the comments below based on many discussions with ministries of education about their challenges in this regard, in case doing so might be of any interest.
The World Bank is currently working with a few countries that are planning for the procurement of lots of digital learning materials. In some cases, these are billed as 'e-textbooks', replacing in part existing paper-based materials; in other cases, these are meant to complement existing curricular materials. In pretty much all cases, this is happening as a result of past, on-going or upcoming large scale procurements of lots of ICT equipment. Once you have your schools connected and lots of devices (PCs, laptops, tablets) in the hands of teachers and students, it can be rather useful to have educational content that runs on whatever gadgets you have introduced into to help aid and support teaching and learning. In this regard, we have been pleased to note fewer countries pursuing one of the prominent worst practices in ICT use in education that we identified a few years ago: "Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware."
At least initially, many education authorities in middle- and low-income countries seem to approach the large-scale procurement of digital learning materials in much the same way that they viewed purchases of textbooks in the past. On its face, this is quite natural: If you have tried and tested systems in place to buy textbooks, why not use them to buy 'e-textbooks' as well? (We'll leave aside for a moment questions about whether such systems to procure textbooks actually worked well -- that's another discussion!) As with many things that have to do with technology in some way, things become a little more complicated the more experience you have wrestling with them.
Most likely, it will largely look like the school of today -- but that doesn't mean it should. Few will deny that it will most likely, and increasingly, contain lots of technology. Some may celebrate this fact, others may decry it, but this trend appears inexorable. To what extent will, or should, considerations around technology use influence the design of learning spaces going forward?
Of course, with the continued rise of online 'virtual' education, some schools don't (or won't) look like traditional 'schools' at all. Various types of structured or semi-structured learning already take place as part of things that we consider to be 'courses', even if sometimes such things don't conform to some traditional conceptions of what a 'course' is or should be. The massive online open course (or MOOC) in artificial intelligence offered by Stanford has received much recent attention, but the phenomenon is not necessarily new (even if its current exemplars are marked by many characteristics that are indeed new, or much more developed, than those previously to be found in, for example, large 'distance learning' courses).
Let's leave aside the case of the 'virtual school' for a moment and assume that there will continue to be a need for a physical space at which students and educators will gather and interact. (Such places may be access points to virtual education, or featured various types of so-called 'blended learning', where face-to-face interactions are complemented by interactions in the virtual world -- or vice versa.) Indeed, let's assume, for our purposes here, that the school as a concept will presumably be along for many decades to come, and that it will have a physical representation of some sort. What might such a school look like, especially in the era of ICTs?
Last year on this blog, I asked a few questions (eLearning, Africa and ... China?) as a result of my participation in a related event in Dar Es Salaam where lots of my African colleagues were ‘talking about China’, but where few Chinese (researchers, practitioners, firms, officials) were present. This year's eLearning Africa event in Benin, in contrast, featured for the first time a delegation of researchers from China, a visit organized by the International Research and Training Centre for Rural Education (INRULED), a UNESCO research center headquartered at Beijing Normal University (with additional outposts at Baodin, Nanjing and Gansu). Hopefully this is just the beginning of a positive trend to open up access to knowledge about what is working (and isn’t working) related to ICT use in education in places in rural China that might more resemble certain situations and contexts in many developing countries than those drawn from experiences in, for example, Boston or Singapore (or from Shanghai and Beijing, for that matter). Establishing working level linkages between researchers and practitioners (and affiliated institutions) in China and Africa, can be vital to helping encourage such knowledge exchanges.
What guidance is there for countries across Africa that are 'computerizing' their schools (or planning to do so) to help ensure that teachers know how to use ICTs productively?
To help provide some answers to this and related questions, the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (IICBA) recently released its ICT-enhanced teacher standards for Africa (ICTeTSA), the result of a multi-study and consultation process with 29 countries across the continent. By releasing this document, UNESCO-IICBA doesn't meant to advocate that developing ICT-related competencies and skills be the highest priority for African teachers -- there are certainly many other more pressing and immediate concerns with the teacher corps in many African countries. It does, however, note that a teacher education and development program will not be complete if it does not address the use of ICTs by teachers, now and in the future. Across Africa, teachers are core to the educational process, and ICTs are become more and more relevant in many educational contexts.
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.
Drawing insights from his readings of a few evaluations of technology use (one in Nepal[PDF] and one in Romania) he notes that, at quick glance, some large scale implementations of educational technologies are, for lack of a more technical term, rather a 'mess':
"The reason I call this a mess is because I am not sure (a) how the governments (and the organizations that help them) purchased a whole lot of these laptops to begin with and (b) why their evaluations have not been designed differently – to learn as much as we can from them on the potential of particular technologies in building human capital."
Three members of the team at IDB that led the OLPC Peru evaluation have responded ("One Laptop per Child revisited") in part to question (b) in the portion of Berk's informative and engaging post excerpted above. I thought I'd try to try to help address question (a).
First let me say: I have no firsthand knowledge of the background to the OLPC Peru project specifically, nor of the motivations of various key actors instrumental in helping to decide to implement the program there as it was implemented, beyond what I have read about it online. (There is quite a lot written about this on the web; I won't attempt to summarize the many vibrant commentaries on this subject, but, for those who speak Spanish or who are handy with online translation tools, some time with your favorite search engine should unearth some related facts and a lot of opinions -- which I don't feel well-placed to evaluate in their specifics.) I have never worked in Peru, and have had only informal contact with some of the key people working on the project there. The World Bank, while maintaining a regular dialogue with the Ministry of Education in Peru, was not to my knowledge involved in the OLPC project there in any substantive way. The World Bank itself is helping to evaluate a small OLPC pilot in Sri Lanka; a draft set of findings from that research is currently circulating and hopefully it will be released in the not too distant future.
That said, I *have* been involved in various capacities with *lots* of other large scale initiatives in other countries where lots of computers were purchased for use in schools and/or by students and/or teachers, and so I do feel I can offer some general comments based on this experience, in case it might of interest to anyone.
This week we are looking at two sets of new reports that provide insights into the area of 'mobile learning' -- especially the use of handheld devices like mobile phones to help meet a variety of educational objectives. Earlier this week we devoted a post to twelve new reports from UNESCO that provide a broad overview of what is happening in different regions of the world in this area. Shaping the Future – Realizing the potential of informal learning through mobile [pdf], which was released at last week's eLearning Africa event in Benin, provides a nice complement to the UNESCO working paper series. Whereas the UNESCO reports collectively provide some very useful insights on the supply side, surveying notable 'm-learning' programs currently underway around the world, Shaping the Future examines the demand side of the equation:
"In late 2011, researchers went into four very different emerging markets – Ghana, Morocco, India and Uganda – and asked 1,200 people (aged 15-24) about their day-to-day lives, their ambitions, their education, the way they use mobile now and how mobile could help them achieve their aspirations in the future. At the same time, over 250 young people from those countries took part in detailed focus group discussions where, with great generosity, they shared their hopes, worries and beliefs with us."