Syndicate content


The Matthew Effect in Educational Technology

Michael Trucano's picture
advantage to the ladies at the top
advantage to the ladies at the top

While I have no data to cite here (perhaps this is an idea that could be explored by an enterprising PhD student?), it is my strong suspicion, based on years of observation and work with groups introducing new technologies into education systems and communities in poor and middle income countries, that a 'Matthew Effect in Educational Technology' is observable -- and worth considering.

Just what is a 'Matthew Effect' -- and why should we care about it?

Almost a half-century ago, the sociologist Robert Merton observed (here's the original paper [pdf]) that famous scientists often get more credit for a research finding than a lesser (or un)known scientist does, even where the work of both scientists is very similar. He labeled this phenomenon the 'Matthew Effect', after a verse in the Bible (Book of Matthew 25:29) which roughly translates as 'the rich get richer'. In the words of the sociologist Daniel Rigbey, who wrote a book on the subject:

"Matthew effects tend to confer further advantages on the already-advantaged, other things equal. Of course, other things are never entirely equal. Multiple interacting factors are at play in a complex and connected world.  Nonetheless, more than forty years of research findings suggest that Matthew effects are real and potentially powerful determinants of social outcomes in their own right, and especially when they are not countervailed. We simply cannot understand the dynamics of social inequalities in the world today without taking Matthew effects seriously into account."

Following Merton, Keith Stanovich spoke about a Matthew Effect in an educational context, noting that early successes in developing reading skills usually lead to greater successes with reading -- and thus with learning other new skills that build on the existence of good reading skills going forward.

How does this relate to ICT use in education?

A different approach to scaling up educational technology initiatives

Michael Trucano's picture
the way most projects 'scale up' just might yield inequitable results
the way most projects 'scale up'
just might yield inequitable results

Much is made of the necessity to 'scale up' in international development circles. Here at the World Bank, a quick search on our web site reveals publications and conferences with titles like Scaling Up Knowledge Sharing for Development, Global Scaling up Rural Sanitation Project, Scaling Up Local & Community Driven Development [pdf], Directions in hydropower: Scaling up for development, Scaling Up Affordable Health Insurance, Scaling up School Feeding -- the list goes on and on (and on). 'Scaling up', it would appear, is a goal (and a challenge) across pretty much all development sectors. How can you achieve 'scale'?

It can be deceptively easy to propose a solution to a problem when you don't really understand the problem (especially if you think you do!). The 'failure' of many projects to introduce new technologies in education can, to some degree, be traced back to this simple truism. If you are pointed in the wrong direction, technology can help you move in that direction more quickly. To paraphrase the technologist Bruce Schneier (who was himself paraphrasing someone else): If you think technology can solve your education problems, then you don't understand the problems and you don't understand the technology. The solution lies in process and systems -- and people. Technology can help in all of these areas -- but first we need to make sure we understand what it really is that we need to do.

Surveying ICT use in education in five Arab States

Michael Trucano's picture

revisiting the past while looking to the futureWhen I was back in school, and long before I had come across names like Wilbur Schramm or Manuel Castells, I remember learning about the power of new information  and communication technologies to help change societies. Even from the (perhaps rather limited) perspective of someone growing up in a prairie state in the American Midwest, whether it was the role of pamphlets in the American Revolution or the more contemporary examples of audiocassettes in the Iranian revolution or photocopiers helping to spread samizdat culture and messages in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, it was clear that the emergence, adaptation and innovative uses of new 'ICTs' could help committed groups of people upend the existing status quo.

(Whether such 'upending' is a good thing or not depends, I guess, on your perspective, and the specific circumstances and context. Flip through the pages of UNESCO's Community radio handbook, for example, and you may well be inspired, but read a recent paper from a researcher at Harvard about the role of RTLM radio in the Rwandan genocide and you will be chilled to the bone. Technology is a magnifier of human intent and capacity, as my friend Kentaro Toyama likes to say.)

More recently, the events of the 'Arab Spring' have been popularly attributed, in part, to the use of new ICTs and ICT tools like Twitter and SMS. Whether or not one agrees with this attribution (and about this there is much scholarly debate), there is no denying that rhetoric around 'ICTs' and the Arab Spring has increasingly marked and colored discussions about the use of educational technologies in many Arab countries. In announcing a recent report documenting technology use in education in the region, for example, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) begins by noting that, "Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, arguably the most significant ICT-assisted “learning” phenomena of the recent past, data from five countries provide a snapshot of ICT integration in education." It continues:

"Great strides have been made in the last decade to harness the power of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to help meet many development challenges, including those related to education. However, evidence shows that some countries in the Arab States continue to lag behind in fully implementing ICT in their education systems.
According to a UIS data analysis, which was based on a data collection process sponsored and conducted by the UNESCO Communication and Information Sector and the Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organization (TAG-Org), policies for the implementation and use of ICT in primary and secondary education systems have not necessarily translated into practice. This is revealed in the newly released data from five participating countries."

Results from this data analysis were recently published by UIS in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Education in Five Arab States: A comparative analysis of ICT integration and e-readiness in schools in Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Palestine and Qatar [pdf], one part of a larger multinational effort to collect and analyze basic data related to ICT use in education around the world (results from a similar exercise in Latin America, also led by UIS, were featured on the EduTech blog last week; recent posts have also looked at related sorts of efforts in Europe and Central and West Asia).

Surveying ICT use in education in Latin America & the Caribbean

Michael Trucano's picture

¡más computadoras, por favor!Almost a decade ago, delegates from over 175 countries gathered in Geneva for the first 'World Summit on the Information Society',  a two-part conference (the second stage followed two years later in Tunis) sponsored by the United Nations meant to serve as a platform for global discussion about how new information and communication technologies were impacting and changing economic, political and cultural activities and developments around the world. Specific attention and focus was paid to issues related to the so-called 'digital divide' -- the (growing) gap (and thus growing inequality) between groups who were benefiting from the diffusion and use of ICTs, and those who were not. One of the challenges that inhibited  discussions at the event was the fact that, while a whole variety of inequalities were readily apparent to pretty much everyone, these inequalities were very difficult to quantify, given the fact that we had only incomplete data with which to describe them. The Partnership on Measuring ICT for Development, an international, multi-stakeholder initiative to improve the availability and quality of ICT data and indicators, was formed as a result, and constituent members of this partnership set out to try to bridge data gaps in a variety of sectors. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) took the lead on doing this in the education sector, convening and chairing a Working Group on ICT Statistics in Education (in which the World Bank participates, as part of its SABER-ICT initiative) to help address related challenges. At the start, two basic questions confronted the UIS, the World Bank, the IDB, OECD, ECLAC, UNESCO, KERIS and many other like-minded participating members of the working group (out of whose acronyms a near-complete alphabet could be built):

What type of data should be collected related to ICT use in education?

Not to mention:

What type of data could be collected,
given that so little of it was being rigorously gathered
across the world as a whole,
relevant to rich and poor countries alike,
in ways that permitted comparisons across regions and countries?

Comparing ICT use in education across all countries was quite difficult back then. In 2003/2004, the single most common question related to the use of ICTs in education I was asked when meeting with ministers of education was: What should be our target student:computer ratio? Now, one can certainly argue with the premise that this should have been the most commonly posed question (the answer from many groups and people soon became -- rather famously, in fact -- '1-to-1', e.g. 'one laptop per child'). That said, the fact that we were unable to offer globally comparable data in response to such a seemingly basic question did little to enhance the credibility of those who argued this was, in many ways, the wrong question to be asking. Comparing ICT use in education across all countries remains difficult today -- but in many regards, this task is becoming much easier.

Surveying ICT use in education in Europe

Michael Trucano's picture

igniting new approaches to learning with technologyOne consistent theme that I hear quite often from policymakers with an interest in, and/or responsibility for, the use of ICTs in their country's education system is that they want to 'learn from the best'. Often times, 'best' is used in ways that are synonymous with 'most advanced', and 'most advanced' essentially is meant to describe places that have 'lots of technology'. Conventional wisdom in many other parts of the world holds that, if you want to 'learn from the best', you would do well to look at what is happening in places like the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Singapore. (Great internal 'digital divides' of various sorts persist within some of these places, of course, but such inconvenient truths challenge generalizations of these sorts in ways that are, well, inconvenient.) Policymakers 'in the know' broaden their frame of reference a bit, taking in a wider set of countries, like those in Scandinavia, as well as some middle income countries like Malaysia and Uruguay that also have 'lots of technology' in their schools. Whether or not these are indeed the 'best' places to look for salient examples of relevance to the particular contexts at hand in other countries is of course a matter of some debate (and indeed, the concept of 'best' is highly problematic -- although that of 'worst' is perhaps less so), there is no question that these aren't the only countries with lots of ICTs in place (if not always in use) in their education systems.

What do we know about what is happening across Europe
related to the use of ICTs in schools?

The recently released Survey of Schools: ICT in Education Benchmarking Access, Use and Attitudes to Technology in Europe’s Schools provides a treasure trove of data for those seeking answers to this question. Produced by the European Schoolnet in partnership with the University of Liège in Belgium, with funding from the European Commission, the publication features results from the first Europe-wide survey of this sort across the continent in six years:

Surveying ICT use in education in Central and West Asia

Michael Trucano's picture

A is for Astana ...Technology use in schools at reasonably large scale began in many OECD countries in earnest in the 1980s and then accelerated greatly in the 1990s, as the Internet and falling hardware prices helped convince education policymakers that the time was right to make large investments in ICTs. In most middle and low income countries, these processes began a little later, and have (until recently) proceeded more slowly. As a result, it was only about ten years ago, as education systems began to adopt and use ICTs in significant amounts (or planned to do so), that efforts to catalog and analyze what was happening in these sets of countries began in earnest. UNESCO-Bangkok's Meta-survey on the Use of Technologies in Education in Asia and the Pacific, published in 2003, was the first notable effort in this regard. A trio of subsequent efforts supported by infoDev (Africa in 2007; the Caribbean in 2009; and South Asia in 2010) helped to map out for the first time what was happening in other regions of the world related to the use of ICTs in education. While the information in such regional reports can rather quickly become dated in some cases, given the pace of technological change, they still provide useful points of departure for further inquiry. In some other parts of the world, even less has been published and made available for global audiences about how ICTs are being used in education.

Information about developments in many of the countries of the Soviet Union, for example, has not, for the most part, been widely disseminated outside the region (indeed, for many within the region as well!). The Moscow-based UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE) has been perhaps the best 'one-stop shop' for information about ICT use in the region. Recent work by the Asian Development Bank has gone much further to help to fill in one of the most apparent 'blind spots' in our collective global understanding of how countries are using ICTs to help meet a variety of objectives within their formal education systems. ICT in Education in Central and West Asia [executive summary, PDF] summarizes research conducted over five years (2006-2011) in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, with shorter studies on Afghanistan, Armenia, Georgia, and Pakistan.

Some key findings from this work:

Debating MOOCs

Michael Trucano's picture

Three recent posts on MOOCs (MOOCs in Africa, Making Sense of MOOCs -- A Reading List & Missing Perspectives on MOOCs -- Views from developing countries) have generated a large amount of traffic and 'buzz' over the past week on the EduTech blog, and so we thought we'd interrupt our normal Friday publishing schedule to bring you one more.

Over the past month, the EduTech Debate site has been featuring posts and comments from authors exploring various issues and opportunities presented by the phenomenon of so-called Massive Online Open Courses. While perhaps it hasn't been a 'debate' per se, it has featured responses and reactions from the authors to each other's posts, and I thought I'd quickly highlight the conversation that has been occurring over there, in case you may have missed it and doing so might be useful.

Missing Perspectives on MOOCs -- Views from developing countries

Michael Trucano's picture
some different perspectives, perhaps? please?
some different perspectives, perhaps? please?

Excited discussions about 'MOOCs' are reaching a fever pitch in some quarters. Separating the hope from the hype related to the phenomenon known as Massive Open Online Courses, in which tens, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of students from around the world participate in (or at least register for) the same university course over the Internet, is not an easy task. There is, to be sure, much here to be potentially excited about.

That said, most of news (and hype) is coming out of North America, and the prominent perspectives on MOOCs are, to a great extent, coming out of North America as well. While voices from Silicon Valley and elite educational institutions in the United States (amplified by prominent media personalities) have been the loudest to date, a fair component of the 'hope' surrounding MOOCs has to do with their potential to improve educational opportunities for students in so-called 'developing countries'.

Trying to keep up with MOOC-related announcements and news stories, let alone all of the opinions on them and speculations on their future, could be a full time job. (I suspect it probably is a full time job for some people, actually. If you are interested in this sort of thing but don't have that much time, you may be interested in a recent EduTech post on Making Sense of MOOCs -- A Reading List.) Wander through this din of excitement, however, and you discover pockets of relative silence.

What are some of the emerging perspectives of key groups in developing countries related to MOOCs?

Making Sense of MOOCs -- A Reading List

Michael Trucano's picture
reading about MOOCs
reading about MOOCs

A few years ago I participated in a fascinating online course. I had earlier read a thought-provoking article called Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age by a Canadian academic named George Siemens, and was intrigued to stumble across references to a related online discussion that was taking place, led by Professor Siemens and another Canadian researcher named Stephen Downes. OK, to be honest, I am not sure that I actually participated in the course (and I wasn't actually sure if it was a course in the traditional sense ... although it was certainly a community), given that my 'participation' consisted of a haphazard scanning of emails and RSS feeds being generated by people whose were much more engaged in the effort than I was. That said, both the content and approach piqued my curiosity, and I spent enough time browsing through related materials that I was able to tell my boss with a straight face that I was doing some 'online learning'.

I saw Siemens speak at eLearning Africa, was suitably impressed, and later tried to figure out a way to bring him to the World Bank to talk about his work as part a new series we were trying to put together on 'eduradicals'. I was particularly interested in learning more about, and exposing colleagues to, the concept of a 'massive open online course', which (it turns out) was the label that was being applied to what Siemens and Downes (and a few thousand other people) had been engaged in. In this I rather spectacularly failed, as most people with whom I spoke thought that the whole enterprise I was trying to describe, while conceptually quite interesting, was unlikely to be of practical interest or relevance in the near term to the policymakers with whom we were engaged in developing countries. My failure in this instance was, I believe, more a consequence of my inability to articulate to my colleagues in a convincing way just what exactly the possibilities were of this 'connectivist' learning theory and of one a 'model' by which this theory might be explored and put into practice -- which was one of the first (and possibly the very first) MOOCs.

MOOCs in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture
those aren't moos you hear on the African horizon, but MOOCs
those aren't moos you hear on
the African horizon, but MOOCs


The excitement about the promise and potential of Massive Open Online Courses is white hot in many quarters. For those who aren't familiar with the phenomenon:

A MOOC is an online course, usually at the university level, offered for free over the Internet which aims for large-scale (some courses have enrolled over 100,000 students at a time), 'open' (anyone can join) participation over the Internet. 

Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, one of the largest and best-known MOOCs (the two other 'leaders in this space are Udacity and edX) stopped by the World Bank in late February to talk about what Coursera is doing, and learning. While MOOCs have enrolled students from developing countries pretty much from the start, there have not yet been many attempts to systematically include MOOCs as part of targeted education efforts in low income countries. What might such an attempt look like?

With support from the World Bank, a new pilot initiative in Tanzania is seeking to incorporate Coursera offerings as part of a broader initiative to help equip students with market-relevant IT skills. Employers in Tanzania complain that there is a mismatch of skills in the local labor market. Many jobs go unfilled because there are deficits of people with the relevant skills in the local market. There is a growing need for IT and ICT knowledge and skills necessary meet growing demand for technically skilled workers across Tanzanian corporations. For this and other reasons, Tanzania is trying to improve the quality of its higher education system. Currently a very small number of highly capable African students go abroad to meet their related educational and training needs. At the same time, Tanzania is hoping to improve its capacity to attract high caliber students from across the region to study at Tanzanian universities. What, then, to do?