When people think of projects around the world to blanket schools with low cost laptops, initiatives associated with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project often spring first to mind. On a country level, it is the example of Uruguay that is probably most drawing attention from around the world from people interested in learning about how exactly a country can go about providing computing resources to all of its students, and what might happen as a result. Indeed, Uruguay is increasingly a 'must visit' stop for education officials from countries planning for massive investments in technology use in their education systems for the first time, as well as from more 'advanced' countries who have not moved forward as quickly as has in attempting to utilize ICTs to transform the way educational activities are delivered and empower students and communities in new ways. (Just last month, the World Bank sponsored delegations from Armenia and Russia to visit the Plan Ceibal headquarters in Uruguay and learn firsthand about the Uruguayan experience from those who have been leading it.) There is another country whose experience is less well known around the world than Uruguay's, but which is every bit as interesting, but in many different ways: that of Portugal.
At an event last year in Uruguay for policymakers from around the world, a few experts who have worked in the field of technology use in education for a long time commented that there was, in their opinion and in contrast to their experiences even a few years ago, a surprising amount of consensus among the people gathered together on what was really important, what wasn't, and on ways to proceed (and not to proceed). Over the past two years, I have increasingly made the same comment to myself when involved in similar discussions in other parts of the world. At one level, this has been a welcome development. People who work with the use of ICTs in education tend to be a highly connected bunch, and the diffusion of better (cheaper, faster) connectivity has helped to ensure that 'good practices and ideas' are shared with greater velocity than perhaps ever before. Even some groups and people associated with the 'give kids computers, expect magic to happen' philosophy appear to have had some of their more extreme views tempered in recent years by the reality of actually trying to put this philosophy into practice.
That said, the fact that "everyone agrees about most everything" isn't always such a good thing. Divergent opinions and voices are important, if only to help us reconsider why we believe what we believe. (They are also important because they might actually be right, of course, and all of the rest of us wrong, but that's another matter!) Even where there is an emerging consensus among leading thinkers and practitioners about what is critically important, this doesn't mean that what is actually being done reflects this consensus -- or indeed, that this consensus 'expert' opinion is relevant in all contexts.
"Creemos que tenemos que desarrollar una política nacional para ayudar a guiar nuestros esfuerzos para utilizar las tecnologías de la información y comunicación (TIC) en la educación ¿Qué debería tomar en cuenta esta política?"
Esta es una pregunta que recibimos con frecuencia aquí, en el Banco Mundial. A veces, esta duda surge cuando un país está a punto de invertir una gran cantidad dinero para comprar computadoras para las escuelas, y hay un reconocimiento de que no hay ninguna política en funcionamiento para ayudar a guiar este esfuerzo. Otras veces, es el resultado de un reconocimiento de que no ha existido ninguna política, o simplemente ha existido poca orientación normativa en este ámbito a pesar de que mucho dinero se haya invertido (por ejemplo en la compra de computadoras para las escuelas);y esto no ha funcionado como se esperaba. Algunos países cuentan con políticas, a menudo políticas muy buenas,y ahora están tratando de "pasar al siguiente nivel", pero no están seguros de lo que esto significa exactamente, por lo que están buscando insumos externos, especialmente debido a la retos y oportunidades que representan los nuevos avances tecnológicos (Vemos otros escenarios posibles también, pero no los enumeraremos ahora).
Hay algunas maneras de ayudar a responder a esta pregunta.
Un enfoque consiste en intentar guiar a las autoridades a través de un proceso de consulta sistemático para la formulación de políticas relacionadas, y planificar para la implementación y uso de tecnologías en la educación, como parte de una formulación y planificación de políticas. Estas deben mirar con un criterio más amplio el desarrollo y objetivos de la educación, y luego tratar de investigar y articular con claridad cómo y dónde el uso de las TIC puede ayudar a alcanzar estos objetivos. Este es un proceso que, por ejemplo, fue parte del programa del Banco Mundial- World Links- hace más de una década, y que fue ampliado y formalizado a través del desarrollo y el uso de la Guía práctica TIC en la Educación para hacedores de políticas, planificadores y profesionales. Este trabajo fue apoyado por una serie de organizaciones (y ampliamente utilizado en toda Asia por la UNESCO como parte de su labor de asesoramiento en esta área).Por supuesto, no todos los procesos de planificación de políticas son tan sistemáticos y bien diseñados como los identificados por la Guía Práctica - muchos de ellos en la práctica, son más “ad hoc”.
Otra forma de responder a la pregunta, (y estos enfoques no son mutuamente excluyentes) es mostrar qué dicen otras políticas, siempre que podamos encontrarlas. Ya sea sistemático o ad hoc (o algún punto intermedio), hay un insumo que parece faltar en casi todos los procesos de desarrollo de políticas en TIC y educación en los que hemos participado. ¿No sería útil que existiera una base de datos global e integral de políticas TIC y Educación, de la cuál los países puedan inspirarse y realizar análisis comparativos basados en sus propias políticas relacionadas?
In most cases, in most places -- at least in most so-called 'developing countries' -- the use of computers and other ICTs in schools is in practice focused largely on the development of what is commonly referred to or understood as 'ICT or computer literacy'. In fact, in many low and even middle income countries, professed needs to develop 'market-relevant' things like keyboarding skills, a basic understanding of how to navigate computer GUIs and operating systems and a general facility with standard office applications inform some of the primary justifications for the roll-out of computers in schools.
In some such places (case #1), once you have become 'proficient' in using (e.g.) a word processor, the promotion of the development of 'ICT-related skills' stops. (You are now 'computer literate': Time to move along!)
In other places (case #2), there is no shortage of lofty rhetoric around the need to develop '21st century skills' through the use (in part) of ICTs, but if you look at how the equipment is actually being utilized, the reality of ICT use in case #2 is not terribly different in practice than what one sees in the first case.
That said, some people think that way basic ICT literacy is being promoted within many 'digital divide' initiatives in the education sector may over time actually impede progress toward the development of higher order ICT-related skills. This points to a phenomenon associated with the so-called 'Second Digital Divide' (related EduTech blog post), which (in the words of the OECD) "separates those with the competencies and skills to benefit from computer use from those without". For such people, a focus on developing only basic ICT literacy,
"We think we need to develop a national policy to help guide our efforts to use information and communication technologies [ICTs] in education. What should such a policy contain?"
This is a question we get not infrequently here at the World Bank. Sometimes this is in response to recognition that a country is about to spend a lot of money buying computers for schools, and there is a realization that there is no policy in place to help guide this effort. Other times it is a result of recognition that there has been no or little policy guidance in this area despite the fact that lots of money has been spent (for example) buying lots computers for schools -- and this hasn't worked out quite as well as hoped. Some countries have had policies in place -- sometimes quite good policies -- and they are now looking to 'move to the next level', but aren't exactly sure what that means, and so are seeking outside input, especially because of the challenges and opportunities offered by new technological developments. (We see other scenarios as well, but will stop listing them now.)
There are a few ways to help answer such a question.
One approach is to help guide policymakers through a systematic, consultative process to formulate and policies related to, and plan for, the deployment and use of educational technologies, as part of a wider policy formulation and planning process that looks at broader developmental and education goals, and then seeks to investigate and articulate how and where the use of ICTs can help meet these objectives. This is a process that was (for example) followed as part of the World Bank's World Links program a decade ago, and which was extended and formalized through the development and use of the ICT in Education Toolkit for Policymakers, Planners and Practitioners, which was supported by a number of organizations (and used extensively throughout Asia by UNESCO as part of its advisory work in this area). Of course, not all policy planning processes are as systematic and well laid out as that identified by the Toolkit -- many of them are, in practice, rather ad hoc.
Another way to answer the question (and these approaches aren't mutually exclusive) is to show people what other policies say, to the extent that you can find them. Whether systematic or ad hoc (or somewhere in between), there was input that seemed to us to be missing from pretty much every ICT/education policy development process in which we have been engaged. Wouldn't it be useful if there was a comprehensive global database of ICT/education policies from which countries could find inspiration and establish useful benchmarks for their own related policies?
Few would argue against the notion that the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC, originally referred to by many as the '$100 laptop project') has been the most high profile educational technology initiative for developing countries over the past half-decade or so. It has garnered more media attention, and incited more passions (pro and con), than any other program of its kind. What was 'new' when OLPC was announced back in 2005 has become part of mainstream discussions in many places today (although it is perhaps interesting to note that, to some extent, the media attention around the Khan Academy is crowding into the space in the popular consciousness that OLPC used to occupy), and debates around its model have animated policymakers, educators, academics, and the general public in way that perhaps no other educational technology initiative has ever done. Given that there is no shortage of places to find information and debate about OLPC, this blog has discussed it only a few times, usually in the context of talking about Plan Ceibal in Uruguay, where the small green and white OLPC XO laptops are potent symbols of the ambitious program that has made that small South American country a destination for many around the world seeking insight into how to roll out so-called 1-to-1 computing initiatives in schools very quickly, and to see what the results of such ambition might be.
The largest OLPC program to date, however, has not been in Uruguay, but rather in Peru, and many OLPC supporters have argued that the true test of the OLPC approach is perhaps best studied there, given its greater fealty to the underlying pedagogical philosophies at the heart of OLPC and its focus on rural, less advantaged communities. Close to a million laptops are meant to have been distributed there to students to date (902,000 is the commonly reported figure, although I am not sure if this includes the tens of thousands of laptops that were destroyed in the recent fire at a Ministry of Education warehouse). What do we know about the impact of this ambitious program?
What does it take to introduce e-books and e-readers into communities in low income countries -- and is this a good idea?
Judging by the increasing number of inquiries we receive here at the World Bank on this topic, we are not alone in asking such questions. If you want help in trying to answer these and related queries based on evidence from pioneers in this area, you will most likely find yourself at some point in contact with the folks at the Worldreader NGO. Co-founded by one of the former senior executives at Amazon, Worldreader is working with its partners to "bring millions of books to underserved children and families in the developing world". Jonathan Wareham, a professor at ESADE in Barcelona who serves on the Worldreader - Spanish Foundation Board and collaborates with the organization on various research activities into the use of e-readers and e-books, recently stopped by the World Bank to talk about what Worldreader is learning from its work in Africa.
Plaza Sésamo. Zhima Jie. Takalani Sesame. Galli Galli Sim Sim. Behind the various incarnations of 'Sesame Street' around the world stands the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit group committed to help children (and especially young children) develop literacy and numeracy skills, build the resilience they need to cope with tough times, establish an early foundation for healthy habits, and help fostering respect and understanding.
Sesame claims that it produces the "most studied TV progam in history". While I don't have hard data to support this assertion, I can't even imagine a potential competitor to this claim. Long a touchstone for many of us who work in the educational technology field, I would add that it is probably the most studied educational technology initiative in history as well.
Recently a group from Sesame spoke to a packed conference room at the World Bank about what it does around the world, and how it does it. It was an entertaining presentation -- videos of small children cavorting with the likes of Elmo and Kami do tend to engage people in ways that, say, arguments about multivariate regression analysis do not. The event was organized by the World Bank's early childhood development (ECD) group, but attracted many people from our more diffuse 'EduTech' thematic community as well. This led me to wonder: What can those of us of work on educational technology initiatives within large institutions like the World Bank learn from how Sesame Workshop operates?
While attempting to answer this question for myself, I came away from the entertaining and thought-provoking presentation with quick notes on five core 'lessons' to consider:
As part of my duties at the World Bank, I talk with lots (and lots!) of people and groups. Mostly, I talk to people within the World Bank and in other development institutions (this is part of my official responsibilities, to support the work of such people as a 'subject expert'); to our counterparts in governments around the world (we say 'clients' but I am not a big fan of this formulation); and with lots of consultants and practitioners*.
(*Some of you may quickly identify a pretty important group that is missing here: 'users', or beneficiaries. This is a pretty big, if not fundamental, omission, in my view. Talking with practitioners is a sort of proxy for talking with end users and beneficiaries ... I guess ... but certainly an insufficient and inadequate one. Mistaking those who pay for, and those who implement, development programs with those who actual 'use' or benefit from them is a recipe for potential disaster ... perhaps a topic for a future blog post.)
I also speak with lots of companies. Sometimes I am obliged to do this, because (to be blunt, and honest) the company is 'important' and politically well connected. Sometimes I really want to do this, because the company is doing something quite new and/or cool, or is doing something quite well. (I should note that these things aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, of course.) I frequently talk with companies at the request of colleagues or counterparts in government ("these guys are telling us x and y ... should we believe them?"). I also do it to better understand what is happening in various markets; I often find that firms (as with NGOs) have a better sense of what is happening in government schools related to the use of technology than do ministries of education.
Occasionally I speak not to individual companies, but to large industry groups. Because presentations to these types of groups often occur behind 'closed doors' of various sorts, I thought I'd share here some of what I tell them, in case it might be of any interest. (One of the reasons that this blog exists is to try to open up certain conversations that typically occur behind closed doors to wider audiences.)
One of the fascinating benefits of working at a place like the World Bank is the exposure it offers to interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places that many other folks know little about. Small countries like Uruguay and Portugal, for example, are beginning to attract the attention of educational reform communities from around the world due to their ambitious plans for the use of educational technologies. Much is happening in other parts of the world as well, of course, especially in many countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The largest stand-alone World Bank education project to date that focused on educational technologies, for example, was the Russia E-Learning Support Project. Macedonia gained renown in many corners as the first 'wireless country', with all of that Balkan country's primary and secondary schools online since the middle of the last decade -- although other countries, like Estonia and the tiny Pacific island nation of Niue, also lay claim to versions of this title. (If you are looking for more information on the Macedonian experience, you can find it here and here [pdf]). Much less well known, however, is the related experience of the small country of Georgia, located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, where small laptops are being distributed to primary school students and where school leaving exams are now conducted via online computer-adaptive testing.