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 approachis 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.
In recent chats with officials from [an un-named country], I learned of the desire of educational policymakers there to leap frog e-learning through m-learning. This made an impression on me -- and not only because it succinctly was able to encapsulate four educational technology buzzwords within a five-word "vision statement". In many ways, this encounter helped confirm my belief that a long-anticipated new era of hype is now upon us, taking firm root in the place where the educational technology and international donor communities meet, with "m-" replacing "e-" at the start of discussions of the use of educational technologies.
We have just completed three years of publishing the World Bank's EduTech blog. As we did at the end of 2010 and 2009, we have put together a consolidated list of 'top posts' from the last year. The EduTech blog is meant to provide an informal way to share information about some of the things (projects, challenges, technologies, approaches) that we think might be of interest to a wider audience, especially in so-called "developing countries", hopefully serving in some modest way to promote greater transparency related to some of the sorts of information, conversations and discussions that previously were accessible only to limited groups of stakeholders and partners with whom the World Bank is in regular dialogue.
There is no shortage of blogs that focus on educational technology issues. The vast majority of the ones available in English are written by and for people working in schools and education systems in the United States, Canada, the UK and other places in Europe, Australia, etc. While we are certainly happy when *anyone* reads our short weekly posts, this is decidedly *not* our target audience. (People interested in that sort of thing are directed to the lists of excellent educational technology blogs available here.) On the EduTech blog, our goal each week is to "explore issues related to the use of information and communication technologies to benefit education in developing countries", and it is through this prism that we always try to view things. Most posts are actually extensions of, or complements to, on-going conversations that we are having with various groups about particular projects and, truth be told, we often write a post with an explicit target audience of just a handful of people in mind. That said, we are quite happy that we seem to have found a pretty wide and dedicated weekly readership.
International development institutions are often seen as notoriously traditional and hidebound institutions, especially in their embrace of new technologies, and by publishing (nearly) every week, we hope to demonstrate to various partners within the UN and international development community, as well as our partners in government around the world, that it is possible to share information quickly and cheaply with interested groups in ways that are a bit more idiosyncratic, and possibly more interesting, than via a press release touting the achievement of some milestone or a dense paper that goes through a lengthy review process before finding a wider audience. Both of those mechanisms obviously have their place. That said, based on personal experience with this blog, I find that the immediacy and wide readership of some blog posts prove useful to advance dialogue on some topics in ways that other 'traditional' publishing mechanisms is less suited to do. (Yes, this may be old news to many readers -- this paragraph isn't directed at you.) Whereas press releases and more formal academic papers often signal the end of a process of some sort, this blog is often used to spark conversation about starting something new, in places where some of the topics or ideas or approaches are not widely known.
So: That's enough preface. Below is a collection of top posts from 2010. There were fewer posts to pick from this year, given that we suspended publication for three months due to other commitments (and from sheer exhaustion -- maintaining the blog remains a largely 'extracurricular' activity), but we hope that you found something of interest and relevance to your work.
Earlier this year, over 1700 participants from over 90 countries attended eLearning Africa (previous blog post here) to share lessons and make contacts at what has evolved into perhaps the continent's premier annual knowledge sharing event related to the use of ICTs in education. Not surprisingly, given that the event took place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania led the way in terms of attendance by its nationals, followed by its East African neighbors, with South Africa and Nigeria not too far behind.
One nationality was largely noticeable through its absence: the Chinese. Why do I mention this? Outside the conference, signs of growing cooperation between Tanzania and China (and India, whose Prime Minister was in Dar the same week on a state visit) were hard to miss, and indeed, the increasing 'presence' of China across Africa is undeniable, and the topic of much reporting, scholarly interest and discussion, including at theWorldBank. Looking around the conference itself, this cooperation wasn't immediately in evidence related to international cooperation around the use of educational technologies. Participating in and listening to many conversations at the event, however, one got a bit of a different story related to potential cooperation going forward between China and a number of African countries on ICT/education issues.