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.
On 5 October 2011, the Indian Ministry for Human Resource Development announced the launch of a new low cost educational tablet: the Aakash. Developed by the London-based company DataWind with the Indian Institute of Technology Rajasthan, the Aakash has been described by some as potentially heralding a new 'Internet revolution' within India education, doing for educational computing what the mobile phone has done for personal communications over the past decade. The launch of this product has been accompanied by a great deal of press attention, somelaudatory, some less so. Following on a visit by Indian HRD Minister Sibal in October, DataWind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli stopped by the World Bank yesterday to talk about the Aakash, and more broadly, about sustainable business models to drive the broad adoption of computing and Internet devices in the developing world.
Some critics have noted that this is not the first time such a device has been promised for India, recalling the general hoopla that greeted earlier devices like the Simputer and the $100 laptop (OLPC) project. What is different this time around, they ask, and why is the government subsidizing the purchase price of this particular gadget?
As part of my job, I visit *lots* of schools around the world to see how they are actually using various types of educational technologies. Usually, and inevitably, such trips feature a visit to the school computer lab, which is, more often than not, the locus for technology use in a school. Generally speaking, I find that a school computer lab looks very much the same, no matter whether I am outside Pretoria or Phnom Penh. In most places I visit, putting all (or most) of a school's computers into a special 'computer lab' is seen as the obvious thing to do when a school is being 'computerized'.
This may seem obvious ... but is it really a good idea?
Each year the World Bank helps sponsor an annual global symposium on ICT use in education for senior policymakers and practitioners in Seoul, together with the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) and the Korea Education Research & Information Service (KERIS). This is one important component of a strong multi-year partnership between the World Bank education sector and the Republic of Korea exploring the use of ICTs in the education sector around the world. This year's event, which focused on Benchmarking International Experiences and was about half the size of 2010's Building national ICT/education agencies symposium, brought officials from 23 countries to Korea to explore how technology is being used in schools around the world (previous blog post: Eleven Countries to Watch -- and Learn From), with a special emphasis on learning about and from the Korean experience.
Specifically, there was much interest in learning more about two news items that appeared since last year's event: Korea's top place in an international digital reading assessment and the country's bold plan to move toward digital textbooks in all subjects at all levels by 2015.
It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is meant to have once remarked. Those of us who have worked for any period of time on educational technology projects, or on international development projects (let alone in the space where these two areas meet!), will have come across at least one project that 'failed' -- and perhaps did so spectacularly. How might we learn from such failures?
One way to do this that is gaining traction in increasing numbers of organizations is a FAILfaire. What is a FAILfaire, you ask?
"While we often focus on highlighting successes in our field, it’s no secret that many projects just don’t work – some don’t scale, some aren’t sustainable, some can’t get around bureaucratic hoops, and many fail due to completely unanticipated barriers. At FAILFaire we want to recognize the failures: the pilots that never got anywhere, the applications that are not delivering, the projects that are not having any measurable impact on the lives of people, and the cultural or technical problems that arise."
Writing on the World Bank's Education for Global Development blog, Ariel Fiszbein, the World Bank's Chief Economist in the Human Development Sector (which includes health and education), notes that "Publicizing what doesn’t work is a fundamental part of any approach to evidence-based policy. Lack of results is a likely outcome of any innovation. We should remain open and even celebrate those that bring us the bad news as they are helping us stay honest."
Or, in the words of the Dutch Institute of Brilliant Failures (there really is such a thing!), "sharing lessons from what hasn't worked can stimulate entrepreneurial thinking and behavior (in the broadest sense of the word) by encouraging people to develop new ideas and enabling innovators to turn ideas into reality". Such efforts could be wasted in a culture where failure is seen as shameful and few are prepared to take risks. A FAILfaire -- a term that appears to be novel enough that it is still not in Wikipedia -- is one small attempt to help change such a culture.
OK, you might say, I'm with you so far. Conceptually what you say makes a lot of sense. But what is attractive in the abstract can become decidedly less so when you try to translate such laudable sentiments into actual practice.