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.
For a few years, the World Bank's infoDev program has sponsored a monthy online 'EduTech Debate' (ETD) which functions as a sort of rough complement to the Bank's own EduTech blog. The goal of the ETD has been to provide a forum for the sharing of information and perspectives on various emerging topics related "low-cost ICT initiatives for educational systems in developing countries". From the very start, the World Bank's role -- and certainly our voice (to the extent that we have one on these topics) -- has been in the background, and, by design, one only rarely sees a World Bank staff member post on the site, or contribute a comment to the sometimes lively exchanges of opinions that individual posts ignite. We do follow the discussions quite closely, however, and sponsoring the debate has been a useful way for infoDev, the World Bank and UNESCO to be tuned in to some conversations we might not otherwise know are occurring, and to connect with interesting organizations and practitioners doing interesting things around in the world.
The most recent debate has looked at the potential role that ICT can play in promoting the acquisition of basic literacy skills. Especially in places where literacy levels are very low -- where the formal education system has, in many significant ways, failed in one of its fundamental roles -- might ICTs offer some new approaches (and tools) that can help get children reading? Noting (for example) the large number of very basic iPhone apps targeted at children in OECD countries to teach basic letter recognition, phonics, and vocabulary, an increasing number of groups are exploring doing similar things in less privileged environments. But is it really that easy?
An on-going series in the New York Times ('Grading the digital school') is exploring the impact of educational technology programs in U.S. schools. One recent article in this series noted that "Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores." This phenomenon is not limited to schools in rich countries like the United States, of course:
"Although the government has invested resources in ensuring the broad use of ICT in education, the results of this use in meeting the goals and targets of educational programs are, however, virtually unknown."
This statement, which could apply to scores of countries around the world, can be found near the very start of TIC Educação 2010 ("ICT Education 2010"), a fascinating new survey on the use of ICTs in Brazilian schools.
One persistent criticism that I hear of educational technology projects in many places -- and especially in Africa -- is that 'there are too many pilot projects'. 'What we really need', or so the lament usually continues, 'are things that scale'. While I don't necessarily agree that more pilot projects are not useful -- to the contrary, I have in the past explored
A few years ago, a World Bank study highlighted the fact that there simply aren't enough textbooks for most students in Africa, and what is available is too expensive. In response to this reality, some people at the World Bank have been exploring various options for addressing the 'textbook gap', including initiatives investigating the potential cost-effectiveness of 'e-books' for African students.
At the other end of the spectrum from the situation that exists in schools in many low- and middle-income countries in Africa, students in one East Asian nation may soon not have access to textbooks either -- at least the old fashioned, printed kind.
A recent paper from Eugenio Severin and Christine Capota of the Inter-american Development Bank (IDB) surveys an emerging set of initiatives seeking to provide children with their own educational computing devices. While much of the popular consideration of so-called "1-to-1 computing programs" has focused on programs in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and Australia, One-to-One Laptop Programs in Latin America and the Caribbean: Panorama and Perspectives provides a useful primer for English-speaking audiences on what is happening in middle and low income countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad & Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela. (There is of course a Spanish version available as well.)
While some of these cases are becoming better known globally -- most notably those of Uruguay and Peru, where the IDB has not coincidentally been quite active -- I expect many people from other parts of the world will be surprised to learn about the extent of activity in the region. Indeed, a lot is happening in the region. While the report does not aim to be comprehensive (indeed, ministry of education officials in a few Caribbean island nations have already noted that their 1-to-1 pilot initiatives are not included in the survey, and those knowledgeable about the field may note that there are, for example, programs from U.S. states that are not listed here), it does consolidate for the first time related regional information in one place for easy reference, while noting that "promising in concept, one-to-one initiatives thus far have had little implementation time and varying results".
eLearning Africa (eLA) bills itself as 'the premier annual event bringing together e-learning and ICT-supported education and training professionals from across the continent'. If you want a 'crash course' in what is happening in a variety of contexts related to ICT use in education in countries from Algeria to Zambia, you could do much worse than to attend this increasingly informative and useful event. This year the event was held in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and featured over 1700 participants (and over 300 speakers) from 90 countries around the world; it included daily plenary and 65 parallel sessions to share and debate emerging lessons from experiences in this fast-moving field.