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Ten comments on 1-to-1 computing in education

Michael Trucano's picture

moving down from a high level view down to messy reality | image attrribution at bottomFor the next three days, representatives from most of the prominent initiatives rolling out '1-to-1 computing' initiatives in education systems around the world are gathering in Vienna, Austria. This meeting is believed to be the first global event of its kind to bring together the principals from such projects together in one room to share knowledge and experiences.   Until recently, most initiatives of this type have taken place in Europe and North America, but some middle income and developing countries are beginning to make (or seriously considering) massive investments in providing every student with her/his own personal computing device (usually a laptop).

While many initial investments in this area were, truth be told, based more on faith in a concept than on hard evidence, lessons and models are emerging to help answer questions such as:

* What does this cost?
* What is the impact of these sorts of initiatives (and how should we measure such impact)? 
* What useful implementation and procurement models are emerging? 
* What challenges do these sorts of initiatives present for policymakers, and what are some useful policy responses? 
* What technologies should we be considering? 
* To what extent -- and how -- do we need to re-engineer our education systems (teacher training, curricula, content, assessment) if we want to take advantage of such investments?

If you want to follow this event live, see the live webstream at http://ustre.am/2YTB and/or search for Twitter tag #1to1Viena (note the single 'n' -  the tag was first adopted by people liveblogging the event in Spanish).

 
To help kick off the event this morning, I presented "Ten comments on 1-to-1 computing in education".  These comments were meant to be brief, and were presented to help catalyze, provoke and animate discussion at the event:

1. Larger educational and developmental objectives
Discussions of investments in '1-to-1 computing' in education should always be anchored within considerations of larger educational and developmental goals. This belief (which is at the core of the ICT in education toolkit) is central to the World Bank's approach to the potential use of education technologies of all types -- including 1-to-1 computing. Such objectives need not be limited to those of the 'education sector'; indeed, in many places, investments in this area are pursued as part of larger initiatives to build so-called 'e-societies', with the education sector seen as an important vector to address issues related to a set of challenges often lumped together and referred to as the digital divide.

2. How to? not Should you?
Given that the strong political support for 1-to-1 initiatives in many places makes such investments seemingly inevitable, it may be more useful to adopt an approach of "how should you implement 1--to-1 computing in education?" rather than "should you do it at all?" This change in tactics may be useful to many funding organizations as a way to ensure that the dialogue around 1-to-1 remains open while exploring what, in concrete terms, investments in 1-to1 would mean (and cost).  Participating in such discussions at a practical level may, in the end, shed light on whether or not such investments should be made at all; starting from an adversarial position may unnecessarily antagonize people and insititutions that have, for better or worse, already decided to move along this path, ending opportunities for constructive engagement.

3. Techno-utopianism has a long history in the education sector
Since the introduction of motion pictures, a succession of technologies (continuing through radio, TV, computers, PDAs, laptops, whiteboards, and soon, undoubtedly, mobile phones) have been heralded as offering exciting new opportunities for use in education, if only we are visionary enough to embrace them.  One of the best books ever written about ICT use in education (Bold Experiment) looked at the introduction of educational television in American Samoa in the 1960s.  Substitute 1-to-1 computing or laptops for educational television in many places in the early parts of that book that discuss the promise and potential for this 'new technology', and it would read much like many documents today extolling the virtues of investments in '1-to-1 computing'.

4. Reform (and re-engineering)
Given their high costs, and the disruptions that accompany 1-to-1 initiatives, it is often best to think of them only within the context of larger educational reforms and the (sometimes radical) re-engineering of various educational practices and processes.  Indeed, given the high-level political support that such initiatives often have, 1-to-1 initiatives can be important vehicles to build momentum for and implement various reforms (this is true for many educational technology initatives more broadly). Where countries are thinking of using 1-to-1 as a mechanism for simply extending existing processes or making existing practices more effective on the margins, it may well be difficult to justify the large costs of investments in 1-to-1.

5. 1-to-1 is (potentially) transformative
In many places, the trend towards 1-to-1 computing represents movement towards an 'ideal' ratio of user to device.  There can be little doubt that providing each student with her/his own personal device is categorically different than providing them access to shared sets of devices.  That said, there is a danger that many 1-to-1 approaches prioritize the mere existence of technology over other vital issues.  The vision of the state of Maine (USA),  widely acknowledged as the pioneering 1-to-1 computing initiative worldwide, is instructive here: "A personal digital device, at the point of learning, as defined by the student." Many places concentrate only on the first component of the Maine vision, neglecting the other two items, which are what are what are truly (potentially) transformative.

6. More than just laptops
While most of today's 1-to-1 initiatives involve the use of laptops (often so-called 'netbooks'), for much of the developing world, something that looks today a lot like what we are currently calling the 'mobile phone' may well be the most relevant device for deployment as part of 1-to-1 computing initiatives going forward.

7. Environmental liabilities
Investing in '1-to-1 computing' in education typically implies an order-of-magnitude increase in the number of computers available for use in schools.  Used appropriately, such devices should no doubt be considered assets for learning.  At the same time, they represent serious potential environmental liabilities.  This is especially true in places with inadequate laws and regulations related to the make-up and disposal of such items, and where there are insufficient numbers of local organizations and processes to handle such disposal.  Earlier today, the UN released a new report (Urgent Need to Prepare Developing Countries for Surge in E-Wastes) documenting just how serious this issue is becoming.  Responsible policy making related to the roll-out of '1-to-1' technologies, whether they are laptops, mobile phones, or some other device not yet invented, should include serious consideration to such end-of-life issues.

8. Teachers are fundamental
Core to the World Bank's approach to education is a belief in the importance of teachers to the learning process.  While some groups feel that 1-to-1 computing offers the opportunity for students to learn by themselves, obviating (in whole or in part) the need for teachers, there is no compelling evidence to support such approaches system-wide.  In fact, World Bank experience, and the experience of many other organizations, highlights just how vital teachers are if roll-outs of educational technologies are to be effective.  A recent special issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Technology, Learning and Assessment focusing on 1-to-1 computing appears to support this belief; eSchool News characterizes its main take-away from this collection of scholarly articles as "One-to-one computing programs only as effective as their teachers".  It is wishful thinking that all would be well if only students were "left to their own devices ...."

9. Impact? Costs?
Let's be clear: There is much we still do not know about the impact of investments in this area, and the related costs.  We do not have a good handle on how to measure the types of impacts we hope to bring about through the introduction of '1-to-1 computing', which often go beyond what is measured through existing standardized assessments of learning.  With very few exeptions, there are very limited data published to help us understand the costs of such initiatives, especially those related to the total cost of operation over time, and the way such costs are calculated are often not very transparent.  This means that, collectively, we are often unable to answer a basic question posed by finance ministries seeking to discriminate between numerous worthy projects and initiatives contending for investment: how much impact will this get me, and what will this impact cost me?

10. ___
The tenth comment is left intentially blank, as both a gesture of humility, acknowledging that there is much we at the World Bank still do not know about this topic, and to signal the interest and willingness of the World Bank to learn from the groups and people leading initiatives of this area, and from those studying them.

There is much more I could say about this topic at this point, but I'll stop here.  We look forward to learning more about the nuts-and-bolts operational modalities and challenges of the dozens of individual 1-to-1 computing initiatives represented here in Vienna, and to the comments, perspectives, insights and lessons that are emerging from implementing such initiatives on-the-ground.

Please note: The image of Vienna taken from 'on high' used at the top of this blog post comes from Wikipedian Bangin via Wikimedia Commons  and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Note (1 March 2010): This blog entry was originally posted on Monday, 22 February.  It later disappeared from this site due to database corruption issues with the World Bank blog servers.  I have done my best to reproduce it from memory; there will undoubtedly be differences between this version and the version which was originally posted.  We apologize for this.