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Checking in with Portugal's big projects to support technology use in education

Michael Trucano's picture
sometimes looking inside an unfamiliar place can provide you with a new perspective on what's happening outside as well
sometimes looking inside an unfamiliar place
can provide you with a new perspective on
what's happening outside as well

As part of my job at the World Bank helping to advise governments on what works, and what doesn't, related to the use of new technologies in education around the world, especially in middle- and low-income countries, I spend a fair amount of time trying to track down information about projects -- sometimes quite large in scale and invariably described as 'innovative' in some way -- that were announced with much fanfare which received a great deal of press attention, but about which very little information is subsequently made widely available.

Most of these projects prominently featured some new type of technology gear, whether low cost laptops for students or new ways to connect people in remote places to the Internet or low-power e-reader devices. Other projects featured new software (English learning apps for phones! Free science curricula for teachers! A learning management system that enables personalized learning!). A sub-set of these projects -- the really ambitious and 'visionary' ones -- combined both hardware and software, and a variety of services to support their introduction and use.

I do this follow up for two very basic reasons:

(1) I am generally interested in learning from these sorts of projects, wherever they may be happening; and

(2) I am asked about them a lot.

These conversations generally go one of two ways:

"Whatever happened to that project in [fill in country name] -- how are things going there these days?"
"Things are proceeding [well / not so well], and a bit more slowly than originally envisioned. Here's what you need to know ..."

 or, alternatively:

"Can you give me an update on the exciting stuff that is happening with computers in schools in ___?"
"You mean the ___ project? Actually, that never actually happened."
"No, that's not true, I read that ---"
"Yes, you probably did read that. You may well have heard about it during a presentation by [insert name of vendor] as well. But I assure you: I talk regularly with [the ministry of education / companies / NGOs / researchers] there: Nothing actually happened there related to this stuff in the past, and nothing is happening there related to this stuff now. Will something happen there in the future? Undoubtedly something will ... perhaps even something as potentially 'transformative' as was promised ... although whether it happens in the way it was originally marketed or advertised: Your guess is as good as mine."

In retrospect, the rather short half-life of an unfortunate number of such aborted projects can largely be measured not by things actually implemented 'on the ground', but rather by PowerPoint presentations and press releases. (A rather charitable characterization of what happened in some such cases, but one that is not always or necessarily more accurate, might be that people were 'overly optimistic' or that someone or some group 'was simply ahead of her/their time'. Technology folks sometimes just dismiss such efforts as 'vaporware'.)

When it comes to educational technology projects, most of the press attention tends to come when new initiatives of these sorts are announced, with some momentum continuing on for awhile in the early days of a project, especially when, for example, kids get new tablets for the first time, an occasion that presents a nice, and ready-made, photo opportunity (not that such things are ever conceived of as photo opportunities, of course!). Then, often: Silence.

Projects that do get implemented, and last for awhile, tend eventually to be crowded out of the popular consciousness by the latest and greatest new (new!) thing -- and, when it comes to the use of technology in education, one thing can be certain:

There is always a next new (new!) thing.

(In addition to lots of press attention, the well-known One Laptop Per Child project was the subject of many papers and presentations from academics in the early days that were largely speculative -- e.g. here's what could happen -- and theoretical -- e.g. here's a pedagogical approach whose time has come. Only recently have we started to see more deliberative, rigorous academic work looking at actual implementation models, and what has happened as a result.)

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For me, the most interesting part of the use of technology in education isn't the planning for it (although I spend a lot of time helping people who do that sort of thing) nor the evaluation of the impact of such use (I spend a lot of time on that stuff as well).

The most interesting part is implementation -- because it's so messy; because a fidelity to certain theoretical constructs and models often comes into rude collision with reality; because that's where you really *learn* about what works, and what doesn't, and what impact the whole enterprise may be having. How are kids, and teachers, actually using the stuff? What unexpected problems are people having -- and how are they being addressed? What is changing or happening that is interesting or surprising that wasn't part of the original plan, but which is potentially quite exciting?

One place where things have actually happened related to technology use in education, and where they continue to happen, at a rather large scale, is Portugal.

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Back in 2012, we had a small event here at the World Bank that attempted to share some of the lessons learned from recent Portuguese experiences in introducing new technologies into the education sector (see Around the World with Portugal's eEscola Project and Magellan Initiative). The U.S.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) released a report last month as a follow-up to a study visit to Portugal in late 2013. While written from a North American perspective and for a North American audience, "Reinventing Learning in Portugal: An Ecosystem Approach" provides a useful lens through which an outsider, regardless which continent she calls home, can start to take stock of some of the high level lessons from the ongoing Portuguese experience.

(Side note: I would also be quite interested to read a companion report at some point that focuses on what went wrong in Portugal, and what changed as a result; I am a big believer in the power and value of learning from failure.)

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Countries interested in learning about the 'impact' of efforts to introduce and sustain the use of technologies to benefit education in Portugal might do well to understand the context of what has happened in Portugal, and the circumstances that may make it either unique, or a good comparator, to their own national circumstances.

A quick review of what's happened in Portugal:

As the CoSN report notes, "From 2008 to 2012, Portugal’s eSchool initiative provided laptop computers and broadband access to 1.7 million elementary and secondary students, adults in training programs and educators; this means that 17% of the total population and 42% of the families throughout the country now have access to the Internet and the productivity and communication tools to participate in a global knowledge base and economy." The lion's share of the initial funding for this came from auctions of spectrum to enable mobile phone operators to offer 3G mobile services.

How did this come to pass?

Before addressing fundamental questions about the impact of what has been going on in Portugal as a result of the use of educational technologies on student outcomes -- I'll leave that for a future EduTech blog post once more compelling, rigorous research has been completed -- it may be useful to understand what has actually happened, and why.

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CoSN has identified a few "big 'take-aways'" from its study of what has happened in Portugal that, while formulated for policymakers in North America, should have pretty broad relevance most everywhere:

  1. Policies and strategies promoting ICT use in schools and at home are integrated into a larger economic and social vision for change in Portugal.
  2. Portugal adopted a comprehensive approach to transforming education by using ICT as a catalyst. This approach included hardware, software, teacher training, curriculum development and digital content in a holistic approach.
  3. The Portuguese thought in terms of an ecosystem.
  4. Public private partnerships are foundational to this strategy and key to the success of the Portugal program, particularly in terms of long term sustainability.

As in some other countries (Uruguay is an example that immediately comes to mind), the education system in Portugal was seen as a vector by which to introduce ICT tools and ICT-enabled products and services broadly across Portuguese society. In order to make this happen, Portugal "stressed a systemic approach, including improving school infrastructure, leveraging educational technology, working with government leaders, industry, and the community to build the synergy for school reform." From the very start, efforts and mechanisms to ensure sustainability were baked into all facets of the various large-scale educational technology initiatives. In other words: Project sustainability wasn't something that factored into plans once something had rolled out, but rather was a critical component for plans at all phases of planning and implementation. (In my experience, Portugal is a rather singular global example in this regard.)

Viewed from one perspective, might the size of the investments in Portugal, and the speed at which they occurred, have meant at a practical level that they were, perhaps, 'too big to fail', at least in the near term, and that this 'bigness' contributed to project sustainability in some way? That's a potentially interesting question. One reason some countries have considered and implemented 'big bang' approaches, where you spend a lot of money and do a lot of things very quickly, is because very large expenditures raise the stakes for failure to such an extent that sustainability quickly becomes a first order concern. Do a little bit here and there over time and you may end up spending the same amount -- do it all at once and *everyone* is watching, so there's nowhere to hide. A minister of education from another country which has pursued a 'big bang' approach to introducing technology in education at scale characterized her country's efforts as, "we've decided to jump off this big mountain, which means we can't afford not to land safely". I don't know to what extent this sort of sentiment was ever expressed in Portugal, or even to what extent it might be relevant in the Portuguese context, but I wouldn't be surprised if a similar sort of phenomenon may have been, at least in part, at hand.

CoSN has identified six critical factors that that were key components of this push for sustainability In Portugal that were evident, and strategic, from the beginning:

  1. Value Proposition for Key Stakeholders
  2. Champions in the Ecosystem
  3. Local Community Buy-in
  4. Part of a Bigger Funding Vision
  5. Information Technology Management
  6. Professional Development

The report goes into short detail about each of these, so I won't discuss all of them here. Instead, I'll just highlight the importance and potential relevance of the first item for audiences in other countries.

One encounters frequent mention of the role of 'stakeholder engagement' in national educational technology policies (at least the good ones). Few places have taken as systematic an approach to identifying and building stakeholder engagement for national educational technology initiatives as the Portuguese have. At the heart of the 'Portuguese model' for stakeholder engagement is a public-private partnership, in which many private sector companies play key, indeed fundamental roles.

(My mention here of 'public-private partnership' is not meant to advocate that this is the only, or indeed even the 'best', model for organizing an education system to do the types of things that have been done in Portugal. I have had both critics denounce, and supporters celebrate, the Portuguese model as business-oriented. Rather, it is to note that this sort of thing lies at the heart of what has happened in Portugal, for better and for worse, and so, if you are interested what has happened there, and what hasn't, and why, acknowledging, understanding and exploring this model may provide you some insight.)

Many countries prominently feature the potential for 'public-private partnerships' as part of their national policies and plans related to educational technology. Few places, however, spend much time and effort explicitly trying to identify how to appeal to the self-interest of key stakeholder groups, and to maintain active and open dialogues with them continuously over time. This is often especially the case as relates to 'private sector partners', where outreach from government can tend to focus on rather narrow, procurement-related discussions. What did this mean in practice in Portugal? Media companies were cajoled and incentivized to create digital learning content as a way to help create conditions and habits that might stoke longer term demand for their other digital products and services. Connectivity providers were brought on board in part by appealing to their interest in stoking future demand for more, faster broadband, and the services that broadband might enable. In some countries such actions would meet with little resistance; in other countries, various groups may find such appeals to the calculated self-interest of private sector actors to be abhorrent. However groups in other countries might feel about such arrangements, there can be little doubt that they have been critical to the model for sustainability and shared financial responsibility across a wide number of stakeholder groups and actors in Portugal. This is not meant to imply that the participation of the key private firms in Portugal was motivated only by their bottom lines. My impression has been that the rhetoric from many corporate partners about 'giving back' and their role in helping to develop the country's education sector is genuine. But, practically speaking, even where they are genuine, such sentiments can only go far. Countries that identify 'public-private partnerships' as critical components of their efforts to sustain their national educational techology efforts but are later surprised when the appetite of firms to 'do good' wanes over time as they see little impact on their bottom lines might do well to reconsider their approach to 'public-private partnerships' -- and indeed might wish to question whether this sort of approach will work for them over the longer term if it is meant to be fuelled in important parts by corporate 'altruism'. One can believe in 'corporate social responsibility' (CSR) even while at the same time acknowledging that some (or even much) of what goes by that name in some places is little more than business development and marketing. CSR might help sustain a small project over the long term, or a large project over the short term, but when you are trying to sustain efforts at scale over time, things can get a little more complicated.

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Members of the CoSN study delegation were struck by the level of national coordination that has characterized efforts to introduce and sustain large scale educational technology initiatives in Portugal, which in many cases stands in stark contrast to the proliferation of disjuncted, uncoordinated projects that characterizes, and indeed defines, the landscape of educational technology projects that have occurred across the United States and Canada over the past decades. Fair enough: Portugal is, after all, a small country of less than eleven million people with an approach to education that is far more centralized than the very decentralized approaches that characterize the various education systems in American states and Canadian provinces. While such coordination may not be possible (or even desired) in North America, there are many other countries for which this approach may both be feasible, and work well. Governments looking to utilize public-private partnerships to enable the types of large scale educational technology initiatives that have occurred in Portugal might also pay keen interest to lessons about how (and to what extent) the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Public Works, Transportation, and Communications worked with each other, and together with their 'private' partners, to ensure that, while implementation may have been industry-led, the strategic direction remained the responsibility of government.

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Before concluding with a 'checklist for North American Policymakers' (which should be relevant for policymakers in other places as well), the CoSN report states that, from the beginning, the Portuguese "framed the initiative as one that transcends classrooms and students and highlighted the opportunities for communities and countries (or in the case of the U.S., states) to increase their position in an increasingly competitive digital world economy." In the opinion of the CoSN report, where other places seek to do something similar, "[t]he framing must create broad excitement and mobilization in order to build the political will that will ultimately be essential for the success of the initiative."

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Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the Portuguese programs, and models, change over time, and what types of impact they will eventually on things like student outcomes, teacher satisfaction, the growth of the national IT industry, and economic development more broadly. Those sorts of things will only start to come into focus tomorrow, however; if you want a snapshot to help you better understand the state of things today, you could do worse than to start by reading the CoSN report. It's a free download. (I note that you have to provide your, or at least a, name and email address in order to access the direct link.)

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Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a door to a spiral staircase in the Cloister of John III at the Convent of Christ in Tomar, Portugal ("sometimes looking inside an unfamiliar place can provide you with a new perspective on what's happening outside as well") comes from the Portuguese Wikipedian Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.