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Surveying ICT use in education in Asia

Michael Trucano's picture
we're not all uniform in our use of ICTs
we're not all uniform in our use of ICTs

If you've ever been involved in discussions about current uses of technology in education -- and, given that you are currently reading a post on the World Bank's EduTech blog, it's probably safe to assume that you have -- you've probably noticed that, at some point in the back-and-forth, someone will inevitably be unable to resist talking about what's coming next. The history of technology use in education is, in part, a history of predictions about the use of technology in the future.

For the past few decades, many people around the world have almost instinctively looked toward Asia to get glimpses and insight into what the next wave of consumer technologies might look like and do, and how young people might use them. From the 'computer nerds' who frequented the Akihabara section of Tokyo in the 1980s to the young Filipinos whose affinity for SMS earned their country its designation as the 'texting capital of the world' around the turn of the century to today's designation of Indonesia as the 'social media capital of the world', the center of gravity for emerging uses of new technologies by young people has often been in the East. It is indeed no coincidence that the World Bank has co-sponsored an annual event bringing education policymakers to Seoul each fall to help discuss and plan for their country's potential uses of new technologies in schools in the future.

Of course, the stereotypically tech-savvy, mobile-phone wielding, hyper-connected youth in the big cities of East Asia, reviewing vocabulary on their smartphones while commuting on the subway or studying to the wee hours of the night on broadband connections at home, occupy one end of a very wide and diverse spectrum. Rural youth for whom the Internet is more aspiration than avocation and whose schools may not even have electricity, let alone a computer, or for whom 'computer time' means the two hours a month spent in a crowded school computer lab learning how to use a word processing program while waiting, waiting, waiting for their desperately slow Internet connection to bring up a single web page: Such young people and circumstances represent the reality of current technology use in education across Asia as well.

If we hypothesize that many future uses of technology in education might first appear in Asia, where might we want to look to get some first glimpses as what is likely to come to our own schools (wherever they may be)? If you want to know what a place might look like tomorrow, a good place to start might be by looking at what things look like there today.  With that in mind:

How and to what extent are countries across Asia currently utilizing information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their education systems?

Two recent publications from UNESCO provide much useful data and documentation to help those trying to come up with possible answers to this question.

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ICT in Education in Asia: a comparative analysis of ICT integration and e-readiness in schools across Asia [pdf] is one of a series of reports emerging out of efforts led by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) to gather internationally comparable data related to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education, which are supported by the World Bank and many other partner organizations support in various ways. The reports begins by noting that,

"Policymakers widely accept that access to information and communication technology (ICT) in education can help individuals to compete in a global economy by creating a skilled work force and facilitating social mobility. They emphasise that ICT in education has a multiplier effect throughout the education system, by enhancing learning and providing students with new sets of skills; by reaching students with poor or no access (especially those in rural and remote regions); by facilitating and improving the training of teachers; and by minimising costs associated with the delivery of traditional instruction. [...] [B]eyond the rhetoric and of equal importance to policymakers are basic questions related to the measurement of ICT in education, its usage and potential outcomes."

It is to this end, to help measure and document what's currently observable related to technology use in education in education systems, that this UIS report was conceived and drafted. The report is meant to be rather wide-ranging in what it seeks to measure, and is informed by interests to document and analyze the 'digital divide' as well as to collect data that may be relevant as countries carry out activities in their formal education systems to help prepare young people to participate in the 'knowledge economy'. UIS does this through the distribution of standard questionnaires to national statistical agencies, consistent with the way it helps to gather globally comparable data on other topics. This report on Asia follows similar UIS publications on Latin America and the Caribbean and in five Arab states.

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It is perhaps important to note that much of what UIS has collected and presented here takes the form of a sort of basic, initial inventory: how many computers there are in schools; if and how fast schools are connected to the Internet; whether and the extent to which teachers have received ICT-related training; etc. Think of this effort as providing a sort of base level of information about the availability of ICT in schools, how ICTs are being used, and the existence of some basic related policy guidance. Before one investigates the 'impact' of technology use in education (however one might wish to define it), it can be useful to have a sense of the availability of technologies at a school level and some key aspects of the environment which may contribute to (or impede) their use. Before one discusses the current and future possibilities of ICT use, it can first be useful to have hard data about their current availability.

The report begins with a useful discussion of a number of topics, noting and commenting on significant disparities between countries related to things like access to the Internet and the sheer number of computers to be found in schools. It highlights the importance of the 'electricity divide', i.e. the fact that access to computing resources and the Internet can often be as much about access to reliable power as it is about access to broadband. Indeed, access to reliable electricity often (but not always, as in the case of Kyrgystan) neatly corresponds with access to the Internet in many places. The existence of "virtually universal fixed broadband Internet connectivity in Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China, Japan, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and Thailand" stands in stark contrast to current situations in countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh and Kyrgystan. The report provides useful documentation of the learner-computer ratios across the continent, a basic metric which remains (for better or for worse) one of the first datapoints that many policymakers look to, cite, and benchmark against when considering investments in technology use in education. Not surprisingly, these ratios are typically much higher in rural areas than they are in urban areas, and range from over 500 learners per pupil at the primary level in Nepal and 412 learners to computer in the Philippines down to ratios of 17:1, 15:1 and 9:1 in Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong (China) respectively. At the primary level in China, the learn-computer ratio stands at 14:1, a density more than twice what one finds in rural primary schools in the country (29:1). Such disparities exist in other regards as well. "In the Philippines and Myanmar, [only] 2% of teachers are trained to use ICT, [and] no teachers in Kyrgyzstan have been trained", contexts which are contrasted sharply from those in places like Singapore, Thailand and Azerbaijan, where such rates stand at 100%, 88% and 73%.

The UIS report includes many reminders and caveats about the limitations of certain definitions, and in trying to draw easy interpretations from various data. As part of its discussion of relative access of boys vs. girls to ICTs in schools, it cautions that, "while these data shed light on the extent that girls and boys who are already enrolled in school have access to ICT in education, the data do not address pre-existing gender disparities in general school enrolment." In its discussion of the existence of teacher training related to ICTs, it notes that "there has been little or no research on exactly how much teacher training is required, how often it should take place, what kind of training is most appropriate and affordable, and what it should cover to create a teaching workforce that is motivated to use ICT in the classroom in the context of new curricula and new pedagogies."

Usefully, the report briefly considers ICT use and how it might relate to international assessments like PISA and TIMMS. For the first time (that I am aware of) it presents public data about ICT use in education in Iran and Myanmar. While many of the sources cited will no doubt be familiar to many regular readers of the EduTech blog, the short bibliography may also be of interest.

While does not pretend to provide us with neat answers to many of the questions we have about ICT use in education across the continent, the UIS report does an admirable and useful job of providing hard, comparative data about the availability of ICT resources in schools in Asia in the aggregate, and thus provides policymakers with some insight into the potential readiness of their education systems to participate in the types of technology-enabled activities and practices which many people hope are at the heart of a 'transformation of teaching and learning' in the years ahead.

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education Gangnam style -- literally!
education Gangnam style -- literally!

Complementing the UIS report is a publication that appeared late last year from UNESCO's Asia & Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, which has long been a leader in collecting and sharing knowledge and perspectives about the use of technology in education. ICT in education policy, infrastructure, and ODA status in selected ASEAN countries (2013) is a successor of sorts to UNESCO groundbreaking 2003 Metasurvey on the Use of Technologies in Education in Asia and the Pacific, the first regional survey of its kind which explicitly investigated and presented data about what was happening across a number of middle and low income countries and which served as a rough template for similar efforts at infoDev in subsequent years which focused on Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia. This 2013 UNESCO report is more narrowly focused on current circumstances in countries of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, and catalogs the current state of technology infrastructure and policies in part as a way to inform potential considerations of related overseas developmental assistance (ODA, i.e. 'foreign aid') going forward. The report pays special attention to activities supported by international development agencies, as well as other international and bilateral donors and partners, including those in the private sector and civil society. It offers useful synopses where and how 'ICT' is mentioned in policies documents and annotated lists of 'key actors' and notable programmes.

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This UNESCO report is really chock full of information, and you'll find much more synthesis here than analysis. This is not (necessarily) meant as a criticism. (If you want a quick overview of what's happening related to technology use in education in, say, Thailand, or Myanmar, or Vietnam, my first recommendation would be that you turn to the related chapter here.) Rather, it is to suggest that this publication is perhaps more usefully skimmed or use as a reference document than as something you would perhaps read from start to finish. (As with the UIS report, I did actually read this publication from beginning to end, but as my old boss used to joke, "we pay you to read these things so we don't have to; just tell us what we need to know!") Interestingly, and rather usefully, given the many similarities between countries within each grouping, the publication is divided into two sections. Part A looks at "ICT in Education Policies, Infrastructure and ODA in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam", while part B examines "The Readiness of Advanced Technology in Education in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore." Compared with the other countries, the inclusion of small, rich Singapore may appear a bit anomalous, but such is the diversity of the ASEAN region, and examples from the small island state related to ICT use in education do exert a strong influence in many regards on policymakers in neighboring countries.

The specific focus on overseas development assistance is perhaps too narrow in some instances for audiences of people who don't work in that field, or who don't work with institutions like UNESCO, the World Bank, USAID, the Asian Development Bank, etc., or who (frankly) don't care terribly much about the actions of such institutions. That said, I expect that a good number of the people who regularly read the EduTech blog don't fall into one of these three categories! Related to this focus, the paper states that "relatively little ODA is dedicated to secondary education, teacher training and vocational training, or to the use of ICT in education. [...] With aid flow in education predominantly concerned with supporting access to quality primary education and the advancement of tertiary education, the integration of ICT into education is currently seen as a lesser priority and has not received substantial direct ODA funding." It goes on to conclude that, "unless advanced technologies can demonstrate the objective of increasing access to quality education, they may not fall in the scope of ODA funding. Thus, the development of [ODA] programmes to integrate advanced and experimental technologies into education is not being pursued in most ASEAN countries." This is indeed the challenge facing proponents of the expansion of the use of ICTs in education in many countries, not only in Southeast Asia. In my experience, I find (and I am not necessarily lamenting this fact) that there are increasingly fewer people in international donor agencies who are looking specifically to support technology use in education. Too many of such people have seen the results of ill-advised schemes that focused largely, if not exclusively, on the types of projects that exhibited many of the 'worst practices' that all too often characterize initiatives to introduce new technologies into education systems. As a practical matter, this has meant that, in many countries, the institutions which are the primary purveyors of overseas developmental assistance are now reflexively skeptical of many of the proposals pitched to them by countries which they support in other regards -- in many instances, even more so than was perhaps the case a decade ago. At the same time, many countries in the region (and elsewhere) are increasingly interested in exploring the use of ICTs in education and more able, in many instances, to fund related activities themselves.

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By mapping out the policy environments, constellations of actors and key initiatives, as well as introducing mechanisms by which international comparable data can be collected and shared, these two publications from UNESCO provide policymakers in Asia with some basic foundational knowledge and data about what's happening, and what isn't, with regard to the use of ICTs in education in their countries and others in the region. Whether or not it is correct to look to Asia for inspiration related to the use of new technologies in education -- even if this is true today, it might not be tomorrow -- it is encouraging to see that we are starting to see the emergence of initiatives to collect and disseminate reliable data about this use. In many ways, the lack of reliable related data of almost any sort has led to a situation where investments in educational technologies in many countries -- in Asia as elsewhere -- can perhaps best be characterized as 'faith-based initiatives'. Even where policymakers are not taken with a general faith in technology, they may profess a faith in the potential of technology use in education. Investigations into the 'impact' of educational technologies often founder because there is insufficient knowledge about, and insufficient data related to, how ICTs are actually being used in education, and the context for this use. While we aren't yet where we need to be, as a result of these publications we have, in many cases for the first time, information and data upon which related evidence-based decisions can eventually be built. We still have along way to go in this regard, but thankfully we are a bit further a long the path in many countries than we were even a few years ago.

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This is one in an occasional series of blog posts on efforts to survey technology use in education in different parts of the world.

You may also be interested in the following posts from the World Bank EduTech blog:

In addition, you may be interested in a collection of key documents from international surveys of ICT use in education and a short chapter in a Work Bank publication documenting results from the piloting of its SABER initiative in East Asia focusing on information and communication technologies [pdf] that served as a sort of precursor to this work from UNESCO.
 

Note: The image at the top of this blog post of students using computers at the Institute of Asian Studies in Vietnam ("we're not all uniform in our use of ICTs") comes from Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The second image shows a view of Whimoon High School in Gangnam-gu, Seoul ("education Gangnam style -- literally!"); it also comes from Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.