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What Are the Costs of Not Investing in ICTs in Education?

Michael Trucano's picture

empty pockets?Kentaro Toyama has started 2011 off 'with a bang' on our sister Education Technology Debate site, which is sponsored by our friends at infoDev and UNESCO. 

There is much to comment on in Kentaro's post, 'There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education' -- to say nothing of the insights and assertions in the 100+ comments that follow it, many of them from people who are quite well known in the field.  Subsequent contributions on the ETD site from Larry Cuban, Cristobal Cobo, Claudia Urrea and Lowell Monke should provide further grist for debate and discussion.

Kentaro lays out a number of arguments in his piece.  One of them is the following:

"I’ve so far argued that technology in education has a poor historical record; that computers in schools typically fail to have positive impact (with the rare exceptions occurring only in the context of competent, well-funded schools); that information technology is almost never worth its opportunity cost; and that quality education doesn’t require information technology."

My aim here is not to contest (or support) any of the assertions in Kentaro's piece (I'd recommend you look in the comments section of the ETD site for this sort of thing).  Rather, it is to note that, in many instances, Kentaro's assumptions about what drives policy may well be beside the point.

In a recent blog post on Education Week's Bridging Differences blog, Diane Ravitch laments that too many economists are mixing themselves into discussions about education policy for which they are ill-suited, including those around pedagogy. Point well taken.  That said, on the flip side, it is probably also true that many (if not most) educators have only a very loose grasp of the economics of education.

With this in mind, Kentaro's discussion of total costs of ownership, and of opportunity costs -- topics that are regrettably absent from many of the discussions around large scale investments in the use of educational technologies -- is quite welcome.  Discussions of costs are, perhaps not surprisingly, near and dear to us at the World Bank, so I'll limit my modest contribution to this month's Educational Technology Debate by considering only the cost issue, but with a twist.

In many instances, it is not only the costs of action that dominate discussions at a high level, but rather considerations of the potential opportunity costs of inaction. In informal conversations with education ministers at both last week's Education World Forum, and at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha in December, I heard the same question asked that I have heard dozens of times before from people in such positions:

What are the costs of not investing in ICT use in education?
Can we afford them?

Whether one agrees with the utility of such questions or not, they are commonly asked (if not rigorously considered) as an important part of considerations of large-scale investments in ICTs in the education sector in many countries. 

Indeed: It is not only (to name just three examples) a love of novelty or gadgetry, or desires for ICT-enabled pedagogical reform, or motivations to sell products and services to schools, that animates related decisions in many places.  Nor is it a robust evidence base: I won't try to contend that, at the macro- or system level, policymaking related to technology use in education is 'evidence-based'.  With very (very!) few exceptions, it largely isn't. (Anticipating strong pushback from some teachers, I note that this differs from what happens at the classroom or 'micro-' level, where a pragmatic teacher makes due with what she has, and whose craft is informed as much by the lessons of years of trial-and-error as it is by any 'grand theory of education' -- although in practice the pedagogical traditions in which teachers themselves were educated perhaps play as fundamental a role.)

All of these (and others) of course play their part in discussions around funding initiatives in this area.  That said, there is a motivating factor that I hear voiced by many policymakers with responsibility in this area: fear.   Now, fear is perhaps not always an inappropriate or ill-advised motivator, but it is quite often not the best one.  I am not sure if fear qualifies as one of the reasons 'Why Sloppy Thinking Leads to Careless Educational ICT', a topic Larry Cuban discusses in his follow-up to Kentaro's post, but in my experience it is one of the key animators behind the 'leap of faith' that characterize some of the biggest investments in educational technologies in developing countries.

(Too clever? Playing on language often employed in policy circles in the United States, and lamenting the lack of clear direction that a compelling evidence base might provide, colleagues at one national education ministry used to quip that large-scale investments in ICT use in education are in some ways the real faith-based initiatives.)

As countries (rightly or wrongly) increasingly view themselves as global competitors to each other, what role do schools have in preparing young people to successfully navigate an increasnigly technology-rich world?  This is a topic that Lowell Monke takes up in his contribution to this month's ETD debate, High Tech Society Requires a High Touch Childhood.  In many places, investments in ICTs in education are justified by people who adopt various 'digital divide' arguments (with perhaps a glimpse or two at the latest PISA tables).  Now, one can argue what exactly what this 'divide' represents in 2011 in different places around the world, but I think that most people would agree that, if this concept is still to remain relevant, we are talking about much more than 'access', as the OECD noted last year in a report that concluded that "A second digital divide separates those with the competencies and skills to benefit from computer use from those without."

Many of the proposals to address such gaps draw on the 'leapfrogging' metaphor that is a staple of much discourse around the potential for ICT use in developing countries.  (I don't often hear people consider that it is possible to leap in the wrong direction, potentially ending off in a worse place than where you started, but I suppose that is another issue.)  In such cases, schools are useful vectors to help transform societies through the introduction of various ICTs.  One hears echoes of this sort of thing in Uruguay, for example, where they talk about the fact that every primary school child now having a free laptop is not the result of a 'laptop project', or even an 'education project', but rather a society-wide 'inclusion project'.

We may often like to hope that key decisions related to the use and potential of ICTs in education are based on dispassionate and rigorous scientific analysis, while conceding that cold political calculus (e.g. politicians cutting ribbons at school computer labs) may often play a more decisive role.  Fear -- and faith -- may well play equally important roles.  How well we harness such fears, and tap into the aspirational components of such faith, is the challenge before those of us in the education community who believe in the potentially transformative power of technologies for learners while at the same time lamenting the way such technologies are typically used in schools.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a pair of jeans ("empty pockets?") comes from Dvortygirl via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


Thanks, Mike, for your usual insight. I agree that cost issues are often left out of educational discussion. One thing I want to emphasize is that when I say "opportunity cost" I mean the other best way to spend the same amount of money, in this case that would otherwise be spent on ICT and ICT support. So, suppose that someone says that the best way to spend $200 per child every 3 years (on something other than a laptop) is 1/20th the attention of a teaching assistant, then that's the opportunity cost, and my point in the ETD article is that ICT rarely beats the best alternative. Of course your point is that people say, "What's the cost to the country if we don't invest in ICT for education?" But, I would argue that these people should be asking the question, "What's the cost to the country, if we don't double our education budget?" Once that's known, we can argue about whether ICT is the right investment. And, you're also right that it's fear based. This is something I'm struggling with even in the larger ICT4D discussion. People invest in ICT out of fear of being left behind, and when you're afraid, reason is not the best instrument of persuasion. Interestingly, this question also arises in discussions of peak oil and climate change.

Thanks for your comments, Kentaro. You points about opportunity costs in your essay on the EduTech Debate site were clear (and ones with which I agree). One of messages we try to highlight on this blog is that rigorous evaluation is important -- and possible. That said, these only take us so far. If we can identify clear impact from specific programs (and I admit that this is not always easy, given many of the current methodologies we employ to help identify 'impact'), the next questions for policymakers should be: What will be the impact of this investment, and what will it cost to get this impact, >> compared with the impact *and* cost of other programs <

Those interested in more reactions to the Toyama article on the ETD site may wish to have a look at the following two blog posts: Better Education Through Technology (Stephen Downes) ICT is to Education as a Treadmill is to Fitness (The ICT4D Jester)

I'd like to add "aspiration" to the list of potential motivators. Jan Chipchase once described the mobile phone as an aspirational technology and I would extend that to all other sorts of ICTs, too. Aspiration is a desire for progress and it's more of a positive force than fear. And I guess it's probably related to faith in that there's a belief that the technology will help achieve the desired development.

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