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Developing a national educational technology policy

Michael Trucano's picture

lots of paper files on digital policies"We think we need to develop a national policy to help guide our efforts to use information and communication technologies [ICTs] in education.  What should such a policy contain?"

This is a question we get not infrequently here at the World Bank.  Sometimes this is in response to recognition that a country is about to spend a lot of money buying computers for schools, and there is a realization that there is no policy in place to help guide this effort. Other times it is a result of recognition that there has been no or little policy guidance in this area despite the fact that lots of money has been spent (for example) buying lots computers for schools -- and this hasn't worked out quite as well as hoped. Some countries have had policies in place -- sometimes quite good policies -- and they are now looking to 'move to the next level', but aren't exactly sure what that means, and so are seeking outside input, especially because of the challenges and opportunities offered by new technological developments. (We see other scenarios as well, but will stop listing them now.)

There are a few ways to help answer such a question.

One approach is to help guide policymakers through a systematic, consultative process to formulate and policies related to, and plan for, the deployment and use of educational technologies, as part of a wider policy formulation and planning process that looks at broader developmental and education goals, and then seeks to investigate and articulate how and where the use of ICTs can help meet these objectives.  This is a process that was (for example) followed as part of the World Bank's World Links program a decade ago, and which was extended and formalized through the development and use of the ICT in Education Toolkit for Policymakers, Planners and Practitioners, which was supported by a number of organizations (and used extensively throughout Asia by UNESCO as part of its advisory work in this area). Of course, not all policy planning processes are as systematic and well laid out as that identified by the Toolkit -- many of them are, in practice, rather ad hoc. 

Another way to answer the question (and these approaches aren't mutually exclusive) is to show people what other policies say, to the extent that you can find them. Whether systematic or ad hoc (or somewhere in between), there was input that seemed to us to be missing from pretty much every ICT/education policy development process in which we have been engaged.  Wouldn't it be useful if there was a comprehensive global database of ICT/education policies from which countries could find inspiration and establish useful benchmarks for their own related policies?

This is not to say that there has to date been no documentation available, of course:

If you sit in Brussels or Berlin, Calgary or Canberra, you are probably well aware of the policy environments of other OECD countries and neighboring provinces. You might, for example, know of the good work of the European Schoolnet in documenting this area across the continent, have sat next to your counterpart from another country at a conference, or have stumbled across a copy of Cross-National Information and Communication Technology Policies and Practices in Education, which is the best and most complete compendium of its sort that we know of. (Despite this being about ICT policies, it is unfortunate to note that this is only available in hard copy -- not very useful if you live in a place where it is impractical to have it shipped to you.) You might also have easy access to academic journals where this sort of thing is discussed and analyzed -- as well as easy access to the people who are doing such discussing and analyzing. (Those working in the field of ‘international development’ may also be familiar with some of the good work in this area by groups like UNESCO and GeSCI.)

Even in some of the poorest countries of the world, we have found that people typically know about some of the leading 'best practice' examples from around the world, national policies that are lauded for their comprehensiveness, vision and directive value.  Things like the National Education Technology Plan of the United States, or the various ICT/Education "masterplans" from Singapore, are often consulted and referenced around the world -- in part, we suspect, not only because they are excellent policy documents (although they certainly are), but because they are so easy to find via major search engines, and, at a more abstract level, simply because these places are well known globally as leaders in educational technology issues.  In addition, there are summaries available about the policy environments in a larger number of (mostly OECD) countries, even where access to the actual text of such documents is impeded because the actual documents themselves are not posted online, or are only available in a local language.

Just because something is considered a 'best practice' example, is easy to find online, or comes from an 'advanced' country, doesn't mean it is the most relevant (in whole or in part) to another country's particular circumstance or context, however.  This is especially true for many middle and low-income countries seeking to benchmark their policies not only against what 'leading' or 'advanced' countries are doing in this area, but also what their neighbors, and countries 'more like them', are seeking to do.  What to do in such a circumstance?  Some countries have found that, if particular policies they find are not that relevant to their context, it might be useful to turn to seek the guidance of international experts on emerging consensus in this area.  That said, this still tends to yield advice based on leading edge country examples.  While the policy direction of countries like the U.S. or Singapore or South Korea or the UK may indeed typify or embody leading edge 'expert' thinking, this may not always be what is most needed, or indeed relevant, for less developed countries.

What then, to do? One way to proceed is simply to ignore international experience and forget about international benchmarks and just concentrate on local knowledge and local experience to guide efforts.  Other options we have seen:

[-] Call an academic or identify a consultant based on her/his cross-country knowledge, especially one who has worked in this area before, and hire that person
[-] Open your favorite search engine and search for things like ICT education policy and see what comes up (and then use the resulting documents as sort of global benchmarks)
[-] Seek the assistance of an international organization (like the World Bank, UNESCO, the IDB, etc.) or, something we see happen more often in practice, a large vendor who supplies goods and services related to ICT use in education (while critics may ascribe ulterior motives to such actions, a number of large multinationals actually do quite good work at the policy level in this area -- the two things aren't necessarily mutually exclusive).

All of these options may be useful, but we think they could all benefit from having some more source material.

Side note:
With both World Links and the Toolkit, we found that the *process* of ICT/education policy formulation itself is at least as important as the result. On numerous occasions, we found that consultations around the development of new policies were the first time that important decision makers from across key ministries involved in educational technology activities had actually met with each other (education, ICT, telecomm), and/or with some key civil society groups or firms active in the area.  The networks of people and institutions that developed as a result of this consultation not only allowed for wider perspective, greater understanding of needs and capabilities across the system, and early buy-in from key actors, but also help smooth the way for things once they moved into the (inevitably messy) implementation process. It should perhaps go without saying -- but we'll say it anyway -- that the process itself also can prove to be an important mechanism for actually building capacity in this area among key decision makers, actors and stakeholders.

So here's what we're doing: We're building a database of all policies of this sort. (And plans too: Sometimes what is labeled a plan looks suspiciously like a policy to us, and vice versa, and in some cases the documents are one in the same.  While respecting the difference between policies and plans, we find in practice that many times these sorts of things bleed together, and rather than try to make judgments about the difference, we figure it’s prudent just to collect things that carry both titles and then let the actual substance of the documents guide us.)  We have just released our latest attempt at a comprehensive list of ICT/education policies.  If you have a look at it, you'll note a few things.

First, you'll probably note that we've missed something.  If so, please do let us know (either via the comments section below, the contact form on the EduTech blog, or via email or Twitter, if you are already in contact with us via those means). We make no claim to comprehensiveness -- although we do think this is the most comprehensive list available.

Second, you'll notice that we've only listed the titles of documents, and that the documents themselves aren't there.  We actually do have full copies of everything on our list, but given that we are a large international public institution, simply uploading these to our web site has proven to be problematic. Some countries have said 'that is only our draft policy, we haven't published it ourselves, so you shouldn't either'. (At the same time, we note to ourselves that it is actually the de facto policy guiding action, even if it only articulated in an unofficial way -- like a PowerPoint presentation or a page buried on a government web site -- or that it is already available on the Internet if you know where to look.) In some cases, we have been told only to show the most recent policy (we note that the policy environment of one country in 2004 may still be relevant to another country in 2012 -- in fact, it may be more relevant than the most recent version, depending on the context). Where there is no translation available in a major international language, we have had policies informally translated internally, but posting such documents can be problematic if they are not 'formally' endorsed by countries (a process which can take some time).

This may lead you to wonder why we don't just then link to individual documents.  We have found that these documents tend to disappear with regularity from the web, and that trying to maintain and up-to-date list of links was a huge task. If you know the document title, however, we expect that you can search for it and find it -- if it is still available (we do note that websites of ministries of education regrettably are not always terribly reliable in this regard). 

Doing this alone isn't enough to help a country posing the simple question at the top of this blog post, of course, but it is, we think, helpful. (Our #1 worst practice in ICT use in education, is, after all, 'simply provide access and then sit back and let the magic happen.' If only that worked!) The idea is, at a basic level, to surface source documents from a wider variety of countries.  In other words, make available not just summaries of these documents, but the actual language of the documents themselves.  (A quick note to those tech-savvy consultants who like to cut-and-paste from their previous policy advice and insert similar language into key documents as part of your engagement with another country -- this may make your actions a little easier to detect!)

This is only the start of a series of related types of work. We're doing summaries as well, in addition to proposing a framework for analyzing such policy documents, based on what the documents themselves actually appear to say (and not just what we think is important).  We'll also do some analysis.  The idea, however, is to break everything into pieces, so that what we're doing is transparent.  In other words, instead of just publishing 'recommendations', we want to surface everything that we used to reach these recommendations (the data, our analytical framework for understanding these data, the tools and methodologies we use to analyze the data, and supporting analysis). The hope is that this will enable others to do similar work as well, and perhaps reach different recommendations, if they so wish -- or even do something quite different, drawing on the same knowledgebase.

We are certainly cognizant of the fact that policy intent doesn't necessarily translate into action, and that what's written on a page or communicated in a policy speech can be unrealistic, or interpreted in different ways, or even (gasp) ignored. Fair enough, but we do think trying to document intent does have a value.  Across the world, it has proven devilishly difficult in many instances to assess the impact of educational technology projects.  There are a number of reasons for this. Complicating actions to gauge impact in many places is the fact that we don't have rigorously obtained, globally comparable data on what is actually happening, and about what people intended to happen in the first place (something which policies can help identify, even if they are at times imperfect proxies).

All of this is part of the World Bank's larger System Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results (SABER) initiative. The ICT/education policy work is one part of what is known within the World Bank as SABER-ICT; we'll share information about additional parts of this on-going work in upcoming blog posts.
 

Also of potential interest:

[-] GeSCI's list of ICTs in Education (ICT4E) Policies and Plans worldwide (August 2011) [pdf]
 

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("lots of paper files on digital policies") comes via Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

Comments

Submitted by JoeN on
Tremendously informative post Mike, many thanks for the various pointers. But in an effort to give as well as take: I'm not at all sure the lead question is the right one. The more I look at recent history and the more I see the same mistakes being repeated, the more I think we're in a landscape that is simply moving too fast for any policy to have meaning. At the International Symposium on Open and Distance Learning in Turkey last year, I got virtually a standing ovation when I said no school, college or university can ever be "e-ready" or "e-confident" (to quote just two of the policy makers favourite bits of rhetoric) because the technology evolves so fast they will always be playing catch up.

Hi Joe, Thanks for your comment. We take your point. I actually have a (deliberately provocative) presentation that I have given to policymakers in a few countries as part of their policy planning processes on "things you don't want to hear", and #7 is "You will never 'catch up' (technological innovations will always outpace your ability to innovate on the policy side)". That said, I don't take this to imply that policies (nor the policymaking process, given that the process of consultation around policy formulation can perhaps be as important as the resulting policy that results) have no value. Articulating some sort of principle or rule to guide decisions (which is a basic definition of what a policy is) is quite important, I think, even in areas that are fast moving, like those related to technology. (Some may argue, in fact, that it is *especially* in areas that are fast moving where policy direction can be most helpful in many regards.) This is not to say that we shouldn't acknowledge our limitations here -- of course we should. That said, saying we will never catch up doesn't mean we shouldn't try -- and the way we frame our policies just might help us as we try to do so. One of the things we hope do to with our work under SABER-ICT is (in a modest, admittedly incomplete way) to help policymakers learn by seeing how others around the world are attempting to grapple with many of the same problems that are confronting. Right now many policymakers in middle and low income countries, to the extent they look outside of the borders of their own countries for insights into how to provide useful direction for their education systems as various ICTs are introduced into them, look to some of the most 'advanced' countries in the world for policy models. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this ... but we think that ... just perhaps ... lessons (for better and for worse) can be drawn from other places as well.

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