Many countries are investing enormous amounts of resources and effort to increase the availability of information and communication technologies (ICTs) across their education systems. So-called "1-to-1 computing" initiatives are increasingly prominent as part of such efforts. In some places these are important components of larger educational reform processes that seek to enable and support teaching and learning processes in ways both mundane and profound, traditional and (to adopt a common related buzzword) transformative. In other places these are largely 'hardware dumps', dropping in lots of shiny new devices with little attention to how to integrate them into teaching and learning practices. Common to both circumstances is often an intense belief that 'change' of some sort is necessary if students are to be able to thrive in increasingly technology-saturated, and technology-determined, global economies and societies. While the vision behind many large-scale 1-to-1 educational computing projects may be rather hazy or muddled, they do represent potent symbols for change in many countries. Even if the end goals are not always clearly defined, these efforts are in part a reflection of the belief, as proclaimed by one participant at this year global symposium, that "the status quo is more dangerous than the unknown".
To help set the stage for the discussions that were to follow, I opened the first session at this year's global symposium on ICT use in education by sharing a short series of general, broad observations about trends and lessons from 1-to-1 educational computing efforts around the world. In case they might be of any interest or utility to a wider audience, I thought I would share them here on the EduTech blog. These comments are not meant to be comprehensive in scope, nor are they meant to be focused (like so much of the research and rhetoric around 1-to-1 easily available on the Internet) on the experiences and realities of what 1-to-1 currently looks like in 'highly developed' countries (especially the United States).
Trends and Lessons from
1-to-1 Educational Computing Efforts Around the World:
Not too long ago I did some advisory work in a country considering the purchases of lots of educational tablets. Previously this country had funded lots of computer labs in schools, but they had experienced great difficulties in integrating these facilities into 'normal' teaching and learning activities. Buying devices as part of a '1-to-1 educational computing' initiative, it was felt, would get around many of the difficulties they had experienced with desktop computers in dedicated school computer labs. (I had my doubts about this.)
When observing a class, I noticed that all of the students had the same backpacks. "What's up with that?", I asked.
"Oh, it is very interesting," came the reply. "Those backpacks are purchased by the state for use by low income students. You can see from the fact that all of these backpacks are in the room that the children here are from very low socio-economic levels in society."
I then asked how many of the students had a phone in their backpack. All of them but one (who said he forgot his at home, someone else told me later it had been stolen) said that they did, and most students pulled them out to show me.
After asking a few follow-up questions about what they did with them (Facebook! and texting! were the two most common answers) and once class had resumed, I turned to my counterparts in government and observed that I also "found this all very interesting. You are going to buy lots of small computing devices for these students to use by spending public funds, in part because they are not using the devices that you purchased for them before. Despite the fact they are all poor enough to qualify to receive free government backpacks, all of their families have somehow found the money to buy them mobile phones, which they obviously all use quite heavily. Have you thought about taking advantage of this personal computing infrastructure that is already installed in the pockets and pocketbooks (or backpacks) of the students, and orienting some your investments for different purposes, like upgrading connectivity and/or spending more funds on content and/or training?"
I once did some advisory work for a country's finance ministry in advance of a national presidential election where the two leading candidates were both promising to buy lots of laptops for students if elected. The Minister of Finance wanted to be prepared to respond to what he considered to be a likely related request for lots (!) of money, whichever way the election turned out.
This was a bit strange for me, as I more typically help out ministries of education (or ministries of ICT) as they prepare projects for which they would be requesting funding (from the finance ministry and/or parliament). Instead of serving as a resource for the folks who prepare such funding proposals, my role in this case was instead to prep the folks who would get this funding request so that they would be better able to analyze and vet the request, whenever it inevitably arrived. (Within the World Bank, this is one of the roles I serve -- I had just never done this for a ministry of finance directly.)
While my governmental counterpart in this case was perhaps a bit out of the ordinary, this general scenario is one I see repeated in place after place. The devices themselves may change over time (first PCs, then laptops, now increasingly tablets, and soon [insert name of whatever comes next]), but this impulse to buy lots of shiny new devices and distribute them to schools (or directly to students or teachers or families) shows no sign of abating soon.
Let's say that you're a senior advisor in the ministry of education and you get word that your country's president is about to announce a big new project to 'buy every student her own tablet computing device so that she can develop the 21st century skills necessary to compete for jobs in the global economy'. Perhaps the leader of your country just returned from visiting a European country and was impressed to see all of the devices in the school that she visited. Maybe she was won over by the compelling marketing pitch of a particular vendor. Perhaps she has heard that the leader of the opposition is planning on calling for this sort of initiative and she wants to preemptively make it her own. Or maybe she just got her first iPad and was really impressed and has decided that everyone should have one of these things! (For what it's worth, these are all real life examples ... although I have deliberately mixed up the gender pronouns in at least one case.)
No matter the genesis of this newfound interest, you sense that, whatever you were working on last week/month/year will have to be put on hold, because your life is about to become
What should you do? What do you need to know? Has anyone else tried such a thing, and if so, what have they learned? Whom do you need to contact for information/advice, and what sorts of questions should you ask them -- and ask yourself?
MOOCs -- massively open online courses of the sort that can simultaneously enroll thousands, even tens of thousands, of learners simultaneously -- have been a hot topic of discussion for a few years now in both the worlds of education and 'international development' (and, for what it's worth, the subject of numerous related posts here on the World Bank's EduTech blog). Recent news that edX, one of the prominent MOOC platforms, is to start offering courses aimed at high school students suggests that the potential usefulness and impact of things like MOOCs may soon extend beyond the realm of higher education, out of which MOOCs originally emerged and where most related activity has occurred to date.
There is much (potentially) to be excited about here. Few would argue against having greater access to more learning opportunities, especially when those opportunities are offered for 'free', where there is latent unmet demand, and where the opportunities themselves are well constructed and offer real value for learners. As with MOOCs at the level of higher education, however, we perhaps shouldn't be too surprised if these new opportunities at the high school level are first seized upon *not* by some of the groups with the greatest learning needs -- for example, students in overcrowded, poorly resourced secondary schools in developing countries, or even students who would like a secondary education, but for a variety of reasons aren't able to receive one -- but rather by those best placed to take advantage of them. This has been largely been the case for initial adopters of MOOCs. (One of the first studies of this aspect of the 'MOOC Phenomenon', which looked at MOOCs from the University of Pennsylvania, found that students tended to be "young, well educated, and employed, with a majority from developed countries.")
As a practical matter, some of the first types of beneficiaries may, for example (and I am just speculating here), be homeschooling families in North America (while not necessarily comparatively 'rich' by local standards, such families need to be affluent enough to be able to afford to have one parent stay at home with the kids, and generally have pretty good Internet connectivity); international schools around the world (which can offer a broader range of courses to students interested in an 'American' education); and the families of 'foreign' students looking to apply to college in the United States (the edX course “COL101x: The Road to Selective College Admissions” looks, at least to my eyes, tailor made for certain segments of the population of learners in places like China, Korea, Hong Kong, etc.). In other words, at least in the near term, a Matthew Effect in Educational Technology may be apparent, where those who are best placed to benefit from the introduction of a new technology tool or innovation are the ones who indeed benefit from it the most.
Longer term, though, it is possible to view this news about movement of a major MOOC platform into the area of secondary education as one further indication that we are getting further along from the 'front end of the e-learning wave' (of which MOOCs are but one part) to something that will eventually have a greater mass impact beyond what is happening now in the 'rich' countries of North America and the OECD.
Learning with new technologies has of course been around for many decades but, broadly speaking, has not (yet) had the 'transformational' impact that has long been promised. "Gradually, then suddenly" is how one of Ernest Hemingway's characters famously describes how he went bankrupt. Might this be how the large scale adoption of educational technologies will eventually happen as well in much of the world?
f so, one credible potential tipping point may be a 'black swan' event that could push all of this stuff into the mainstream, especially in places where it to date has been largely peripheral: some sort of major health-related scare. (For those unfamiliar with the term, which was popularized by Nicholas Taleb, a 'black swan' is a rare event that people don't anticipate but which has profound consequences). One of the first ever posts on the EduTech blog, Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics, looked at some of what had been learned about how teachers and learners use new technologies to adapt when schools were closed in response to outbreaks involving the H1N1 influenza virus: the 'swine flu' that afflicted many in Mexico about six years ago; and an earlier outbreak of 'bird flu' in China. I have recently been fielding many calls as a result of the current outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa asking essentially, 'Can we do anything with technology to help our students while our schools are closed?', and so I thought it might be useful to revisit, and update, that earlier post, in case doing so might be a useful contribution to a number of related discussions are occurring.
Each year on 8 September, groups around the world gather together to celebrate "International Literacy Day", which is meant to highlight the importance of reading, and of being able to read. In the words of UNESCO, the UN organization which sponsors International Literacy Day, "Literacy is one of the key elements needed to promote sustainable development, as it empowers people so that they can make the right decisions in the areas of economic growth, social development and environmental integration." As contentious as issues around education around the world can be at times, there is little debate about the fundamental importance of literacy to most human endeavors.
New technologies can play important roles in helping to enable efforts and activities to teach people to learn how to read -- and to provide people with access to reading materials. As part of its communications outreach on International Literacy Day this year, for example, UNESCO highlighted recent experiences in Senegal targeting illiterate girls and women, where it has found that "mobile phones, computers, internet and TV make literacy courses much more attractive for illiterate women."
The potential for mobile phones and other mobile devices like e-readers to aid in literacy efforts has been a recurrent theme explored on the EduTech blog. In so-called 'developing countries', books may be scarce and/or expensive in many communities -- and reading materials that *are* locally available may not be of great interest or relevance to many potential readers. The fact that increasing numbers of people in such communities are carrying small portable electronic devices with them at all times capable of displaying text, and which indeed can hold tens, even thousands of digital 'books', has not gone unnoticed by organizations seeking to increase literacy and promote reading.
Based on my interactions with educational policymakers, and those who advise them, it seems to be a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that there is insufficient research into models of educational technology use, the impact of such use, and related costs. This is not to say that there is *no* useful research into the use of technology in education around the world, of course. Online tools like ERIC and SSRN can help you find some useful studies; the popular press and the blogosphere increasingly reference such work (sometimes even in ways where you can actually track down the referenced studies!); there are of course a lot of academic, industry and professional journals dedicated to the subject; and a healthy amount of 'grey' literature circulates informally (including stuff commissioned by companies that is never formally published). Firms also circulate 'white papers' touting the 'impact' of their products and services, something which I tend to place into its own separate category, given the commercial and marketing imperatives that often animate such work. That said, just because a lot of 'research' is produced doesn't mean that such research is helpful to meet the practical information demands of educational policymakers, planners and educators.
Even if you *are* of the opinion that there is indeed a lot of useful, policy- and practice-relevant research out there related to the use of technologies in education, the fact remains that most of our collective knowledgebase has been constructed as a result of studying and attempting to learn from experiences in 'highly developed' (OECD) countries. While there is always danger when trying to draw generalized lessons from a research study that examines a specific context, it would seem reasonable to me that the difficulties when looking to draw lessons from experiences in Quebec that might be relevant to Kansas or Canberra pale in comparison to those when trying to extend such lessons to policymakers making decisions which will affect students and teachers in places like Quito or Kampala -- let alone rural Cambodia.
Thankfully, there are a number of promising moves afoot which hope to direct more energy and resources to investigate issues and circumstances of relevance to those exploring the use of ICTs in education in middle and low income learning environments and contexts around the world. (As such efforts kick off, and especially as related studies emerge, we would hope to feature them on the EduTech blog.) Until we start to see results from these sorts of efforts, however, the practical reality is that, in most cases, policymakers in middle and low income countries who wish to draw lessons 'from the research' in order to inform their policymaking related to potential educational technology initiatives will continue to try to contextualize results from research in higher income countries in the attempt to divine what lessons (if any) might be relevant to their own circumstances, even in places where contexts for use and typical use cases may be quite different.
A previous EduTech blog post, "Evaluating the Khan Academy", explores some of the lessons that have emerged as a result of research by SRI into the use of Khan Academy in a number of schools in Northern California. For those who don't know it: The Khan Academy is a widely known and much celebrated educational website which features thousands of short video tutorials on educational topics, as well as linked sets of over 100,000 practice problems and a 'personal learning dashboard'. Policymakers from a number of countries have approached the World Bank for specific advice and guidance on how they might make use of Khan Academy resources within their schools, and during the course of related conversations (some of which were catalyzed by a talk given by SRI's Robert Murphy at the World Bank earlier this year, which was discussed in a subsequent blog post) we have passed along and discussed the Research on the Use of Khan Academy in Schools published by SRI -- as well as a report that appeared a few months ago from EDC that looked at the use of Khan Academy in Chile. While individual lessons and insights drawn from an analysis of the use of Khan Academy content at sites examined in the SRI and EDC reports may or may not be more broadly generalizable to other contexts, examining the various usage models documented and explored in those studies may help raise *questions* that might be relevant to educators and policymakers who work in other contexts.
What are some useful questions that policymakers in middle and low income countries might ask as they attempt to contextualize insights from the use of the Khan Academy in California and Chile as part of their efforts to investigate and plan for the use of digital learning resources from the Khan Academy (and from other sources as well) within their own education systems?
The World Bank's EduTech blog explores issues related to the use of information and communication technologies (computers, laptops, tablets, the Internet, ...) to benefit education in middle and low income countries around the world. While I tend to view, with a fair degree of skepticism, many of the statistics which purport to document just how many people have visited a particular web site, it seems that the EduTech blog was recently visited by its one millionth reader. When viewing the mass of blog posts in their entirety, together with our visitor logs and other relevant data, it is quite clear that BY FAR the single most popular post remains one I did over four years ago on 'worst practice in ICT use in education'. What was relevant back in 2010 appears still to be quite relevant today.
(This isn't always the case: If memory serves, I quickly drafted and published that particular blog post because I was having trouble completing one 'Exploring the Use of Second Life in Education' -- I'm guessing that the half-life for *that* one, had it even been finalized and published, would have been pretty short!)
Recent news articles -- whether reporting that the one tablet per child project in Thailand 'has been scrapped' or the decision of the school district in Hoboken, New Jersey (USA) to 'throw away all its laptops' -- suggest that debris continues to pile up on the landscape of 'failed' attempts to use new technologies effectively in education in various ways. The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera has a short story called "Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead". Sometimes I feel like this title could be adapted for use in an introductory essay to a book documenting many of the unfortunate 'educational technology deployments' that have been irresistible fodder for politicians and headline writers alike (and clickbait for folks on Twitter) over the past decade.
And yet .... just because we continue to hear variations on a sadly familiar theme, I don't know that the best response is to admit defeat, throw up our hands, throw everything away and go back to the 'good old days'. Learners would not be terribly well served if educational planners in 2014 simply decided to emulate the impulses and actions of Silesian weavers back in 1844 and smash all the machines in reaction to the spread of new technologies. Attempting to stuff this particular genie back in the bottle isn't only impractical: I would hazard a guess that it is well-nigh impossible.
The recent article on the Hoboken experience labels it a 'failed experiment'. Personally, I am not sure that this label fits in this particular case. In an experiment, it seems to me that you are usually trying to learn something. This rather large purchase of technology seems to me like yet another solution in search of a problem that no one bothered to actually tried to define in any meaningful way. I suspect that, at a fundamental level, the problem wasn't (really) with the technology. In other words: It seems more like human failure to me.
I get contacted from time to time by 'new' philanthropists looking to do something positive and productive with their wealth. Usually this is someone who has made a lot of money in the technology industry and who is now starting her or his own family foundation.
Chronologically speaking, many of these people are closer to what one would consider the age at which someone starts a career than the age at which one 'retires'. In other words: They are often rather young.
Based on my (admittedly limited) experience, many of these sorts of folks are often firm believers in the value of education (even if they themselves dropped out of formal schooling early to focus on writing code), in the transformative potential of technology (something which has profoundly and positively impacted their lives personally, offering them opportunities and riches they could never have dreamed of) and in the desire to do something globally (the person may be an immigrant her/himself, be married to an immigrant, have worked with lots of people from different countries or cultures, and/or just have done a lot of international travel).
Last year, for example, I was contacted by someone (writing on behalf of someone else) who wished to (I am slightly paraphrasing here) "explore innovative ways that technology can be harnessed to help overcome longstanding challenges in education around the world". (As for how such folks find me, they usually say: I stumbled across the EduTech blog.)
Given that I have been approached a number of times in a similar sort of way quite recently, and that I serve on a number of externally advisory boards where this sort of thing is discussed, I thought I'd share this scenario here, as well as little bit about some of the things I sometimes say in response, in case it might be of interest to anyone else:
Let's say I had the equivalent of a few million U.S. dollars
available to do something innovative at the intersection of
education and technology somewhere in the 'developing world'.
If it works out, a lot more money could potentially be used
to support activities further, and more systematically,
over a longer period of time.
If it doesn't work out -- well, that would not be great, of course,
but I am willing to take some risks.
I want to be innovative,
and would really like to do something
that no one else is doing.
What should my new foundation do, and how should we do it?
I must confess that, whenever I am asked these sorts of questions, I find it to be a rather exciting, and perhaps even a little terrifying, scenario. (Often times such adjectives are not mutually exclusive!)When presented with a blank canvas of this sort, where and how does one start to paint?
One persistent challenge for educational policymakers and planners related to the potential use of informational and communication technologies (ICTs) in remote, low income communities around the world is that most products, services, usage models, expertise, and research related to ICT use in education come from high-income contexts and environments.
One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and 'made to fit' into what are often much more challenging environments. When they don't work, or where they are too expensive to be replicated at any scale, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant -- and possibly irresponsible.
That said, lessons are being learned as a result of emerging practices, both good and bad, in the use of ICTs in education in low resource, poor, rural and isolated communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of educational technology initiatives in such environments. (It may even turn out that the technological innovations that emerge from such places many have a wider relevance …. but that is a topic for another discussion.)
Products like the BRCK (a connectivity device designed and prototyped in Nairobi, Kenya by many of the people behind Ushahidi to better address user needs in places where electricity and internet connections are, for lack of a better word, ‘problematic’) and MobiStation (a solar-powered 'classroom in a suitcase' which features a projector and lots of off-line educational content developed by UNICEF Uganda) remain notable exceptions to the lamentable reality that, for the most part, ‘solutions’ touted for use in schools in e.g. rural Africa, or in isolated communities in the Andes, are designed elsewhere, with little understanding of the practical day-to-day realities and contexts in which such technologies are to be used. Many people who have lived and worked in such environments are quite familiar with well-meaning but comparatively high cost efforts often informed more by the marketing imperatives embedded in many corporate social responsibility efforts than by notions of cost-effectiveness and sustainability over time or the results of user-centered design exercises.
As part of our work advising such groups over the years, we have observed that national ICT/education agencies -- the organizations found in many countries which serve as the focal groups coordinating large scale efforts to introduce, use and support new technologies in schools -- pass through a general ‘life-cycle’ over the course of their existence, with five semi-distinct stages of development.
Each stage may bring with it a new set of functional responsibilities and mandates, different staffing (including leadership) and budgeting requirements, and entail varied levels of oversight and relationships with other groups, causing organizational structures to adapt, and be adapted, over time.
This life-cycle hypothesis has been proposed as a simple tool to help people who play critical roles in the planning for large scale national educational technology initiatives to develop an understanding of how their organizations may compare with other organizations doing similar sorts of things in other parts of the world, and how they might expect that their organizations may evolve and change over time. Such an evolution can potentially have a profound impact on a variety of key decisions that policymakers may have to make related to funding, staffing, functions and coordination with a variety of key stakeholder groups over time. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether it is 'good' or 'bad' that a particular organization finds itself at one of these five identified stages. There also appears to be no hard and fast rule about how long individual institutions may stay at a particular stage in the life cycle. Some organizations may move quickly from one stage to another, others may stay in a particular stage for many years, even (potentially) decades. Most organizations observed around the world, especially those in middle and low income countries, find themselves today somewhere between the stages of 'childhood' and 'adolescence', with a heavy focus on the technology itself (buying it, rolling it out, supporting and maintaining it) and less of a focus on trying to integrate the technology into standard or transformed teaching and learning practices. While it is worth noting that this technology focus is not necessarily bad (or good) -- judgments of this sort are presumably more useful when made relative to certain specific contexts, and not in the abstract -- it is usually true that this focus is a direct consequence of the views of policy makers about how technology can and should be used in education.