When planning for new initiatives that will introduce and/or utilize information and communications technologies (ICTs) in some way, a simple general rule of thumb is worth considering:
The best technology is often the one you already have, know how to (and do) use, and can afford. In many places around the world, this technology is the mobile phone.
This is not to contend that 'new' technology devices should not be considered -- far from it! Rather, this general guidance is meant to serve as a reminder for planners and decisionmakers to consider how it might be possible to take advantage of and leverage *existing* technologies, and the activities and processes these technologies enable, before committing to introduce totally new (or foreign) technology tools into a given environment. Just because something is new doesn't mean that it is automatically better. Of course: It doesn't mean that it is worse, either.
At a conceptual level, when considering what technology devices are to be utilized as part of a given project or activity, mobile phones may often be the 'best' technology. But: Does that make the mobile phone an appropriate or practical technology choice for use in schools, and/or by students and teachers?
When it comes to mobile phones and the education sector, things aren't so simple, and answers vary considerably by place -- and are changing. In some countries and schools, mobile phones are not allowed at all for students (and in some cases for teachers as well) and/or their use is limited to certain circumstances inside (and in some instances even outside) of school. In other places, phones are allowed with few restrictions. In yet other places, long time bans on phones are being reversed. Even where bans are in place, phones are still to be found in schools, for better and for worse, and they are used for a variety of purposes (again, for better and for worse).
What are some current perspectives and practices related to
the use of mobile phones in schools and education systems around the world?
Begun in 2004 by the ICT/education team at UNESCO-Bangkok, who were later joined by AED, Knowledge Enterprise and the infoDev program of the World Bank (where I worked), the ICT in Education Toolkit for Policy Makers, Planners and Practitioners was utilized as part of policy planning and review processes in over thirty middle and low counties in the course of the following decade.
In support of face-to-face and online interactions that typically lasted for many months (and in a few cases, years), mainly in countries in East Asia and the Pacific, the Toolkit provided interactive instruments and step-by-step guidelines to assist education policy makers, planners and practitioners in the process of 'harnessing the potential of ICTs to meet educational goals and targets efficiently and effectively'.
The toolkit was designed with the needs of two specific groups in mind: (1) Key decisionmakers in countries and educational institutions as they struggled with the challenge of introducing and integrating ICTs into education; and (2) program officers and specialists in international development agencies as they identified, prepared and appraised ICT-in-education projects or ICT components of education projects.
The ICT in EducationToolkit itself is no longer in use -- with the great changes in technology over the past ten years, maintaining an online toolkit of this sort proved to be too difficult. That said, a number of key lessons emerged from this effort which might be quite relevant to policymakers going forward who are seeking to provide policy guidance, direction and oversight on issues related to the use of new technologies in education systems.
While I don't know to what extent others may have actually found this list helpful, I have seen this document referenced over the years in various funding proposals, and by other funding agencies. Over the past week I've (rather surprisingly) heard two separate organizations reference this rather old document in the course of considering some of their research priorities going forward related to investigating possible uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help meet educational goals in low income and middle countries around the world, and so I wondered how these 50 research questions had held up over the years.
Are they still relevant?
What did we miss, ignore or not understand?
The list of research questions to be investigated going forward was a sort of companion document to Knowledge maps: What we know (and what we don't) about ICT use in education in developing countries. It was in many ways a creature of its time and context. The formulation of the research questions identified was in part influenced by some stated interests of the European Commission (which was co-funding some of the work) and I knew that some research questions would resonate with other potential funders at the time (including the World Bank itself) who were interested in related areas (see, for example, the first and last research questions). The list of research questions was thus somewhat idiosyncratic, did not presume to be comprehensive in its treatment of the topic, and was not intended nor meant to imply that certain areas of research interest were 'more important' than others not included on the list.
That said, in general the list seems to have held up quite well, and many of the research questions from 2005 continue to resonate in 2015. In some ways, this resonance is unfortunate, as it suggests that we still don't know answers to a lot of very basic questions. Indeed, in some cases we may know as little in 2015 as we knew in 2015, despite the explosion of activity and investment (and rhetoric) in exploring the relevance of technology use in education to help meet a wide variety of challenges faced by education systems, communities, teachers and learners around the world. This is not to imply that we haven't learned anything, of course (an upcoming EduTech blog post will look at two very useful surveys of research findings that have been published in the past year), but that we still have a long way to go.
Some comments and observations,
with the benefit of hindsight and when looking forward
The full list of research questions from 2005 is copied at the bottom of this blog post (here's the original list as published, with explanation and commentary on individual items).
The World Bank is concluding an analysis of over 800 policy documents related to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education from high, middle and low income countries around the world in order to gain insight into key themes of common interest to policymakers. This is work is part of the institution's multi-year efforts under its Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative to provide policy-relevant guidance for education decisionmakers in a number of policy 'domains' (including areas such as workforce development; school finance; teachers; management information systems; equity and inclusion; and student assessment).
This analysis of ICT/education policies under the SABER-ICT research initiative suggests that there is a set of eight common themes which are, in various ways, typically addressed in such documents. The specific related policy guidance related to each theme often differs from place to place, and over time, as do the emphasis and importance ascribed to this guidance. Nevertheless, some clear messages emerge from an analysis of this collected database of policy documents, suggesting some general conventional wisdom about 'what matters most' from the perspective of policymakers when it comes to technology use in their education systems, and how this changes as ICT use broadens and deepens.
It should be noted that what appears to matter most to policymakers, at least according to the official policy documents that they draft and circulate related to ICT use in education, may not in fact be what *actually* matters most from the perspectives of students, teachers, school leaders, parents and local communities, politicians, local industry, academics, researchers and other various key stakeholders and beneficiaries.
Whether one agrees with apparent policy intent or not, being able to identify such intent can be a catalyst for important discussions and analysis:
Is this really what's most important? Does this policy rhetoric match our on-the-ground reality?
If not: What can or should be done?
If you want to see the future of online education, lots of people will tell you to head out to Silicon Valley or New York City or Cambridge (either of them) or London -- or to some other ('highly developed') place that tends to be written about by the (English-speaking) press. Fair enough: You can find lots of cool stuff going on in such locations.
I tend to think that it can be even more interesting to talk with local groups and people exploring 'innovation at the edges', especially those who are trying to solve educational challenges in places outside of the 'highly developed industrialized economies' of North America and Europe, Australia and Japan. If you believe that some of the most interesting innovations emerge at the edges, talking with NGOs, start-ups and companies in places like Nairobi or Cape Town, Mumbai or Bangalore, Jakarta or Karachi, who are trying to address educational needs, contexts and challenges of a different nature and magnitude than one finds in, say, Germany or Canada or Korea, can be pretty eye-opening. Observing what is happening in 'developing countries' -- where, after all, most of the world lives -- can provide a quite different perspective on what the 'future of education' might look like. This is especially the case in places where people are not trying to port over educational applications, content and experiences developed e.g. for desktop PCs and laptops, but are rather pursuing a mobile first approach to the use of technologies in education.
If you want to get a glimpse of what the (or at least "a") future of online education might look like in much of the world, you might want to direct your gaze to consider what's happening in a place that combines attributes from, and shares challenges with, education systems in both 'highly developed' and 'less developed' countries, somewhere with a significant urban population as well as large populations in rural areas. A place, in other words, like ... China.
A few years ago I was visiting a high school in central Russia and stopped by a chemistry class near the end of the day. It looked, more or less, like a chemistry class that one might see in many places around the world: kids in white lab coats pouring stuff into beakers, taking measurements and scribbling results on their notepads (and then doing the same thing again, and again).
The students were hurrying to collect their data so that they could compare them with other groups in the class -- and, it turned out, with the results 'from Toronto'. 'Toronto?' I asked, a little confused. 'What do you mean?'
I was told that the class was linked via Skype to a chemistry class in a high school outside Canada's largest city, which was doing the exact same experiment. 'Go have a look', one of the Russian kids said, nodding his head toward a computer monitor on a nearby table that showed a row of beakers much like those on the tables near me. The Russian student turned on the nearby microphone, called out a name ... and two heads popped up on the screen, attached to bodies halfway around the world. The students greeted each other, made a quick joke about the Maple Leafs and Ak Bars (the respective local hockey teams), and then started discussing the experiment.
The teacher later told me that she had been communicating with teachers in other countries whom she had found on the Internet and had been using Skype for about a year to connect to some of their classrooms, in order to demonstrate to her kids how science is really a global language, and how important it is to share your findings with the whole world. The local education officials who were with me on the school tour got very excited about all of this -- they had never seen such a thing. Yes, when I think about it, it is pretty neat, the teacher responded. Despite the occasional communication problem or technical glitch, however, her students really didn't really think this was a very big deal. Many of them were used to playing videogames with kids in other countries over the Internet already, she said, and to them this was in some ways just more of the same.
[As I noted when presenting the earlier list: I don't pretend to be an 'expert' on this stuff -- although I have learned from many folks whom I think probably deserve such a label) -- and no doubt there is at least one potential exception to every rule of thumb or guideline or piece of advice I present below. As with the earlier list, I make no claims to comprehensiveness; some important things are no doubt discussed incompletely, and others perhaps not at all. That said, hopefully there is something here that some of you might find useful -- or which provokes you in useful ways.]
Almost twenty years ago, the World Bank president was scheduled to visit some schools in Uganda. Around that time, the Bank was exploring the possibility of investing in videoconferencing to connect its offices, and those of its counterparts in government ministries, to each other as a way to promote more regular dialogue (and, it is probably worth noting, to save some travel costs as a result).
Wouldn't it be excellent, Jim Wolfensohn asked, if we could somehow connect these kids in Uganda to schools back in the United States in some way using the Internet so that they could talk to each other and exchange ideas -- can this be done?
A World Bank colleague (who was soon to become my boss) said, 'yes sir, absolutely, we can do this.' At the time, it turned out that he actually had no idea how to get this done ... but he and a few other bright people eventually figured it out, the schools were connected, and Ugandan and American kids talked with each other via video in real time, more or less successfully. (Video-chatting over the Internet back in 1996/1997 was an often frustrating endeavor, but, given enough energy and more than a little luck, it did -- kind of, sort of, sometimes -- work.) Out of this small 'success' was born the 'school-to-school initiative', which soon was renamed the 'World Links for Development' program and which over the next decade worked with ministries of education in 20+ middle and low countries around the world to help connect schools, teachers and students to the Internet -- and to each other.
Obviously, much has changed from 1996 to 2015. Information and communication technology itself has, of course, changed dramatically: There is more of it; it is more powerful; it is faster; it is cheaper; it is available to many more people; and many more people know how to, and do, use it as part of their daily lives. Just because the tools to make connections between teachers and learners across national borders have improved a lot, however, doesn't mean that it is easy to actually make and sustain such connections over time in ways that are useful -- and sometimes even exciting.
Because of my experience with World Links (and a number of other similar efforts), I am often approached by groups looking (to quote from one related representative email inquiry) to 'connect teachers and students around the world in order to engage in enriching collaborative learning projects together to promote global peace and understanding and develop 21st century skills and competencies'. To the extent it might be of interest to anyone (and just possibly to save myself and others the time it takes to meet to discuss such things in person or over email), I thought I'd share some hard-won lessons and perspectives about what seems to work (and what doesn't) when it comes to connecting teachers and students around the world to each other so that they can achieve whatever it is they hope to achieve as a result of such connections.
I don't pretend to be an 'expert' on this stuff (although I have learned from many folks whom I think probably deserve such a label), and no doubt there is at least one potential exception to every rule of thumb or guideline or piece of advice I present below. The list of things discussed here makes no claims to comprehensiveness. That said, hopefully there is something here that some of you might find useful -- or which provokes you in useful ways.
The buzz around this buzzword in education (the need for it, the celebrations of it, the challenges in catalyzing it) continues to get louder and louder, and the word itself seems to get invoked with increasing (almost de facto) frequency as part of discussions about the need for change.
How are we to meet and overcome many of the pressing, endemic, and sometimes seemingly intractable challenges facing learners, educators, education policymakers and education systems around the world if we aren't being innovative in how we define (and redefine) our problems -- and in how we propose to go about solving them?
There are many groups, events and activities that seek to document, share knowledge about, analyze and assess various 'innovations in education' around the world. The annual World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar, for example, focuses explicitly on this theme. R4D's Center for Education Innovations does as well, in partnership with many international groups, including UNICEF (which has a special initiative on 'innovations in education' and whose much-lauded Innovations unit is for many of us a model for excellence within the international donor and aid community). The OECD's widely-read report last year on Measuring Innovations in Education seeks to offer "new perspectives to address th[e] need for measurement in educational innovation through a comparison of innovation in education to innovation in other sectors, identification of specific innovations across educational systems, and construction of metrics to examine the relationship between educational innovation and changes in educational outcomes."
Some observers may feel that this explicit focus on 'innovation in education' is overblown. We don't fund a lot of things sufficiently that we already know work, why don't we first concentrate on that stuff? Others may note that some 'innovations' in education promoted today have actually been around for decades, and thus perhaps no longer really qualify as 'innovations'. Sometimes the only 'innovation' in a particular 'new' approach is to utilize some new technology to do pretty much exactly what was done before, but now 'digitally', and in a way requiring a power cable or batteries. (I am not too sure that many of these things are really all that 'innovative', but many people who keep sending me related proposals seem to be convinced that they are.) Still others detect in many discussions around the need for 'innovation in education' the guiding hand of 'corporate education reformers' and/or of technology vendors with products to sell, and, as a result of past experiences, ideological leanings, an inherent tendency towards skepticism or a satisfaction with the status quo, and/or political calculus, reflexively push back (if not indeed recoil).
'Innovations in education' are about much more than just technology use, of course -- but there is also no denying that new information and communications technologies (ICTs) of various sorts continue to enable and catalyze many of the innovations that are being explored in the sector, whether they relate to e.g. teacher training; assessment; data collection and management; payment mechanisms; stakeholder engagement and transparency; or changes in the teaching and learning processes themselves; and whether they originate in the public, non-profit or corporate sectors (or even, as for example is the case of distributed communities of people working together to help build new software or educational content in ways that are 'free' or 'open', out of no traditional or easily definable 'sector' at all).
Sometimes the ICTs are hard to miss (as is the case with Uruguay’s pioneering Plan Ceibal), and sometimes they are behind the scenes (innovative low cost private schooling schemes like those pioneered by groups like Bridge Academies, for example, depend heavily on the use of ICTs to promote efficiency and cut costs), but increasingly they are there. Many traditional groups active in advocating for funding efforts to help end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity (the twin goals of the World Bank) are increasingly challenged to identify, make sense of and support the diffusion of 'innovations in education' in ways that are useful and efficient and cost-effective – and potentially, from time to time, even transformative.
Back in 1997, World Links for Development began as a pilot program of the World Bank Institute exploring ways that information and communications technologies (ICTs) could be effectively used to help "prepare youth in developing countries to enter an information age". Most of the country programs (there were eventually 26 of them), especially those in Africa, represented the first organized attempt to provide schools with Internet connectivity and a suite of related teacher training and professional development support activities.
The national programs typically started quite small, with initial cohorts of 10-20 pilot schools, growing to a few hundred schools in some cases. A number of the programs were later absorbed into larger national educational technology efforts, and the global program itself gradually evaporated, its purpose to help kick start organized efforts to utilize educational technologies within participating countries no longer needed.
Over a decade later, many of the initial pilot schools remain leading examples in their countries of how schools, teachers and students are utilizing new technologies in various ways to help support teaching and learning. While many of the challenges related to the successful and effective introduction of technologies in schools remain (the exploration of these challenges is of course a common topic explored on the World Bank's EduTech blog), a number of things have changed quite a bit.
The once strong links between such schools (and between the teachers and students in them), and the sense that they were essentially working laboratories where new innovations could be introduced and tested before later being considered as components of larger rollouts of large scale educational technology projects, have for the most part disappeared in many places, as the use of ICTs in education has become more mainstream across an education system and the uniqueness of the individual schools -- at least related to the fact they had computers and were connected to the Internet -- has gradually eroded.
In other words, what were essentially national leagues of schools doing innovative things with new technologies, with school leaders, teachers and students networked together to share experiences and support collaborative teaching and learning activities, ceased to exist in many countries in dedicated, structured, organized ways.
What models exist today to help in establishing and maintaining
a national league of innovative schools?
Where such leagues exist, what value might there be
in them connecting them with each other across borders
so that students, teachers and school leaders can share experiences
and pursue collaborative learning activities and research?
We need to connect our schools to the Internet. While it may not (yet) be viable to do so in many countries, few education policymakers would question this general aspiration.
Of course, questions related to the speed and nature of this connection are being articulated and considered in different ways around the world, with answers determined by a mix of factors, including what is technologically feasible, what is pedagogically useful and, in the end, what is affordable. Calculations around what it may cost to connect schools to the Internet, and to keep them connected, in ways that are useful and relevant to learners and teachers (as well as to administrators and families), differ widely from place to place -- as do approaches on how to pay for these costs.
Over the past two decades, I have spent a lot of time helping to facilitate policy planning sessions with governments around issues related to technology use in education. Whether this work was part of efforts by the World Links program, linked to the use of the ICT in Education Toolkit supported by infoDev and UNESCO, or as part of more mainstream World Bank advisory activities, mechanisms and approaches by which countries can connect their schools to the Internet have always been a major area of discussion.
It may seem like a small thing, but one of the signature successes of many of these planning efforts wasn't the development of a related policy document outlining a vision and approach for how new technologies could and would be used to support a variety of education objectives. That was almost always the stated goal, but, as anyone who has worked in policymaking circles knows well, committing something to paper is no guarantee that what was drafted will ever actually be implemented -- nor that what's implemented will in the end have any beneficial impact 'on-the-ground'. No, in many cases the most important thing that happened in practice was to connect a diverse set of actors from outside the education sector together with the 'usual suspects' from within education ministries. The fact that you had, in the same room and at the same time, education officials sitting together with officials from the telecom authority, and the IT and finance ministries, as well as representatives from civil society and the private sector -- often times we found that this was the first time ever that all of these groups had talked collectively about how they might work in coordination to help meet some of the shared goals that all of them had related to technology use and education.
One mechanism that is integral to initiatives to connect schools in some countries (and thus which features prominently in these sorts of planning discussions), but which is largely unknown in others (and thus doesn't feature at all), is the use of so-called Universal Service Funds to help pay for such efforts.
For those not familiar with the concept or practice: