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:
I've worked on, advised and evaluated educational technology projects in dozens of countries over the past fifteen years, mainly in middle and low income countries. As anyone who works intimately with information and communication technologies (ICTs) on a daily basis knows, change is a constant when working in the technology sector. (In contrast, while rhetoric about change is a constant in the education sector, change itself is much slower in coming ....) While the technologies themselves may change quite often, though, many of the most common questions related to their introduction and use remain largely the same.
I remember working with teachers in Ghana in the late 1990s as part of a pilot initiative to introduce computers and the Internet into a select number of schools in a few of the major cities. Towards the end of the third day of a five day workshop, we had a teacher show up at the door to our classroom, apologizing for his tardiness and asking if he could join the course. He explained that he had traveled for a few days to reach the small school outside Accra where out training activity was taking place, hitching rides on trucks and then transferring between long haul buses, because he had heard about this thing called the Internet that was going to "change education forever" and just had to see it for himself. Given how many people had wanted to take the course, we had a strict policy not to allow latecomers into the workshop, but we waived it for this gentlemen, because we were so taken by his story and by the hardship he had endured to join us.
We waived the policy for another reason as well. It is decidedly not politically correct to say so, but we also allowed this teacher into the class because he was ... old. He claimed to be over 70, but said he wasn't exactly sure of his exact birthdate, other than that it had occurred on a Friday. While my Ghanaian colleagues expressed some skepticism that this fellow was actually as old as he claimed, there was no doubt that he was decades older than any of us in the room. He was an English teacher, he said, noting that he had heard that it was possible to get access to all of Shakespeare's plays on the Internet, for free, and wanted to see how this was possible. A computer became available (the teachers using it had been frustrated that poor bandwidth kept interrupting their CU-SeeMe session and so decided to return to the dormitory before dinner), so we sat down, fired up Alta Vista, and typed in <<Shakespeare's plays>>.
After scanning the search results, one of the young teachers grabbed a mouse and pointed, clicked and scrolled her way through play after play after play. The older teacher was simply flabbergasted. He said something to the effect of, "Now I have seen everything. It has been my dream as an English teacher to be able to read all of Shakespeare's plays. Now all teachers will be able to do this. Education will change forever." We kept the computer lab open for a while so that he could be assured that all of them were indeed there ("There's Hamlet! The Tempest. Coriolanus!"); he promised that he would be the first one at the lab door once we opened the following morning. As we were shutting things down, he articulated a concern that I would hear voiced hundreds of times in the coming years, in many variations:
It would be very exciting for me to be a young teacher today now that the Internet is coming. But I am glad that I am not a young teacher, because I fear that these computers will eventually replace us teachers.
Since 2009, the World Bank's EduTech blog has attempted to "explore issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit education in developing countries".
While the 30+ posts in 2014 spanned a wide range of topics, a few themes emerged again and again. The emerging relevance and use of mobile phones (in various ways and to various ends) in the education sector continued to be a regular area of discussion, as were efforts to collect (more, better) data to help us understand what is actually happening around the world related to technology use in education, with a specific interest in circumstances and contexts found in middle and low income 'developing' countries.
While technology use is typically considered a characteristic of more 'advanced' countries and education systems, the EduTech blog deliberately sought in 2014 to complicate this belief and bias a bit by looking at efforts specifically meant to be relevant (and which were in some cases indigenous) to some of the 'least advanced' places in the world.
Before getting on to this year's 'top ten' list, a few reminders (which might be familiar to some of you who have read the earlier annual EduTech blog round-ups: I've copied some of this verbatim):
Posts on the EduTech blog are not meant to be exhaustive in their consideration of a given topic, but rather to point to interesting developments and pose some related questions that might be of interest.
These blog posts should not be mistaken for peer-reviewed research or World Bank policy papers (although some of the content may later find its way into such publications). The views expressed on the EduTech blog are those of the author(s) alone, and not those of the World Bank. (In other words: Blame the guy who wrote them, and not his bosses or institution, for anything you find inaccurate or disagreeable here.)
The blog itself is animated by a belief that, by 'thinking aloud in public', we can try (in an admittedly very modest but hopefully useful way) to open up conversations about various themes to wider audiences, sharing emerging thinking and discussions on topics that often have been, and regrettably often remain, discussed largely 'behind closed doors' within small circles of people and institutions.
Last month saw the release of the latest annual Survey of ICT use in Brazilian Schools. Now in its fourth year, this initiative from Brazil's Center of Studies on Information and Communication Technologies (or CETIC, to use its acronym in Portuguese) is emerging as a model for how many other countries are considering conducting -- and funding -- regular data collection activities related to the increasing availability and use of various educational technologies within their education systems. The survey results, as well as a number of accompanying essays, are presented in one volume [pdf] in both Portuguese and English.
In addition to offering a current ‘snapshot' of what's happening in schools, now that four years of data have been collected related to a number of common themes, the survey finds that some trends are becoming apparent. One trend which will come as no surprise to those who know Brazil is that there are some significant variations in many data by region. (Whereas municipal Rio de Janiero is in many regards a leader in educational technology use in South America, for example, the practical reality of ICT use in schools in northern and northeastern Brazil is much different.)
Some high level findings from this most recent survey:
Schools in urban areas have an average of 19 computers, serving an average of just over 650 students. Most of these are in administrative offices and dedicated computer labs. While classroom and mobile access are growing quickly, with 30% of teachers reporting that classrooms are now the main venue for computer use in their school, labs remain the main point of access to computing facilities overall. (For what it's worth, almost half of Brazilian households report having a computer.)
95% percent of schools with computers are connected to the Internet (no word if any computer-less schools are connected!), although the speed of these connections leaves more than a little to be desired: Only 39% of schools meet the minimum target of 2 Mbps for schools in Brazil.
Almost half of public school teachers with their own laptops brought them to school, and most professional development related to technology use for teachers is a result of their own efforts (and thus not the result of government training programs).
For the first time, teachers were surveyed on the reasons behind their use of digital teaching and learning resources, and it appears that most of this use is self-motivated (i.e. a result of personal choice by teachers, and not something mandated, or necessarily even encouraged, by official education authorities). As the report states, "The ICT Education survey presents a scenario of relative autonomy for teachers in terms of educational content, given that the proportion of teachers that combine isolated contents such as images and texts is higher, surpassing access to video lectures and readymade presentations. The data indicate the importance of teacher initiative in the use of digital content in their teaching practices, as well as a concern for the demands of and benefits to students and colleagues. The reduced mention of institutionalized incentive – whether from the school administration or government authorities – indicates an important field for the development of public policies in the area."
As public policies in this area continue to evolve across Brazil, the actions of a number of private foundations in supporting innovative uses of educational technologies are helping to suggest possible ways forward. A notable group in this regard is the Sao Paulo-based Fundação Lemann. Denis Mizne, who heads the Lemann Foundation (to use its English language name, which is how I'll refer to it here), stopped by the World Bank back in September and shared emerging lessons from initiatives supported by his foundation and partners to translate and implement the Khan Academy for use in Brazilian schools.
Support for the Khan Academy is one of a number of projects from the Lemann Foundation that are exploring innovative answers to the question, "How can we make sure we are making the best use of the short time available for instruction within schools in Brazil?"
I have transcribed my notes from the Mizne talk below, together with some short explanatory background as might be relevant, in case they might be of interest to a wider audience than just those who attended the related presentation in person at the World Bank.
What's the impact of technology use on education, and on learning?
This simple question is rather difficult to answer, for a number of reasons. The quick answer -- that 'it depends on how you are using it, and to what end' -- may be unsatisfying to many, but is nevertheless accurate. That said, before you attempt to assess impact, it can be rather helpful first to understand how technologies are being used (or not used) in actual practice. And before you can do this, it is useful to know what is actually available for use today, as well as some of the key factors which may influence this use. Being able to compare this state of affairs with those found in other countries around the world can help you put this knowledge into some comparative context. (Are we typical, or an outlier? Are we ahead, or behind?)
Building on these efforts, it is expected that the first comprehensive global initiative will commence next year to regularly collect basic data related to technology use in education in *all* countries, big *and* small, rich *and* poor.
What sort of data might be important to collect, and what can be collected in practice?
Are the existing set of 'indicators' put forward by the UIS relevant and useful, or should they be reduced/enlarged/amended, based on what has been learned as part of efforts to collect and analyze them in recent years?
To help explore such questions, the UIS brought together a 'technical advisory panel' comprising an acronymic soup of organizations (including ADEA, ALECSO, CETIC, European Schoolnet, ITU, KERIS, OECD, TAGI, UNESCO, World Bank) earlier this month to review lessons from the first set of regional data collection efforts and to provide comments on, and suggest possible changes to, a consolidated list of related ICT/education 'indicators' and related questionnaire [pdf]. A new global survey of technology use in education, meant to be part of the regular, on-going data collection efforts of UIS in the education sector coordinated through national statistical offices, is due to launch in September 2015.