In a post today on the Education for Global Development' blog, World Bank education sector director Elizabeth King reports back from Jomtein, Thailand on the High Level Group Meeting on Education For All (EFA). This event was a successor, of sorts, to the landmark event convened in Jomtein back in 1990 that kickstarted the global movement for 'Education For All', which has been a primary goal for many developing countries (supported by most international development agencies) for the past two decades. The title of Beth's blog post sums up her message very nicely ("Jomtien, 20 Years Later: Global Education for All Partners Must Renew Commitment to Learning") and echoes key themes and perspectives expressed in her keynote address [link to pdf] to 50 education ministers back in January at the Education World Forum. I won't try to summarize her calls to action any more here (for that, I recommend you see the text of her blog and, especially, her excellent keynote speech). I would, however, like to use the opportunity to revisit the question of the relevance of ICTs to this global agenda.
Back in 2000, as part of the official Notes on the Dakar Framework for Action [pdf], explicit attention was paid to how to 'Harness new information and communication technologies to help achieve EFA goals' (Part IV Strategies - #10, items 69-72):
¶69: Information and communication technologies (ICT) must be harnessed to support EFA goals at an affordable cost. These technologies have great potential for knowledge dissemination, effective learning and the development of more efficient education services. This potential will not be realized unless the new technologies serve rather than drive the implementation of education strategies. To be effective, especially in developing countries, ICTs should be combined with more traditional technologies such as books and radios, and be more extensively applied to the training of teachers.
¶70: The swiftness of ICT developments, their increasing spread and availability, the nature of their content and their declining prices are having major implications for learning. They may tend to increase disparities, weaken social bonds and threaten cultural cohesion. Governments will therefore need to establish clearer policies in regard to science and technology, and undertake critical assessments of ICT experiences and options. These should include their resource implications in relation to the provision of basic education, emphasizing choices that bridge the 'digital divide', increase access and quality, and reduce inequity.
¶71: There is need to tap the potential of ICT to enhance data collection and analysis, and to strengthen management systems, from central ministries through sub-national levels to the school; to improve access to education by remote and disadvantaged communities; to support initial and continuing professional development of teachers; and to provide opportunities to communicate across classrooms and cultures.
¶72: News media should also be engaged to create and strengthen partnerships with education systems, through the promotion of local newspapers, informed coverage of education issues and continuing education programmes via public service broadcasting.
(For excerpts from some of the key documents related to the potential link between ICTs and EFA, you may be interested in the Quick Guide to ICTs and the education Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that we put together at infoDev a number of years ago.)
These themes are echoed (although sometimes only faintly) in a number of donor strategies in the education sector that have appeared over the past decade (including those of the World Bank). One can (and will) argue about the language contained in such documents, what is left in and out, what appears to be implied, how this rhetoric changes over time, etc., but there doesn't appear to be a lot of argument about the general messages -- that ICTs can have an important role to play. The question, is, of course: How?
An exploration of potential answers to this question is one of the animating preoccupations of this blog. One interesting approach is that of so-called 'mega-schools', which, proponents argue, "should be seen as catalysts for integrating all elements of schooling into an educational ecosystem fit for the 21st century." What is a 'mega-school'? The term can be seen as an intellectual successor to the term 'mega-universities' , which was coined by Sir John Daniel back in the 1990s to refer to distance learning institutions at the post-secondary level which reach at least 100,000 students. Sir John, who has been one of the leading thinkers on and proponents of greater attention to models for open and distance learning in his various influential leadership positions (including serving as assistant director-general of UNESCO and vice-chancellor of the UK Open University before assuming his current role as President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning), defines a 'mega-school' as a secondary school that helps educate at least 10,000 students with the help of a variety of distance learning and teaching tools and methodologies. There are important differences between a mega-school and a mega-university, he notes, including the fact that, by reaching out to many marginalized students, mega-schools have to meet myriad challenges related to the fact that many students may drift in and out of schooling due to their particular life circumstances.
Sir John wrote a very useful and provocative book on this topic last year, Mega-Schools, Technology and Teachers: Achieving Education for All. The global movement towards EFA has put initiatives seeking to provide all children with access to a quality education higher on the agenda in many countries than ever before. But what do we do when quality doesn't scale quickly or inexpensively enough to meet the exploding demands for education in many developing countries? In seeking to provide answers to this vexing question, Sir John Daniel challenges some of the conventional wisdom and approaches about what doesn't work in education -- and what does. In many places, conventional classroom-centric models of education don't work very well, especially for poor students in poor countries -- and even where they do, they often can't be successfully scaled up or adapted to the particular needs of teachers and students. For me, this book helps to separate some of the hope from the hype about the real potential benefits of the cost-effective application of information and communication technologies to some of the seemingly intractable challenges facing many of our education systems around the world. Technology can play a key role here, Daniel argues, but only where we are willing to abandon 'business as usual' and consider educational opportunities beyond those offered through conventional formal schooling. That said, as proclaimed in the title of a lecture he gave at East China Normal University in Shanghai last year ("New Technologies in Education: Not there yet!"), while we have come a long way, there is still a long journey ahead.
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of the ferry Mega Smaralda docked in the Wärtsilä Helsinki Shipyard ("are we still stuck in the harbor?") comes from Lucarelli via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.