Many developing countries have embarked upon – and others are seriously considering – large-scale roll-outs of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in their education sector. Similar processes began in most OECD countries 10-20 years ago, in many middle income countries more recently. Structurally, education systems organize themselves in various ways to fund, implement and oversee these sorts of initiatives, which are typically quite expensive – and complex – and the related organizations evolve, in ways incremental and radical, over time.
Despite the highly varied local contexts, in most countries, a single institution is core to the implementation of ICT/education initiatives.
What do we know about how such institutions work, and what suggestions might we have for governments creating such institutions for the first time, supporting these sorts of agencies over time, and/or restructuring such organizations to meet future challenges?
These ICT/education institutions take various forms. Most prominent in the global consciousness are probably the quasi-autonomous ICT/education agencies under the general direction or guidance of the ministry of education (examples include KERIS in Korea, Becta in the UK, NCET in China). In other countries, foundations or NGOs serve some similar functions, in coordination with units at the ministry of education (examples include the Omar Dengo Foundation in Costa Rica and the Pilipinas School at FIT-ED in the Philippines). In yet other places, related responsibilities are assumed almost entirely by a special department or division of the MOE; in still others, universities (or even the private sector) assume such roles.
A study of such institutional arrangements over time is complicated by the fact that formal place of such institutions can change within the structure of a country’s education system. Examples of this mutability can be found in Chile, where the Enlaces program began as a university-centric initiative and was later folded into the MOE in Chile; in Thailand, where the MOE assumed the schoolnet-related functions originally performed by NECTEC, which operated under the general direction of the MoIT; in Uganda, where the staff of the independent Schoolnet Uganda were absorbed into the MOE; and in Jordan, where the Jordan Education Initiative was rolled out of its home in the MoIT to become a separate NGO.
In addition to taking various forms, such institutions can assume different formal and informal roles and responsibilities integral and vital to the success of ICT use in education. Most commonly, such institutions oversee the roll-out and maintenance of the technical infrastructure (hardware, software, networking) upon which ICT use in schools depends. In addition to fundamental responsibilities around technical infrastructure (including procurement of equipment, installation, tech support, development of technical specifications, and maintenance of educational networks and portals, to name just a few) many institutions slowly accrete additional responsibilities over time – sometimes by design, often by default. These responsibilities can include delivery of (or oversight of) the training of technical staff; technical training for students, administrators and/or teachers; the development of education content (digital learning resources); pedagogical training for teachers; research and development, including piloting of new approaches and practices; the management of community ICT resources and outreach; educational and/or ICT strategy or policy development; and monitoring and evaluation.
Independent or quasi-independent institutions can have complicated relationships with government departments, which act (variously) as their key clients, overseers and/or, in some cases, even their 'competitors'. The staffing of such institutions can be challenging, especially as they may be populated by a mix of employees, civil servants, seconded staff from other organizations and (especially in very technical areas) private contractors. In some instances, organizations are established independent of existing government structures expressly to be able to employ people with certain skills not typically found within government agencies – and to pay these people salaries out of sync with existing government civil service guidelines. Leaders of such organizations can be drawn from various specialties, possessing a variety of skill sets.
Institutions can draw on a variety of funding and financing mechanisms, such as dedicated or discretionary government budgets or earmarks; contracts; user fees; special revolving funds (sometimes made possible by dedicated monies from universal service provisions); philanthropic donations; revenue-sharing arrangements with private companies; and subsidies from sponsoring or partner organizations.
Managing relationships with vendors can be an important – and difficult role – for such institutions. In some cases, such institutions are deliberately set up at “arm’s-length” from existing government units or agencies to allow for a greater flexibility in dealing with the private sector; in others they are expressly established as a special public-private partnership.
The enabling legislation and governing regulations for the activities of such institutions vary by country, as do models for institutional oversight. Over time, such institutions typically evolve, sometimes quite dramatically, in form, function, size and legal identity. A common challenge for many institutions occurs when their responsibilities shift from providing mainly technical support services related to ICT infrastructure to assume additional responsibilities related to pedagogical training, content development, R&D and impact evaluation. The staff – and leadership – at the core of such institutions in the early years may not be well-suited to delivering, managing or planning for a broader range of such activities. In addition, by slowly accreting a variety of new responsibilities over time(whether desired or not), such organizations can experience existential challenges when political leaders question the suitability of the institution to deliver on an expanded set of responsibilities (the public hullaballoo in the UK in fall 2009 about the role of Becta  – considered one of the model global agencies of this sort – is one such example of this phenomenon).
With all of this in mind, the World Bank, together with a number of its development partners, is investigating how it might play a useful role in (1) documenting and analyzing real-world experiences; (2) bringing together leaders and key personnel to share lessons and challenges across countries; and (3) providing useful input into policy decisions going forward in which such institutions play a critical implementation role.
Some key questions related to the development of ICT/education agencies (and their functional equivalents) in developing countries include:
- How should an education system structure itself to met new challenges in this area, and what roles and responsibilities could/should a dedicated ICT/education agency or unit play?
- What global and regional models for ‘good practice’ exist?
- How should such an institution be organized and staffed?
- What funding mechanisms exist for such institutions, and what are their advantages and disadvantages?
- How have such organizations evolved over time, and what implications might there be for the future?
We are currently talking with numerous countries to assess the usefulness of such work, and how to make it immediately relevant and actionable to current problems and challenges in various contexts. We are most happy to hear from key people at such institutions (whether through the comments below, or through other channels) and to receive suggestions for places and organizations for whom such work might be especially relevant.
Links to some prominent (and not-so-well-known) national ICT/education agencies (or their functional equivalents):
- Becta  (UK)
- Enlaces  (Chile)
- Jordan Education Initiative 
- KERIS  (South Korea)
- Omar Dengo Foundation  (Costa Rica)
- Schoolnet Thailand 
- Solomon Islands Schoolnet 
- Schoolnet South Africa 
- TEHNE  (Romania)
Back in 2005, UNESCO-Bangkok published a series of useful reports on 'schoolnets', based (mostly) on experiences in Southeast Asia.
- Schoolnet Toolkit 
- Integrating ICTs into Education: Lessons Learned (Volume 1) 
- SchoolNetworking: Lessons Learned (Volume 2) 
- Initiating and Managing SchoolNets: Lessons Learned Vol. 3 
Event reminder: Next week the World Bank kicks off a new seminar series called EduRadicals: Education Innovators & Thinkers. The first discussion, featuring Roger Shank, will take place on 25 March in the World Bank main complex building from 3:30 - 5pm. It is open to the public, but space is limited, so please see the event web site for more information and to register.  For those not in DC: Video from the event will be archived and published on the World Bank's education web site  in a few weeks.
Please note: The image use at the top of this blog post comes from László Szalai via Wikimedia Commons  and is used according to the terms of of its Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.