An on-going series in the New York Times ('Grading the digital school') is exploring the impact of educational technology programs in U.S. schools. One recent article  in this series noted that "Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores." This phenomenon is not limited to schools in rich countries like the United States, of course:
"Although the government has invested resources in ensuring the broad use of ICT in education, the results of this use in meeting the goals and targets of educational programs are, however, virtually unknown."
This statement, which could apply to scores of countries around the world, can be found near the very start of TIC Educação 2010  ("ICT Education 2010"), a fascinating new survey on the use of ICTs in Brazilian schools.
Reasonable people can (and do!) disagree about how various approaches to testing and assessment can provide insight into the utility and the impact of the use of a variety of ICT tools (computers, interactive whiteboards, education software applications) to help improve 'learning outcomes' and the development of so-called '21st century skills', and numerous high-profile  groups  are proposing that we think about these issues in new ways. Even if we know what skills and knowledge we want students to develop and acquire, disentangling what role (if any) the use of ICTs might play in this process can be very difficult, given the great number of other factors that are at play. This is especially true when we don't have basic data about the extent to which ICT tools are actually available and being used for learning purposes, inside and outside of school.
Through projects like Proinfo  and, more recently, the Broadband in School  program (PNBLE), various levels of the government have encouraged the roll-out and use of ICTs in Brazilian schools since the mid 1990s. By sampling 500 schools across various regions of the country, "ICT Education 2010" attempts to provide a pretty comprehensive snapshot of what the current school technology environment looks like.
One model for funding ICT/education monitoring surveys
How can we fund monitoring and evaluation activities related to ICT use in education? While, at a conceptual level, few policymakers would say that "more M&E" would not be useful, when it comes to actually having to make tough choices about how to pay for such things, enthusiasm often wanes. With general education budgets so tight, and often a limited ability to tap scarce discretionary funds, are there other ways to fund activities of this sort outside of normal funding processes overseen by the ministry of education?
In Brazil, monies raised through registering domain names and distributing IP addresses have helped to fund research activities attempting to produce useful data that can inform public policy decisions in a number of areas related to the use of the Internet. Produced by CETIC.br  in partnership with a number of other  groups , "ICT Education 2010" is one result of this social compact.
Might this be a model that other countries could explore?
Some quick highlights from the data-rich report:
40% of public schools surveyed do not participate in any government programs related to ICTs, which mainly focus on infrastructure. Most computers are found in school computer labs. The average school has 23 computers, with some notable regional variations (27 per school in the South, 19 per school in the Northeast -- there is a lot of regional variation in Brazil), although, as a practical matter, only 18 are in use (a functional reduction of 22%!), for a variety of reasons. Broadband (in this context: 1Mbps) connections are found in 87% of schools that have an Internet connection.
Most teachers (90%) have a computer at home, usually with an Internet connection (81%), and report using this equipment more often at home than they do while in school. About half of all teachers who have a computer have a laptop, one-fourth of them as a result of participating in various special programs designed to promote computer ownership by teachers. Despite widespread computer ownership by teachers, however, school 'directors of studies' felt that only a minority of teachers were able to use applications beyond basic web browsers, social networking sites and email to impact teaching and learning.
Interestingly, most teachers feel that the most significant support for their development of technology skills coming from informal communications they have with other teachers. Is this a result of inadequate formal teacher professional development programs (only 53% of schools report involvement in teacher training programs in this regard), or because this is simply a better way for this support to occur? The survey doesn't offer much insight in this regard, but, as it does in many other areas as well, it does raise some interesting follow-on questions.
Teaching and learning
Teachers (and especially younger teachers) appear to use the Internet most for lesson planning, but much less as part of in-school learning activities (perhaps not so surprising, given that only 2% of students report having daily access to the Internet at school). 69% of students have never done a science experiment with the use of ICT, 55% have never used ICT to do a presentation in class, and 82% have never communicated with their teachers over the Internet.
This is just a flavor of the types of data available in 'ICT Education 2010', which contains over 100 pages of tables and charts. It is not clear to what extent raw data from this survey is available to interested researchers, but one suspects, given movements towards more 'open data' and transparency in Brazil, this may come in time as well. What is clear is that a lot of fundamental challenges remain related to the integration of ICT tools into daily educational practices in Brazilian schools, despite almost 15 years of concentrated effort in this regard. Together with insufficient technological skills, basic access to technology is still seen as a challenge (and this challenge, of course, is a barrier to the development of such skills). The survey finds that school leadership, and the general school environment, 'are critical to the integration of technology in education', noting that 'one cannot expect that teachers alone promote possible changes in the paradigm of education [ed. note: this is the holy grail of most educational technology programs], including the integration of digital culture into schooling'.
The report itself does not offer too many conclusions, instead offering up a great deal of data that will provide much food for thought among policymakers and researchers in Brazil (and perhaps elsewhere as well -- CETIC's decision to publish in English as well as Portuguese will no doubt help in this regard). Some -- in fact many -- of the conclusions that are offered may not be too surprising, but 'ICT Education 2010' provides rigorously collected data to help begin to provide an evidence base supporting such conclusions, while at the same time raising additional questions that will serve as inputs into future versions of this survey work. By doing so it will no doubt make a valuable contribution to policymaking discussions in Brazil in ways that other countries might do well to emulate.
For more information:
You can download the full report  (which also contains a number of essays by noted Brazilian academics) as a PDF document through the CETIC web site . CETIC has just published its ICT Households and Enterprises 2010  survey as well. Both are available in Portuguese and English.
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a school in Alto Paraíso de Goiás ("Brazilian students queuing for their daily bread -- will their daily Internet be far behind?") comes from UNiesert via Wikimedia Commons  and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported  license.