Does the Eastern Caribbean education system adequately prepare youth for the global economy? This was a question posed by a World Bank paper back in 2007 , which examined how some of the unique characteristics of small island developing nations in the Caribbean influence attempts to answer this question. The use of information and communication technologies within formal schooling systems is seen by many to be an increasingly relevant -- and important -- tool to impact teaching and learning practices across the region. In 2009 two  publications  from infoDev sought to document activities and progress in this area, and key policymakers from ten countries recently met in Barbados  to take stock of where things stand and help chart a course for the future.
Barbados was in many ways an ideal place for such an exchange. The country's Education Sector Enhancement Programme  (ESEP -- known in an earlier incarnation as Edutech 2000) has been perhaps the most far-reaching (and expensive) initiative to explore the use of ICTs in schools in the region.
The primary goals of ESEP have been to:
- Prepare students to be creative, numerate, literate and readily retrainable
- Ensure that all students understand the necessity of being able to live and work harmoniously with others
- Increase the efficacy of school by encouraging teacher to employ more forms of collaborative learning
- Prepare students to live and contribute in a technology-rich global society
In common with other large scale initiatives of this sort, the Barbados program has had to confront a number of challenges, including the fact that, once implementation had begun, it became clear that greater changes would need to be made to the physical infrastructure of many schools if they were to house computer labs successfully. Once computers were installed and connectivity established, additional sets of challenges around computer maintenance and technical support quickly became evident.
While infrastructure challenges were important, in the end they are (given enough time and money) eventually solvable. Working with and supporting teachers as they explore how to change their pedagogical approaches to take advantage of the new technologies in schools has been in many ways a more profound challenge. In this, of course, Barbados is perhaps not unique -- either in the region, or globally.
This is not to say that there aren't challenges specific to the region. Consensus expert opinion from around the world, for example, holds that investments in ongoing teacher professional development and support are *crucial* if the types of changes in educational practices enabled by ICT use envisioned by educational leaders are to occur. The Caribbean sees some of the highest rates of migration  [pdf] in the world. This gives rise to a dilemma facing many policymakers across the region as they seek to roll out ICTs for use in schools: The importance of teacher preparation and professional development is well and widely acknowledged. At the same time, however, the more training teachers receive, the more likely they may be to migrate elsewhere (especially to the United States) in search of higher paying jobs. If more (effective) ICT use in schools requires more highly qualified teachers, but more highly qualified teachers are more likely to emigrate, what is a policymaker to do? This is a dilemma for which there are perhaps no immediate easy answers.
One group that is in many ways central to potential responses to such educational challenges is the Caribbean Examinations Council , the regional body that serves "to conduct such examinations as it may think appropriate and award certificates and diplomas on the results of any such examinations so conducted." The strong influence of the CXC exams on how education is delivered -- and assessed -- across countries in the region is one characteristic that marks the Caribbean as different from other parts around the world.
The 2009 infoDev survey of ICT/education in the Caribbean  noted that "the tendency among the region's education systems to equate education with the preparation for exams, and the CXC exams in particular, limits the overall performance of education systems and also limits the potential contributions of ICT". While examination bodies and assessment schemes can be forces inhibiting change, this need not necessarily be the case. In a very well-received presentation  [pdf, 1mb] at the Barbados event, and a very lively follow-up Q&A session, Dr. Didacus Jules , the CXC Registrar, provided a fascinating vision of how the CXC exams could be used to help transform the human resource competitiveness of the peoples in the Caribbean. Connecting the dots between various phenomena observable in the region -- from widespread use of Facebook to the student learning and discovery enabled outside of school hours through playing of videogames -- and how ICTs can be used in a variety of ways to support (for example) activities promoting the development of critical thinking and skills valued in the marketplace, Jules outlined a version for the transformation of the activities of the CXC enabled by the use of ICTs that was in many ways a vision for the transformation of education across the region.
Translating compelling reasoning and impassioned rhetoric into something understood and implemented in practice is no easy task, of course. That said, people who are interested in how ICTs can bring about (positive) change in educational systems in various ways may wish to monitor what happens (or doesn't happen) in the coming years in the Caribbean. The stakes are high, and many of the challenges facing the small education systems of the countries of the Caribbean may appear to be seemingly intractable. If 'business as usual' will not get the education systems of the Caribbean where they need to go, quickly enough, new courses will have to be charted, and it is tough to see how ICTs won't be important, if not integral, to this process. "Be part of the journey", Jules advised regional educational officials at the conclusion of his presentation, and, while paths may be different for individual countries, regional cooperation will no doubt be critical if the destination is to be reached.
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("new horizons in the Caribbean?") comes from Flickr user Charlie Dave  via Wikimedia Commons  and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license .