There was a good reason for the recent Global Symposium on Building national ICT/education agencies  to have taken place in Seoul. South Korea has demonstrated that making a single specialized agency responsible for integrating ICTs in the education sector to implement the ambitious goals of government can bring high rate of return. Since its inception in 1999, KERIS  (the Korean Education Research & Information Service) has made a significant contribution into helping build a knowledge and information-based society in Korea, helping to enhance the nation's education system and research competitiveness through its work at the secondary and primary education levels. Increasingly looking to share lessons from its experience with other, KERIS has established many partnerships in other East Asia and Pacific countries, and is developing partnerships with countries in other regions as well. Numerous countries invited to the Seoul Global Symposium were explicitly interested in how they 'might set up their own KERIS', and saw the forum as an opportunity to learn firsthand from the Korean experience. For four days, over 120 representatives from 32 countries discussed a variety of issues related to organizational structures, staffing, funding schemes, institutional evolution, and other challenges along the way when building and developing ICT in education agencies.
As noted in an earlier post on the EduTech blog  by my colleague Mike Trucano, countries have different institutional approaches to the implemention of large scale ICT/education programs. East Asia is no exception to this; countries in the region are different in their level of development and different level of ICT integration, but most governments have set ambitious goals for the future. Comparing the goals and objectives the countries are pursuing provides a valuable insight into the trends within education systems and a picture of how they adapt to challenges and opportunities that the development of ICT presents. A key success factor seems to be government’s commitment to its stated goals. For example, Cambodia is at a very early stage of integrating ICT in education. As Koem Oeurn, the Director General of the Higher Education in the Ministry of Education,Youth and Sport of Cambodia, notes: "We have developed policy on ICT and we also have strategy… Cambodia does not have all resources to implement it yet, but still, but there is a commitment from the top to the bottom”. In other countries in the region (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam are good examples) more progress has been made, with either a dedicated unit within the ministry of education or a separate (new) agency made responsible for all ICT-related issues. In other countries in the region (e.g. Mongolia), there is no specialized unit yet, but a proposal has been drafted to help set one up.
In countries like Lao PDR and Thailand, where several ministries and agencies are responsible for the development of ICT policies and ICT-related programs, coordinating between these agencies becomes quite challenging. In addition, a number of other challenges slow down development and implementation of ICT policies and initiatives in East Asia countries. These include: low incomes; low literacy rates (especially outside urban areas); and a shortage of local content (Laos is a good example of this). That said, the government of Laos has made significant progress in setting up an Educational Technology Division, one of the functions of which is coordination between ministries and agencies on ICT issues.
In addition to learning from each other’s experiences, could East Asia countries learn from other regions of the world? According to the survey conducted at the Global Symposium, participants from the region especially want to learn from Australia, Chile, Japan, Korea, Uruguay, UK and other countries (with Korea, Chile and Uruguay topping the list). Chile, with its Enlaces  program, presented its unique experience at the Global Symposium on how “to start small”. Intended as a pilot to test before replicating in other public school in 1992, it became the official nationwide initiative and was eventually included as a unit in the Ministry of Education. According to Sebastian Barrientos, the Executive Director of the Enlaces program: “One of the most interesting things done by Enlaces is that within several years it allowed to set up an interesting program that has allowed to enhance not only infrastructure but also training for the teachers in the use of ICTs. As a result, today we have roughly 100 per cent of the kids use technology in a very common way”.
One interesting case discussed at the Symposium was that of Becta , the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency that was established in 1998 and closed twelve years later as part of the package of measures taken by the U.K. Government to reduce expenditure in the public sector. Even its critics concede that Becta accomplished quite a lot: It saved £223m for the education system through procurement agreements, provided digital resources for teachers, issued more than 12,000 grants to 90% of low income families to purchase computers, and commisioned and published scores of publications  widely read by professionals at similar institutions around the world. The decision was made earlier this year to close Becta  completely, but now there's recognition that there's a need to keep certain aspects of it (including, it appears, to absorb several functions of Becta into the Department for Education). Says Gavin Dykes, an independent education technology specialist who worked for Becta:
“If you are going to achieve transformation of the way the education system works with technology, it has to be set us so that it does not depend on and is unlikely to be changed by political change. It is not about sustaining an organization forever, but making it last long enough to have an impact that it should. It would be interesting to reflect upon in the future is whether the level of change has brought enough to make change sustainable“.
As Keith Krueger has noted , many prominent ICT in education agencies around the world have been in a state of flux, with some restructuring (EdNA in Australia ), or (like Becta) closing, or changing their functions (like Enlaces ), and it is imperative that the countries planning to set up and develop ICT in education agencies have the possibility to learn from these experiences. The participants of the Seoul Symposium unanimously voted for staying in touch, stating that this will help them to avoid mistakes that others have made and better solve new problems as they emerge. It would be useful if development agencies to join their efforts, many participants said, to share their resources and commission new analytical work on the issue. (As part of its System Assessment and Benchmarking for Education Results initiative, or SABER , the World Bank will be looking to document and benchmark the experiences of a set of national ICT/education agencies beginning in 2011.) Participants from developing countries also discussed the value having countries like Korea and Uruguay emerge as de facto regional knowledge hubs, becoming centers for information and experience-sharing on issues related not only to agency development but, also on ICT in education issues more broadly.
Says Paul Soriano, the Head of Technical Services at Department of Education  of the Philippines:
“We are all education agencies and want to provide quality education to our students. It is imperative that these education agencies share their experiences and knowledge of initiatives and projects initiated by different ministries be shared so that start up countries would learn from them”.
Looking at each other’s experiences, countries also want to see what is ahead. According to Koem Oeurn, the Director General of the Higher Education in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport of Cambodia,
“Some things I learned here from Chile, Australia and other countries probably cannot be applied in the near future, but it can give a vision of what is the future path of ICT and this trend is very important for the planning process in Cambodia”.
Note: The image used at the top of this post ("entering Korea's u-class, the classroom of the future") comes courtesy of KERIS and is taken from a short video  describing the u-class initiative.