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Education & Technology in 2025: A Thought Experiment

Michael Trucano's picture

thinking big thoughtsIn many places around the world, the costs associated with investments in educational technologies are perceived to be prohibitive (and often higher than one may initially calculate).  That said, there are few places where such investments are not under active consideration.

On this blog, I have criticized

"the often singleminded focus, even obsession, on the retail price of ICT devices alone, which is in many ways a distraction from more fundamental discussions of the uses of educational technologies to meet a wide variety of educational goals in ways that are relevant, appropriate and cost-effective."

I have also wondered,

"What are the costs of not investing in ICT use in education? Can we afford them?"

Reasonable people can and will disagree about what the associated costs are for ICT/education initiatives -- as well as how to calculate them, and what these costs might/should be, relative to other potential uses of scarce funds (teacher and administrative salaries, books, school infrastructure, health and feeding programs for students, etc.)

Reasonable people can also disagree on what the impact to date of such investments has been -- a frequent topic here on this blog.

But let's leave aside such discussions and debate for now.

As part of engagements in various countries, I sometimes propose the following 'thought experiment' to provoke policymakers to take a step back (or two -- or five!) and think more broadly about why they are looking to introduce ICTs in their schools.  As part of this process, I present the following scenario:

Let's assume that, by 2025, *all* hardware and software costs related to the use of information and communication technologies to support learning were zero.

How might this change the way you consider the use of ICTs to support the goals of your education system?

If we removed considerations of cost from the equation, how might we conceive of the use of technologies in education? Would our approach then be consistent with our approach today?

 

Now let's be clear:

  • It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that hardware costs will continue to fall.  In addition, the rise of free and open source software, the new low-cost app economy and the open education resources (OER) movement has meant that, in many cases the applications (and the content that is sometimes bundled with them) are in many cases falling in price as well.

 
That said,

  • Hardware and software costs aren't going to be near zero any time soon.
  • Even as prices continue to fall -- and, for the sake of the sake of our scenario here, even as they approach zero -- poor communities (and poor countries) will still have much greater difficulty meeting such costs.

 
And of course:

  • Hardware and software costs aren't the only costs incurred in these sorts of investments (and may not even be the largest component costs).  That said, such costs are pretty easy to understand and calculate, and are in my experience the two costs that many policymakers (rightly or wrongly) consider most important.

 
With those caveats in place,

Can we learn anything from a thought experiment of this sort?

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So much of the current planning around the use of educational technologies is concerned with what is happening and what is possible *today*, and the perceived future needs of industry and society related to the use of such current technologies (e.g. "we need to teach kids how to use computers").

I once had a 15 minute conversation with an education minister about 'appropriate' processor speeds (back when many users still talked about such things regularly) for school computers.  I was impressed by his knowledge of the subject ... while lamenting that 15 minutes of valuable time in our 30-minute meeting was spent discussing this sort of minutiae.

Innovations in the technology sector will almost surely mean that many ICT tools we use now, or are considering using, will become more powerful (and potentially more interconnected), and that there will be new sets of tools available to use five and ten years down the road in the education sector that we haven't even conceived of today.  In some cases these may only subtly change the ways things are done, in other cases the potential for change may be more radical.

Given the high likelihood of continued (potentially quite disruptive) innovation in this area, both on the technology and the cost side, sometimes it might be useful to be clear about first principles.

When I speak with many policymakers about their vision for education in 2025 as it relates to the use of technology, what I often hear is a description of new sets of gadgets and cool electronic things in schools. Every child with her own computing device, classrooms walls transforming into interactive touch displays, eyeglasses transformed into personal data projection devices, videoconferences with holograms and on-demand printing of objects in 3D: These sorts of visions are important to contemplate, especially where they may help challenge our conceptions (and preconceptions) of what it possible -- or even likely.  But in the end they resemble more of a wish-list of items that can be purchased to rebuild and reimagine the architecture of a school or classroom than a vision for what students should be learning, and how, and how others can support them in this process.

If costs weren't an issue, what would you be seeking to do with technology to support learning? Would this change your perspective on the role of ICTs from what it is now?

Answers to these sorts questions -- or even the process of trying to answer them -- might help provide some clarity and direction for our more immediate and 'pressing' policy challenges related to the appropriate and cost-effective use of a variety of information and communication technologies in the education sector.

Note: The public domain image used at the top of this blog post ("thinking big thoughts") comes via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

Is to guarantee that hardware is interchangeable and that hardware replacement becomes mandatory only when that hardware physically breaks. If, in order to teach, you ACCEPT the idea of telling a whole class "hey folks, get rid of your iPad 1, netbook, desktop computer, everybody must have an iPad 2 or a computer powerful enough to run software that decodes the last version of Microsoft Office formats" and you accept to repeat this every few years, you are keeping hardware prices higher than they could be, and creating lots of dangerous e-waste in the process. I have explained all this in more detail in the post below, which is about an Italian publisher that is trying to get started with Open Educational Resources. But in synthesis the solution is "never accept for education, or in any other sector for that matter, formats and content that is only usable with ONE version of ONE software program and/or ONE specific hardware device" Regards, M. Fioretti http://stop.zona-m.net/2011/02/garamond-and-social-learning-ebooks-and-digital-school-for-everybody-yes-but-only-if/

Submitted by Wayan on
Michael, I love this thought experiment as it should reveal the real barriers to ICT use in education - classroom adoption. I too am amazed at the time and energy spent on hardware and software - its only 10% of the cost of any ICT intervention. Change management is the real cost. All the supporting activities - policy, curriculum, content, training, etc - that are required for real adoption and usage exist regardless of technology platform. Yet these are not sexy things to talk about. Gadgets are. Just look at textbooks. We know they're effective. We know how to make them. And if there is will, we can make them cheaply and give them out to students for free. Yet, as you point out, only 1 country in Africa does this: http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/e-reading-in-africa And even there, I bet the MoE is more excited to talk about e-Readers...

Submitted by Andre on
It is amazing that after so much research into the effectiveness of e-learning and so much debate about this subject, that we are still arguing for more ICT in classrooms... Technology in itself does not improve results of students or make the learning process more effective. It is only through the increased effort and improved intervention strategies of the user that results improve. This in turn might be driven by an increased interest in the subject matter because of the use of technology. Today's students have so much technology around them that we can not ignore the possibilities to use it to deliver content in their virtual spaces. However, other research has shown that to students are often offended by the use social media to deliver content as they might perceive this as their private space and therefore it looses its "coolness". Why are we then pushing for more technology in learning if it does not contribute towards more effective learning or improve results? Well, the answer is simply that it should be driven by practicalities and not hype. We are should get over the high of inflated hype and use those technologies that are practical to our own teaching needs. For example, when dealing with large numbers of students, then continuous assessment using online technologies can save time and be more effective in establishing intrinsic learning. Online streaming technologies can provide remote learners with synchronous learning opportunities which did not exist before. Interactive media can improve the presentation of complex concepts. Therefore, the issue is not cost, as you can only implement what you can afford in any case. The issue is not, does it improve learning effectiveness, as it does not improve learner results, per say. The issue is, what do you require to make teaching possible in a blended fashion with the teacher as involved as ever before and even more so? This implies that our expectations will be realistic, often also much more affordable and definitely more practical.

Submitted by Lennart Swahn on
ICT will never work as a teaching aid in a classroom setting. ICT must replace the teacher and that can be done only for knowledge learning. The schools must be reorganized to cater for the four learning part of a comprehensive education program, which UNESCO has defined as Learning to know, Learning to do, Learning to be and Learning to live together. With this in a new Learning System you can achieve a ten times (+1000%) increase in learning for all students and reduce the recurrent cost for education by 50%. I have shown this in a paper "Basic Education 2012" Maybe it can be published here? Isn't this something to consider when all attempts with teacher-led classroomlearning has failed for the past 25 years? Education is now at least 40 years behind in development as compared with all other activities in our society. Something new has to be done.

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