In most countries around the world, a single institution is core to the implementation of national initiatives related to the use of new technologies ('ICTs') in education. Whether we are talking about large scale rollouts of things like tablets or laptops, or educational computing efforts of the more 'traditional' variety, a single organization often serves as a focal point for many related efforts to introduce, support, maintain direct, coordinate, fund, manage and/or evaluate national efforts to utilize information and communications technologies (ICTs) in innovative -- and, if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps not so innovative -- ways in schools.
A few years ago, the World Bank, in partnership with the government of Korea, convened a meeting in Seoul to bring together the heads of many of these sorts of organizations to share experiences about what has worked, what hasn't, what people wish they had done differently, and what new challenges might lie ahead.
It turns out that this topic was of very immediate relevance in a number of countries which were considering starting up a 'national ICT/education agency', for lack of a better term, but were searching about for useful models and lessons that might help them in their efforts. We'll publish some related analytical work later this year, including a set of ten cases studies documenting efforts in this regard around the world.
As we finalize this work, and in case it might be of relevance to anyone, we thought it might be useful share some of the varied answers we are finding to a question that many countries have asked themselves in the recent past, and which many more countries are considering right now:
Why, and how, might a country decide to establish
a single organization dedicated to the use of ICTs in education?
It is worth noting up front that many countries don't do this, of course. Some simply assign tasks to a special department or division within the ministry of education (or, in some cases, the telecom regulator or ministry of communications, IT or ICT). For others, related responsibilities are diffused throughout the education system as a result of a series strategic decisions (as in the highly decentralized circumstance of the United States) or as the result of inattention or an inability to make related decisions (as in the case of the Philippines). In some countries, there simply hasn't been a need (yet), as few substantial investments have been made related to the use of ICTs in education. That said, where dedicated agencies exist, they are typically born as a result of one or more of the following factors:
1. A big investment in educational technologies is coming
Many national agencies were formed explicitly to help oversee and/or implement a large project in the education sector to help build out ICT infrastructure (connectivity, computer labs, laptop deployments) in schools. This is perhaps the ‘classic’ example of why an institution of this sort is created, from Korea to Thailand, from Malaysia to Armenia to Uruguay. In some cases, many investments may have been made already, but, as such investments grow in size, scope and complexity, value is seen in having a single institution with primary responsibility for such activities to serve as a mechanism for taking stock of what has occurred and to help better coordinate activities going forward. Indonesia’s PUSTEKKOM and England’s Becta are examples of this.
2. A new policy has been developed -- or needs to be
It is not uncommon for the creation of an agency to be an important part of a country’s ICT/education policy – especially where such a policy outlines a vision or imperative for large investments in educational technologies. As groups involved with the implementation of large scale ICT/education initiatives grow in competence and importance over time, they may come to assume a key role in helping to formulate a new policy (as was the case with EdNA in Australia).
3. Existing institutions are not well placed to assume different or new risks and/or to promote innovative practices and approaches
In many countries, ministries of education are considered to quite conservative, bureaucratic institutions, strongly invested in the status quo. As such, they can be seen as ill-equipped to introduce new innovations within the system quickly and efficiently – and across the world, technology use in education is almost always seen as something that is by its very nature to be ‘innovative’. While government ministries, and especially the ministry of education, may be seen to be (if not explicitly designed to be) risk-averse, new institutions set up to help guide the roll out of new technologies in the sector can be explicitly conceived in order to take on such risk (as was the case with Plan Ceibal in Uruguay), as can new programs within existing institutions outside government (like what occurred with the creation of Schoolnet Thailand within NECTEC). These can be especially true, or important, related to the potential use of so-called public-private partnerships to help enable and guide a country’s ICT/education-related investments and activities (the Jordan Education Initiative has been a prominent example in this regard). Existing procurement guidelines can complicate attempts for the government to learn from what is happening in the market, and to communicate with companies active in this area. An agency can help coordinate and direct activities of vendors and private groups at an arm’s length from the formal activities of government in ways that may not be possible, or appropriate, were the government itself to attempt to perform such a coordination function – one of the many ways, for example, that KERIS is useful to the Ministry of Education in Korea.
Related to this:
4. The necessary technical and business skills don’t exist within existing organizations (especially within government)
In many places, a number of the technical and business skills required by an ICT/education agency are not commonly found within existing government ministries. For a variety of reasons, it is thought that attracting people with such skills to work in government may be quite difficult. At a basic level, they may command higher salaries, and disrupt existing pay scales. Issues of ‘cultural fit’ can also arise. In addition, there may be caps on the hiring of civil servants that prevent the hiring of additional staff, even where the salary needs of technical staff can be accommodated. NaCET in Armenia, which initially included staff from other organizations with strong technical skills and ICT-related competencies, is one of many examples in this regard; KERIS in Korea is another.
5. A desire exists to ensure continuity over time
Large scale investments in technology use in education often serve very clear political purposes. Indeed, the unveiling of shiny new computer labs in schools, or the handing over of the latest laptops to students, can serve as strategic photo opportunities for politicians wishing to demonstrate that they both care about young people and are actively investing in their future. Is there a more potent symbol of the future, and of the fact that a politician is forward-looking, than investing in computers for schools? While the parties and individual politicians in power may come and go, investments in ICTs in education are typically seen to be long-term, and so assigning key related responsibilities to a dedicated organization that is not officially part of a government ministry (although it may well be linked to one or more ministries, closely or loosely) can be one way to ensure that such investments can be made and sustained over time. When a new party comes to power, it can then call on existing expertise and experience, and not have to start over from scratch. The Omar Dengo Foundation in Costa Rica is a good example of how an institution has served for a focal point for activity related to ICT use in education during periods of governmental change and transition.
6. There is a need for a focal point of, or hub for, activity related to ICT use in education
Where a lot of activity related to ICT use in education has already been underway for some time as a result of the activities of many different groups, both inside and outside of government, a dedicated agency can serve as a mechanism to help better coordinate the activities of these groups. In such cases, the agency can assume certain important roles to convene multiple actors, to amplify the individual voices of such groups when speaking with government, and to channel messages from government to stakeholder groups more efficiently. The Smart School program in Malaysia, Plan Ceibal in Uruguay and Becta in England are prominent international examples of how an institution – or an organization within a larger institution – can play this role.
7. A country wishes to share its national experiences and expertise related to technology use in education with countries and institutions abroad -- and to learn from similar organizations as well
A national ICT/education agency can serve as an important mechanism to showcase what a country has accomplished. By sponsoring research and outreach activities, an agency can be an important tool for a government to burnish its global ‘brand’ as an innovator in the use of technology and education, and to help guide a country’s overseas development assistance in related areas. Plan Ceibal in Uruguay, for example, has served not only as the mechanism to provide free laptops to students in government schools, but has also organized workshops, conferences and study tours as a way to expose policymakers and practitioners in other countries to the innovative practices and programs that are being explored and implemented in that small South American country. The global symposium on ICT use in education, which KERIS hosts every year on behalf of the Korean Ministry of Education, in partnership with the World Bank, is another notable example of how a national ICT/education agency can play this role.
Are there other answers to this question that we are missing? If so, please do let us know.
We'll share some works-in-progress from our upcoming publication on 'national ICT/education agencies' during the coming months.
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a rather chaotic traffic scene in Dhaka, Bangaldesh ("OK, you go this way, we'll go that way ... no, wait a minute, that isn't working ... maybe we need some formal organization here ...") was originally uploaded to Flickr by ~Pyb and comes via Wikimedia Commons. It is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.