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Surveying ICT use in education in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture
I have a better sense of where things stand today, but the more important question is: Where are things headed?
I have a better sense of where things are today,
but the more important question is:
Where are things headed?
I began my career exploring the uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education in Ghana, Uganda and a number of other places in Africa in the late 1990s, and have continued to stay engaged with lots of passionate and innovative groups and people working with ICTs in various ways to help meet a variety of challenges related to education across the continent. Because of this history, and continued connections to lots of folks doing related cool stuff, I am from time to time asked:
"So, what's happening with technology use in education in Africa these days?"

Periodically one comes across press reports asking general questions of this sort, such as this one from Germany's Deutsche Welle news service: Can tech help solve some of Africa's education problems? Of course, 'Africa' is a rather large place. Related generalizations (while catnip for headline writers, especially those outside the continent) obviously can obscure as much as they illuminate, perpetuating certain stereotypes of Africa as a single, monolithic place with certain common characteristics.(Binyavanga Wainaina's satirical How To Write About Africa remains sadly spot on in too many instances.)

That said, while the impulse from some corners to refer to 'Africa' may be both unfortunate but nevertheless predictable, being asked this sort of question at least provides an opportunity to unpack this question in ways that are (hopefully) useful and interesting. The EduTech blog was conceived in part, and in a decidedly modest way, to help direct the gaze of some folks to some of the interesting questions and challenges being addressed in different ways in different communities in Africa related to ICT use in education by groups who are, along the way, coming up with some interesting answers and solutions.


The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), the arm of the United Nations charged with collecting global data related to education (and some other sectors as well), recently came out with a report that provides some useful data that collectively can help outline the general shape of some of what is happening across the African continent when it comes to the availability and use of educational technologies. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comparative Analysis of Basic e-Readiness in Schools is certainly not the first such report that has taken a continent-wide perspective, but it is notable in a number of regards -- not only because it is the most recent such effort, but also because it is intended as a precursor to more regular data, systematic data collection efforts going forward.
Written by Peter Wallet (with the assistance of Beatriz Valdes Melgar), the report presents data and related analysis from a survey co-sponsored by UIS, the Korea Education and Research Information Service (KERIS) and the Brazilian Regional Center for Studies on the Development of the Information Society ( -- the group responsible for the annual Survey of ICT and Education in Brazil). The report notes that, unfortunately, "data on ICT in education in the region are sparse. Collecting more and better quality statistics will be a priority in the post-2015 development agenda given the growing role of ICT in education. In response, the UIS is working with countries to establish appropriate mechanisms to process and report data, and to better measure the impact of technology on the quality of education." With that caveat and announcement out of the way, the report then utilizes the UIS Guide to Measuring Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Education as a framework with which to examine what could be discovered about the existence of related national policies, data about learner-computer ratios, school electrification and connectivity, and ICT-related instruction and curricula in ways consistent with other regional reports that the UIS has published on Asia, Latin America and a number of Arab countries. (Here's a list of international surveys of this sort from UIS and others for anyone who might be interested, as well as some general information about efforts of this sort.)
Some selected highlights:

Lessons from the drafting of national educational technology policies

Michael Trucano's picture
let me make sure to press the right levers in the right order so that I’m in harmony with everyone else
let me make sure to press the
right levers in the right order so that I’m
in harmony with everyone else

Begun in 2004 by the ICT/education team at UNESCO-Bangkok, who were later joined by AED, Knowledge Enterprise and the infoDev program of the World Bank (where I worked), the ICT in Education Toolkit for Policy Makers, Planners and Practitioners was utilized as part of policy planning and review processes in over thirty middle and low counties in the course of the following decade.

In support of face-to-face and online interactions that typically lasted for many months (and in a few cases, years), mainly in countries in East Asia and the Pacific, the Toolkit provided interactive instruments and step-by-step guidelines to assist education policy makers, planners and practitioners in the process of 'harnessing the potential of ICTs to meet educational goals and targets efficiently and effectively'.

The toolkit was designed with the needs of two specific groups in mind: (1) Key decisionmakers in countries and educational institutions as they struggled with the challenge of introducing and integrating ICTs into education; and (2) program officers and specialists in international development agencies as they identified, prepared and appraised ICT-in-education projects or ICT components of education projects.

The ICT in Education Toolkit itself is no longer in use -- with the great changes in technology over the past ten years, maintaining an online toolkit of this sort proved to be too difficult. That said, a number of key lessons emerged from this effort which might be quite relevant to policymakers going forward who are seeking to provide policy guidance, direction and oversight on issues related to the use of new technologies in education systems.

Here are some of them:

Key themes in national educational technology policies

Michael Trucano's picture
interesting ... this policy says this, and that policy says that ...
interesting: this policy says this,
​and that policy says
that ...
The World Bank is concluding an analysis of over 800 policy documents related to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education from high, middle and low income countries around the world in order to gain insight into key themes of common interest to policymakers. This is work is part of the institution's multi-year efforts under its Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative to provide policy-relevant guidance for education decisionmakers in a number of policy 'domains' (including areas such as workforce development; school finance; teachers; management information systems; equity and inclusion; and student assessment).
This analysis of ICT/education policies under the SABER-ICT research initiative suggests that there is a set of eight common themes which are, in various ways, typically addressed in such documents. The specific related policy guidance related to each theme often differs from place to place, and over time, as do the emphasis and importance ascribed to this guidance. Nevertheless, some clear messages emerge from an analysis of this collected database of policy documents, suggesting some general conventional wisdom about 'what matters most' from the perspective of policymakers when it comes to technology use in their education systems, and how this changes as ICT use broadens and deepens.
It should be noted that what appears to matter most to policymakers, at least according to the official policy documents that they draft and circulate related to ICT use in education, may not in fact be what *actually* matters most from the perspectives of students, teachers, school leaders, parents and local communities, politicians, local industry, academics, researchers and other various key stakeholders and beneficiaries.

Whether one agrees with apparent policy intent or not, being able to identify such intent can be a catalyst for important discussions and analysis:
Is this really what's most important?
Does this policy rhetoric match our on-the-ground reality?
If not:
What can or should be done?

Collecting data about educational technology use in *all* countries in the world

Michael Trucano's picture
at least part of the picture is becoming a little more clear
at least part of the picture is
becoming a little more clear

What's the impact of technology use on education, and on learning?

This simple question is rather difficult to answer, for a number of reasons. The quick answer -- that 'it depends on how you are using it, and to what end' -- may be unsatisfying to many, but is nevertheless accurate. That said, before you attempt to assess impact, it can be rather helpful first to understand how technologies are being used (or not used) in actual practice. And before you can do this, it is useful to know what is actually available for use today, as well as some of the key factors which may influence this use. Being able to compare this state of affairs with those found in other countries around the world can help you put this knowledge into some comparative context. (Are we typical, or an outlier? Are we ahead, or behind?)

Back in December 2009, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), the specialized agency within the UN system responsible for collecting data related to education (the World Bank's EdStats initiative is a close partner of the UIS in this regard) published a very useful Guide to Measuring Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Education [pdf] that has since been used to guide regional data collection efforts in much of the world.

(The EduTech blog has looked at results from a number of these efforts, including in Asia, the Arab states, and Latin America, as well as more generally about what these efforts tell us about the state of school connectivity around the world; a regional report from the UIS on ICT and education in Africa is due out in the first half of 2015.)

Building on these efforts, it is expected that the first comprehensive global initiative will commence next year to regularly collect basic data related to technology use in education in *all* countries, big *and* small, rich *and* poor.

What sort of data might be important to collect, and what can be collected in practice?

Are the existing set of 'indicators' put forward by the UIS relevant and useful, or should they be reduced/enlarged/amended, based on what has been learned as part of efforts to collect and analyze them in recent years?

To help explore such questions, the UIS brought together a 'technical advisory panel' comprising an acronymic soup of organizations (including ADEA, ALECSO, CETIC, European Schoolnet, ITU, KERIS, OECD, TAGI, UNESCO, World Bank) earlier this month to review lessons from the first set of regional data collection efforts and to provide comments on, and suggest possible changes to, a consolidated list of related ICT/education 'indicators' and related questionnaire [pdf]. A new global survey of technology use in education, meant to be part of the regular, on-going data collection efforts of UIS in the education sector coordinated through national statistical offices, is due to launch in September 2015.


How many schools are connected to the Internet?

Michael Trucano's picture

As we near the halfway point of the second decade of the 21st century, it is difficult not to marvel at all of the new technologies that have insinuated their way into daily lives of increasing numbers of people around the world. An upcoming publication from the World Bank, the World Development Report for 2016, will explore the Internet's "impact on economic growth, on social and economic opportunity, and on the efficiency of public service delivery". The EduTech blog regularly features and comments on specific projects and research about how the Internet (as well as related technologies, technology platforms and technology-enabled approaches) is being utilized to benefit education in developing countries around the world (as well as some instances where it is having no benefit at all).

As insightful as lessons from efforts like those related to using mobile phones to promote literacy in Papua New Guinea or providing all students with their own laptops in Uruguay might be, however, it is worthwhile to take a step (or two, or twenty) back in an attempt to see the outlines of the big(ger) picture. While it is true that groups around the world continue to implement innovative solutions to simulate Internet connectivity in places where it still doesn't exist in schools (through the caching of content on local servers or portable drives, for example), this is almost always a stop-gap measure until something better comes along, namely: reliable, robust, fast, inexpensive connections to the Internet.

On-the-ground, practical experiences with introducing and using new digital technologies in education systems around the world over the past two decades have led many to conclude that a 'second digital divide' has emerged, separating those with the skills and competencies to benefit from the use of these new technologies from those who are not benefitting, or not benefitting to the same extent. There can be little doubt that such a second divide exists, and that this divide, which is focused on the impact of technology use, may well be more difficult to bridge than the original 'digital divide', which related primarily to access to technology. While in the end we are rightly concerned with outcomes, and impacts, inputs still matter. With this in mind, and with full acknowledgement that connectivity is not an end in itself, but rather a means to a larger end, it might be worth asking:

How many schools around the world are connected to the Internet?

Until recently we had little hard (or even soft) data to help us answer what would appear, on its face, to be a rather simple question. Things are improving in this regard, however. As it stands today, your best source of insight in this regard is probably a document with the delightfully bureaucratic title, Final WSIS Targets Review: Achievements, Challenges and the Way Forward, that you may have missed when it appeared last June. In case it may be of interest (a former boss of mine used to say: We pay you to read this stuff so that we don't have to!), I thought I'd take a quick look at it here.


The Development and Evolution of National Educational Technology Agencies Over Time

Michael Trucano's picture
a different sort of life cycle
a different sort of life cycle

As part of our work advising such groups over the years, we have observed that national ICT/education agencies -- the organizations found in many countries which serve as the focal groups coordinating large scale efforts to introduce, use and support new technologies in schools -- pass through a general ‘life-cycle’ over the course of their existence, with five semi-distinct stages of development.

Each stage may bring with it a new set of functional responsibilities and mandates, different staffing (including leadership) and budgeting requirements, and entail varied levels of oversight and relationships with other groups, causing organizational structures to adapt, and be adapted, over time.

This life-cycle hypothesis has been proposed as a simple tool to help people who play critical roles in the planning for large scale national educational technology initiatives to develop an understanding of how their organizations may compare with other organizations doing similar sorts of things in other parts of the world, and how they might expect that their organizations may evolve and change over time. Such an evolution can potentially have a profound impact on a variety of key decisions that policymakers may have to make related to funding, staffing, functions and coordination with a variety of key stakeholder groups over time. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether it is 'good' or 'bad' that a particular organization finds itself at one of these five identified stages. There also appears to be no hard and fast rule about how long individual institutions may stay at a particular stage in the life cycle. Some organizations may move quickly from one stage to another, others may stay in a particular stage for many years, even (potentially) decades. Most organizations observed around the world, especially those in middle and low income countries, find themselves today somewhere between the stages of 'childhood' and 'adolescence', with a heavy focus on the technology itself (buying it, rolling it out, supporting and maintaining it) and less of a focus on trying to integrate the technology into standard or transformed teaching and learning practices. While it is worth noting that this technology focus is not necessarily bad (or good) -- judgments of this sort are presumably more useful when made relative to certain specific contexts, and not in the abstract -- it is usually true that this focus is a direct consequence of the views of policy makers about how technology can and should be used in education.

Why Establish a National Educational Technology Agency?

Michael Trucano's picture
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 ...
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 ...

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?

Surveying ICT use in education in Asia

Michael Trucano's picture
we're not all uniform in our use of ICTs
we're not all uniform in our use of ICTs

If you've ever been involved in discussions about current uses of technology in education -- and, given that you are currently reading a post on the World Bank's EduTech blog, it's probably safe to assume that you have -- you've probably noticed that, at some point in the back-and-forth, someone will inevitably be unable to resist talking about what's coming next. The history of technology use in education is, in part, a history of predictions about the use of technology in the future.

For the past few decades, many people around the world have almost instinctively looked toward Asia to get glimpses and insight into what the next wave of consumer technologies might look like and do, and how young people might use them. From the 'computer nerds' who frequented the Akihabara section of Tokyo in the 1980s to the young Filipinos whose affinity for SMS earned their country its designation as the 'texting capital of the world' around the turn of the century to today's designation of Indonesia as the 'social media capital of the world', the center of gravity for emerging uses of new technologies by young people has often been in the East. It is indeed no coincidence that the World Bank has co-sponsored an annual event bringing education policymakers to Seoul each fall to help discuss and plan for their country's potential uses of new technologies in schools in the future.

Of course, the stereotypically tech-savvy, mobile-phone wielding, hyper-connected youth in the big cities of East Asia, reviewing vocabulary on their smartphones while commuting on the subway or studying to the wee hours of the night on broadband connections at home, occupy one end of a very wide and diverse spectrum. Rural youth for whom the Internet is more aspiration than avocation and whose schools may not even have electricity, let alone a computer, or for whom 'computer time' means the two hours a month spent in a crowded school computer lab learning how to use a word processing program while waiting, waiting, waiting for their desperately slow Internet connection to bring up a single web page: Such young people and circumstances represent the reality of current technology use in education across Asia as well.

If we hypothesize that many future uses of technology in education might first appear in Asia, where might we want to look to get some first glimpses as what is likely to come to our own schools (wherever they may be)? If you want to know what a place might look like tomorrow, a good place to start might be by looking at what things look like there today.  With that in mind:

How and to what extent are countries across Asia currently utilizing information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their education systems?

Two recent publications from UNESCO provide much useful data and documentation to help those trying to come up with possible answers to this question.

Surveying ICT use in education in five Arab States

Michael Trucano's picture

revisiting the past while looking to the futureWhen I was back in school, and long before I had come across names like Wilbur Schramm or Manuel Castells, I remember learning about the power of new information  and communication technologies to help change societies. Even from the (perhaps rather limited) perspective of someone growing up in a prairie state in the American Midwest, whether it was the role of pamphlets in the American Revolution or the more contemporary examples of audiocassettes in the Iranian revolution or photocopiers helping to spread samizdat culture and messages in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, it was clear that the emergence, adaptation and innovative uses of new 'ICTs' could help committed groups of people upend the existing status quo.

(Whether such 'upending' is a good thing or not depends, I guess, on your perspective, and the specific circumstances and context. Flip through the pages of UNESCO's Community radio handbook, for example, and you may well be inspired, but read a recent paper from a researcher at Harvard about the role of RTLM radio in the Rwandan genocide and you will be chilled to the bone. Technology is a magnifier of human intent and capacity, as my friend Kentaro Toyama likes to say.)

More recently, the events of the 'Arab Spring' have been popularly attributed, in part, to the use of new ICTs and ICT tools like Twitter and SMS. Whether or not one agrees with this attribution (and about this there is much scholarly debate), there is no denying that rhetoric around 'ICTs' and the Arab Spring has increasingly marked and colored discussions about the use of educational technologies in many Arab countries. In announcing a recent report documenting technology use in education in the region, for example, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) begins by noting that, "Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, arguably the most significant ICT-assisted “learning” phenomena of the recent past, data from five countries provide a snapshot of ICT integration in education." It continues:

"Great strides have been made in the last decade to harness the power of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to help meet many development challenges, including those related to education. However, evidence shows that some countries in the Arab States continue to lag behind in fully implementing ICT in their education systems.
According to a UIS data analysis, which was based on a data collection process sponsored and conducted by the UNESCO Communication and Information Sector and the Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organization (TAG-Org), policies for the implementation and use of ICT in primary and secondary education systems have not necessarily translated into practice. This is revealed in the newly released data from five participating countries."

Results from this data analysis were recently published by UIS in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Education in Five Arab States: A comparative analysis of ICT integration and e-readiness in schools in Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Palestine and Qatar [pdf], one part of a larger multinational effort to collect and analyze basic data related to ICT use in education around the world (results from a similar exercise in Latin America, also led by UIS, were featured on the EduTech blog last week; recent posts have also looked at related sorts of efforts in Europe and Central and West Asia).

Surveying ICT use in education in Latin America & the Caribbean

Michael Trucano's picture

¡más computadoras, por favor!Almost a decade ago, delegates from over 175 countries gathered in Geneva for the first 'World Summit on the Information Society',  a two-part conference (the second stage followed two years later in Tunis) sponsored by the United Nations meant to serve as a platform for global discussion about how new information and communication technologies were impacting and changing economic, political and cultural activities and developments around the world. Specific attention and focus was paid to issues related to the so-called 'digital divide' -- the (growing) gap (and thus growing inequality) between groups who were benefiting from the diffusion and use of ICTs, and those who were not. One of the challenges that inhibited  discussions at the event was the fact that, while a whole variety of inequalities were readily apparent to pretty much everyone, these inequalities were very difficult to quantify, given the fact that we had only incomplete data with which to describe them. The Partnership on Measuring ICT for Development, an international, multi-stakeholder initiative to improve the availability and quality of ICT data and indicators, was formed as a result, and constituent members of this partnership set out to try to bridge data gaps in a variety of sectors. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) took the lead on doing this in the education sector, convening and chairing a Working Group on ICT Statistics in Education (in which the World Bank participates, as part of its SABER-ICT initiative) to help address related challenges. At the start, two basic questions confronted the UIS, the World Bank, the IDB, OECD, ECLAC, UNESCO, KERIS and many other like-minded participating members of the working group (out of whose acronyms a near-complete alphabet could be built):

What type of data should be collected related to ICT use in education?

Not to mention:

What type of data could be collected,
given that so little of it was being rigorously gathered
across the world as a whole,
relevant to rich and poor countries alike,
in ways that permitted comparisons across regions and countries?

Comparing ICT use in education across all countries was quite difficult back then. In 2003/2004, the single most common question related to the use of ICTs in education I was asked when meeting with ministers of education was: What should be our target student:computer ratio? Now, one can certainly argue with the premise that this should have been the most commonly posed question (the answer from many groups and people soon became -- rather famously, in fact -- '1-to-1', e.g. 'one laptop per child'). That said, the fact that we were unable to offer globally comparable data in response to such a seemingly basic question did little to enhance the credibility of those who argued this was, in many ways, the wrong question to be asking. Comparing ICT use in education across all countries remains difficult today -- but in many regards, this task is becoming much easier.