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?"
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 (CETIC.br -- 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.)
Despite hundreds of millions spent on more and better household surveys across Africa in recent decades, we only have a very rough idea about the levels and trends in income poverty and inequality in sub-Saharan Africa. Many reasons contribute to this unfortunate state of affairs.
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.
Politicians rarely take a step without them.
Corporations do them monthly.
Presidents and Prime Ministers check them daily.
Surveys and polls. They drive decision making across all sorts of organizations, corporations, governments and even palaces. Polls inform a range of strategies, whether related to how countries build support for reform, to how organizations move the needle on behavior change (think smoking, HIV, and drunk driving), to how companies choose the colors of a box of cereal and decide on the jingo that is intended to sell that cereal (crafted specifically to never leave your memory)!
The World Bank Group is developing a framework to more systematically mainstream citizen engagement in Bank Group-supported operations with the goal of improving their results. The framework will build on experience from existing efforts and highlight additional context-specific opportunities to engage with citizens and seek beneficiary feedback.
The Bank would like to learn from the wealth of global experience in citizen engagement. Specifically, what works, when, why and how? Please share your experience through this short online survey. The team working on this would very much appreciate your input, which will help inform the framework.
When 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."
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.
One consistent theme that I hear quite often from policymakers with an interest in, and/or responsibility for, the use of ICTs in their country's education system is that they want to 'learn from the best'. Often times, 'best' is used in ways that are synonymous with 'most advanced', and 'most advanced' essentially is meant to describe places that have 'lots of technology'. Conventional wisdom in many other parts of the world holds that, if you want to 'learn from the best', you would do well to look at what is happening in places like the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Singapore. (Great internal 'digital divides' of various sorts persist within some of these places, of course, but such inconvenient truths challenge generalizations of these sorts in ways that are, well, inconvenient.) Policymakers 'in the know' broaden their frame of reference a bit, taking in a wider set of countries, like those in Scandinavia, as well as some middle income countries like Malaysia and Uruguay that also have 'lots of technology' in their schools. Whether or not these are indeed the 'best' places to look for salient examples of relevance to the particular contexts at hand in other countries is of course a matter of some debate (and indeed, the concept of 'best' is highly problematic -- although that of 'worst' is perhaps less so), there is no question that these aren't the only countries with lots of ICTs in place (if not always in use) in their education systems.
What do we know about what is happening across Europe
related to the use of ICTs in schools?
Technology use in schools at reasonably large scale began in many OECD countries in earnest in the 1980s and then accelerated greatly in the 1990s, as the Internet and falling hardware prices helped convince education policymakers that the time was right to make large investments in ICTs. In most middle and low income countries, these processes began a little later, and have (until recently) proceeded more slowly. As a result, it was only about ten years ago, as education systems began to adopt and use ICTs in significant amounts (or planned to do so), that efforts to catalog and analyze what was happening in these sets of countries began in earnest. UNESCO-Bangkok's Meta-survey on the Use of Technologies in Education in Asia and the Pacific, published in 2003, was the first notable effort in this regard. A trio of subsequent efforts supported by infoDev (Africa in 2007; the Caribbean in 2009; and South Asia in 2010) helped to map out for the first time what was happening in other regions of the world related to the use of ICTs in education. While the information in such regional reports can rather quickly become dated in some cases, given the pace of technological change, they still provide useful points of departure for further inquiry. In some other parts of the world, even less has been published and made available for global audiences about how ICTs are being used in education.
Information about developments in many of the countries of the Soviet Union, for example, has not, for the most part, been widely disseminated outside the region (indeed, for many within the region as well!). The Moscow-based UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE) has been perhaps the best 'one-stop shop' for information about ICT use in the region. Recent work by the Asian Development Bank has gone much further to help to fill in one of the most apparent 'blind spots' in our collective global understanding of how countries are using ICTs to help meet a variety of objectives within their formal education systems. ICT in Education in Central and West Asia [executive summary, PDF] summarizes research conducted over five years (2006-2011) in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, with shorter studies on Afghanistan, Armenia, Georgia, and Pakistan.