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Checking in with Portugal's big projects to support technology use in education

Michael Trucano's picture
sometimes looking inside an unfamiliar place can provide you with a new perspective on what's happening outside as well
sometimes looking inside an unfamiliar place
can provide you with a new perspective on
what's happening outside as well

As part of my job at the World Bank helping to advise governments on what works, and what doesn't, related to the use of new technologies in education around the world, especially in middle- and low-income countries, I spend a fair amount of time trying to track down information about projects -- sometimes quite large in scale and invariably described as 'innovative' in some way -- that were announced with much fanfare which received a great deal of press attention, but about which very little information is subsequently made widely available.

Most of these projects prominently featured some new type of technology gear, whether low cost laptops for students or new ways to connect people in remote places to the Internet or low-power e-reader devices. Other projects featured new software (English learning apps for phones! Free science curricula for teachers! A learning management system that enables personalized learning!). A sub-set of these projects -- the really ambitious and 'visionary' ones -- combined both hardware and software, and a variety of services to support their introduction and use.

I do this follow up for two very basic reasons:

(1) I am generally interested in learning from these sorts of projects, wherever they may be happening; and

(2) I am asked about them a lot.

These conversations generally go one of two ways:

"Whatever happened to that project in [fill in country name] -- how are things going there these days?"
"Things are proceeding [well / not so well], and a bit more slowly than originally envisioned. Here's what you need to know ..."

 or, alternatively:

"Can you give me an update on the exciting stuff that is happening with computers in schools in ___?"
"You mean the ___ project? Actually, that never actually happened."
"No, that's not true, I read that ---"
"Yes, you probably did read that. You may well have heard about it during a presentation by [insert name of vendor] as well. But I assure you: I talk regularly with [the ministry of education / companies / NGOs / researchers] there: Nothing actually happened there related to this stuff in the past, and nothing is happening there related to this stuff now. Will something happen there in the future? Undoubtedly something will ... perhaps even something as potentially 'transformative' as was promised ... although whether it happens in the way it was originally marketed or advertised: Your guess is as good as mine."

In retrospect, the rather short half-life of an unfortunate number of such aborted projects can largely be measured not by things actually implemented 'on the ground', but rather by PowerPoint presentations and press releases. (A rather charitable characterization of what happened in some such cases, but one that is not always or necessarily more accurate, might be that people were 'overly optimistic' or that someone or some group 'was simply ahead of her/their time'. Technology folks sometimes just dismiss such efforts as 'vaporware'.)

When it comes to educational technology projects, most of the press attention tends to come when new initiatives of these sorts are announced, with some momentum continuing on for awhile in the early days of a project, especially when, for example, kids get new tablets for the first time, an occasion that presents a nice, and ready-made, photo opportunity (not that such things are ever conceived of as photo opportunities, of course!). Then, often: Silence.

Projects that do get implemented, and last for awhile, tend eventually to be crowded out of the popular consciousness by the latest and greatest new (new!) thing -- and, when it comes to the use of technology in education, one thing can be certain:

There is always a next new (new!) thing.

(In addition to lots of press attention, the well-known One Laptop Per Child project was the subject of many papers and presentations from academics in the early days that were largely speculative -- e.g. here's what could happen -- and theoretical -- e.g. here's a pedagogical approach whose time has come. Only recently have we started to see more deliberative, rigorous academic work looking at actual implementation models, and what has happened as a result.)

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For me, the most interesting part of the use of technology in education isn't the planning for it (although I spend a lot of time helping people who do that sort of thing) nor the evaluation of the impact of such use (I spend a lot of time on that stuff as well).

The most interesting part is implementation -- because it's so messy; because a fidelity to certain theoretical constructs and models often comes into rude collision with reality; because that's where you really *learn* about what works, and what doesn't, and what impact the whole enterprise may be having. How are kids, and teachers, actually using the stuff? What unexpected problems are people having -- and how are they being addressed? What is changing or happening that is interesting or surprising that wasn't part of the original plan, but which is potentially quite exciting?

One place where things have actually happened related to technology use in education, and where they continue to happen, at a rather large scale, is Portugal.

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Back in 2012, we had a small event here at the World Bank that attempted to share some of the lessons learned from recent Portuguese experiences in introducing new technologies into the education sector (see Around the World with Portugal's eEscola Project and Magellan Initiative). The U.S.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) released a report last month as a follow-up to a study visit to Portugal in late 2013. While written from a North American perspective and for a North American audience, "Reinventing Learning in Portugal: An Ecosystem Approach" provides a useful lens through which an outsider, regardless which continent she calls home, can start to take stock of some of the high level lessons from the ongoing Portuguese experience.

(Side note: I would also be quite interested to read a companion report at some point that focuses on what went wrong in Portugal, and what changed as a result; I am a big believer in the power and value of learning from failure.)

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Countries interested in learning about the 'impact' of efforts to introduce and sustain the use of technologies to benefit education in Portugal might do well to understand the context of what has happened in Portugal, and the circumstances that may make it either unique, or a good comparator, to their own national circumstances.

A quick review of what's happened in Portugal:

Big educational laptop and tablet projects -- Ten countries to learn from

Michael Trucano's picture
tablets loom increasingly large on the horizon in many places
tablets loom increasingly large
on the horizon in many places

[also available in Thai]

Recent headlines from places as diverse as Kenya ("6,000 primary schools picked for free laptop project") and California ("Los Angeles plans to give 640,000 students free iPads") are just two announcements  among many which highlight the increasing speed and scale by which portable computing devices (laptops, tablets) are being rolled out in school systems all over the world. Based on costs alone -- and the costs can be very large! -- such headlines suggest that discussions of technology use in schools are starting to become much more central to educational policies and planning processes in scores of countries, rich and poor, across all continents.

Are these sorts of projects good ideas? It depends. The devil is often in the details (and the cost-benefit analysis), I find. Whether or not they are good ideas, there is no denying that they are occurring, for better and/or for worse, in greater frequency, and in greater amounts. More practically, then:

What do we know about what works,
and what doesn't (and how?, and why?)
when planning for and implementing such projects,
what the related costs and benefits might be,
and where might we look as we try to find answers to such questions?

Around the World with Portugal's eEscola Project and Magellan Initiative

Michael Trucano's picture

Magellan is not the only famous Portuguese export these daysWhen people think of projects around the world to blanket schools with low cost laptops, initiatives associated with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project often spring first to mind.  On a country level, it is the example of Uruguay that is probably most drawing attention from around the world from people interested in learning about how exactly a country can go about providing computing resources to all of its students, and what might happen as a result.  Indeed, Uruguay is increasingly a 'must visit' stop for education officials from countries planning for massive investments in technology use in their education systems for the first time, as well as from more 'advanced' countries who have not moved forward as quickly as has in attempting to utilize ICTs to transform the way educational activities are delivered and empower students and communities in new ways. (Just last month, the World Bank sponsored delegations from Armenia and Russia to visit the Plan Ceibal headquarters in Uruguay and learn firsthand about the Uruguayan experience from those who have been leading it.)  There is another country whose experience is less well known around the world than Uruguay's, but which is every bit as interesting, but in many different ways: that of Portugal.

1-to-1 educational computing initiatives around the world

Michael Trucano's picture

replicating one-to-one, to one, to one ... | image atribution at bottomThe One Laptop Per Child program has brought much attention to issues related to '1-to-1 computing' (each child has her/his own personal computing device).  While perhaps the most prominent initiative of this sort in public consciousness, OLPC is just one of many such programs around the world.  At a recent event in Vienna, the OECD, the Inter-american Development Bank and the World Bank brought together representatives from these programs, the first such face-to-face global gathering of leaders in this area to share information and insights about their experiences. 

In putting together this event, it was clear that there was no consolidated list of leading '1-to-1 educational computing initiatives'.  Here's a first attempt at such a list, based on participants in this event (links are meant as pointers to more related information; not all lead to the specific project sites):