eLearning Africa (eLA) bills itself as 'the premier annual event bringing together e-learning and ICT-supported education and training professionals from across the continent'. If you want a 'crash course' in what is happening in a variety of contexts related to ICT use in education in countries from Algeria to Zambia, you could do much worse than to attend this increasingly informative and useful event. This year the event was held in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and featured over 1700 participants (and over 300 speakers) from 90 countries around the world; it included daily plenary and 65 parallel sessions to share and debate emerging lessons from experiences in this fast-moving field.
I was honored to be asked to deliver one of the keynote addresses at this year's eLearning Africa event at the end of May. (If you'll be in Dar for the event, I look forward to seeing you there!) The organizers asked me to submit an abstract for my presentation by last week. In the belief that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and in the spirit of what I take to be the increasing appetite of the World Bank to be more 'open' about what information it makes available publicly, I thought I would (mix metaphors and) send up a trial balloon of sorts here on this blog, sharing one of the themes I am hoping to explore in my short talk, in the hope that doing so will make my presentation stronger and more relevant to the audience. If past experience is any guide, there will be no shortage of people who comment (below, on their own blogs, via email and Twitter) about where and how I've got things wrong.
Before I get to that, though, some background:
Back in 2008, a World Bank study on Textbooks and School Library Provision in Secondary Education in Sub-Saharan Africa [pdf] noted that "There is little or no evidence in any of the 19 countries reviewed of any systematic approach to, or consideration of, the full range of secondary textbook cost reduction strategies", adding that "Only 1 out of 19 countries studied (Botswana) had adequate textbook provision at close to a 1:1 ratio for all subjects and all grades."
In other words: There aren't enough textbooks for most students in Africa, and what is available is too expensive.
A number of groups are looking at this reality and wondering if the use of inexpensive e-book readers may be able to help. One such group at the World Bank is exploring an e-book pilot initiative in Nigeria (which has been examined previously on the EduTech blog). This pilot is looking at what it might take to deliver textbooks in digital formats for reading by secondary school students on dedicated e-readers, and what might happen as a result. It is not just looking at the use of official textbooks, however. The project team is also seeking to investigate the potential impact on educational achievement of making small libraries of digital books available to students on e-readers. In doing so, it is intrigued by studies such as Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations, which found that
The World Bank EduTech blog recently had its second birthday. As we did last year, we thought we'd gather together an idiosyncratic collection of 'top posts' and themes from the past year exploring issues related to the use of information and communication technologies to benefit education in developing countries.
Every week, the blog informally attempts to highlight particular initiatives, studies and emerging trends that we think -- based on regular interactions with government officials, NGOs, researchers and companies active in this area in developing and developed countries around the world -- might be of interest to a wider audience. It is also one small part of a larger movement at the World Bank -- symbolized perhaps most potently by the institution's Open Data initiative -- to provide greater transparency to some of the sorts of information, conversations and discussions that previously were accessible only to limited groups of stakeholders and partners. At least in the case of the World Bank's work related to ICT use in education, blogging has proven to be a useful mechanism to share perspectives and 'think aloud in public' along with our partners, expert practitioners and our critics, as well as with people who are simply interested in a particular topic.
Without further ado ...
When is the rigorous impact evaluation of development projects a luxury, and when is it a necessity?
This is a question asked in a new paper examing the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), a high profile initiative that, according to its web site, offers a "bold, innovative model for helping rural African communities lift themselves out of extreme poverty".
In the words of one of the authors of When Does Rigorous Impact Evaluation Make a Difference? The Case of the Millennium Villages, "We show how easy it can be to get the wrong idea about the project’s impacts when careful, scientific impact evaluation methods are not used. And we detail how the impact evaluation could be done better, at low cost." The paper underscores the importance of comparing trends identified within a project activity with those in comparator sites if one is to determine the actual impact of a specific project. This sentiment should come as no surprise to those familiar with an area of exploding interest in the international donor and development community -- that of the usefulness of randomized evaluations.
Over the past decade or so, increasing numbers of groups have been working on answers to variations of the following question:
How can the wealth of educational resources on the Internet be brought to the majority of African schools that are today 'un-connected'?
While the Internet has not wrought the similar types of profound, broad societal changes in Africa that it has in other parts of the world, the connectivity landscape in Africa is in fact changing very quickly in many places (for the better!), with (for example) macro-level announcements about progress with new fibre optic cables coming on what seems like a weekly basis.
(For those who like such things, here's a great map to track technical progress in this area. For acronym fans, here are links to announcements about some of the major backbone connectivity initiatives in Africa: Glo, RCIP, EASSy, TEAMS, Seacom and LION2.)
Earlier this year the total number of mobile phone subscribers in Africa (over 300 million) passed the total in North America and, while access to the Internet via mobile phones is still low across the continent, it is growing quickly. In Nigeria, for example, published reports now have mobile phones as the primary access device to the Internet in Africa's most populous country. There is even increasing talk (and some action) of connecting African educational institutions to the 'cloud' in various ways.
That said, it also undeniable that improvements in connectivity are not coming fast enough, or at a high enough speed or quality, or cheaply enough, for all citizens and schools, especially outside major population centers -- and won't any time in the near future.
The recent announcement that Amazon.com will be dropping the price of its latest Kindle e-reader to US$139 is only the latest news item from the exploding field of 'e-books', which is receiving increasing attention from education policymakers around the world.
Now, while some may argue that too much attention is paid to the retail prices of ICT-related hardware for use in education, there is no denying that, as prices continue to fall, discussions around the potential use of such devices in a variety of educational settings will only increase.
Back in December the EduTech blog asked, rather speculatively, Can eBooks replace printed books in Africa? It turns out that this question is not only hypothetical. A number of organizations are investigating answers to questions as this -- including the World Bank, where, in response to requests from a few countries, researchers are investigating possible opportunities and potential impacts of the introduction of a variety of digital technologies (including e-readers) into learning environments in sub-Saharan Africa.
In 10 Global Trends in ICT and Education, I included gaming as a trend to keep an eye on. The gaming industry has been growing faster than the movie industry in the past number of years and is occupying an increasing number of hours of time in a young person’s day. Educational games it can be argued have the potential to reach students outside of the classroom where some traditional educational methodologies are failing. This genre of “serious games” has indeed mushroomed over the past number of years. A number of “serious games” have been developed in the fields of education, business, health, politics, engineering, defense, etc. In order to better understand the impact and potential of such games, we decided to develop and evaluate an educational game focused on youth social innovation and development – Evoke: a crash course in changing the world.
The World Bank EduTech blog has just completed its first year of publication.
To celebrate our first birthday, we thought we'd look back at the top posts for 2009.
In the United States and Europe and a number of other places, sales of e-Book readers are growing by leaps and bounds, and many people hope to find shiny new portable electronic reading devices under their Christmas tree later this month. (Many of those who don't celebrate this particular holiday would be quite happy to receive them as well, of course.)
At the same time, organizations like the World Bank are being asked to help finance very expensive, large-scale purchases of printed educational material in many countries. (And because of the success of Education For All in many places, such purchases are bigger than ever before.)
Should poor countries in Africa be exploring investments in things like eBook readers for use in schools?
Well, one way to find out would be to set up an experiment to test various approaches and solutions in pursuit of an answer to this question.