Since 2009, the World Bank's EduTech blog has attempted to "explore issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit education in developing countries".
While the 30+ posts in 2014 spanned a wide range of topics, a few themes emerged again and again. The emerging relevance and use of mobile phones (in various ways and to various ends) in the education sector continued to be a regular area of discussion, as were efforts to collect (more, better) data to help us understand what is actually happening around the world related to technology use in education, with a specific interest in circumstances and contexts found in middle and low income 'developing' countries.
While technology use is typically considered a characteristic of more 'advanced' countries and education systems, the EduTech blog deliberately sought in 2014 to complicate this belief and bias a bit by looking at efforts specifically meant to be relevant (and which were in some cases indigenous) to some of the 'least advanced' places in the world.
Before getting on to this year's 'top ten' list, a few reminders (which might be familiar to some of you who have read the earlier annual EduTech blog round-ups: I've copied some of this verbatim):
Posts on the EduTech blog are not meant to be exhaustive in their consideration of a given topic, but rather to point to interesting developments and pose some related questions that might be of interest.
These blog posts should not be mistaken for peer-reviewed research or World Bank policy papers (although some of the content may later find its way into such publications). The views expressed on the EduTech blog are those of the author(s) alone, and not those of the World Bank. (In other words: Blame the guy who wrote them, and not his bosses or institution, for anything you find inaccurate or disagreeable here.)
The blog itself is animated by a belief that, by 'thinking aloud in public', we can try (in an admittedly very modest but hopefully useful way) to open up conversations about various themes to wider audiences, sharing emerging thinking and discussions on topics that often have been, and regrettably often remain, discussed largely 'behind closed doors' within small circles of people and institutions.
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 ..."
"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.)
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.
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 (seeAround 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.)
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.
2013 marked the fifth year of the World Bank's EduTech blog, which has been dedicated to "exploring issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit education in developing countries". The posts in 2013 spanned a rather eclectic set of topics and issues, from MOOCs to mobile phones to Matthew Effects (and those are just the 'M's!). Viewed collectively, it is hoped that these posts provide a little insight into the variety of discussions and activities in which the World Bank has been engaged over the past year, assisting policymakers and practitioners in middle and low income countries as they investigate how new technologies can help education systems tackle long-standing challenges in new (and sometimes not-so-new) ways.
As in past years, in 2013 the EduTech blog served various purposes, but has remained at its core driven by a belief that by 'thinking aloud in public', we can try (in an admittedly very modest way) to use the blog to open up conversations about various themes to wider audiences, and to share emerging thinking and discussions on topics that in the past were often (regrettably) shared only 'behind closed doors' within small circles of people and institutions. There were fewer (27) posts over the course of the year, but many of them were much longer (some may argue that many of them were in fact too long, and indeed a number of them served as first drafts of sorts for upcoming papers and book chapters).
Before presenting this year's 'top ten' list, some quick boilerplate reminders: Posts on the EduTech blog are not meant to be exhaustive in their consideration of a given topic, but rather to point to interesting developments and pose some related questions. They should not be mistaken for peer-reviewed research or World Bank policy papers. The views expressed on the EduTech blog are those of the author(s) alone, and not those of the World Bank.
A number of places around the world have made very large, (hopefully) strategic investments in technology use across their formal education systems featuring so-called "1-to-1 computing", where every student has her own laptop or tablet learning device.
One of the largest national initiatives of this sort is largely unknown outside that country's borders. To the extent that Turkey's ambitious FATIH projectis known around the world, it is probably as a result of headlines related to plans to buy massive numbers of tablets (news reports currently place the figures at about 11 million) and interactive whiteboards (over 450,000 will be placed in classrooms, labs, teacher rooms and kindergartens). The first big phase of the project began in 2011 with 52 schools receiving tablets and interactive whiteboards as a sort of pilot project to test implementation models, with results (here's one early evaluation report) meant to inform later, larger stages of (massive) roll-outs.
The project's acronymic title, FATIH (which stands for Fırsatları Artırma ve Teknolojiyi İyileştirme Hareketi, or 'Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology'), deliberately recalls the conqueror of Istanbul, Fatih Sultan Mehmet. Speaking at the project's inauguration, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted that, “As Fatih Sultan Mehmet ended the Middle Ages and started a new era with the conquering of İstanbul in 1453, today we ended a dark age in education and started a new era, an era of information technology in Turkish education, with the FATİH project.”
What do we know about FATIH,
how might it develop,
and how might lessons from this development
be of interest and relevance to other countries
considering ambitious plans of their own to roll out educational technologies?
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?
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.
About four years ago, the World Bank's infoDev program secured funding to do a 'global survey of the use of mobile phones in education in developing countries', based on the belief that the increasing availability of the small, connected computing devices more commonly known as 'mobile phones' was going to have increasing relevance to school systems around the world. For a variety of reasons -- including regrettable internal bureaucratic delays and, more fundamentally, the fact that, when we looked around at what was actually happening on the ground in most of the world, not much was actually going on (yet), and so we concluded that a global survey of expert thought of the potential future relevance of the use of mobile phone in education wouldn't yet be terribly useful -- we ended up scrapping this research project, hoping that others would pursue similar work when the time was ripe. (The funds were re-programmed to support EVOKE, the World Bank's online 'serious game', the second version of which is scheduled to launch in September in Portuguese and English, on both PCs and mobile phones, with a special focus on Brazil.) A few of the organizations involved in the mEducation Alliance, an international collaborative effort in which the World Bank participates that is working to explore cutting edge intersections between mobiles, education and development and to promote collective knowledge sharing, have just published some short papers that have accomplished much of what we had hoped to do with this sort of survey. We'll look at two of these efforts this week on the EduTech blog: the first led by UNESCO, the second (in a follow up post this Friday) by the Mastercard Foundation, working with the GSMA.
When 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.
One of the fascinating benefits of working at a place like the World Bank is the exposure it offers to interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places that many other folks know little about. Small countries like Uruguay and Portugal, for example, are beginning to attract the attention of educational reform communities from around the world due to their ambitious plans for the use of educational technologies. Much is happening in other parts of the world as well, of course, especially in many countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The largest stand-alone World Bank education project to date that focused on educational technologies, for example, was the Russia E-Learning Support Project. Macedonia gained renown in many corners as the first 'wireless country', with all of that Balkan country's primary and secondary schools online since the middle of the last decade -- although other countries, like Estonia and the tiny Pacific island nation of Niue, also lay claim to versions of this title. (If you are looking for more information on the Macedonian experience, you can find it here and here [pdf]). Much less well known, however, is the related experience of the small country of Georgia, located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, where small laptops are being distributed to primary school students and where school leaving exams are now conducted via online computer-adaptive testing.