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Investing in digital teaching and learning resources: Ten recommendations for policymakers

Michael Trucano's picture
ok, what should I be considering at this point ...?Following up on previous blog posts exploring issues related to planning for new investments in digital teaching and learning materials to be used across education systems, I thought I'd share some of the general recommendations that have often featured in related discussions with policymakers in which I have been involved, in case they might be of utility or interest to anyone else.

This list certainly isn't comprehensive. As with all posts on the EduTech blog, the standard disclaimers should apply (e.g. these are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent official views of the World Bank, etc.). It is perhaps worth noting that these sorts of suggestions are typically made and discussed within a specific context: A country has decided, for better or for worse, that it will consider significant new investments in digital teaching and learning materials. With this decision already made, policymakers are looking for some additional perspectives and inputs to help guide their thinking as they move forward.

In other words: These sorts of recommendations typically are not meant to inform higher level discussions about fundamental strategic priorities in the education sector (although, where they may help trigger reconsideration of some broader decisions made at higher levels, that may not always be such a bad thing). They are not meant to help, for example, policymakers assess whether or not to spend money on digital textbooks versus buying related hardware, let alone whether or not investments in digital learning resources should be made instead of spending money on things like school feeding programs, improvements in instruction at teacher training colleges, or hiring more teachers. Rather, they are more along the lines of:
 
So you have decided to buy a lot of 'digital textbooks'?
Here is some potential food for thought.

 
With that context and those caveats in place, here are ten general recommendations that education officials contemplating the use of digital teaching and learning materials at scale across a country’s education system may wish to consider during their related planning processes:
 

A few myths and misconceptions about digital teaching and learning materials in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

attempting to see just over the horizonAcross Africa, a variety of devices are increasingly being used to disseminate and display teaching and learning materials in electronic and digital formats.  As costs for such devices continue to fall, and as the devices themselves become more widely available and used across communities, the small pilot, and largely NGO-led, projects that have characterized most efforts to introduce educational technologies in schools across Africa will inevitably be complemented, and in many cases superseded, by large-scale national initiatives of the sorts now taking place in Rwanda and Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of devices are being, or will soon be, distributed to schools.

Few would argue that the use of such devices do not offer great promise and potential to improve the access to and quality of education by providing access to more educational content than is currently available inside and outside of schools. Internet connectivity can provide access to millions of educational materials available on the Internet; low cost, handheld e-reading devices can hold more than a thousand books. Depending on the availability of connectivity, or local resourcefulness in transferring materials to devices manually, digital content used in schools can be updated more regularly than is possible with printed materials. Depending on the device utilized, this content can be presented as ‘rich media’, with audio, video and animations helping content be displayed in ways that are engaging and interactive. It is possible to track electronically how such content is used, and, depending on the technologies employed, to present content to teachers and learners in personalized ways. In some cases , this content can be delivered at lower costs than those incurred when providing traditional printed materials.

Given the increased availability and diffusion of consumer computing technologies across much of the continent in less than a decade, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of widespread misconceptions about the promise and potential of using digital technologies and devices across Africa to increase access to learning materials appear to have taken hold. On one level, this is consistent with the ‘hype cycle’ model  of technology diffusion in which, according to Gartner, a technology breakthrough is soon followed by a period of time of “inflated expectations” about what sort of changes might be possible as a result.

Calculating the costs of digital textbook initiatives in Africa

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it can be hard at times to see what's comingA few countries across Africa are considering rather ambitious initiatives to roll out and utilize digital textbooks, a general catch-all term or metaphor which I understand in many circumstances to be ‘teaching and learning resources and materials presented in electronic and digital formats’.

How much will such initiatives cost?

Reflexively, some ministries of education (and donors!) may think this is a pretty straightforward question to answer. After all, they have been buying textbooks in printed formats for a long time, they have a good handle on what such materials traditional cost, and so they may naturally presume that they can think about the costs of ‘digital textbooks’ in pretty similar ways.

Many people are surprised to discover that calculating costs associated with the introduction and use of digital teaching and learning materials is often a non-trivial endeavor. At a basic level, how much an education system spends will depend on what it intends to do, its current capacity to support such use – and of course what it can afford. As they investigate matters more deeply (and sit through many presentations from publishers and other vendors, sometimes wowed at what is now possible and available while at the same time rather confused about what is now possible and available), education officials seeking to acquire digital teaching and learning materials for use at scale across an education system may find costing exercises to be, in reality, rather challenging and (surprisingly) complex when compared to their ‘standard’ textbook procurement practices.
 

Textbook policies in an increasingly digital age

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"Should we continue along our current path, or acknowledge that others are blasting off in other directions?The World Bank is revising its Operational Guidelines for Textbooks and Reading Materials [pdf].  Commonly referred to as our 'textbook policy', this is a guidance document for our ‘clients’ and partners in ministries of education and finance, our own staff and (to a lesser extent) broader stakeholder communities interested and involved in the development, procurement, dissemination, and assessment of the use, of learning materials (especially within the context of World Bank-funded projects in the education sector).

The current policy dates from 2002. My first reaction when I heard that the World Bank would be revising its “textbook policy” was to the term itself.  In 2012, surely we should be thinking beyond just 'textbooks', more broadly encompassing a wide variety of educational resources than the traditional conception of a printed book landing with a thud on the desk of a student? Despite regular proclamations from certain quarters about the impending ‘death of the printed book’, printed textbooks – especially in the developing countries where the World Bank is active -- aren’t going away any time soon. That said, there is no doubt that the landscape of and business climate for ‘educational publishers’ is changing radically in much of the world, and that this change is being fueled in large part by the increased distribution and adoption of a variety of disruptive technologies, which are increasingly to be found in schools and local communities, even in some of the poorest.

How might, or should, a new World Bank ‘textbook policy’ be relevant and useful in such a world going forward? How narrowly – or expansively – should it consider its guidance related to learning materials? To what extent should such a policy attempt to signal or highlight the potential relevance or importance of certain trends, approaches or perspectives – especially as they relate to the emergence of a variety of new technologies?

An update on the use of e-readers in Africa

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you can't help but notice all of the e-readers in this classroom ... did you also notice the absence of books?What does it take to introduce e-books and e-readers into communities in low income countries -- and is this a good idea?

Judging by the increasing number of inquiries we receive here at the World Bank on this topic, we are not alone in asking such questions. If you want help in trying to answer these and related queries based on evidence from pioneers in this area, you will most likely find yourself at some point in contact with the folks at the Worldreader NGO. Co-founded by one of the former senior executives at Amazon, Worldreader is working with its partners to "bring millions of books to underserved children and families in the developing world".  Jonathan Wareham, a professor at ESADE in Barcelona who serves on the Worldreader - Spanish Foundation Board and collaborates with the organization on various research activities into the use of e-readers and e-books, recently stopped by the World Bank to talk about what Worldreader is learning from its work in Africa.

What happens when all textbooks are (only) digital? Ask the Koreans!

Michael Trucano's picture

banned in Busan?A few years ago, a World Bank study highlighted the fact that there simply aren't enough textbooks for most students in Africa, and what is available is too expensive.  In response to this reality, some people at the World Bank have been exploring various options for addressing the 'textbook gap', including initiatives investigating the potential cost-effectiveness of 'e-books' for African students.

At the other end of the spectrum from the situation that exists in schools in many low- and middle-income countries in Africa, students in one East Asian nation may soon not have access to textbooks either -- at least the old fashioned, printed kind.

E-Reading in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

a, b, c, d, ... E?!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

More on e-books in Africa

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not destined for the rubbish bin yet -- but you'd better make room on the shelf! | image attribution at bottomThe 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.

Can eBooks replace printed books in Africa? An experiment

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Johannes Gutenberg isn't the only person interested in the answerIn 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.


A (digital) library ... in your pocket?

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are paper-bound books destined to go the way of the card catalogue? (image attribution at bottom of this blog posting)

Amazon, the company behind the Kindle, perhaps the world's most famous e-reader, recently announced an international version of its digital book reading device that will allow users to connect via 3G to download content in over 100 countries.   The early success of the Kindle, together with products like the Sony Reader, and the excitement over recently announced products like the Nook and Plastic Logic e-reading devices (Wikipedia has a nice list of these things), portends profound changes to the way we consume and distribute reading materials going forward.  The excellent (and highly recommended) Mobile Libraries blog explores what all of this might mean for one of most venerable of all information gathering, curation and dissemination institutions: the library. While Mobile Libraries documents issues related to how e-books and the like may transform the roles of the library in the industrialized countries of Europe, North America and Asia, there is no clear equivalent information resource highlighting what such advances might mean for developing countries.  But, in various ways, many people and projects are hard at work exploring such issues.