For the past two decades, I've worked on issues at the intersection of the education and technology sectors in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world. It's been a fascinating job: Over the past 20 years, I've been an advisor to, evaluator of, and/or working-level participant in, educational technology ('edtech') initiatives in over 50 such countries. When it comes to ICT use in education, the promised revolution always seems to be just around the corner. Indeed: I am regularly pitched ideas by people who note that, while many past promises about the potential of the use of new technologies in education have failed to pan out, they are confident that "this time, it's different".
At the same time, I am quite often asked to help other folks identify intriguing initiatives that might, individually and/or collectively, illuminate emerging trends and approaches in this sector:
"I'm interested in examples of innovative educational technology projects from around the world, especially those primarily focused on helping teachers and learners in developing countries. In other words: Not the usual suspects. Can you suggest a few projects and companies that I might not know about -- but should?"
I receive a version of this request most every week (sometimes even multiple times in a single day). Given the frequency of such inquiries, I thought I'd quickly highlight 20 such efforts from around the world, in the hope that people might find this useful. The hope is to point readers in the direction of some interesting projects that they might not know much about, but from which there is much we can learn.
While I am not sure if, indeed, things will turn out to be 'different this time around', the overall volume of such projects, and the sophistication of many of them, are quite notable. There is more happening, in more places, than ever before. A number of efforts have been informed (in good ways) by past failures. That said, others will no doubt attempt to 'reinvent the flat tire' and display a characteristic common to Einstein's definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". Hopefully none of the groups profiled below will fall into that trap, but I suspect that a few of them might.
The list here, a mix of for-profit and non-profit initiatives, is deliberately idiosyncratic and non-representative (see the many caveats and explanations that follow below the list). Some of these projects are no doubt doomed to 'fail'; others will most likely be restructured more than once as they try, to borrow the words of Deng Xiaopeng, to "cross the river by feeling the stones". And maybe, just maybe, a few of them might actually turn out to be as 'transformative' as they hope to be.
With that said, and in alphabetical order, here are:
20 innovative edtech projects from around the world
Few would argue with the contention that access to the Internet will be increasingly important to teaching and learning (and to learners and teachers) in the future.
Yes, we all know that there was learning before the Internet, and that you can learn without using the Internet. Let's stipulate all of this up front. And yes, there are plentiful examples of the Internet being used in ways that are harmful or which degrade the learning environment -- as well as examples of the Internet not being used at all, even though it is available and paid for.
That said, it is 2017. No matter where you are, conversations about broadening the access to the Internet to help meet the needs of learners and educators are growing louder in ministries of education, part of broader, related discussions around connectivity in the communities and populations that they serve.
When it comes to providing access to the Internet within educational settings, and for educational purposes:
What should we be talking about in 2017 that we haven't talked about in the past?
To what extent should we be expanding the access debate -- and to what extent should we be having different debates entirely?
Some technologies are maturing and others are emerging, past failures (of omission and commission) are becoming more apparent, and political will is increasingly in evidence in many places.
With this in mind, might a 're-think' be in order?
When, two decades ago, I first started helping people who were investigating the uses of new technologies in education, many of the initial inquiries I received were quite similar. Whether it was from governments in some of the most developed countries in Europe or Asia, or from non-profit groups (and some governments) in some of the least developed countries in Africa or Latin America, people had very specific questions about hardware. What processor should we buy for our computer? How much memory do we need? Over time, as we all became more experienced and savvy about choices related to where to invest scarce resources, questions about devices and their specific attributes gave way to those about processes and approaches -- and about people and institutions.
Recent work at the World Bank has investigated a specific type of institution -- the national educational technology agency -- and its often critical role in support of large scale ICT/education efforts in many countries around the world. Often times, such an institution operates at arm's length from (for example) the ministry of education, with the ministry providing the agency with strategic direction (and funding). Models vary (we document a number of them in a recent book), but, generally speaking, these tend to be organizations focused on >> doing <<. Over time, such institutions become centers of technological competence that can far outstrip what is found within the leadership of their country's ministry of education. They are technical organizations, staffed in large part (but not exclusively) by technical people.
During a series of off-the-record discussions with groups of education ministers earlier this year who were 'struggling with the ICT stuff’, one of the ministers (who had previously worked in the private sector, and whose spouse had worked for a tech firm) shared his interest in creating a CIO (Chief Information Officer) position within his ministry. He wanted someone with dedicated resposbility to help him make sense of all of the things that were changing as a result of new technologies, to help set related strategic directions within the ministry, and to oversee this implementation. About the only thing that the ministers in both ministerial discussions agreed on that day (other than that they were having challenges in dealing with teachers unions -- always a common topic for bonding and commiseration for these sorts of folks, I find) was that they liked the idea of having a CIO.
What exactly does a Chief Information Officer (CIO) do,
and why might ministries of education consider creating such a position?
Opinions and approaches vary regarding how to ‘best’ utilize new technologies to support teaching and learning in ways that are engaging, impactful and ‘effective’.
A recent paper from J-PAL (Education Technology: An Evidence-Based Review) finds that rigorous evidence about what works, and what doesn’t, in this area is decidedly mixed. While what works seems to be a result of many factors (what, where, when, by whom, for whom, why, how), what doesn’t work is pretty clear: simply buying lots of equipment and connecting lots of schools.
Why does this continue to happen, then?
Many in the ‘edtech community’ feel that policymakers simply don’t understand that buying lots of equipment won’t actually change much (aside from its impact on the national treasury), and that if they did understand this, they’d do things differently.
In my experience, the reason that many places end up just buying lots of equipment, dumping it into schools and hoping for magic to happen (a widely acknowledged and long-standing ‘worst practice’ when it comes to technology use in education) isn’t necessarily that the people making related decisions are dumb or uninformed or corrupt (although of course those scenarios shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand in some places).
For over a decade, the World Bank and the Government of Korea have enjoyed a strong strategic partnership exploring a wide range of issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICT) in education around the world.
One high profile activity under this partnership is the annual Global Symposium on ICT use in Education (GSIE), which has helped to establish Korea as a global hub for insight, knowledge sharing and networking for high level government officials, practitioners and experts around topics related to the use of new technologies in education.
GSIE organizers planned from the beginning to support knowledge exchanges around a few ‘evergreen’ general topics (e.g. like the use of new technologies to support teachers; monitoring and evaluation; and digital competencies for learners) in which KERIS, Korea’s national educational technology agency, has notable experience and expertise.
What organizers did not initially anticipate, however, was the extent to which policymakers were interested not only in learning about what KERIS itself knew, and was learning, about uses of new technologies in education, but also in learning about the institution of KERIS itself – as well as institutions like it.
As it happened, people responsible for starting, leading and/or overseeing national institutions in their countries which performed similar sorts of functions to that of KERIS increasingly made the trek to Korea to participate in the GSIE (as they are doing this week), sharing information and insights with their counterparts about national institutions emerging in countries around the world to help introduce, support, fund, share information about, and evaluate the use of ICTs in education at a large scale.
Cette semaine, la Corée du Sud accueille décideurs et autres professionnels venus de par le monde au XIe édition annuelle du Colloque international des TIC éducatives, qui a pour objectif de stimuler un débat sur les enjeux communs concernant la bonne (et mauvaise) application de nouvelles technologies éducatives. Comme lors des éditions précédentes, c’est le Bureau coréen d’information et de recherche en éducation (KERIS) qui organise cet événement.
Les participants représentent en grande partie des organismes chargés de la mise en œuvre des innovations en matière de technologie éducative dans leur propre pays, ou sont fonctionnaires responsables de l’élaboration des politiques publiques qui encadrent lesdits organismes.
Sur la base des entretiens que nous avons eus avec des décideurs de plusieurs pays au cours de la préparation de ce rapport, Gavin Dykes, mon co-auteur, et moi avons élaboré une liste de dix questions thématiques, très simples, en vue de faciliter la concertation pendant les premières étapes de planification d’une agence nationale de technologie éducative. Ces questions visent à faire ressortir d’emblée les enjeux critiques (pouvant parfois porter à confusion) que nous avons retrouvés dans l’expérience d’une vingtaine d’agences établies un peu partout. Nous espérons que ces questions, en provoquant un débat, susciteront une interrogation profonde quant aux liens entre les expériences vécues ailleurs et les priorités spécifiques au système éducatif de votre propre pays.
Si brillantes ou visionnaires que soient les politiques et plans nationaux (présentés dans un rapport ou par un exposé PowerPoint), c’est la traduction de ces politiques et plans en activités concrètes « sur le terrain » qui comptent. Et tout ce travail en amont importe peu si vous n’avez pas en aval les capacités institutionnelles suffisantes pour le mettre réellement en œuvre.
Dans l’espoir qu’elles pourront être utiles aux autorités nationales qui cherchent à constituer et à maintenir ces capacités dans leur pays en vue de créer ou de restructurer une agence nationale technologie éducative, voilà les dix questions:
This week, policymakers and practitioners from around the world are gathering in Korea at the 11th annual Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education to discuss areas of emerging common interest related to the effective (and ineffective) uses of new technologies in education systems around the world. As in the past, KERIS, Korea's famous national edtech agency, is the host and organizer of this event.
Many of these participants represent institutions key to the implementation of educational technology efforts in their countries; many others are government officials responsible for developing the policy environments within which these institutions operate.
Drawing on interviews and discussions with government policymakers in scores of countries around the world during the course of writing this book, my collaborator Gavin Dykes and I developed a set of ten short, thematic questions to help catalyze discussions during the initial stages of planning for the development of national educational technology ('ICT/education') agencies. These questions are meant to highlight potential areas of critical importance (and confusion), based on the experiences of more than two dozen national ICT/education agencies over time in a diverse set of places. It is hoped that these questions, and the conversations that they provoke, can serve as entry points into deeper, more fundamental discussions, providing a bridge of sorts between the recognition of specific educational needs and priorities in one country with practical experiences in others.
No matter how brilliant or 'visionary' a country's educational technology policies and plans might be on paper, or when expressed as a set of bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation, transforming such policies and plans into practical actions 'on the ground' is what is important. It doesn't really matter what you want to do if you don't have the institutional capacity to do it. In the hope that presenting them here might be useful to countries considering, and re-considering, various models to help develop and sustain this capacity, here are:
Ten discussion questions for policymakers seeking to create or restructure
a national educational technology agency
The World Bank's EduTech blog seeks to "explore issues related to the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to benefit education in developing countries". Over the past eight years, it has highlighted an eclectic batch of related new research and explored emerging 'good practices' (and more than a few bad ones as well). Along the way, it has briefly documented and analyzed a wide variety of interesting projects and programs around the world seeking to use new technologies in the education sector. In doing so, it has perhaps posed (and re-framed) many more questions than it has it has provided hard-and-fast 'answers'.
Given the fast-changing nature of so much of our world today, and the expectation that the pace of technology-enabled change is unlikely to slow, it is an abiding conceit of this blog that our individual and collective ability to ask better questions related to the use of new technologies and technology-enabled approaches in education (not only about what we should be doing, and when, and where, but especially about the why and the how) will become an increasingly critical skill to develop and cultivate. There is no shortage of edtech-related 'solutions' marketed around the world, but are they addressing the right problems and most critical challenges? As Wadi Haddad likes to ask: If technology is the answer, what is the question?
The blog seeks, perhaps rather presumptively, to inject an evidence-based, practical tonic into various debates and deliberations about the use of new technologies in the education sector that are, in many places, often characterized by ideological extremes and a general lack of knowledge about what's actually happening 'on-the-ground', especially in many emerging economies and so-called 'developing countries' around the world. While the blog deliberately attempts to adopt a general tone and perspective of fairness and objectivity, 'balance' can admittedly be a rather elusive goal when trying to navigate between the giddy utopianism of many techno-enthusiasts (especially among many in Silicon Valley, and more than a few politicians) and the sometimes rather crotchety conservatism of the reflexively anti-technology (indeed, often anti-change) crowd. In theory, there should be a vast space between these two poles; in practice, such middle ground can often be hard to find, or negotiate, in many places in the world.
The historian Melvin Kranzberg famously opined that technology is neither positive nor negative, nor is it neutral. What is clear, however, is that there will increasingly be much more of it, all around us -- including in our schools, and embedded within teaching and learning practices in communities pretty much everywhere: rich and poor, urban and rural. Yes, technology-fueled 'revolutions' in education have been promised for almost a century now, but even if the related change (for better and/or worse) has been long in coming, there is little denying that there is much change afoot these days (again, for better and/or worse). How can we make better decisions about what's important, and what isn't, and how we can tell the difference? By highlighting some interesting things happening in parts of the world that you may not have heard (or thought much) about, the EduTech blog continues to try, in an admittedly modest and incomplete way, to help provide fodder for related discussion, discourse and disagreement in educational policymaking circles in many countries.
What follows below is a quick outline of the top EduTech blog posts from 2016. If you're new to the blog, please do feel to browse our 'back catalog' as well, as many of the 'hits' from past years continue somehow to draw in large numbers of readers, in a number of cases even more than for the new stuff. (Here, for what it's worth, are links to the top posts of 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; and 2009.)
The blog went on a bit of a hiatus for part of 2016, so there is much in the queue that will appear in the early months of 2017. As always, the best way to be notified when new posts appear is to subscribe to us on Twitter (@WBedutech) and/or enter your email address into the 'subscribe by email' box that appears in the right column of your screen if you are reading this on a desktop (the mobile-optimized version of the blog omits this functionality, unfortunately). If you want a sneak peek at topics in the pipeline, as well as links to related news, projects and research papers, you may want to check out the Twitter account of the blog's principal author.
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to visit this blog -- and good luck with whatever projects or decisions you may be considering for the New Year!
Around the world, there is no shortage of rhetoric related to the potential for the use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to 'transform teaching and learning'. Indeed, related pronouncements often serve as the rallying cry around, and justification for, the purchase of lots of educational technology hardware, software, and related goods and services. Where 'business as usual' is not thought to be working, some governments are increasingly open to considering 'business unusual' -- something that often involves the use of new technologies in some significant manner.
One challenge that many countries face along the way is that their procurement procedures are misaligned with what industry is able to provide, and with how industry is able to provide it. Technology changes quickly, and procurement guidelines originally designed to meet the needs of 20th century schooling (with a focus on school construction, for example, and the procurement of textbooks) may be inadequate when trying to operate in today's fast-changing technology environments. Indeed, in education as in other sectors, technological innovations typically far outpace the ability of policymakers to keep up.
Faced with considering the use of new, 'innovative' tools and approaches that hadn't been tried before at any large scale within its country's schools, education policymakers may reflexively turn to precedent and 'old' practices to guide their decisions, especially when it comes to procurement. This is usually seen within government ministries as a prudent course of action, given that such an approach is consistent with the status quo, and that related safeguards are (hopefully) in place. As a result, however, they may end up driving forward into the future primarily by looking in the rear view mirror.
When considering the scope for introducing various types of technology-enabled 'innovations' (however one might like to define that term) into their education systems, many governments face some fundamental challenges:
They don't know exactly what they want.
And even where they do:
They don't have the in-house experience or expertise to determine if what they want is practical, or even feasible, nor do they know what everything should cost.
One common mechanism utilized in many countries is the establishment of a special 'innovation fund', designed to support the exploration of lots of 'new stuff' in the education sector. Such efforts can be quite valuable, and they often end up supporting lots of worthwhile, innovative small scale projects. (The World Bank supports many 'innovation funds' related to the education sector around the world, for what that might be worth, and the EduTech blog exists in part to help document and explore some of what is learned along the way.) There is nothing wrong with small scale, innovative pilot projects, of course. In fact, one can argue that we need many more of them -- or at least more of them with certain characteristics. That said, introducing and making something work at a very small scale is a much different task than exploring how innovations can be implemented at scale across an entire education system.
In such circumstances:
What is a ministry of education to do?
How can it explore innovative approaches to the procurement of 'innovative' large scale educational technology programs in ways that are practical, appropriate, cost-effective, likely to yield good results, informed by research and international 'good practice', and transparent?
Education is a ‘black box’ -- or so a prevailing view among many education policymakers and researchers goes.
For all of the recent explosion in data related to learning -- as a result of standardized tests, etc. -- remarkably little is known at scale about what exactly happens in classroomsaroundtheworld, and outside of them, when it comes to learning, and what the impact of this has.
This isn't to say that we know nothing, of course:
The World Bank (to cite an example from within my own institution) has been using standardized classroom observation techniques to help document what is happening in many classrooms around the world (see, for example, reports based on modified Stallings Method classroom observations across Latin America which seek to identify how much time is actually spent on instruction during school hours; in many cases, the resulting data generated are rather appalling).
Common sense holds various tenets dear when it comes to education, and to learning; many educators profess to know intuitively what works, based on their individual (and hard won) experience, even in the absence of rigorously gathered, statistically significant 'hard' data; the impact of various socioeconomic factors is increasingly acknowledged (even if many policymakers remain impervious to them); and cognitive neuroscience is providing many interesting insights.
But in many important ways, education policymaking and processes of teaching and learning are constrained by the fact that we don't have sufficient, useful, actionable data about what is actually happening with learners at a large scale across an education system -- and what impact this might have. Without data, as Andreas Schleicher likes to say, you are just another person with an opinion. (Of course, with data you might be a person with an ill-considered or poorly argued opinion, but that’s another issue.)
side observation: Echoing many teachers (but, in contrast to teaching professionals, usually with little or no formal teaching experience themselves), I find that many parents and politicians also profess to know intuitively ‘what works’ when it comes to teaching. When it comes to education, most everyone is an ‘expert’, because, well, after all, everyone was at one time a student. While not seeking to denigrate the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, or downplay the value of common sense, I do find it interesting that many leaders profess to have ready prescriptions at hand for what ‘ails education’ in ways that differ markedly from the ways in which they approach making decisions when it comes to healthcare policy, for example, or finance – even though they themselves have also been patients and make spending decisions in their daily lives.
One of the great attractions of educational technologies for many people is their potential to help open up and peer inside this so-called black box. For example:
When teachers talk in front of a class, there are only imperfect records of what transpired (teacher and student notes, memories of participants, what's left on the blackboard -- until that's erased). When lectures are recorded, on the other hand, there is a data trail that can be examined and potentially mined for related insights.
When students are asked to read in their paper textbook, there is no record of whether the book was actually opened, let along whether or not to the correct page, how long a page was viewed, etc. Not so when using e-readers or reading on the web.
Facts, figures and questions scribbled on the blackboard disappear once the class bell rings; when this information is entered into, say, Blackboard TM (or any other digital learning management system, for that matter), they can potentially live on forever.
And because these data are, at their essence, just a collection of ones and zeroes, it is easy to share them quickly and widely using the various connected technology devices we increasingly have at our disposal.
A few years ago I worked on a large project where a government was planning to introduce lots of new technologies into classrooms across its education system. Policymakers were not primarily seeking to do this in order to ‘transform teaching and learning’ (although of course the project was marketed this way), but rather so that they could better understand what was actually happening in classrooms. If students were scoring poorly on their national end-of-year assessments, policymakers were wondering: Is this because the quality of instruction was insufficient? Because the learning materials used were inadequate? Or might it be because the teachers never got to that part of the syllabus, and so students were being assessed on things they hadn’t been taught? If technology use was mandated, at least they might get some sense about what material was being covered in schools – and what wasn’t. Or so the thinking went ....
Yes, such digital trails are admittedly incomplete, and can obscure as much as they illuminate, especially if the limitations of such data are poorly understood and data are investigated and analyzed incompletely, poorly, or with bias (or malicious intent). They also carry with them all sorts of very important and thorny considerations related to privacy, security, intellectual property and many other issues.
That said, used well, the addition of additional data points holds out the tantalizing promise of potentially new and/or deeper insights than has been currently possible within 'analogue' classrooms.
But there is another 'black box of education' worth considering.
In many countries, there have been serious and expansive efforts underway to compel governments make available more ‘open data’ about what is happening in their societies, and to utilize more ‘open educational resources’ for learning – including in schools. Many international donor and aid agencies support related efforts in key ways. The World Bank is a big promoter of many of these so-called ‘open data’ initiatives, for example. UNESCO has long been a big proponent of ‘open education resources’ (OERs). To some degree, pretty much all international donor agencies are involved in such activities in some way.
There is no doubt that increased ‘openness’ of various sorts can help make many processes and decisions in the education sector more transparent, as well as have other benefits (by allowing the re-use and ‘re-mixing’ of OERs, teachers and students can themselves help create new teaching and learning materials; civil society groups and private firms can utilize open data to help build new products and services; etc.).
What happens when governments promote the use of open education data and open education resources but, at the same time, refuse to make openly available the algorithms (formulas) that are utilized to draw insights from, and make key decisions based on, these open data and resources?
Are we in danger of opening up one black box, only to place another, more inscrutable back box inside of it?