The Development and Evolution of National Educational Technology Agencies Over Time

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a different sort of life cycle
a different sort of life cycle

As part of our work advising such groups over the years, we have observed that national ICT/education agencies -- the organizations found in many countries which serve as the focal groups coordinating large scale efforts to introduce, use and support new technologies in schools -- pass through a general ‘life-cycle’ over the course of their existence, with five semi-distinct stages of development.

Each stage may bring with it a new set of functional responsibilities and mandates, different staffing (including leadership) and budgeting requirements, and entail varied levels of oversight and relationships with other groups, causing organizational structures to adapt, and be adapted, over time.

This life-cycle hypothesis has been proposed as a simple tool to help people who play critical roles in the planning for large scale national educational technology initiatives to develop an understanding of how their organizations may compare with other organizations doing similar sorts of things in other parts of the world, and how they might expect that their organizations may evolve and change over time. Such an evolution can potentially have a profound impact on a variety of key decisions that policymakers may have to make related to funding, staffing, functions and coordination with a variety of key stakeholder groups over time. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether it is 'good' or 'bad' that a particular organization finds itself at one of these five identified stages. There also appears to be no hard and fast rule about how long individual institutions may stay at a particular stage in the life cycle. Some organizations may move quickly from one stage to another, others may stay in a particular stage for many years, even (potentially) decades. Most organizations observed around the world, especially those in middle and low income countries, find themselves today somewhere between the stages of 'childhood' and 'adolescence', with a heavy focus on the technology itself (buying it, rolling it out, supporting and maintaining it) and less of a focus on trying to integrate the technology into standard or transformed teaching and learning practices. While it is worth noting that this technology focus is not necessarily bad (or good) -- judgments of this sort are presumably more useful when made relative to certain specific contexts, and not in the abstract -- it is usually true that this focus is a direct consequence of the views of policy makers about how technology can and should be used in education.

 


Stage 1. Starting (‘birth’)
When initially conceived, ICT/education agencies often have a narrow set of responsibilities, typically related to the roll-out of computers and/or Internet connectivity to schools. Alternatively, they may be set up to perform a specific function (e.g. research, overseeing pilot activities) for which an existing (typically governmental) structure is poorly positioned.

Some related key considerations for policy makers to consider during the first stage of life of a national ICT/education agency may include:

  • What sort of key enabling legislation or policy may need to be enacted to given a national ICT/education agency its mandate – and to communicate this mandate with a larger community of stakeholder organizations active in the sector?
  • How should such an organization be funded – and staffed?
  • Why isn't this being done within an existing institution – is it, for example, to be able to take greater risks, have greater freedom of action, enable connections to key stakeholder groups, access different funding sources, or is this more a matter of bureaucratic convenience?


Stage 2. Expanding (‘childhood’)
As an agency gets better at its work, and as its activities roll out at greater scale, it may increase both its budget and staff. It still does what it did before – it just does more of it.

Some related key considerations for policy makers to consider during this third stage of life of a national ICT/education agency may include:

  • How can the processes and procedures introduced during the early activities of the agency be formalized, so that the institution can become increasingly cost-effective and impactful as it grows?
  • How can an agency find – and retain – key personnel once the start-up phase of the institution has largely ended?


Stage 3. Evolving (‘adolescence’)
Over time, an ICT/education agency often assumes additional responsibilities beyond its original mandate.  This occurs because its ‘success’ in achieving its original mandate naturally surfaces new needs (e.g. once all schools have computers, some group needs to make sure that there is educational content to run on them), because new opportunities arise and/or because existing responsibilities are absorbed into formal government programs and structures and, as a functioning existing institution, it is considered well placed to pursue other objectives.

Some related key considerations for policy makers to consider during this third stage of life of a national ICT/education agency may include:

  • As an agency enters a new phase of its life, might new leadership be necessary to help direct its evolution?
  • If an organization is outside of government, does it make sense to bring many of its key responsibilities and functions within government, now that an initial period of trial and error has largely ended? Conversely: If a program is housed within government, does it make sense that it be ‘spun out’ to another institution – or to be constituted as its own separate institution?
  • If initial special funding sources and mechanisms have run out, how should such an agency be funded going forward?


Stage 4. Sustaining (‘adulthood’ and ‘middle age’)
Where an ICT/education agency becomes ‘embedded’ into the system and is seen as ‘core’ to the delivery of certain essential activities or services over time, with a (reasonably) secure medium- to long-term budget horizon, much of its activities and processes can become more bureaucratized and serve largely to sustain existing programs. Given the pace of technological change, it will continue to assume new responsibilities and mandates, but its structure and defining characteristics remain largely un-changed. KERIS in Korea is a very prominent example of an institution that is seen to have ‘grown up’ in this way; the Omar Dengo Foundation in Costa Rica is another.

Some related key considerations for policy makers to consider during this fourth stage of life of a national ICT/education agency may include:

  • How can a national ICT/education agency remain a locus for innovation and experimentation, given that it is responsibility for a rather set of on-going, legacy activities?
  • How can a national ICT/education agency develop deeper links with key stakeholder groups – and incubate new initiatives and processes that might one day be spun-out as separate programs or organizations on their own?
  • To what extent can – or should – a national ICT/education agency play a more proactive role in helping to inform and influence policy decisions related to ICT use in education across the country?


Stage 5. Ending (‘retirement’)
Where the goals of an ICT/education agency have been thought to have been met, and/or where other organizations are thought to be able to more effectively and efficiently absorb an agency’s responsibilities, it may be disbanded or shut down. Becta in the UK and EdNA in Australia are perhaps the two best known global examples of this occurring. Whether this is the result of a conscious process (‘mission accomplished’), the ‘failure’ of an agency to accomplish its mandate, or simply changing circumstances, the end result is the same.

Some related key considerations for policy makers to consider may include:

  • What are the agency’s key assets, and how can they live on past the closing of a national ICT/education agency?
  • What institutions can assume the key roles previously performed by a national ICT/education agency that are still deemed important to ensure that similar (or better) levels of impact are achieved?
  • What are the key messages that the government wishes to convey related to the closing of the agency?

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This is one in an occasional series of posts excerpting draft analytical work related to national ICT/education agencies that will be published by the World Bank later this year. Please do let us know where we are missing something important -- or where we may have gotten something wrong! The chart that is used to illustrated the life cycle of national ICT/education agencies is decidedly a work-in-progress. While we think it is a potentially useful visual aid, we are not yet convinced that it helps tell the type of story that may be most useful to policymakers. Any related feedback you might have would be well heard on our end.

 

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a vintage bicycle from 1869 housed in the Département des Cycles au Musée d'Art et d'Industrie de Saint-Étienne ("a different sort of life cycle") comes from Wikipedian Hélène Rival via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Authors

Michael Trucano

Global Lead for Innovation in Education, Sr. Education & Technology Policy Specialist

Gavin Dykes

Program Director, Education World Forum

Join the Conversation

Alastair
June 27, 2014

Interesting post. I wonder how you would assess the situation here in Sweden where there is no such agency at all. The lack of any driving force at top level has meant that everyone spends time reinventing the wheel since nearly all activity with ICT is at grassroots level.

Michael Trucano
June 27, 2014

Hi Alastair,
Thanks for your comment.
I must confess that I am not terribly familiar with the current situation related to technology use in education in Sweden, a topic that my co-author Gavin Dykes may be better placed to comment on, given his knowledge of and exposure to what has been happening in Sweden over the past decade or so. (While Gavin and I both contributed to the OECD's report a number of years back on 'Digital learning resources as systemic innovation' in the Nordic countries [http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/ceri-digitallearningresourcesassystemicinno..., I was part of the research team that examined Iceland; Gavin actually helped author the Sweden report [http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/42159200.pdf].) Perhaps other regular readers of this blog may be better placed to chime in here too (from the stats and correspondence that I get, we appear to have a small but devoted readership in Sweden).
With that rather large caveat in place, I would note that the observation you make about what has been happening in Sweden --
"The lack of any driving force at top level has meant that everyone spends time reinventing the wheel since nearly all activity with ICT is at grassroots level."
-- is a key rationale for having a national ICT/education 'agency' of some sort in some other countries. While many education systems, especially quite centralized ones, often support an organization of this sort to support, or even lead, on implementation issues, it is as an information clearinghouse and/or convener of key stakeholder and practitioner groups that such an organization can often offer real value. No use in reinventing the wheel: it is often more efficient to just learn from the efforts of other folks who have already done this, or tried to do this (the phenomenon of 'reinventing the flat tire' is one that I find is not specific to any one geography), thereby freeing up your time and energies to perhaps invent a better wheel -- or perhaps even invent a new one entirely.
I tend to think that a lot of interesting things can only emerge from trial-and-error at the grassroots levels. Figuring out ways to capture and share lessons from such experimentation and practice is perhaps something that can occur organically using channels of communication between teachers and schools that already exist, both formally and informally (including via sharing on social media). Even if/where there are robust mechanisms and incentives in place for this to happen -- and I concede that this is a pretty big 'if' in most places -- having some sort of coordinating organization can still be useful to the extent that it allows the results of such learning and sharing to filter up to policymakers, who may be unwittingly doing things that can help or hinder things.
I expect there are few places around the world where there are shortages of bureaucracies (and bureaucrats) within the education system, and so I instinctively recoil from efforts or impulses to propose the establishment of something new in this regard. That said, this function of sharing of knowledge sharing and networking practitioners together can be a very important one, especially related to the use of new technologies (which can be quite expensive, and a times quite disruptive too!). Whether this is something that requires a new agency of some sort to help ensure that these activities happen, or if traditional organizations and practices just need to be strengthened, is a calculation that will vary by place, in Sweden as in other countries.
-Mike

Gavinn
July 02, 2014

Thank you for your comment again Alastair.
Our work with the OECD on 'Digital learning resources as systemic innovation' was a few years ago. When it took place I was impressed by some of the organic "bottom up" initiatives that were happening in Sweden then. I'd be cautious about extrapolating from my experience then to now as I'd guess many things have changed, as everywhere else.
My thoughts chime with Mike's I think. A new agency might be tempted to exert control to prevent reinvention of wheels. I suspect there could be issues with that approach. A benefit to those that reinvent new wheels is that they travel their own path, at least in part, and learn as they go. So the act of reinvention might at least give a group of people the means to learn and become experts in their area of work. That's probably the smallest of positive results. Reinvention seldom follows the exact same path as that which has gone before.
Of course all this presumes that the agency takes the view that control is required. An agency might choose to lead in a different direction and seek to fan flames of invention, innovation and discovery.
Things begin to move in an exciting direction when students are engaged in creating things - there may be a bit of reinvention, and there is opportunity for much more besides. An agency might just aid communications among those involved in education so that they all are better informed - as they reinvent, innovate, and learn. In the absence of an agency, other ways of sharing and learning from each other might just be found.

Godiva Golding
May 24, 2021

Gavin, Mike, thank you so much for this blog. I found your outline of the quasi stages of ICT/education agencies to be very useful in framing a proposed direction for Jamaica's ICT/education agency. Currently, our implementing agency falls under the Ministry of Technology and has existed long enough to rolll out several ICT hardware projects, mostly on the basis of procurement and awarding of contractors to provide computers and tablets to students. What's interesting though is that in light of COVID there is now a national device drive spearheaded by the Ministry of Education intended to equip each child with device. This is effectively (if successful) going to achieve the mandate of the agency. Thereby making it irrelevant in this regard. So I see our agency approaching Stage 3 purely on the basis of COVID accelerated ICT adoption.

I think from here the agency would be better served under the Ministry of Education since its mandate is ultimately tied to educational outcomes. Is this a fair assumption in your opinion? And is there research that shows that agencies like these if falling under a govt ministry...it is better to fall under a Ministry of Education vs a Ministry of Technology?

Anecdotally, there have been inefficiencies in the roll out of prior projects by virtue of the bureacracy of working across Ministries....I would love to know if your research has yielded anything similar? Perhaps some best practices for when an agency moves to Stage 3 or Stage 4.

May 24, 2021

Thanks for your comment and questions, Godiva.

The answer to your question is highly context specific, I think, and I wouldn't want to speculate on what that context is at the moment in Jamaica, or will be going forward, as it's been a number of years since I've actively been engaged with what's going on in Jamaica in this topic.

That said, I'd be happy to share some related insights from a few other places, in case doing so might inform any related discussions you might be having.
For what it's worth, there are a few examples of agencies actually winding up and dissolving after their original mandates have been largely met, or where their key functions and roles have been assumed by ministries of education. Examples of this can be found in the UK and Australia (where both agencies were dissolved) and in Chile (where the agency was subsumed by the Ministry of Education and became an operating unit within its formal bureaucratic structure).

For what it's worth, there could well be a 'fifth stage' of edtech agency development that is emerging as a result of COVID-19 ('rebirth'), as the huge expansion of remote learning while schools have been closed has led some countries to re-think their institutional approaches to the use of educational technologies, and others to attempt to formalize some of the emergency response initiatives into longer term programs. While I don't (yet) have any examples to point to here, it is possible that we will see some of the traditional functions of national edtech agencies that had been absorbed within/by ministries of education spun back out of those ministries, including (possibly) to groups more closely aligned with ministries of ICT.

Will this happen? I don't know, but the measures meant to address COVID-19 have been having pretty profound impacts on many formal educational structures within national education systems around the world. I wouldn't be surprised if we see new/reinvigorated/reconceptualized national edtech agencies emerge as a result. (We are actively working with one country in this regard right now, and similar discussions with a few others have begun as well.)