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Questions to ask (and not to ask) when your president tells you to buy 100k (or a million) tablets for students

Michael Trucano's picture
a different type of tablet, for a different type of education
a different type of tablet,
for a different type of education
I once did some advisory work for a country's finance ministry in advance of a national presidential election where the two leading candidates were both promising to buy lots of laptops for students if elected. The Minister of Finance wanted to be prepared to respond to what he considered to be a likely related request for lots (!) of money, whichever way the election turned out.

This was a bit strange for me, as I more typically help out ministries of education (or ministries of ICT) as they prepare projects for which they would be requesting funding (from the finance ministry and/or parliament). Instead of serving as a resource for the folks who prepare such funding proposals, my role in this case was instead to prep the folks who would get this funding request so that they would be better able to analyze and vet the request, whenever it inevitably arrived. (Within the World Bank, this is one of the roles I serve -- I had just never done this for a ministry of finance directly.)

While my governmental counterpart in this case was perhaps a bit out of the ordinary, this general scenario is one I see repeated in place after place. The devices themselves may change over time (first PCs, then laptops, now increasingly tablets, and soon [insert name of whatever comes next]), but this impulse to buy lots of shiny new devices and distribute them to schools (or directly to students or teachers or families) shows no sign of abating soon.
Let's say that you're a senior advisor in the ministry of education and you get word that your country's president is about to announce a big new project to 'buy every student her own tablet computing device so that she can develop the 21st century skills necessary to compete for jobs in the global economy'. Perhaps the leader of your country just returned from visiting a European country and was impressed to see all of the devices in the school that she visited. Maybe she was won over by the compelling marketing pitch of a particular vendor. Perhaps she has heard that the leader of the opposition is planning on calling for this sort of initiative and she wants to preemptively make it her own. Or maybe she just got her first iPad and was really impressed and has decided that everyone should have one of these things! (For what it's worth, these are all real life examples ... although I have deliberately mixed up the gender pronouns in at least one case.)

No matter the genesis of this newfound interest, you sense that, whatever you were working on last week/month/year will have to be put on hold, because your life is about to become



What should you do? What do you need to know? Has anyone else tried such a thing, and if so, what have they learned? Whom do you need to contact for information/advice, and what sorts of questions should you ask them -- and ask yourself?
Having risen to the lofty heights of being a 'senior advisor to the minister of education', you will no doubt recognize right away that this is not just a technical challenge for the ministry technocrats to 'solve', but it is potentially a rather large political challenge for your minister as well. As a group, education ministers around the world are not known for their long tenures in the job, so simply labelling this a 'dumb idea' is probably not advisable (even if it is indeed a dumb idea!) if you, to say nothing of your minister, want to stay gainfully employed. Look at it only from a technical perspective, however, or only from a political point of view, and you may well miss some important elements of the big picture. Whether you think it is a dumb or smart idea, or if you have no instinctive opinion, you're probably well advised to bring yourself up to speed very quickly so that you can ground your eventual guidance in facts and wisdom from experience, in addition to doing the inevitable political calculations.

Because this type of scenario repeats itself with such frequency, I occasionally run a short related mock planning exercise as part of professional development courses for groups working in various parts of the world. (I used to set this in the fictional country of 'Laptopia', but in a sign of the times I will emigrate with this scenario over to 'Tabletia' beginning in 2015.) Even when embedded within the most stultifyingly boring training courses and when placed in the 'sleep slot' just after lunch, when the effects of food and ennui (and possibly jet lag) conspire to cause heads to droop, I find that conversation around this topic almost always energizes people and gets them talking. I also find that this scenario tends to crystallize people's thinking in useful ways, and brings out lots of great anecdotes and stories based on personal experiences.

For what it's worth, and in case this sort of discussion might be useful, here are:
  • some useful questions that I have heard asked in such circumstances;
  • some questions commonly asked that really aren't that useful; and
  • some questions that probably should be asked, but which rarely are.
tablets of all shapes, sizes and colors ... but is this the right medicine?
tablets of all shapes, sizes and colors ...
but is this the right medicine?

Some initial questions to ask (and not to ask) when your president tells you
to buy 100k (or a million) tablets for students

What specs should we include in the tender for the tablets?

OK, I put this question first because it is quite often the first question I am asked in this sort of scenario -- and because I find that it is quite possibly the *worst* question to ask up front. As the saying goes, this is putting the cart before the horse. How can you possibly know what it is you want to buy if you don't know what you would like to use it for, and how you see this use occurring in practice? At some point this may well be an important question to ask (then again, it may not be, at least not in the way you might think), but it is never the right question to ask first. Getting hung up early on technical specs means you'll waste a lot of time arguing about technical 'solutions' before you have a good sense of the 'problem' that needs to be solved.

How much should we expect to pay for a tablet?

This is probably the second question I am typically asked in these circumstances. At a general level, it is not such an inappropriate or 'bad' question, as the answers that you'll receive in response will enable you to do a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation about the first-order financial feasibility of taking on a big 'tablet' project. If the answers are, say US$1000 per device, you'll probably be able to report back quickly that this simply isn't economically feasible. If the answer is, say, US$10 per device, you'll probably have identified some people whose information can't be trusted, and so you can quietly remove them from your group of advisors, as this sort of answer simply doesn’t pass the ‘sniff test’.

That said, there are two very important caveats here. Most importantly, and as noted when commenting on the first question above: Before you start considering how much something costs, it is first useful to decide on what it is you might use it for. In addition, it is important to note that the cost of an end user device is typically only a fraction (sometimes a small fraction) of the cost of a related initiative – at least if you want the project to have any tangible positive impact on teaching and learning practices and outcomes. Focus too early on just the cost of a device and you may end up narrowly fixating on the cost of the device to the exclusion of other, more important and larger costs (like the cost to get useful content on the devices, to train people who to use the devices for educational purposes, to maintain the devices, to ensure that there is sufficient power so that the devices can be used at all, etc.).

There is also a danger here of a ‘race to the bottom’, where you eventually end up paying even more for a ‘lifeline’ of some sort because you cut costs at the start. A common example of this is where negotiating with vendors to have the lowest cost tablet possible results in sacrificing needed functionality in the short run so that you can buy more tablets in total. The results may leave you with cheaper devices that are useful ornaments in campaign pictures, where students or teachers smile and hold their tablets in the air for the photographer but then find them of little practical value when getting down to the real business of teaching and learning. (This happened in one prominent laptops-for-teachers project.)

Here is an admittedly small, but hopefully illustrative example of this ‘danger’, specific to tablets: Some places are deciding *not* to buy keyboards with their tablets, thereby saving money up front, but are then having to go back and purchase external keyboards separately when they find that requiring students to type a lot using the onscreen virtual keyboard is not terribly practical.

So, while a general focus up front on costs is absolutely understandable and prudent, a narrow fixation on the cost of the device may cause you to miss the bigger picture.

On that note:

What are the educational goals that we are trying to achieve, and how can this device, together with a set of complementary interventions, help us meet these goals?

Now *this* is a good question to ask! In fact, if you can’t answer this one satisfactorily, the other questions here are all beside the point. That said, this is a question that somehow is often (inexplicably, frustratingly, shockingly) not prominently considered up front in many places. Some related questions:

What are your existing educational delivery models, what are the pedagogical approaches and learning models that you hope to support – and how will these be impacted by the use of tablets?

Will they support or subvert traditional approaches and, if so, how, will this be a good or bad thing?

If the idea is that the use of tablets will be an important tool to help change things in important ways, is this effort part of a larger change or education reform process? And if not: Should it be?

(Perhaps the worst, most ‘missing-the-point’ question I am asked these days by educational planners related to the use of new technologies in schools is: Should we buy laptops or tablets? If you have already decided to buy tablets, presumably you have already somehow answered this question. Fair enough. You might want to revisit it as you attempt to answer these education-related questions here. Or you might leave the choice of device to a much later stage in your planning process.)

It is perhaps worth noting that there may be non-education goals which are important to many countries which embark on efforts of this sort. The education ministry may not care about such things all that much, and it is certainly doubtful that teachers and students do, or should (unless perhaps people in their families find employment as a result), but an important catalyst for initiatives of this sort in a number of countries has been a desire to help promote the development of local IT industries. If you are looking to kick start growth for local technology firms, having a large local buyer (like the education system) purchasing lots of IT equipment and related services can be quite useful. Whether or not this is actually a smart thing to do, and whether having the education system play an important role in this process is advisable, is a typically question debated more foten by economists and politicians than it is by, say, educators. That said, the ministry of education can’t afford to ignore the reality that other interests may be at play here.

What will all of this cost – and who will pay?

More important than a narrow fixation on the costs of individual devices is a consideration of the full range of the types of costs that may be expected under an educational tablet initiative of this sort. As noted earlier, such costs typically comprise only a fraction of costs that will need to be incurred if a project of this sort is to be successful. In addition, it is important to note that there will be considerable costs over time related to ongoing support activities (replacement of damaged equipment, ongoing teacher professional development, revision of digital learning materials, monitoring and evaluation, etc.). Costs borne up front (capital expenditures) are usually treated differently than costs borne over time (operating expenditures).

They may be funded via different sources as well. One wrinkle here is that, in many instances, some (or possibly nearly all) of the money to fund these sorts of efforts, at least on the hardware side, may originate or come from a source outside traditional education sector budgets. A so-called Universal Service Fund, for example, something that exists in many countries around the world, may collect monies from telecom providers and deposit them into a fund that can be used to help support the extension of telecom services to places where they are not (yet) economically viable. Some countries are tapping these to do things like provide connectivity to schools and buy related computing equipment. In some countries, initial outlays for computer hardware for schools may be funded through other means outside the budget of education ministries (perhaps from a budget at the IT ministry or at some specialized agency created for this purpose). Schools may be asked to pay for cost directly (perhaps by utilizing funds extended to them in block grants). Teachers and students (and their families) may be expected to shoulder some of the costs (perhaps aided by special loan schemes or means-tested financing mechanisms). The private sector and groups in civil society may contribute in various ways as part of related public-private partnerships.

The point here is not only that there are lots of different types of costs that will be incurred, both initially and over time, and that a variety of actors may be involved in helping to meet various costs, in various ways. The complexity of the shared financing models that make such things possible may be challenging for education ministries to articulate up front, and to manage over time, and this potential complexity should be acknowledged from the start.

One question related to costs that I *rarely* hear voiced once initial cost estimates are made is: What other things could we do with these monies, and would these things have a greater impact than spending it on a large educational tablet initiative? The absence of this sort of basic cost-benefit analysis from early stage discussions of large educational tablet initiatives is a common characteristic of many projects of this sort around the world. In part this is perhaps due to the fact that, in some place, such considerations of trade-offs and opportunity costs may not be as fully embedded into budgeting and planning processes in the education sector as they should be when it comes to the consideration of technology use. It may also be due to the fact that, from the perspective of the education ministry, some of the related costs may appear initially to be covered by ‘free’ money, i.e. money from someone else’s budget.

In some parts of the world, up to 80-90% of education budgets are used to cover salaries for teachers. These large fixed costs leave very little room to pay for other things – especially large new educational technology efforts. This means that some education ministries may initially welcome efforts to pay for a large educational tablet initiative using funds from another source, as this is the only way that they may benefit from such monies. As with most things, however, the devil is in the details.

Who are the other key stakeholders who needed to be consulted and involved?

Many groups typically play key roles in large scale educational technology initiatives, and efforts to introduce tablets into schools are no exception to this. The ministry of education may not have regular lines of communication with some of them – and may have contentious ones with others. The telecom authority, ministry of ICT, local education authorities, private sector technology firms and publishers, teachers unions and national parent-teacher associations, civil society groups – consultation and coordination with all of these groups (and others) may be necessary, indeed critical, if related planning process are to be useful and informed by the on-the-ground, practical realities of potential implementation models.

Reaching out to such groups early in a planning process for a large educational tablet initiative can be an important first step in building bridges between the ministry of education and other groups that will be necessary should the project move forward. Limiting discussion and consultation to groups within the ministry of education, while no doubt the easiest and most expeditious course of action, is typically ill-advised.

Who should lead the effort?

While initial advisory and planning efforts may be led by a small team of people, eventually the planning for, and the implementation of, a large educational tablet initiative will probably need to be formally embedded in some way within an organization so that it can be supported over time. Around the world there is no one model for how this works. In some cases these projects are institutionalized with an education ministry, in other cases within a ministry of ICT (or its functional equivalent). Even where a group within the education sector does not take the lead on the implementation of various component parts of an initiative of this sort (like buying the tablets and physically distributing them to schools), it should have a prominent seat at the table when related decisions are made.

One common model for this adopted by many countries is to set up a specialized agency, under the direction of the ministry of education (or ministry of ICT, or the prime minister’s office, or some combination of these groups), with day-today responsibility for planning and rollout of the initiative. The establishment of national ICT/education agencies is a common, but not universal, mechanism through which many countries answer this question.

How will we know if we are successful?

Even if you have a compelling vision, demonstrated needs, enough funds, a viable implementation plan and sufficient capacity to make all of this happen, this will not be enough. You will need a way to monitor and evaluate what you are doing over time. Is the plan being implemented? What is working, what isn’t, and what may need to change? What is the impact of all of this – and what types of impact to we care most about?

The easiest metrics for success to achieve are input-related: How many tablets have been distributed, how many students are using them, etc. Qualitative data about how people feel as a result of the program (Do students like it? Do teachers feel that students are learning more) are also easy to collect. A mechanism will need to be put in place to track progress against these sorts of metrics. More difficult, but much more important, are outcome measures related to things like the demonstrated impact on student learning, eventual employability, etc. Existing measures may or may not be sufficient to track such things. Coming up with such measures can be difficult, as can collecting data against them. There will no doubt be many fits and starts (and failures) along the way as you attempt to measure ‘success’, however it is defined. But having a clear vision for what ‘success’ might look like from the very beginning can be an important help guide the planning process, justify related funding requests, recruit partners and appeal to key stakeholder groups, help direct implementation efforts, and inform your early monitoring and evaluation efforts.

How quickly can we get this done?

The hoped for, indeed mandated, answer to this question is self-evident in many places: before the next election! From a political perspective, this question, and the answer to it, are no doubt of critical importance. From a planning and implementation perspective, when this is one of the first questions I hear asked, I always get a very bad feeling about the prospects for success. This is difficult stuff. It takes time. You will make lots of mistakes. Success may be as much about making these mistakes, and then recognizing and learning from them quickly so that you can make needed changes, as it will be about having a ‘perfect’ plan from the start.

In order to ‘get the ball rolling’, you may need to quickly implement some high profile small pilot projects in order to demonstrate early ‘success’. This is understandable (and indeed, in many cases, advisable, for a number of reasons), but be very careful about the lessons you draw from such pilot activities. What works well in the hot house environment of a small, carefully selected and tended to pilot project may not, indeed probably will not, work well at a larger scale. This is not to say that none of the lessons learned will be generalizable – some undoubtedly will be – but rather that great care should be taken to question many of the assumptions that are developed as result of successful small pilot projects before they become uncritically embedded within various planning processes and implementation models.

What does research and experience say about what we should, and what we should not, do?

You are not the first place to contemplate doing something like this. You certainly won’t be the last. Acquainting yourself with other efforts and projects around the world that have attempted to do similar things – what they did, how they did it, how much did it cost, what was the result – is highly advised. Learning from successful efforts in other places, as well as from pilot efforts within your own country (which may have been led by NGOs or private sector groups), will be important. Just as importantly – in some cases, even more important!  -- will be to learn from the failures of efforts in other places as well.

While the research base on educational technology efforts around the world is decidedly thin, at least when it comes to research conducted in ways that are truly rigorous, a lot of progress has been made in recent years in this regard, and you should be open to benefitting from such research efforts.

There are, sad to say, lots of demonstrated ‘worst practices’ out there that you would do well to avoid. You may be tempted to simply adopt an implementation model from somewhere else that seemed to have worked well. Be careful here: While some vendors may spin compelling tales of how easy it would be to simply take what they did in another country and bring it to yours, merely importing an implementation model from elsewhere and planting it in your education system may be a recipe for disaster. When it comes to introducing educational technologies into education systems, in putting new devices into schools and the hands of teachers and students, iterating based on what is learned in local contexts is almost always a better course of action than importing a model from elsewhere.


Those are just a few of the questions I hear commonly asked, and not asked, in the very first stages of consideration of large new ’educational tablet initiatives’.  This list is (obviously) not comprehensive. There are lots more questions that are (and should be) asked in the early stages of considering projects of this sort, and many (many!) more that need to be considered if something like this is actually meant to go forward. But hopefully this short, idiosyncratic discussion of a few of the questions that commonly surface in such situations (as well as others that remain buried, or ignored) will be of use to people who might find themselves in the position of the mythical ‘senior advisor to the minister of education’ discussed in this piece. If you are one of those people, I wish you: Good luck!
You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image at the top of this blog post ("different sorts of tablets, for a different sort of education") comes from the Wikipedian BibleTalkTimeYOUTH via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The second image of a pile of pills ("tablets of all shapes, sizes and colors ... but is this the right medicine?") comes from the Wikipedian ParentingPatch via Wikimedia Commons and is also used according to the terms of its Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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