Ten observations about 1-to-1 educational computing efforts around the world

This page in:
I do not fear computers,  I fear the lack of them
I do not fear computers,  I fear the lack of them

This year's Global Symposium on ICT use in education in Gyeongju, Korea focused on "Transforming Education with 1:1 Computing: Learning from Practical Experiences in Providing Students with Their Own Individual Computing Devices".

Many countries are investing enormous amounts of resources and effort to increase the availability of information and communication technologies (ICTs) across their education systems. So-called "1-to-1 computing" initiatives are increasingly prominent as part of such efforts. In some places these are important components of larger educational reform processes that seek to enable and support teaching and learning processes in ways both mundane and profound, traditional and (to adopt a common related buzzword) transformative. In other places these are largely 'hardware dumps', dropping in lots of shiny new devices with little attention to how to integrate them into teaching and learning practices. Common to both circumstances is often an intense belief that 'change' of some sort is necessary if students are to be able to thrive in increasingly technology-saturated, and technology-determined, global economies and societies. While the vision behind many large-scale 1-to-1 educational computing projects may be rather hazy or muddled, they do represent potent symbols for change in many countries. Even if the end goals are not always clearly defined, these efforts are in part a reflection of the belief, as proclaimed by one participant at this year global symposium, that "the status quo is more dangerous than the unknown".

To help set the stage for the discussions that were to follow, I opened the first session at this year's global symposium on ICT use in education by sharing a short series of general, broad observations about trends and lessons from 1-to-1 educational computing efforts around the world. In case they might be of any interest or utility to a wider audience, I thought I would share them here on the EduTech blog. These comments are not meant to be comprehensive in scope, nor are they meant to be focused (like so much of the research and rhetoric around 1-to-1 easily available on the Internet) on the experiences and realities of what 1-to-1 currently looks like in 'highly developed' countries (especially the United States).


Trends and Lessons from
1-to-1 Educational Computing Efforts Around the World:
Ten observations

1. ”1-to-1” is increasingly part of mainstream discussions – and some places are going beyond “1-to-1”

No longer are discussions about 1-to-1 computing confined largely to education systems in OECD ('highly developed') countries. Argentina, Brazil, numerous island nations in the Caribbean, Georgia, Honduras, multiple states in India (that are themselves larger than many countries), Kenya, Mexico, Peru, Rwanda, Turkey, Uruguay ... these are just some of the middle and low income countries with substantial 1-to-1 projects, or plans for them. In some high income countries, we are talking about many-to-1 realities in some schools and communities, where access to an individual device at school is complemented (and in many cases, superseded by) access to mobile phones, personal computers, tablets, e-readers, video game consoles, connected televisions, etc. outside of school.

2. "1-to-1" is about more than just one type of device
Traditionally, 1-to-1 computing has largely been about 'laptop projects'. Today, while the ratio remains unchanged, the device in question may just as easily be a tablet -- and sometimes an e-reader or even a mobile phone. Thus, it is less about the affordances of a specific form factor (e.g. the laptop) than about a device being 'mobile' and belonging to an individual.

3. Procurement challenges are becoming very acute – and difficult, and controversial
As purchases of ICT-related equipment in schools get larger, they are also becoming much more complicated, and many governments have insufficient internal capacity to oversee and manage these well. Putting aside issues of fraud and malfeasance (which of course can be very real in certain jurisdictions, and are not to be discounted -- especially where watchdog groups don't have experience in knowing what to look for in what is a new area for government procurement in many countries), things like the bundling of hardware and educational content and related services; questions about whether you are even procuring a 'product' these days (or if it more rightly considered a 'service'); avoiding vendor lock-in (a real problem when looking to standardize purchases across an education system); ensuring sufficient competition in the market; and trying to evaluate different acquisition models (purchase, leasing, subscription) can challenge the ability of many education systems to write useful bidding documents, let alone evaluate the proposals from vendors they receive in response. Challenges related to 1-to-1 procurements in places as diverse as Kenya (a low income country), Thailand (middle income) and the Los Angeles Unified School District in the United States (high income) suggest that this issue is a general one around the world.

4. More devices are putting very real pressures on bandwidth
'1-to-1 devices' like laptops and tablets continue to drop in price and increase in functionality much more quickly than does the bandwidth available for use by such devices. Network efforts suggest that, the more devices that are available, the greater the value in networking them together, as well as in connecting these devices to content that is being increasingly migrated to 'the cloud'. The affordability and availability of sufficient bandwidth and Internet connectivity represent a very real binding constraint on 1-to-1 educational computing efforts, both related to the use of the devices within schools, as well as outside of school (especially when connectivity is not available in homes or other public places). Trends in some high income countries to allow teachers and students to bring their own devices for use on school networks put further pressure on available bandwidth. (In some advanced schools in high income communities where 1-to-1 efforts have rolled out, officials now talk of benchmarking and 'future proofing' their networks so that they can accommodate two devices per student.)

5. Evaluation results are coming in, including from non-OECD countries
While it may be an uncomfortable and regrettable truth that few 1-to-1 educational computing initiatives are the result of decisions that are 'evidence-based', it is heartening to note that impact evaluation is being taken more seriously in more and more places. Recent meta surveys of the evidence base related to edtech initiatives in developing countries, supported by groups like the Inter-american Development Bank and Dfid, the UK's international donor agency, as well as evaluations of 1-to-1 efforts in countries like Peru and Uruguay, are hopefully the leading edge of a trend that is just beginning to gain steam around the world.

6. Digital textbook initiatives are gaining momentum
As 1-to-1 educational computing efforts roll out, efforts to make available digital teaching and learning materials are gaining momentum in many places as well -- albeit typically with some delay. Sometimes this is a result of a holistic vision, with "content" and "container" considered as complementary component parts of a larger educational reform process. Sometimes, if we are honest we ourselves, it is the result of policymakers trying to figure out what to do with all the technology they have purchased and distributed to schools which isn't being used all that much, or all that productively.

7. A personal device ≠  personalized learning
Just because a student receives her own 'personal' device as part of a 1-to-1 computing initiative doesn't necessarily mean that she will be engaged in 'personalized learning'. (The same is true when students receive their own books, of course.) 1-to-1 devices may enable, but assessment drives, 'personalized' learning. While definitions of 'personalized learning' are quite varied, the ability for students to receive individualized feedback, based on an action they have taken, and to have some agency in what they do (use a search tool, choose different variable in a virtual experiment, draw a picture, ask a question, etc.) offer the potential for 1-to-1 devices to support more 'personalized' learning activities. But this doesn't happen by magic, and simply leaving students to their own devices does not mean that 'personalized learning' will happen just because they now have their own laptop or tablet.

8. No data --> (much) more data
For the most part, we have very little data about what actually happens in a classroom. The processes of education, and of learning, are seen by many as a sort of 'black box' into which it is very difficult to gaze and tell what is actually happening inside, and how what is happening (or not happening) relates to what eventually emerges. As 1-to-1 education computing initiatives result in digital tools insinuating themselves more intimately, and to a greater extent, into teaching and learning practices, there is a potential to get partial and incomplete glimpses into this black box in ways not previously possible. Digital ‘paper trails’ and device-enabled data collection are vastly increasing the amount of data being collected about what teachers and students are doing (and seeing, and ignoring, and writing, and choosing). The data being generated and (to a lesser extent) collected are being not, for the most part, being used productively so far by educational planners, nor by teachers and learners themselves. Whether these data are in fact useful in helping to guide teaching and learning practices, and, more importantly, how we can make good use of them, are questions that many folks are trying to answer. That said, there is little question that things like 1-to-1 education computing efforts will help to bring about a transition from our current state of data poverty to one of greater data abundance -- for better and for worse.

On a related note:

9. Privacy is not (yet) on the agenda in most places
Movements in the education sector to provide and utilize personal devices, and to enable increasingly 'personalized learning', necessarily mean that more and more 'personal data' about individual students can potentially be, and are being, collected in increasingly huge amounts. To be sure, data privacy for students is a very real, and acute, and complex, issue for policymakers (and vendors) in North America, Australia, and much of Europe. That said, it is my experience that, in most education systems outside of the OECD, privacy is simply not on the agenda at all when it comes to discussions of, and plans for, large scale deployments of educational technologies.

In some places where educational and political cultures are, for lack of a better term, authoritarian, privacy is not on the agenda for consideration because it is pretty clear that little or no privacy related to student data is to be expected. In other places, is not on the agenda for consideration because it is simply not a topic that is traditionally considered withn the education sector to a large or real degree. Different places will, and should, have different answers here, of course. That said, not considering the potential implications related to access to data, sharing of data, who owns what data, etc. is potentially especially problemmatic when it comes to education for a number of reasons. In the first place, we are talking about children, for whom data privacy issues in general are usually considered differently that those of adults. Children are (most everywhere) required to go to school for many years, and are subject to prevailing privacy practices and norms that exist within an education system, whether they like them or not. Given that children are, by definition, young, they will have to live with the consequences of their data being shared for much longer than would be the case for those of older generations.

In the absence of related laws and guidelines about data privacy issues as they relate to children, there exists a very real possibility that it may be the easiest course of action in many places to simply take the de facto practices that exist within education systems as a result of the widespread roll out and use of digital technologies and make them de jure policy and law. Given that the result may or may not be desirable, not asking related questions about data privacy issues as they may emerge as a result of large scale 1-to-1 educational computing initiatives may not be such a good idea. 

It is also worth noting that, for education systems where equity is an important consideration (and this includes most countries in the world), detailed data are needed to be able to detect bias and discrimination and inequalities of opportunity. As a result, there are potentially fundamental tensions between issues of privacy and equity within education systems that will become more and more pressing as more and more personal data about students are collected as a result of going online using personal computing devices.

10. ____
I have left observation #10 blank here, as an acknowledgement of the incomplete, far-from-comprehensive nature of my brief comments here, and as an invitation for others to fill in this blank with reflections and comments based on their own experiences (and/or to challenge any of the things I have asserted in #'s 1-9).


I'll conclude by making two brief points.

The first is that, in many places, 1-to-1 educational computing efforts are the latest answer to questions about how to close the so-called 'digital divide'. While this divide has traditionally been defined in terms of access to devices and connectivity, it is important to note that, in much of the world, it is also a function of access to sufficient reliable, affordable electricity as well. As access to hardware, mobile networks and the Internet increases, however, it is also becoming clear that a second digital divide is revealing itself, one that is even more important, and difficult to bridge, than the original one, separating those who are able to make good use of all of these devices, from those who can not.

The second is to challenge you to consider a sort of 'thought experiment': What if all students and teachers already had their own devices? What would we be talking about then? What is the vision for education and learning that we hope 1-to-1 educational computing initiatives will help us realize? If we don't have good answers to such questions, or at least good starts on the way to answering them, we may wish to reconsider many of our 1-to-1 educational computing efforts until we do.

We clearly do not have all the answers about how to do all of this stuff. But the good news is that we do have some. More than we used to. And hopefully we are at least getting better at asking the right questions.

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a child in front of a computer screen ("I do not fear computers,  I fear the lack of them") comes from the Wikipedian Nevit Dilmen via Wikimedia Commons and is used according the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. (The caption, which may or may not be meant ironically here, is actually a quotation from the prolific science fiction author Isaac Asimov.)


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000