10 principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments

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there must be an I, a C, and a T here somewhere ...
there must be an I, a C, and a T here somewhere ...

There are, broadly speaking, two strands of concurrent thinking that dominate discussions around the use of new technologies in education around the world. At one end of the continuum, talk is dominated by words like 'transformation'. The (excellent) National Education Technology Plan of the United States (Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology), for example, calls for "applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement."

This is, if you will, a largely 'developed' country sort of discourse, where new technologies and approaches are layered upon older approaches and technologies in systems that largely 'work', at least from a global perspective. While the citizens of such countries may talk about a 'crisis' in their education systems (and may indeed have been talking about such a crisis for more than a generation), citizens of many other, much 'less developed' countries would happily switch places.

If you want to see a true crisis in education, come have a look at our schools, they might (and do!) say, or at least the remote ones where a young teacher in an isolated village who has only received a tenth grade education tries to teach 60+ children in a dilapidated, multigrade classroom where books are scarce and many of the students (and even more of their parents) are often functionally illiterate.

Like so many things in life, it all depends on your perspective. One country's education crisis situation may be (for better or for worse) another country's aspiration. While talk in some places may be about how new technologies can help transform education, in other places it is about how such tools can help education systems function at a basic level.

The potential uses of information and communication technologies -- ICTs -- are increasingly part of considerations around education planning in both sorts of places. One challenge for educational policymakers and planners in the remote, low income scenario is that most models (and expertise, and research) related to ICT use come from high-income contexts and environments (typically urban, or at least peri-urban). One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and (sort of) 'made to fit' into more challenging environments. When they don't work, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant (and some folks go so far to state that related discussions are irresponsible as a result).

There is, thankfully, some emerging thinking coalescing around various types of principles and approaches that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of ICT in education initiatives in such environments. As part of my duties at the World Bank, I have been discussing a set of such principles and approaches with a number of groups recently, and thought I'd share them here, in case they might be of wider interest or utility to anyone else. Are they universally applicable or relevant? Probably not. But the hope is that they might be useful to organizations considering using ICTs in the education sector in very challenging environments -- especially where introducing these principles and approaches into planning discussions may cause such groups to challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom about what 'works', and how best to proceed.


As with many lists of this sort that have featured on the EduTech blog in the past, the items presented below are not meant to be comprehensive in scope. Targeted specifically at people planning for uses of ICTs in the education sector, these principles and approaches are meant to complement and extend other, more developed thinking (informed in many cases by a rigorous evidence base) at the World Bank of the sort found in our education strategy ("Invest early, invest smartly, and invest for all"), our ICT strategy and publications such as Efficient Learning for the Poor: Insights from the Frontier of Cognitive Neuroscience.  In no particular order, and with those caveats in place, here are:

10 principles or approaches to consider
when planning to introduce ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments

1. The best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford
The introduction of a new technology is considered on its own to be 'innovative' in many circumstances. Parachuting in the 'latest and greatest' device or gadget may have strong political appeal, and fatten the bottom lines of certain firms, and may possibly even be effective in some cases, but instead of instinctively trying to 'innovate' using new technologies, which bring with them lots of challenges, it may be useful to ask, How can we innovate using what we already have? In poor, rural, isolated communities, the technologies already at hand are almost always mobile phones and radios. Before considering the latest and great new gadget, why not see what quick gains might be made by utilizing technologies which already exist (and are being used, and sustained) in such communities? It might be that using such technologies in complementary ways (an interactive radio program, for example, supported by SMS-based outreach to and between teachers) might achieve many of the objectives that a single, 'new' technology can. Or maybe not. But it's worth asking the question.

2. Start down and out, and then move up and in
What types of educational technology projects are most likely to scale -- those that are piloted in relatively 'privileged' environments until they 'work', and then expanded to reach other, less advantaged communities, or projects that take the opposite approach? If it (the technology, the model, the approach) works in a privileged environment, success may be a product of a number of factors that that don't apply in other, less advantaged places. If you want to go to scale with your educational technology initiative, first start down and out before you move up and in. Your learning curve will be steeper in the short run. The 'model' you end up with may have more modest goals when compared with what can be achieved in some of the most privileged and advantaged schools and communities. But it just might work *everywhere*. Or, if not everywhere, at least it might work in a lot more places than if you had started 'up and in', and then tried to move 'down and out'.

3. Treat teachers like the problem … and they will be
Over the years I have talked with lots of people who see teachers (and teachers' unions) as a 'problem' that needs to be 'solved'. One 'solution' increasingly considered is to figure out ways to use ICTs as a sort of metaphorical stick with which to prod teachers into various sorts of actions. This impulse is perhaps understandable in places that suffer endemic challenges related to (for example) teacher absenteeism, which is certainly a very serious problem in certain (often poor, rural) communities. That said, it may not be all that productive at a practical level. A well known study done by researchers at the MIT Poverty Action Lab a number of years ago (and well worth reading, in my opinion) looked at a program in Udapur, India in which "teachers were instructed to have their picture taken each day with students and were paid only when the cameras recorded them present." According to the authors, in this case "objective monitoring with incentives worked" -- in other words, a mechanism was found to motivate teacher attendance. On numerous occasions, in conversation with policymakers in many different countries, I have heard this study cited as proof that technology (in this case, a digital camera) can be a 'solution' to the problem of teacher absenteeism. Perhaps. But there is a real danger in many such discussions of confusing the symptons with the underling pathology. So-called 'silver bullet solutions' (aim the right weapon at a problem and you can 'kill' it) figure prominently in the checkered history of educational technologies. Things are seldom so simple, however. Yes, the fact that mobile phones with cameras are increasingly ubiquitous in rural communities around the world does mean that it may be possible for community members to stand outside schools and take pictures of teachers as they enter and exit (a scenario I have had pitched to me on three separate occasions -- in one case students were meant to wield the cameraphones themselves) and send them on to education authorities or post on a web site for public shaming. But there just might be some unintended consequences from such activities .... Another option might be to explore how ICTs can be used to support teachers with positive incentives linking them to other teachers via text messaging groups to help form professional support communities, or to help them save time in lesson preparation by providing additional learning resources via television (or delivered all at once on a USB stick), or to help improve their mastery of the subjects which they teach through interactive radio instruction. Sticks can sometimes work ... but so can carrots. Do you want to use ICTs to punish, or to nourish?

4. It’s the content, not the container
All too often, educational technology initiatives focus largely on the technology itself. It is possible to become so enamoured with the technology (and so distracted by device-related questions: should we buy tablets or laptops?) that insufficient attention is given to how to use whatever devices are eventually deployed to their full effect. As we move to a greater proliferation of devices, combined with the fact that we will be accessing more content from multiple places, a greater value will be placed on the content, and how that content is used, rather than on any one particular device. Viewed from this perspective, the future of education is in the content, not the 'container'.  It's about more than just content, of course -- it's also about the connections and the communities (students collaborating with each other, teachers supporting other teachers) that technologies can help enable, catalyze and support as well.

5. If you are pointed in the wrong direction, technology may help you get there more quickly
In many cases, 'technology' can be seen as the 'solution' -- but it is not exactly clear what problem the technology is meant to help solve, and how exactly it will do this. As the ICT in Education Toolkit states, "Technology is only a tool: No technology can fix a bad educational philosophy or compensate for bad practice. In fact, if we are going in the wrong direction, technology will get us there faster. Providing schools with hardware and software does not automatically reform teaching and improve learning. Much depends on educational practices and how ICTs are used to enhance them."

6. Anticipate, and mitigate, Matthew Effects
A Matthew Effect in Educational Technology is frequently observed: Those who are most able to benefit from the introduction of ICTs (e.g. children with educated parents and good teachers, who live in prosperous communities, etc.) are indeed the ones who benefit the most. Just because investments in educational technology use are justified by rhetoric claiming that such use will benefit 'the poor' doesn't mean that this will actually happen. In fact, the opposite many well occur. Too many planning efforts related to large scale investments in ICT use in education dwell too long on what is possible, while ignoring much of what is predictable, and in the end what is practical to do doesn't benefit the poor and disadvantaged all that much. It doesn't have to be that way -- but you may need to take some proactive steps (and monitor the impact of what you're doing regularly) to mitigate these potential effects.

7. To succeed in doing something difficult, you may first need to fail (and learn from this failure)
Trying to help isolated, poor communities improve their schools and the education that they offer to their children is a nontrivial endeavor. If the related challenges were easy to overcome, one expects that more of them would have been. Unfortunately, such places may be no stranger to 'failed' projects of various sorts, and the reasons for such failures may be varied and complex. The history of the use of technology in education also features lots of 'failures'. Indeed, 'failure' is a defining characteristic of many educational technology projects ... including the successful ones. A key ingredient for success is often an ability, and willingness, to recognize and learn from failure -- and then change course as needed. How can one learn from failure? A commitment to learn through experimentation and iteration, supported by robust and regular monitoring and evaluation, can certainly help. The flexibility to be able to make changes, and the humility to admit that you may not know everything at the planning stages of whatever it is you hope to accomplish, doesn't hurt either.

8. Put sustainability first
Often times, the first goal of an educational technology project is to show that it 'works'. Only once this is demonstrated does attention turn to issues of sustainability. Sustainability should be a first order concern -- especially in remote, low resource communities. If you design something to work for two years, and it does indeed work for two years, what have you really accomplished at that point? The incentives, tools and mechanisms for sustainability should be considered up front, and introduced and tested from day one. Donations of equipment can be vital in helping to initiate an educational technology project -- they can rarely be counted on to sustain one. If something can break -- it will. If a dependence is created on outside expertise -- inevitably this outside expertise will disappear at some point. Plan for equipment to break, plan for outside expertise to withdraw, plan for novelty to wear off -- what will happen then?

9. We know a lot about worst practices -- we should make sure we don't repeat them
While there is still much to learn about 'what works' related to cost-effective, locally appropriate, impactful uses of ICTs in education in poor, isolated communities around the world, there is a significant body of knowledge and experience about what doesn't work. Dumping hardware in schools (and hoping that 'magic' will happen), thinking about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware, making a big bet on an unproven technology or single vendor without planning about hope to avoid 'lock-in' -- these sorts of things are recipes for heartache. Working in challenging environments is difficult, there is no need to make it more so by repeating the sorts of mistakes that others have made time after time, in place after place. Not only is there no need to 're-invent the wheel' in this regard, (as Alan Kay advised) don’t re-invent the flat tire!

10. ________
As with other 'lists of ten' published on the EduTech blog, #10 has been deliberately left blank here, both as an acknowledgement that there are other potentially useful principles and approaches to consider, and as an invitation to add your own below, based on your own experiences.

Other items of potential related interest:

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of students and their teacher in Tibar, Timor-Leste (East Timor) ("there must be an I, a C, and a T here somewhere ...") was taken by Joao dos Santos for the World Bank (Photo ID: JDS-TL003 World Bank). It is available via the World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


Michael Trucano

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

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