What Are the Costs of Not Investing in ICTs in Education?

This page in:
empty pockets?
empty pockets?

Kentaro Toyama has started 2011 off 'with a bang' on our sister Education Technology Debate site, which is sponsored by our friends at infoDev and UNESCO.

There is much to comment on in Kentaro's post, 'There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education' -- to say nothing of the insights and assertions in the 100+ comments that follow it, many of them from people who are quite well known in the field.  Subsequent contributions on the ETD site from Larry Cuban, Cristobal Cobo, Claudia Urrea and Lowell Monke should provide further grist for debate and discussion.

Kentaro lays out a number of arguments in his piece.  One of them is the following:

"I’ve so far argued that technology in education has a poor historical record; that computers in schools typically fail to have positive impact (with the rare exceptions occurring only in the context of competent, well-funded schools); that information technology is almost never worth its opportunity cost; and that quality education doesn’t require information technology."

My aim here is not to contest (or support) any of the assertions in Kentaro's piece (I'd recommend you look in the comments section of the ETD site for this sort of thing).  Rather, it is to note that, in many instances, Kentaro's assumptions about what drives policy may well be beside the point.

In a recent blog post on Education Week's Bridging Differences blog, Diane Ravitch laments that too many economists are mixing themselves into discussions about education policy for which they are ill-suited, including those around pedagogy. Point well taken.  That said, on the flip side, it is probably also true that many (if not most) educators have only a very loose grasp of the economics of education.

With this in mind, Kentaro's discussion of total costs of ownership, and of opportunity costs -- topics that are regrettably absent from many of the discussions around large scale investments in the use of educational technologies -- is quite welcome.  Discussions of costs are, perhaps not surprisingly, near and dear to us at the World Bank, so I'll limit my modest contribution to this month's Educational Technology Debate by considering only the cost issue, but with a twist.

In many instances, it is not only the costs of action that dominate discussions at a high level, but rather considerations of the potential opportunity costs of inaction. In informal conversations with education ministers at both last week's Education World Forum, and at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha in December, I heard the same question asked that I have heard dozens of times before from people in such positions:

What are the costs of not investing in ICT use in education?
Can we afford them?

Whether one agrees with the utility of such questions or not, they are commonly asked (if not rigorously considered) as an important part of considerations of large-scale investments in ICTs in the education sector in many countries.

Indeed: It is not only (to name just three examples) a love of novelty or gadgetry, or desires for ICT-enabled pedagogical reform, or motivations to sell products and services to schools, that animates related decisions in many places.  Nor is it a robust evidence base: I won't try to contend that, at the macro- or system level, policymaking related to technology use in education is 'evidence-based'.  With very (very!) few exceptions, it largely isn't. (Anticipating strong pushback from some teachers, I note that this differs from what happens at the classroom or 'micro-' level, where a pragmatic teacher makes due with what she has, and whose craft is informed as much by the lessons of years of trial-and-error as it is by any 'grand theory of education' -- although in practice the pedagogical traditions in which teachers themselves were educated perhaps play as fundamental a role.)

All of these (and others) of course play their part in discussions around funding initiatives in this area.  That said, there is a motivating factor that I hear voiced by many policymakers with responsibility in this area: fear.   Now, fear is perhaps not always an inappropriate or ill-advised motivator, but it is quite often not the best one.  I am not sure if fear qualifies as one of the reasons 'Why Sloppy Thinking Leads to Careless Educational ICT', a topic Larry Cuban discusses in his follow-up to Kentaro's post, but in my experience it is one of the key animators behind the 'leap of faith' that characterize some of the biggest investments in educational technologies in developing countries.

(Too clever? Playing on language often employed in policy circles in the United States, and lamenting the lack of clear direction that a compelling evidence base might provide, colleagues at one national education ministry used to quip that large-scale investments in ICT use in education are in some ways the real faith-based initiatives.)

As countries (rightly or wrongly) increasingly view themselves as global competitors to each other, what role do schools have in preparing young people to successfully navigate an increasnigly technology-rich world?  This is a topic that Lowell Monke takes up in his contribution to this month's ETD debate, High Tech Society Requires a High Touch Childhood.  In many places, investments in ICTs in education are justified by people who adopt various 'digital divide' arguments (with perhaps a glimpse or two at the latest PISA tables).  Now, one can argue what exactly what this 'divide' represents in 2011 in different places around the world, but I think that most people would agree that, if this concept is still to remain relevant, we are talking about much more than 'access', as the OECD noted last year in a report that concluded that "A second digital divide separates those with the competencies and skills to benefit from computer use from those without."

Many of the proposals to address such gaps draw on the 'leapfrogging' metaphor that is a staple of much discourse around the potential for ICT use in developing countries.  (I don't often hear people consider that it is possible to leap in the wrong direction, potentially ending off in a worse place than where you started, but I suppose that is another issue.)  In such cases, schools are useful vectors to help transform societies through the introduction of various ICTs.  One hears echoes of this sort of thing in Uruguay, for example, where they talk about the fact that every primary school child now having a free laptop is not the result of a 'laptop project', or even an 'education project', but rather a society-wide 'inclusion project'.

We may often like to hope that key decisions related to the use and potential of ICTs in education are based on dispassionate and rigorous scientific analysis, while conceding that cold political calculus (e.g. politicians cutting ribbons at school computer labs) may often play a more decisive role.  Fear -- and faith -- may well play equally important roles.  How well we harness such fears, and tap into the aspirational components of such faith, is the challenge before those of us in the education community who believe in the potentially transformative power of technologies for learners while at the same time lamenting the way such technologies are typically used in schools.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a pair of jeans ("empty pockets?") comes from Dvortygirl via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


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