Investing in digital teaching and learning resources: Ten recommendations for policymakers

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ok, what should I be considering at this point ...?
ok, what should I be considering at this point ...?
Following up on previous blog posts exploring issues related to planning for new investments in digital teaching and learning materials to be used across education systems, I thought I'd share some of the general recommendations that have often featured in related discussions with policymakers in which I have been involved, in case they might be of utility or interest to anyone else.

This list certainly isn't comprehensive. As with all posts on the EduTech blog, the standard disclaimers should apply (e.g. these are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent official views of the World Bank, etc.). It is perhaps worth noting that these sorts of suggestions are typically made and discussed within a specific context: A country has decided, for better or for worse, that it will consider significant new investments in digital teaching and learning materials. With this decision already made, policymakers are looking for some additional perspectives and inputs to help guide their thinking as they move forward.

In other words: These sorts of recommendations typically are not meant to inform higher level discussions about fundamental strategic priorities in the education sector (although, where they may help trigger reconsideration of some broader decisions made at higher levels, that may not always be such a bad thing). They are not meant to help, for example, policymakers assess whether or not to spend money on digital textbooks versus buying related hardware, let alone whether or not investments in digital learning resources should be made instead of spending money on things like school feeding programs, improvements in instruction at teacher training colleges, or hiring more teachers. Rather, they are more along the lines of:
So you have decided to buy a lot of 'digital textbooks'?
Here is some potential food for thought.

With that context and those caveats in place, here are ten general recommendations that education officials contemplating the use of digital teaching and learning materials at scale across a country’s education system may wish to consider during their related planning processes:

1. Take a holistic approach
Policymakers should not consider investments in digital education content separately from investments in traditional printed materials. Decisions related to both should be considered in an integrated fashion, and relevant links to related decisions about (e.g.) infrastructure and assessment should be explored as well. Planners would do well to include a variety of actors from outside the education sector in related consultations, policy formulation and decision-making processes. This could include groups which haven’t traditionally been consulted related to decisions related to textbook provision in the past, including the ministry of IT and telecom authority and representatives of the tech industry.

2. Pursue complementarity before full substitution
A ‘big bang’ approach to replacing printed textbooks with digital materials at large scale may be ill-advised. Traditional printed textbooks will continue to be useful tools, and be cost-effective, for many years to come.  When investing in digital teaching and learning materials, first look to see how printed and digital materials may complement each other, and concentrate initial investments in digital content in ways that take advantage of affordances or functionalities not offered by traditional printed textbooks.

3. Assume change (in technologies, in market participants, in content)
The educational publishing industry is undergoing a period of rapid disruption. New players may emerge, and old players may disappear. Digital content produced using ‘old’ standards and technologies may become difficult to support as new technologies and technology standards emerge. Technological advances may disrupt existing cost structures and business models in fundamental ways. Planners should consider not only how new content will be acquired, but how to ensure seamless transitions during periods of expected change.

4. Be sure to calculate and budget for total costs over time, and not just the upfront costs of content acquisition and the purchasing of devices
Planners should avoid the temptation to focus only on upfront costs of the acquisition of content and the infrastructure necessary to support the distribution and use of this content. Especially where investments in learning materials includes investments in technology, TCO approaches to estimating costs are critical where the successful use of these materials will need to be supported over time.

5. Avoid dependence on a single vendor – and try to ensure a diversity of suppliers and supporting ecosystem of actors and partners
Lowest cost approaches to the acquisition of digital education content can prove to be very expensive over time if they result in too great a dependence on any one vendor. “Lock-in” – a situation from which it can be difficult to exit without costly time and expense – can develop on a number of different levels as technology use increases in an education system.

6. Consider that public relations and community outreach campaigns can be crucial to the adoption of new digital teaching and learning materials
Simply making available educational content in digital formats may not be sufficient to ensure that it is actually utilized. Providing information to, and enlisting the collaboration and support of, various stakeholder groups – e.g. parents, community leaders, teachers, school administrators, civil society groups and students themselves – can be vital to increase the likelihood that investments in digital teaching and learning materials are put to productive uses.

7. Don’t neglect training and ongoing support
Investments in digital teaching and learning materials may need to be complemented by investments in training (e.g. for teachers) if such content is to be used successfully across an education system.

8. Be aware that new competencies, and possibly even new institutions, may need to be developed to help direct and oversee related activities
Existing capacity within government may be insufficient to deal with new processes and complexities that typically accompany large scale investments in digital teaching and learning materials. New institutions – or new structures within existing institutions – may need to be created and supported to help guide, oversee and implement efforts to introduce digital educational content. New skill sets may be required of the people who work for such groups.

9. Review existing laws and regulations as they may relate to the use of digital teaching and learning materials
The use of educational content in digital formats brings with it a set of new challenges and opportunities related to the consideration of (e.g.) intellectual property rights. As relevant, be prepared to help lobby for changes that may be needed to help ensure educational goals and objectives are not compromised as a result of inadequate, outdated or poorly drafted laws and guidelines.

10. Assess existing procurement processes to ensure that they are appropriate and relevant – and make changes where necessary
Existing mechanisms and practices used to procure printed textbooks may not be appropriate, or cost-effective, when procuring learning materials in digital formats. A number of changes in the markets for such content, including the bundling of various goods and services by vendors, the emergence of ‘open educational resources’, and the need to link or embed digital content within content management or assessment systems, may pose challenges to existing procurement processes.

As always, please feel free to tell me where I've got it wrong, what I've missed, and/or how I could have stated things differently or better. If you found this blog post to be of interest, you might also want to check out related posts on digital teaching and learning materials that explore some related myths and misconceptions, textbook policies, costs and procurement issues.
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of an architect planning his next moves ("ok, what should I be considering at this point ...?") comes from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.


Michael Trucano

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

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