Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics (revisited)

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image used according to the terms of its Creative Commons license; image courtesy of Edgar Antonio Villaseñor González via Flickr
consider ...

MOOCs -- massively open online courses of the sort that can simultaneously enroll thousands, even tens of thousands, of learners simultaneously -- have been a hot topic of discussion for a few years now in both the worlds of education and 'international development' (and, for what it's worth, the subject of numerous related posts here on the World Bank's EduTech blog). Recent news that edX, one of the prominent MOOC platforms, is to start offering courses aimed at high school students suggests that the potential usefulness and impact of things like MOOCs may soon extend beyond the realm of higher education, out of which MOOCs originally emerged and where most related activity has occurred to date.
There is much (potentially) to be excited about here. Few would argue against having greater access to more learning opportunities, especially when those opportunities are offered for 'free', where there is latent unmet demand, and where the opportunities themselves are well constructed and offer real value for learners. As with MOOCs at the level of higher education, however, we perhaps shouldn't be too surprised if these new opportunities at the high school level are first seized upon *not* by some of the groups with the greatest learning needs -- for example, students in overcrowded, poorly resourced secondary schools in developing countries, or even students who would like a secondary education, but for a variety of reasons aren't able to receive one -- but rather by those best placed to take advantage of them. This has been largely been the case for initial adopters of MOOCs. (One of the first studies of this aspect of the 'MOOC Phenomenon', which looked at MOOCs from the University of Pennsylvania, found that students tended to be "young, well educated, and employed, with a majority from developed countries.")
As a practical matter, some of the first types of beneficiaries may, for example (and I am just speculating here), be homeschooling families in North America (while not necessarily comparatively 'rich' by local standards, such families need to be affluent enough to be able to afford to have one parent stay at home with the kids, and generally have pretty good Internet connectivity); international schools around the world (which can offer a broader range of courses to students interested in an 'American' education); and the families of 'foreign' students looking to apply to college in the United States (the edX course “COL101x: The Road to Selective College Admissions” looks, at least to my eyes, tailor made for certain segments of the population of learners in places like China, Korea, Hong Kong, etc.). In other words, at least in the near term, a Matthew Effect in Educational Technology may be apparent, where those who are best placed to benefit from the introduction of a new technology tool or innovation are the ones who indeed benefit from it the most.
Longer term, though, it is possible to view this news about movement of a major MOOC platform into the area of secondary education as one further indication that we are getting further along from the 'front end of the e-learning wave' (of which MOOCs are but one part) to something that will eventually have a greater mass impact beyond what is happening now in the 'rich' countries of North America and the OECD.
Learning with new technologies has of course been around for many decades but, broadly speaking, has not (yet) had the 'transformational' impact that has long been promised. "Gradually, then suddenly" is how one of Ernest Hemingway's characters famously describes how he went bankrupt. Might this be how the large scale adoption of educational technologies will eventually happen as well in much of the world?

black swan
black swan

If so, one credible potential tipping point may be a 'black swan' event that could push all of this stuff into the mainstream, especially in places where it to date has been largely peripheral: some sort of major health-related scare. (For those unfamiliar with the term, which was popularized by Nicholas Taleb, a 'black swan' is a rare event that people don't anticipate but which has profound consequences). One of the first ever posts on the EduTech blog, Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics, looked at some of what had been learned about how teachers and learners use new technologies to adapt when schools were closed in response to outbreaks involving the H1N1 influenza virus: the 'swine flu' that afflicted many in Mexico about six years ago; and an earlier outbreak of 'bird flu' in China. I have recently been fielding many calls as a result of the current outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa asking essentially, 'Can we do anything with technology to help our students while our schools are closed?', and so I thought it might be useful to revisit, and update, that earlier post, in case doing so might be a useful contribution to a number of related discussions are occurring.

Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics (revisited)

For some people in other parts of the world, it was the picture of two top futbol teams playing in an empty Estadio Azteca (one of the world's largest capacity stadiums) that made clear the severity of the swine flu outbreak that struck Mexico in 2009.  While the sporting passions of the 100,000 missing spectators could presumably satisfied by watching the game on TV, it was less clear how to immediately satisfy the learning needs of over seven million students who were sent home after their schools were ordered closed.
Many educational reformers have long held out hope that computers and other information and computer technologies (ICTs) can play crucial and integral roles in bringing about long-needed changes to education systems.  Indeed, many see the introduction of ICTs in schools as a sort of 'Trojan horse', out of which educational reform and innovation can spring once inside the walls of the traditional (conservative) education establishment. While not denying the potentially transformational impact of ICT use to help meet a wide variety of educational objectives, history has shown that bringing about positive disruptive change isn't achieved by simply flooding schools with computers and related ICTs.
As a result of swine flu, many Mexican schools experienced quick, disruptive change of a different sort in 2009. In response, some policymakers started to ask: How might technology be relevant in cases like this?  Given the status quo, they acknowledge that the use of technology in schools probably isn't enough to bring about systemic change. But: How might ICTs be useful, even transformational, when this status quo is severely disrupted by some other exogenous factor ... like a pandemic disease outbreak?
While it was certainly too soon to say anything about what type of answers the crisis in Mexico might provide to such a question (things were, as they say, rather 'fluid' at that point, with the future direction of the outbreak, and its impact, potentially evolving in different ways at a quick pace), there was another place to which some people looked for clues to possible answers. Like Mexico (through its Telesecundaria program), China has had a long history of using educational television for a variety (pdf) of purposes.  And like Mexico, China had been faced only a few years before with another swift and large-scale disease outbreak that closed schools: SARS.
When the magnitude of the SARS epidemic became widely acknowledged, China Educational TV, through its 'Classroom on the Air' program, moved quickly to help fill some of the void.  While perhaps not transformational, initiatives like Classroom on the Air did provide a large-scale, short-term substitute for students (and their parents) looking to continue their education while confined to their home during the outbreak.
As Robert Fox relates in his short paper on the SARS epidemic: Teachers’ experiences using ICTs, pockets of more transformational uses of ICT occurred in Hong Kong, where computer use at home, and access to the Internet, was much more widespread than in the rest of China.  But even where transformational uses of ICTs were employed successfully by some individual teachers, many more found that a reliance on ICT-centric teaching and learning styles left them frustrated, and less convinced of the value of ICTs in the education process than they had been before. Similarly, David Chan examines stories [pdf] of how education continued in Hong Kong during that period, including some cases where technology was used successfully (and not so successfully) that echo those explored by Fox.

poster from the Alberta provincial board of health circa 1918
poster from the Alberta (Canada)
provincial board of health circa 1918

As rising incomes and affordable air travel continue to hasten the movement of hundreds of millions of people (and viruses) around the world more quickly than ever before, we will most likely see many more future outbreaks of disease that threaten and disruptive normal life. Students and education systems will unfortunately be on the front line of many such outbreaks, and it is in such circumstances that the usefulness, and potential transformative power, of ICTs in the teaching and learning process will perhaps be put to their real test. If such a public health event causes the large scale closure of schools in (e.g.) the U.S. or Canada -- places with so many middle class households having broadband and so much structured coursework (not just content) now available online -- we could reach a tipping point of sorts where the large scale use of educational technologies not only complements traditional teaching and learning activities (which is currently the case), but rather enables or substitutes for face-to-face teaching and learning activities that can't take place because schools are closed. Other countries (e.g. in Europe) may not be that far behind, and in fact some hyper-connected countries (like Singapore, Korea or Estonia) may be ahead of many education systems in North America. But what about countries which are almost universally acknowledged to be 'behind' when it comes to technology use in education -- in many ways, in fact, far, far behind? To what extent, and how, might ICTs be relevant in such places -- to the extent that they might be relevant at all?


Writing in The Guardian, Julia Gillard, the chair of the Global Partnership for Education, notes that, "In response to the growing threat of Ebola across west Africa, the governments of Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have closed their schools. The closures are only temporary, but that could change if the spread of the virus continues and accelerates."
The voices of people attempting to put forth credible arguments that large scale investments in the use of educational technologies represent one of the best possible uses of scarce funds available in many sub-Saharan African countries have been in a decided minority, drowned out in most cases by many more people questioning the relevance, impact and cost-effectiveness of such investments, especially given how thin the evidence base referenced by such voices typically is. This isn't to say that all such investments are a bad idea, of course -- far from it! (The EduTech blog exists in part to document such activities and try to draw lessons from them.) Lots of small scale (often pilot) examples exist which are promising, have shown promise, and have been welcomed by the people toward whom they have been directed. But there have been lots (and lots) of 'failed' projects as well.
When the deliberately provocative proposition, “This house believes that there is now nothing more important to education than access to the Internet”, was posed as part of this year's featured debate at eLearning Africa, the audience (which represented as large a collection of practitioners, researchers and policymakers knowledgeable about the state of the use of technology use in education across the continent, as well as the potential of this use, that you will ever find in one place) defeated the motion. Bill Gates, someone whose opinions and funds are as influential and sought after as pretty much anyone else's on these issues (people who do not agree with such opinions and the use of such funds nevertheless would have a hard time denying their importance and relevance within many decisionmaking processes), has famously disparaged some high profile efforts to broaden access to the Internet in many countries in the developing world', given many other pressing needs and approaches which have been demonstrated to yield a greater bang for an investor's or donor's or parent's buck.

Are these people wrong ... or right? Or: In what ways might they be wrong, or right?



Returning to the words of Julia Gillard: "As we have learned from many nations in crisis, it is essential that education planners remain vigilant and flexible. Vigilant, to ensure that children are not kept away for too long from their learning, and flexible so they can adapt quickly and effectively to the unexpected. The stakes for anything less are much too high –- the time for considered action is now."
Writing in The Washington Post about the importance of the resilience of health care systems, Jim Yong Kim and Paul Farmer (respectively the president of the World Bank Group and the

schoolgirls in Tokyo during the 1919 flu pandemic
schoolgirls in masks during the
1919 flu pandemic in Tokyo

Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard; together they co-founded Partners in Health) note that the "Ebola crisis today is a reflection of long-standing and growing inequalities of access to basic health care.... A functioning health system can stop Ebola transmission and, we believe, save the lives of a majority of those who are afflicted." They then go on to add that, "A 1967 outbreak in Germany and Yugoslavia of Marburg hemorrhagic fever — a disease similar to Ebola — had a 23 percent fatality rate. Compare that with an 86 percent rate for cases across sub-Saharan Africa in the years since. The difference is that Germany and Yugoslavia had functioning health systems and the resources to treat patients effectively. The West African countries coping with Ebola today have neither." Together with Nkosazana Dlamini, the Chairperson of the African Union, Dr. Kim also writes in a separate article that "we are witnessing the results of our acceptance of the status quo. We will be able to stop Ebola in the coming weeks and months. But that is not the end of the story. Will we also build a strong enough health system to stop the next outbreak?"
As someone who knows next to nothing about public health issues beyond basic things like the importance of hand washing, of vaccines, etc., but who has worked with education systems in middle and low income countries for the past 15 years and is convinced of the importance of a 'systems approach' and trying to do something practical and positive about, access and quality issues in education, I was struck when I read the above passages by their potential applicability, if given a slight twist, to education systems in these same countries.
One of the major tests of the robustness and suitability of a system of any sort is how it responds to severe shocks. In places where (e.g.) Ebola has caused the large scale closing of schools, and students are unable to learn through other means, can we say that there are in fact education systems currently in place? There are systems of educational administration and bureaucracy still in place, to be sure, but if no one is actually learning, is there really a functioning education system of any sort?
If we look at investments in things like Internet connectivity to schools, and more broadly to communities, as investments which can strengthen the resiliency of education systems to respond to large shocks of this sort, does that change the way we consider or prioritize such investments?
I don't have any answers here -- but perhaps these questions are perhaps worth asking.

Returning to two questions asked earlier, and then adding a third:

  • But what about countries which are almost universally acknowledged to be 'behind' when it comes to technology use in education -- in many ways, in fact, far, far behind?
  • To what extent, and how, might ICTs be relevant in such places -- to the extent that they might be relevant at all?
  • Is it possible that in fact ICTs may in some ways actually be *more* important, possibly even more critical to the potential resiliency of low-functioning education systems than they are for high performing ones?

Reading Julia Gillard's words, I was immediately struck by the absence of any mention of the potential role or relevance of technology. (I concede that, as someone who works at the intersection of education and technology in middle and low income countries every day, I may well be biased in my perspective and interests here!) A recent article in Nigeria's Business Day Online offers some potential food for thought here. Ebola: Holiday extensions expose Nigeria’s e-learning shortcomings contends that "The suspension of academic activities following the extension of holidays for primary and secondary schools in Nigeria, aimed at containing the spread of the dreaded Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), has exposed the country’s technological inadequacy, especially in the area of e-learning....This inadequacy is as a result of the country’s weak and underdeveloped broadband infrastructure which is likely to constitute a major drawback to the nationwide adoption of online services, such as e-learning, information portals, and so on....Stakeholders in the education and technology sectors say only a robust national electronic learning strategy anchored on technology can curtail the impact of the disease on the education curriculum, with particular reference to primary and secondary schools in the country."
Let's acknowledge that there is no shortage of rhetoric and advocacy emerging from tech companies and pundits -- groups and people which don't represent totally disinterested parties! -- related to the importance of Internet and computers for learners in Africa. Some folks may thus (possibly) detect in statements such as those reproduced above undercurrents of opportunistic lobbying by certain groups for investments benefiting their own particular longstanding special interests. That said, however one feels about the propriety of such comments in the face of the ongoing Ebola public health crisis, it is nonetheless hard to fully discount or deny the potential relevance of such views.


Whether or not you believe that the Internet increasingly represents a sort of 'dial tone for development', it is becoming increasingly hard to argue that the connectivity and connections it enables will be not increasingly critical to the functioning of (e.g.) education systems in the future, both internally and related to their interactions and interconnections with other 'systems'. Reasonable people may disagree about just how critical or important all of this may be *today*. Such disagreements may, at their heart, be as much about timeframes as anything. What happens when external shocks to the system -- like we are seeing with the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa -- challenge our conceptions of such timeframes?
Asking these sorts of questions isn't meant to imply that the (usually rather techno-centric) proposals (often linked to various corporate interests) which essentially advocate for 'build it and they will come' and 'just supply technology and wait for the magic to happen' approaches are the right ones. By no means! Asking such questions can -- hopefully -- help to orient considerations of the potential relevance of investments in new technologies, and access to these technologies, within larger discussions of strengthening education systems. It has been conventional wisdom for many that technology is increasingly a necessity in education systems in the richest countries, but remains a luxury for education systems in the poorest countries. What if, as a thought experiment of sorts, we turn that conventional wisdom on its head, 'challenge the acceptance of the status quo" and view the picture from a different perspective, especially when considering the potential relevance of investments in new technologies for the resiliency of an education system?

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a lady protecting herself (and her neighbors) during the 2009 outbreak of swine flu in Mexico ("consider this picture") comes from Edgar Antonio Villaseñor González. It was found via Wikimedia Commons after it was originally posted to Flickr and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license. It also ran at top of the original EduTech post from which this blog post was adapted, Education and Technology in an Age of Pandemics (2009). The image of a black swan comes from the Wikipedian Mindaugus Urbonas via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. The public health poster from the Alberta (Canada) provincial board of health circa 1918 warning of 'epidemic influenza'  comes from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. The image of schoolgirls in masks during the 1919 flu pandemic in Tokyo comes via Wikimedia Commons and is also in the public domain.


Michael Trucano

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

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