How many computers are in schools can depend on who's asking

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counting the beans can sometimes be more difficult than it might first seem -- and what you brew may depend on how you count
counting the beans can sometimes
be rather difficult --
and what you brew may depend
on how you count
A recent EduTech blog post explored how issues related to ownership and liability can impact the use of computers in schools. This issue of 'who owns the computer equipment' is a challenge in many education systems, and attempts to work through related issues can sometimes give rise to another rather basic, seemingly simple-to-answer question:
How many computing devices are in our schools?

In many cases, the answer is:  It depends on who's asking!

I once spent an entire day with a team responsible for submitting data to the education minister about how many computers were in that country's schools, and what the related student-computer ratio was. The minister wanted to promote a new policy proposing a target 'student-computer ratio', and wanted to know how practical (or outlandish) her initial thoughts in this regard might be.

Thankfully, team members did have access to pretty reliable data about how many schools the country had, and how many students were in these schools (a shocking number of countries don't have reliable data on these counts). Led by a statistician, who liked to be rather more exact about things than a number of the politicans she worked for, the team was wrestling with questions like:

What constitutes a 'computer'?
Is it important if it is a PC, or a laptop, or a tablet? Do graphing calculators count? How about mobile phones?

Does it have to be in use, and if so, what constitutes 'use'? 
Or should we considering all computers that are functioning, even if not currently in use? Many schools have computers that no longer worked -- or are so old that they don't work all that well. Others have computers that are brand new, but which are still in their boxes.

Does the purpose for which the computer is meant to be used, and the user, and the location of this use, matter?
Is the goal to measure any device on school grounds, or just those used for teaching and learning -- or by students?

Does it matter who owns the equipment?
What about equipment owned by the school itself, equipment owned by national ministries (including the IT ministry or national edtech agency), or equipment 'on loan', or equipment not fully paid for yet? Does donated equipment count?

Reasonable people can (and did, in this case) disagree on the answers to these sorts of questions -- but it can be useful to pose them (and many more), especially where doing so can help provide clarity about why you are asking the original question in the first place.

As an observer of this process, I was struck by the fact that there were, in practice, multiple sets of books kept at various levels of the education system about how much computer equipment was in a given school, depending on who was doing the inventory, and to whom the related inventory report was being submitted.

Here's basically how this was explained to me (by a school principal, by a person working in a local municipal education authority, and by someone in the national statistical agency):

  1. The 'computer person' at a school kept a master list of the equipment in that school. This was shared with the principal, but not typically shared with others outside the school.
  2. A school maintained a separate list of the equipment that the national government supplied to it, as well as a list of equipment provided by the local municipal education authority. Usually, this related to what a school had in its computer lab, and what was in its administrative office.
  3. A school also maintained separate lists of equipment that had been donated to it (e.g. by local companies, or the parent association) and what it had purchased itself, through its own discretionary funds.

The reason for keeping 'multiple books' was pretty straightforward, as a principal explained to me:

  • If we tell the national government (or charitable groups) about everything that we have, we are unlikely to get more equipment, as many other schools have fewer computers than we do.
  • If other schools report on their computer inventory like we do, we are afraid that, if we report fully, and other schools don't, we would be at a competitive disadvantage, as schools that have more computers than we do but report having fewer computers would probably receive new equipment before we do.
  • This is an open secret: Our district education office knows we keep multiple books, but they want us to be able to get as many computers as we can, from whatever sources, so they sort of look the other way.
  • We get donations from a local company, and if something breaks, we report it to them immediately, as they will repair or replace it.
  • When we are contacted by charitable groups, we always say we need more computers and accept the computers they offer to us, pretty much no matter the condition (although we are rethinking this, as most of what we get is junk).

The local municipal education person added that the introduction of BYOT/BYOD (bring your own technology or device) policies were further complicating his organization's attempts to inventory the number of devices in schools. Some schools that he suspected had more devices than they were reporting had begun to request that they receive support for improved connectivity and in-school networking instead of just being supplied with more devices.

The person from the national statistical agency noted that vendors were starting to propose changes to the country's laws to enable the leasing of computers for use in schools, which was starting to happen in the country's corporate sector. Leased computers might not be reported, he speculated, given the way that current information requests to schools were formulated.

You might say that these are all details for the bean counters (i.e. accountants) to argue about, and you'd probably be right. But there can be real world consequences to how the beans are counted, by whom, and which beans are included in the count.

Efforts to define and construct a big picture to guide the implementation of large scale national initiatives to promote the use of new technologies in education can often falter if insufficient attention is paid to individual pixels. As famed American computer scientist (and high altitude free-fall jumper) Alan Eustace is quoted in The Friendship That Made Google Huge, a fascinating recent article in The New Yorker: “To solve problems at scale, paradoxically, you have to know the smallest details.”

This is why, when I am asked how many computing devices are in schools in a given country, and how many more need to be purchased, I usually reply:

What do you mean by a 'device', why do you need this information -- and who's asking?

The answers to these question can provide the some of the key talking points for a more fundamental conversation, anchored by some more fundamental questions, like:
  • What do you intend to do with all of these devices?
  • What are the educational goals you hope to achieve as a result of their use?
  • How will you know if you've been successful?

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:  
Note: The image used at the top of this post ("counting the beans can sometimes be rather difficult -- and what you brew may depend on how you count") comes via Pixabay and is in the public domain.


Michael Trucano

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

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