How ownership and liability issues can impact the use of computers in schools

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owned! pwned?
owned! pwned?
In many low and lower middle income countries around the world, large scale purchases of computing devices for use in schools are just beginning to happen. Given that efforts of this sort have occurred in other education systems for many years (and in some 'highly developed' countries, for decades), there is a real opportunity for countries new to such efforts to learn from past mistakes made by others -- and not to repeat them.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fundamental question of whether or not a country should be investing its scarce resources in, for example, a new program to roll out laptops or tablets to all of its students or teachers. Let's say, for better or for worse, that this decision has already been made (and hopefully that it was a good decision!).

And: Let's leave for another discussion a topic regularly explored on the World Bank's EduTech blog: What might it mean for these devices to be used 'effectively'? Instead, what if we ask:
What are some of the 'little details' that can actually have a big impact on whether the devices supplied to schools are actually used at all?

Past posts on the World Bank's EduTech blog have attempted to document and analyze many of these 'little details'. Here's one that we haven't explored before:
Who owns the computer equipment in schools, who pays for the stuff that gets broken, who decides, and how is this information communicated?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, of course. As with so many things in life, context is king. Tolstoy famously wrote that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In my experience, the exact opposite is often true when it comes to education systems attempting to introduce new technologies into schools for the first time: All (eventually) unhappy education systems are (too often) alike; every happy education system is happy in its own way.

Here's a quick example of one education system that quickly became 'unhappy' with the initial results of its high profile effort to provide laptops to teachers. I'll call this country 'Laptopia', the generic name I use in training exercises when referring to real-life examples where little would be named by identifying the country specifically. (For what it's worth: When I shared the story below with two colleagues, both of them were sure they knew to which country I was referring. Both named different countries, and both were wrong.)


When they first rolled out laptops for teachers in Laptopia, the local equivalent of the ministry for 'information technology' took the laptops on their books as assets after they were purchased from a vendor via a tender process. In this case, the IT ministry was seen as the most competent institution to assume this initial liability; the ministry of education was seen as much less capable; and there was no natural third party organization (e.g. a national edtech agency) that could perform this function.

(Side note: I know of two countries where there were large scale national purchases of devices where the devices landed in a warehouse ... and no ministry wanted to accept responsibility/liability for them. In one case this was because they thought that the process by which they were procured was a bit dodgy, the other because they did not feel that the related distribution plan was adequate. So the devices ... lots of them ... just sat there ... for quite a while.)

The IT ministry in Laptopia then oversaw the distribution of the laptops to schools, working in tandem with vendors and in loose coordination with the ministry of education, dealing directly with school principals.

Things quickly became a little tricky.

In Laptopia, a school essentially (I'm oversimplifying) assumed joint responsibility for many of the physical assets in its building (desks, textbooks, etc.) together with a local government authority.

When it came to distributing the laptops for use by teachers, there was no official communication to school principals from any governmental authority about who technically owned these new assets.

Faced with this grey area, and worried about their own potential personal liability, many principals assumed that their schools, or in some cases even they themselves as individuals, would be liable for any damage or replacement costs. When they asked education officials about this, different answers were given. Principals then were left to figure out what to do themselves.

In some cases, principals across Laptopia made teachers sign a note (sort of a contract) that they themselves devised, saying that teachers would be liable for any damage to the laptops.

I saw a few versions of these; the most helpful, in my mind, were ones that vendors gave to principals. I assumed that some of these had been pulled from vendor activities in other countries, for better or worse. In other instances, it looked like they had just been downloaded from the Internet and translated. These may not have been great, and they may not have spoken to specific contexts and circumstances in Laptopia, and they may well have reflected the interests of vendors, but at least they were something that principals could use, absent any other guidance or information.

In other cases, the principals simply never distributed the laptops, leaving them unopened in boxes.

Together with the locked school computer lab, a situation encountered so often over the years as to have almost become a cliche, people who have worked a long time in the edtech field are well familiar with the phenomenon of new computers sitting in their original boxes, piled up and unused in schools.

That said, not all of them remained unopened: Occasionally, some were displayed, plugged in and booted up in exceptional circumstances, e.g. when an international delegation or a high level ministry group stopped by for a school visit to see ‘ICT in action in education’, but afterwards they were returned to their boxes and locked away for safekeeping. 

Given that very few teachers in Laptopia had ever used laptops at that time as part of their professional life, and that few had a computer at home that they used regularly, many were not convinced of their usefulness for their jobs. As a result, and faced with potential damage costs that equaled a few months of their salaries, many teachers, especially those with little experience or confidence in using the technology, simply decided not to use the laptops at all.

It wasn't only the less experienced, less confident teachers in Laptopia who reached this conclusion:

In the pilot stage of the rollout, one teacher had been caught doing something 'inappropriate’ with her laptop and had faced severe sanction as a result. Or so I was told by more than one teacher and school principal. I was never able to get the full story about this – what the transgression was, what happened as a result, etc. – and it might simply have been a rumor. But this story/rumor circulated widely among teachers, a number of whom were using their new laptops to do something they learned about during their initial ICT literacy training: how to use email. Especially among computer-literate teachers, this story/rumor spread pretty quickly. (One teacher rather memorably told me that, in her country, most everything was a rumor, what made something true is if people believed it. I hoped that she wasn't a science teacher.) In many cases, the only people that these teachers knew who had email accounts were other teachers. A number of these teachers decided that, given potential sanctions for undefined ‘inappropriate use’ and the potentially severe monetary penalty that they might have to pay if they were to damage the laptop, it was probably best not to use the laptops at all. It is worth noting that these were often the most computer-savvy teachers, the ones who might be expected to be 'power users' in their schools and, as such, were likely to set the example for other teachers in their schools.

Even if, as I was informed by many senior officials in Laptopia who were upset that the devices were not being used, teachers in their country were 'too traditional' in their approach to trying new things, I found it pretty hard to fault teacher behavior here. Given the risk-reward ratio in such circumstances, where disincentives for use are clear (and quite punitive) and incentives for use are rather murky, it's pretty hard to blame the user if she or he isn't terribly interested in using the shiny new device that's dropped on their desk, especially when if comes weighted down with high expectations and potentially higher personal liability.

I have seen similar sorts of calculations done in other education systems where there have been big initiatives to provide schools, teachers, students and/or families with computing equipment but where issues around ownership and liability were not clearly defined and communicated -- with similiar results.

A follow-up EduTech blog post will explore what policymakers might consider to lessen the chances of the 'Laptopia scenario' occuring in their own countries.

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("owned! pwned?") came via Pixabay and is in the public domain as a result of the use of a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication



Michael Trucano

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

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