Analyzing ICT and education policies in developing countries

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find me some policies that I can learn from ... or else!For the last year or so, we have been collecting policy documents related to ICT use in education from around the world, with a specific interest in trying to document policy intent in developing countries, especially in East Asia. This is one component of a larger initiative at the World Bank called Systems Approach for Better Education Results, or SABER. As part of our SABER-ICT project, we are trying to help policymakers as they attempt to assess and compare their own policies against those of comparator countries around the world.  Here's a very real scenario:

An education minister approaches the World Bank and asks for help in formulating an 'ICT in education' policy, in preparation for what is intended to be a large scale investment in educational technologies.  She asks us:

What might be important to include in such a policy?

While a lot of useful things have been written on this topic, it can often be difficult to present evidence-based policy advice related to ICT use in education to inform large scale investments in educational technologies across an education system based on hard, rigorously collected data for the simple reason that there is actually not a lot of rigorously collected, globally comparable data out there.

(This is slowly beginning to change: For a few years the World Bank has participated in an international Working Group on ICT Statistics in Education (WISE) led by UIS, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, that is gathering internationally comparable data in this area as part of a larger international, multi-stakeholder initiative to improve the availability and quality of ICT data and indicators, particularly in developing countries. The results from this important initiative will provide key inputs into the World Bank's SABER-ICT initiative going forward.)

This is not to say that we know nothing about policy development in this area. Here at the World Bank, we have of course had some quite useful and successful experiences in helping dozens of countries with the process of developing such policies, and we do try to stay connected to and learn from experiences in other countries where we are not, or have not been, directly involved. (For many years, we used something called the ICT-in-Education Toolkit for Policymakers, Planners and Practitioners to help facilitate this process; unfortunately this web-based collaborative planning tool is no longer maintained).

Rather, it is meant as a reminder that

(1) much of what we do 'know' is based on anecdotal evidence, or on theories (hypotheses might actually be the more accurate term) that are not supported by a rich evidence base demonstrating cause-and-effect (or sometimes, even loose correlation)

(2) much of what we collectively 'know' is derived from experiences from OECD countries that may or may not be relevant to middle and low income countries

(For what it's worth, we do seem to have an increasingly good handle on what doesn't work.)


Back to the question that was posed near the top of this blog post: One response to the challenge from the  education minister would be to present what global best practice suggests are the important components of an ICT/education policy in a general, abstract sense. This is useful, but only to a certain point. We find that ministries of education are often more (or at least just as) interested in studying the specific policies in place in other countries as part of an exploratory process of investigating, identifying and articulating what they wish to include in their own policies.

In our experience, countries are interested in policies from four types of places:

1. Global 'best practice' examples
As a practical matter, these usually tend to be policies from places like the United States, Singapore and South Korea. While often rightly considered leading global examples, the relevance of such policies for (for example) a low-income country in Africa just now seriously considering investments in educational technologies, and so contemplating the development of its first related policy, or even for a middle income country from Eastern Europe or Central Asia which has had more experience over a longer period of time, but only a very basic related policy to help guide new investments, can often be somewhat questionable.

2. Countries that are 'just a bit more advanced than we are in this area' (aspirational comparators)
While policies from Country X may represent global best practice, policies from Country Y, which not too long may have been in the position much like that of the country considering the development of a new ICT/education policy, may actually offer better models.

3. Similar countries (comparators)
Ministers are often interested in what countries 'like us' (essentially at the same general stage of development, with similar characteristics, etc.) are doing.

4. Neighboring countries
Not surprisingly, ministers are also often quite interested in 'what the neighbors are doing'.

It is not terribly difficult to find the small number of policies that fit under category #1, as most places look to OECD examples in this regard, and policies from such places are often quite easy to track down on the Internet, or via consultants who regularly work providing related advice.

Do experiences from OECD countries (or those at similar level of economic development, like Singapore) in this regard really represent 'best practice'? I am reminded of the story about the man who lost his keys, and so was found looking for them under a lamp post, 'because that's where the light is'. Perhaps the keys are indeed to be found in the near vicinity ... but it just might be useful to shine some light on other places as well.

Policy documents from middle income or upper lower income countries that may offer more relevant short and medium term inspiration (category #2) are often more difficult to locate, however, and those from categories #3 and #4 can often be *extremely* difficult to find. We are especially interested in investigating and sharing policies from these last three categories. As part of this effort, we maintain a big list of policy documents that we have collected. (Here's some background on this effort, and a link to the latest full document list. If we are missing any, please send them along to us!) And who knows: It just might be possible that some of the policies under categories #2-4 may belong in category #1 as well!

are any of these worth examining more closely ... and how might we know?

We readily concede that there is a major limitation in just examining policy documents: They only signal intent, and typically contain little insight into whether a given policy (or policy component) was or is being implemented faithfully, nor do they document what impact (if any) resulted from the implementation of related policy guidance. Still, we think there is a value in trying to investigate and analyze policy intent -- if you don't know what you hope to achieve, how will you know what you should be monitoring over time, let alone to link any observed outcomes or impact with specific policy guidance that may have been offered?

Based on our preliminary review of policy documents, we find that most ICT/education policies address the following topics to varying degrees:
1. Vision & planning
2. ICT infrastructure
3. Teachers
4. Skills and competencies
5. Learning resources
6. Education management information systems
7. Monitoring & evaluation, research & 'innovation'
8. Equity, inclusion and safety

We have also noted a number of 'cross-cutting themes' that regularly appear in a few policies, related to things like distance education / distance learning; 'mobile learning'; early childhood development (ECD); open educational resources; community engagement; and data privacy that are on the agenda for certain sub-sets of countries. 

Now, reasonable people can perhaps disagree on whether or not these are in fact the components that good ICT/education policies should contain. One (decidedly modest, perhaps) initial goal under SABER-ICT is to try to document what such policies actually do contain, in the belief that such information is operationally relevant to ministries of education and their partners who are devising such policies going forward. Over time, it appears that how various national policies address these eight topics appears to change, and so we are also trying to assign a general 'stage' to each country's consideration of a particular topic. Our intention in doing so is not to judge -- given that we can't link various policy components to specific outcomes, we don't pretend to be able to say what is necessarily a 'good' or 'bad' policy approach to a given topic. Instead, our hope is that, by making this classification, countries may be able to more quickly locate policies that are relevant to their particular circumstances. 

Here's a concrete example of what we're talking about:

As part of a policy component that seems to relate to 'vision and planning', many countries identify specific institutional arrangements related to the oversight and implementation of ICT/education initiatives. Generally speaking, policies seem to address this issue in four ways by articulating intentions related to having:

1. No dedicated group/unit/agency for ICT in education
2. A plan to set up a unit/agency on ICT in education (or a very small group exists with this responsibility)
3. A dedicated, professionally staffed unit/agency for ICT in education
4. A dedicated, professionally staffed focal unit/agency charged with implementing policies on ICT in education which actively coordinates with other organizations on ICT/education issue

If a country is currently at stage #1 here, it may be useful for them to have a look at what policies from countries that have be classified as being at stages #2 and #3 might say, as such countries might offer useful opportunities for learning and comparison. If you are considering doing something that another place has already been trying to do (or indeed has done), perhaps there might be some relevant lessons that can be learned from related experiences in that other place? 

Now, there is room for interpretation here, obviously, and the assignment of a policy's consideration of a particular issue to correspond to one of these four 'stages' is perhaps rather artificial. The World Bank's education sector has decided to use this sort of four-stage categorization across all of the different policy domains ("ICT' is just one of them, here's a full list), and so we have adopted it as well.  Conveniently, the Working Group on ICT Statistics in Education (WISE) in which we participate has for many years also utilized a four-stage categorization of this sort to inform its analyses of ICT use in education around the world, so our efforts under SABER-ICT to analyze national ICT/education policies correspond to the general approaches under both SABER and WISE.

As this work continues to develop, we'll be publishing more information on the EduTech blog in the coming months, in case it might be of any interest.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post meant to be of a policymaker wielding a sabre ("find me some policies that I can learn from ... or else!") is a Thomas Nast cartoon that comes via Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. The second image, of a set of French light cavalry officer sabers ("which one should we look at first ... and how do we know?"), comes from Wikipedian Rama via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its CeCILL  and Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France licenses.


[Apologies for those who have recently been trying to comment on EduTech blog posts. We have been receiving huge amounts of comment spam and some legitimate -- and presumably very interesting! -- comments are undoubtedly being lost in the deluge. We hope to have new filters in place soon.]


Michael Trucano

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

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