Educational technology and innovation at the edges

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the business of tomorrow, today?As part of my duties at the World Bank, I talk with lots (and lots!) of people and groups.  Mostly, I talk to people within the World Bank and in other development institutions (this is part of my official responsibilities, to support the work of such people as a 'subject expert'); to our counterparts in governments around the world (we say 'clients' but I am not a big fan of this formulation); and with lots of consultants and practitioners*.

(*Some of you may quickly identify a pretty important group that is missing here: 'users', or beneficiaries.  This is a pretty big, if not fundamental, omission, in my view. Talking with practitioners is a sort of proxy for talking with end users and beneficiaries ... I guess ... but certainly an insufficient and inadequate one. Mistaking those who pay for, and those who implement, development programs with those who actual 'use' or benefit from them is a recipe for potential disaster ... perhaps a topic for a future blog post.)

I also speak with lots of companies.  Sometimes I am obliged to do this, because (to be blunt, and honest) the company is 'important' and politically well connected.  Sometimes I really want to do this, because the company is doing something quite new and/or cool, or is doing something quite well.  (I should note that these things aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, of course.) I frequently talk with companies at the request of colleagues or counterparts in government ("these guys are telling us x and y ... should we believe them?"). I also do it to better understand what is happening in various markets; I often find that firms (as with NGOs) have a better sense of what is happening in government schools related to the use of technology than do ministries of education.

Occasionally I speak not to individual companies, but to large industry groups.  Because presentations to these types of groups often occur behind 'closed doors' of various sorts, I thought I'd share here some of what I tell them, in case it might be of any interest.  (One of the reasons that this blog exists is to try to open up certain conversations that typically occur behind closed doors to wider audiences.)

In December, for example, I spoke with members of an industry association whose smaller-sized companies (almost exclusively from OECD countries, I assumed) were interested in the 'potential market for their educational technology products and services in Africa'.  Here's what I said:

Opportunities for growth
As a sort of general introductory remark, I noted that the periods of truly heady growth for certain types of ICT-related goods and services in the education sector in many OECD countries is probably behind us -- at least compared with the potential for growth in newly industrializing and emerging economies of the so-called 'developing world'. The big companies have already recognized this, I tell smaller firms, and you might do well to do so as well.

Investing, not just selling
I often say to companies entering new markets in developing countries for the first time is that your first sale might be the easiest.  If the initiative for which you win a contract doesn't succeed, however, or your product turns out to be the wrong one for the specific needs of local users, you may find that things can get very difficult for you going forward very quickly. In such cases, where your first sale was (relatively) easy, your second sale may never come.  Technology use in education is a growth area of investment for pretty much every country around the world, and looking for quick sales in the short run by cutting corners and misrepresenting your product may limit your potential to grow along with these markets over the medium- to long-term.

If you want to grow in such markets, you may need to growth with the markets.  This will probably mean partnering with local firms (and there are a lot of local firms in working in this space across Africa, albeit often small ones) and in looking to support local 'business and user ecosystems' related to your product or service in various ways.  This may mean not only selling into, but also investing in, the development of local markets, and especially investing in local people.

(Side note: When speaking with counterparts in governments, my colleagues and I often discuss with them strategies for how they can best take best advantage of the arrival of and investments by foreign firms, as well as the activities of their own domestic companies, to help meet their country's developmental objectives. I mention this to note that this stuff does not need to be a one way street ... even if that is regrettably too often the case.)

I closed the first session of my talk by relating the comment of the Executive VP of a Fortune 100 company who stopped by the World Bank and told us that, "We would invest a lot more in Africa -- if we could find the right people to employ and run our business there for us. So we think it's time to invest more in people across Africa."

Information asymmetry
An observation: In many of the countries with which we work at the World Bank, there is a profound information asymmetry related to ICT use in education.  The people selling the stuff know a great deal about the topic, and often have lots of 'white papers' that they share with government touting the cost effectiveness and positive impact of their goods and services.  They are tech savvy, and can relate seductive stories of 'success' in other countries.  On the other (buyer's) side, there is quite often limited or insufficient capacity within government to make well informed decisions about this stuff and evaluate the claims of firms marketing their wares. (For what it's worth, there is often insufficient capacity within many of the international donors who are advising governments in this regard, and who are lending or giving money to governments to purchase such goods and services.) This information asymmetry can lead to a very dangerous situation where companies, or consultants with whom they regularly work, basically serve as lead advisors to governments related to the use (and purchase) of ICT-related goods and services in the education sector. Unethical firms seek to exploit this asymmetry of information and technical know-how; other firms, especially those in it for the 'long run', seek to help build capacity in government to make better informed decisions (although of course this is not always entirely an altruistic course of action either!)

Innovation at the edges
While not neglecting many of the very urgent challenges and pressing needs of people and communities across the continent, I spent most of my time talking about some things that seemed to be new to many of the association members: about the under-reported growth of middle classes across the continent, for example, and about the (even more under-reported) growth of innovative businesses and civil society organizations utilizing ICTs in new and inventive ways (here I cited examples of organizations and people affiliated with iHub in Nairobi). I talked about the severe stresses being out on many public education systems, and the resulting potential for growth of informal learning and private education providers.

At this stage, I said, it seems most everyone knows about the rapid penetration of mobile phones across the African continent, reaching out and down into communities that few predicted would take to these devices with such speed.  I mentioned this not to highlight opportunities for 'mlearning' (a regular topic on this blog).  Instead, I did it as a way to highlight certain types of ICT-enabled dynamism that are occurring in emerging economies in the 'developing world' in ways that are different from what people may find in Europe and North America. Here's one example I gave from the financial services sector:

By the early part of the last decade, most programs to expand "mobile banking" (i.e. engaging in financial transactions using a mobile phone) had fizzled out in Europe and North America.  There were many reasons for this, including the fact that people had all sorts of well-established mechanisms that provided easy access to banking and financial transaction services: They had computers and the Internet at home, they had ATMs in their cities and towns, and they had physical branches of banks not too far away, etc.  In some places -- like the Philippines, the subject of one of the first studies of this stuff, which we did when I was with the Bank's infoDev program -- this infrastructure largely didn't exist, especially outside urban centers. As a result, cash was king, credit was dear, and demand for access to various types of financial transactions and services was thus largely unmet.  Some bright people noticed that mobile phones, which were increasingly to be found in the pockets and pocketbooks of Filipinos all across the archipelago, could utilized to provide some of this access in new and innovative ways.  People in other parts of the world saw what was happening and, within a few years, mobile banking started to catch fire in other developing countries -- Kenya is one quite well-known example.  Now, companies in so-called 'developed' economies are looking to places like Kenya to learn about how they can introduce (or re-introduce) such mobile banking services into European and North American markets. 

That's all well and good, you might say, but what does this have to do with education?  Here's my point (and I am sorry it is so long in coming):

[-] Despite the successes of the Education For All movement in many countries, for hundreds of millions of people in developing economies, access to quality education is a need that is not being met sufficiently through traditional means.

[-] I speak and correspond with lots of (young) entrepreneurs and companies in developing countries who are investigating the potential use of mobile devices (like cell phones) to help provide access to educational services and products in new ways in such places.  These folks are trying out new approaches to using the ICT devices they have at hand to help overcome many of the longstanding challenges that have inhibited access to traditional educational products (e.g. books) and services (e.g. schooling).

[-] A consistent refrain heard across pretty much all 'developed' countries is that much needs to be 'fixed' with their traditional education systems, but there is little consensus about what exactly do to, and people are hungry for examples of new approaches that 'work' and 'scale'.

[-] The education minister of an East African country told me last spring that his country had a deficit of 35,000 teachers right now.  Even if we can recruit and train this number of teachers quickly (and we can't, using our current practices), he asked, how are we going to be able to support these teachers once they go into classrooms across our country, especially in the places where we need them most -- in the villages? While continuing to expand and improve what we are already doing, he continued, we need to explore new, non-traditional approaches, and we see technology use as fundamental to such new approaches.

If there are to be truly new and innovative approaches to (for example) supporting teachers using new technologies like (for example) mobile phones, where might we expect them to occur?  It might be that they will be found in your current markets, in places like the affluent suburbs of Brisbane or Berlin.  Or, just possibly, they might be found outside places like Manila or Nairobi -- somewhat like what occurred with mobile banking.

As the EduTech blog attempts to help document and explore, we are seeing lots of innovative uses of ICTs at the 'edges', and it is just possible that some of the most innovative future business models related to technology use in education in industrialized countries may be developed in response to consumer needs for lower cost, more equitable access to quality educational products and services in emerging economies around the world. 

Discussions of the potential for 'innovation at the edges' are now a staple of certain parts of academia and the business press (and given at least lip service by some policymakers).  From the perspectives of most of you [by which I meant the educational technology companies to which I was speaking], most of the people in the world live at these 'edges'.  These are where the needs are the greatest.  These are your markets.  And these are the places where you should go to learn.

The science fiction writer William Gibson has famously remarked that "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed."  One conclusion to draw from the short history of mobile banking over the past seven years or so is that this distribution doesn't just happen from the 'core' of developed economies out to the 'edges' of the developing world (the traditional pathways, it is perhaps worth noting, along which international aid and foreign direct investment flow), but that the reverse path is possible as well.  Might this also happen in the educational technology space?  Maybe.  But you have to participate to find out.

(In closing, I noted that their business competitors and partners from China already know a lot of this stuff, so they better get moving unless they want to continually play catch up!)

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("the business of tomorrow, today?") comes from via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


Michael Trucano

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

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