Lessons from the drafting of national educational technology policies

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let me make sure to press the right levers in the right order so that I?m in harmony with everyone else
let me make sure to press the
right levers in the right order so that I’m
in harmony with everyone else

Begun in 2004 by the ICT/education team at UNESCO-Bangkok, who were later joined by AED, Knowledge Enterprise and the infoDev program of the World Bank (where I worked), the ICT in Education Toolkit for Policy Makers, Planners and Practitioners was utilized as part of policy planning and review processes in over thirty middle and low counties in the course of the following decade.

In support of face-to-face and online interactions that typically lasted for many months (and in a few cases, years), mainly in countries in East Asia and the Pacific, the Toolkit provided interactive instruments and step-by-step guidelines to assist education policy makers, planners and practitioners in the process of 'harnessing the potential of ICTs to meet educational goals and targets efficiently and effectively'.

The toolkit was designed with the needs of two specific groups in mind: (1) Key decisionmakers in countries and educational institutions as they struggled with the challenge of introducing and integrating ICTs into education; and (2) program officers and specialists in international development agencies as they identified, prepared and appraised ICT-in-education projects or ICT components of education projects.

The ICT in Education Toolkit itself is no longer in use -- with the great changes in technology over the past ten years, maintaining an online toolkit of this sort proved to be too difficult. That said, a number of key lessons emerged from this effort which might be quite relevant to policymakers going forward who are seeking to provide policy guidance, direction and oversight on issues related to the use of new technologies in education systems.

Here are some of them:

1. Who participates is often as important as what is decided
When a process kicks off to formulate a new policy related to ICT use in education, it (almost) always results in the development of such a policy. In a general sense, such a process can thus be labelled a 'success'. Whether such a policy is actually a 'success' in practice, however -- by positively impacting the lives and teachers and students in useful ways, for example -- can be as much a function of which groups and stakeholders participated in the policy formulation process as what the policy itself eventually contains. In other words: Who is in the room can be critically important! Policymaking around technology use in education is often challenging in new ways because it can (or should) involve or encompass multiple actors and stakeholder groups, from within and across government, as well as private firms and civil society groups. In some countries, ICT/education policy formulation is led by the ministry of education, in other countries the ICT or telecom ministry takes the lead, in still others a special office under e.g. the president or prime minister may play the lead role. (In some dysfunctional policy environments, all three groups may independently develop their own policies in this regard!) Finding a way to coordinate the policymaking activities and functions of such groups, as well as the various implementation roles of key stakeholders, can be very difficult, but the lines of communication that are opened as a result of trying to do so can be very important when it comes time for implementation. Even where a resulting policy may be 'bad' or inadequate/incomplete, making broad stakeholder engagement a key part of the related policymaking process can represent a key practical success going forward.

2. Upcoming procurement activities often catalyze ICT/education policy formulation (and re-formulation)
A key factor catalyzing many efforts to create new policies related to technology use in education in schools is the fact that a large-scale procurement of ICT equipment looms on the horizon. In many cases, existing policies provide little guidance related to what is being promised by political leaders (e.g. large numbers of schools are to be connected to the Internet, or will receive computer labs, or students are to receive laptop computers). In other words, 'the technology tail is wagging the policy dog'. One consequence is this phenomenon is that the initial focus of policy development is to help guide the roll-out of new technologies to schools, and not in how such technologies can be used in support of existing policy goals and objectives.

3. A single group is often core to the implementation of ICT/education policies
Whether policymaking authority is diffuse or highly centralized, a single group is often core to the implementation of national educational technology policies in middle and low income countries. In some cases this is a specific department or unit of a government ministry, in others it may be a quasi-autonomous national ICT/education agency under the direction of one or more government ministries. Including representatives from this from this implementing group as explicit part of the process of related policy formulation can help surface valuable practical perspectives and lessons from experience which can help ground the development of new policies in an understanding of what is possible and 'do-able'.

4. The private sector can play a key role
In many national educational technology policies, a key role is identified for a number of private groups (both companies and NGOs) in the implementation of such policies, sometimes couched in the terms of a 'public-private partnership'. As a practical matter, such groups often provide informal related advice and guidance to policymakers, based on their practical experiences and know-how -- and, it is important to note, their own self-interests as well. Figuring out ways to incorporate such voices within the policymaking process can be important, both as a bridge to eventual implementation efforts, to ground such processes in on-the-ground-realities and know-how, and to promote greater transparency around such activities. Government authorities may not have existing relationships with many such 'nontraditional' actors, but involving them in the policymaking process can provide a way to help build such bridges.

5. Technological changes typically outpace the abilities of policymakers to keep up
While ICT/education policymaking is (hopefully!) quite forward-looking in nature, at least rhetorically, it is also the case that it can be as much about helping to formalize practices which are already on-going within an educational system which had previously happened with little or no government guidance or oversight. When it comes to policymaking around ICT/education issues, there is often a tension between how much government should lead, and how much it should follow things which are already happening within individual schools and communities, as well as local markets. When it comes to making accurate prognostications about the future of technology use, education officials do not generally have a track record of great success, and there is always a danger that ill-conceived or overly ambitious policies can stifle, rather than support, the emergence of technology-enabled innovations within various parts of an education system. At the same time, while a lack of related policy guidance can open up spaces for innovation, it can also lead to great inefficiencies, and allow for new (digital) divides to develop, and for longstanding divides within an education system or society to widen.

6. Equity issues and concerns can present fundamental challenges within policymaking processes related to ICT use in education
Desires for action and to demonstrate 'quick wins' as a result of a new national educational technology policy can greatly complicate goals related to equity and fairness. Do you first connect the schools which are easiest to connect, or train the teachers who are already the 'best'? The temptation to do this can be large. Such school and teachers are often found in communities where students already possess a number of advantages (related to wealth, for example, or the fact that they live in urban areas). While rhetoric around helping to close the 'digital divide' can mark key opening passes of ICT/education policies, and such sentiments can be an important catalyst for the development of an ICT/education policy, great care needs to be taken to insure that individual components of such a policy align with, and don't stand in practical opposition to, a more general policy interest in promoting equity.

7. The technologies and devices introduced into education systems as a result of ICT/education policies can help monitor the implementation of these same policies
When introduced into schools and education systems, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are by their very nature dual- (or multi-)use. Connecting schools to the Internet and providing students with access to laptops is often largely seen by policymakers to represent new possibilities to disseminate new or additional learning materials to teachers and students. While this is undoubtedly the case, the existence of such connected tools in the hands of teachers, students and school administrators also offers new ways for government to monitor the extent to which its policies are actually impacting activities at the school and classroom level. In other words, an ICT/education policy which broadens access to connected digital tools and devices can help establish a very important feedback loop to help policymakers better understand what (if anything) might be changing in the lives of schools and learners as a result of such policies. For many policymakers, this represents something fundamentally new.

These are some of the key general lessons that I have taken away from involvement in helping to coordinate and advise on national educational technology policymaking efforts over many years. Other key participants in these processes may of course have learned other things, or even disagree with some of what I have put forward here: Fair enough! But hopefully some of what I have shared here will resonate with people starting new initiatives to formulate, and re-formulate, educational technology policies within their countries, and will be useful to them as they move forward with such efforts. To such folks, I say: Good luck!

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

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a man playing a rather interesting trombone (“let me make sure to press the right levers in the right order so that I’m in harmony with everyone else”) comes via Wikimedia Commons. It was originally posted to Flickr by J.C. Rojas and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


Michael Trucano

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

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