Is there a role for ICTs in international donor aid strategies for the education sector?

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charting a new course for tomorrowThe World Bank recently released a draft version of its new Education Sector Strategy 2020 for public comment, the culmination of a global consultation effort over the past year that has included dedicated multi-stakeholder meetings in and with over 70 countries around the world. 

In a blog post announcing the release of the draft strategy requesting public comment, World Bank education sector director Elizabeth King poses the question, "What will the world look like in 2020?" 

Now, some folks will question the utility of trying to look and plan ten years ahead.  Fair enough, such criticisms are duly noted.  (As someone who works in the area of technology, where the winds of innovation can quickly and radically change the operating landscape, challenging deeply held assumptions about what's possible, I do profess a healthy amount a skepticism in this regard.) That said, World Bank education projects often take two to three years to plan and negotiate and then often last for five to seven years, and so a ten-year time frame is actual relevant in practice.  As returns on investments in education generally are often thought to be best considered over a long time horizon, it is thought that the development and articulation of a long term vision and strategy for engagement in and support for the education sector beyond individual budget cycles has some value. In addition, the articulation of a strategy such as this can have an important signalling effect to partners about the direction the institution is moving in.

During the strategy consultation process, and especially since its publication in draft form, I have been asked by many groups what the World Bank's new strategy may mean for issues related to the use of ICTs in the education sector.  (fyi The World Bank's ICT group is also currently in the process of revising its ICT policy, which will contain a section looking at education.) I am not sure it is my place to do so, but I thought I'd offer here some quick comments on the draft education sector strategy in response to such queries, as an input into the final round of feedback that has been requested by 30 November, and especially in the hope that doing so will provoke additional comments and responses.  There is an official comments form available on the education sector strategy site.  For those whose comments don't fit neatly into the format requested there, feel free to post comments below and I will make sure they are seen by the education strategy team.

On to the comments ...

The publication of the draft strategy is a tangible milestone near the end of what I know has been a herculean effort on behalf of the education strategy team, and has involved an unprecedented amount of related consultation by the World Bank with related partners that I think signals to other groups how inclusive the process is meant to be, offering (I hope) a potential model for other parts of the Bank to follow.

I thought I'd try here to give voice to sentiments that I detect in feedback I have received informally from the educational technology communities with which I regularly interact, in case doing so is of any value to the finalization of the Bank's education sector strategy process.  (And by doing so publicly, I will know more quickly where I have gotten things wrong!)  Since the draft strategy has been published, I have heard from a number of people whose comments can be summarized thusly:

"Great strategy, very well written. That said, it's rather shocking, given that it is meant to be looking forward over the next decade, that it seems to ignore discussions of the potential impact and relevance of technology on learning and teaching almost entirely."

Some history
: Past World Bank education sector strategies have tended to treat issues related to the use of ICTs in very general ways. In the past, some critics have considered this (rightly or wrongly) a bit of a 'lip service' topic within World Bank sector strategies. Such criticism can be summarized rather crudely in the following manner: "Add a paragraph or two on 'ICTs' to the mix, check the box next to 'ICTs' on the to-do list noting that this topic has been considered, and then move on to more important things."

Frankly, I don't necessarily think there is anything wrong with such an approach -- if it is strategic.  We have to make hard decisions about what is relevant, and what isn't, given that there are so many competing demands for our institutional attention. Where strategies try to be all things to all people they inevitably fail.  As someone who focuses on the nexus of ICT and education here at the World Bank, I just thought it might be useful to raise an issue related to how groups outside the Bank active in my areas of activity may look at the Bank's new draft strategy -- and, I fear, conclude that the Bank simply 'doesn't get it' -- in the hope of provoking additional comment.

Now: I readily concede that the type of people and institutions with whom I have regular contact have a particular perspective or bias in this area. And: I would argue that the history of the field of 'education technology' is replete with giddy optimism and techno-idealistic prognostications about the potential of technological advances to 'transform teaching and learning', and that this potential never quite seems to be realized. I also acknowledge that putting together a strategy such as this is complicated by many things: institutional history and legacy; the 'lobbying' of various interests groups for more attention to their pet area of activity; need for alignment with larger strategic directions at the Bank; client demands; emerging scholarship; partnership arrangements; the list is quite long.  The strategy team has done an admirable job in navigating these forces to produce a draft document that reads well and offers much food for thought.

That said, despite the profound changes that ICTs have wrought on societies over the past 20 years, it could well appear to some -- after quickly skimming past education sector strategies (and strategy updates) and comparing them to the current draft strategy -- that ICTs are even less relevant to the Bank's worldview in 2010 than they have been before. And where they are relevant, their consideration is (at least in the minds of the communities with which I regularly interact) constrained by conventional thinking and approaches.

To provide one illustration of what I'm talking about, here's the paragraph in the latest version of the strategy that deals with ICTs (emphasis added by me):

14. New information technologies have transformed – and continue to transform – how people live and communicate, how enterprises do business, what jobs are available, and what skills are in greater or lower demand.7 The growth in number of mobile phone subscribers has outpaced global population growth (figure 5). Mobile telephony has been adopted even in rural areas of poor countries. The number of Internet users grew by an estimated quarter of a billion people between 2000 and 2005, most of them young people (OECD, 2010). How can education systems best use these technologies to equip students with knowledge and skills relevant to a rapidly modernizing context? More systematic information is needed about whether and how school-based ICT can enhance learning and raise school completion rates.

One of the animating beliefs that seems to drive many education reformers who have latched on to 'educational technologies' as an important vehicle for 'reform' is that current education systems are only really capable of incremental reform and improvement, and that, for much of the world, 'incremental reform and improvement' is simply not what is needed. As the draft education sector strategy 2020 clearly shows, the World Bank's work in education is clearly focused on a 'systems' approach. If this is to be the Bank's primary strategic focus, it perhaps follows that ICTs really aren't all that important (except, perhaps, on the back-end information systems side, supporting the system to be 'more efficient', 'better coordinated', 'more transparent', etc., largely supporting business as usual). And: Given that the Bank appears to be adopting an approach in the new strategy that could be characterized as 'systems-centered', and that most strategies which feature consideration of the relevance of ICTs typically place the needs of the learner at the center of things, contemplation of the role of ICTs really doesn't fit the fundamental analytical model underpinning the draft sector strategy.

An aphorism spouted regularly by many who work in the area of ICT/education is that 'technology is transforming education everywhere but in the classroom'. The Bank's new draft strategy provides rather frightening data suggesting that what is happening in the classrooms in many places is not yielding much impact. There is no doubt that, given its institutional legacy, staff composition, and existing activities, the Bank is best positioned to focus its efforts at improving things from within, working through established channels, and seeking to improve on processes and systems already in place.

Paragraph 14 of the strategy highlights how technologies are transforming the world outside the formal schooling sector. It then goes on to suggest (I think) that we need to bring this world into education systems and schools. But: Perhaps the really transformative power of ICTs would be if they could help bring what is meant to occur within existing systems and schools into this wider world, and not vice versa? On p.10 of the strategy, it is stated that "Since learning opportunities do not have to be limited to schools or higher education institutions, they do not have to be provided by government." Fair enough. The private sector and civil society certainly have important roles to play. For what it's worth, I find that such groups often tend to be much more innovative in their approaches to exploring relevant uses of ICTs. And I wonder why government itself can't help provide learning opportunities outside of schools or higher institutions ... perhaps with the aid of ICTs?

Or -- maybe -- the Bank feels that ICTs really don't have much of a place in our thinking when discussing education issues, especially given the rather checkered history of many large scale investments around the world.  (This is a sentiment that one does hear internally from time to time.)  If so, might it be useful to consider and then reject this in such a draft strategy document, rather than to largely ignore the topic?

I sometimes find that the World Bank has a very real 'optics' challenge with certain  groups around the world -- or at least those in the ICT-related communities with whom I regularly interact. "Slow." "Plodding." "Stuck in the past." These are criticisms I hear not infrequently (whether they are accurate or not is another issue entirely, of course, perhaps fodder for a separate debate). Now, on the order of importance and priority, such groups may rank far down the list for the Bank. Fair enough. But it is from such communities that much of the innovation in the global economy is thought to spring, and I fear that many groups in such communities will look at this new strategy and be puzzled. To such groups, it may well appear that the Bank doesn't see much strategic value in attempting to channel the winds of technological changes buffeting much of the world to help address many of the challenges that, almost sixty years since the institution was established, still vex us. Nor even, I fear, that such phenomena are that relevant.

Just my $.02. You are welcome to add yours below as well. 

Please note: The comments expressed above here are the opinions of the author and do not represent the opinions of the World Bank, its member countries, or the World Bank education or ICT sectors.

Note: The public domain image of a rocket blasting off ("charting a new course for tomorrow") comes from NASA via Wikimedia Commons


Michael Trucano

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

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