Research questions about technology use in education in developing countries

This page in:
let's investigate this systematically ...
let's investigate this systematically ...

Back in 2005, I helped put together a 'quick guide to ICT and education challenges and research questions' in developing countries. This list was meant to inform a research program at the time sponsored by the World Bank's infoDev program, but I figured I'd make it public, because the barriers to publishing were so low (copy -> paste -> save -> upload) and in case doing so might be useful to anyone else.

While I don't know to what extent others may have actually found this list helpful, I have seen this document referenced over the years in various funding proposals, and by other funding agencies. Over the past week I've (rather surprisingly) heard two separate organizations reference this rather old document in the course of considering some of their research priorities going forward related to investigating possible uses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help meet educational goals in low income and middle countries around the world, and so I wondered how these 50 research questions had held up over the years.

Are they still relevant?


What did we miss, ignore or not understand?

The list of research questions to be investigated going forward was a sort of companion document to Knowledge maps: What we know (and what we don't) about ICT use in education in developing countries. It was in many ways a creature of its time and context. The formulation of the research questions identified was in part influenced by some stated interests of the European Commission (which was co-funding some of the work) and I knew that some research questions would resonate with other potential funders at the time (including the World Bank itself) who were interested in related areas (see, for example, the first and last research questions). The list of research questions was thus somewhat idiosyncratic, did not presume to be comprehensive in its treatment of the topic, and was not intended nor meant to imply that certain areas of research interest were 'more important' than others not included on the list.

That said, in general the list seems to have held up quite well, and many of the research questions from 2005 continue to resonate in 2015. In some ways, this resonance is unfortunate, as it suggests that we still don't know answers to a lot of very basic questions. Indeed, in some cases we may know as little in 2015 as we knew in 2015, despite the explosion of activity and investment (and rhetoric) in exploring the relevance of technology use in education to help meet a wide variety of challenges faced by education systems, communities, teachers and learners around the world. This is not to imply that we haven't learned anything, of course (an upcoming EduTech blog post will look at two very useful surveys of research findings that have been published in the past year), but that we still have a long way to go.

Some comments and observations,
with the benefit of hindsight and when looking forward

The full list of research questions from 2005 is copied at the bottom of this blog post (here's the original list as published, with explanation and commentary on individual items).

Reviewing this list, a few things jump out at me:

1. Challenges in extrapolating research findings from one (highly developed) place to another (less developed) place
The operating hypothesis when formulating this list was that answers to some of these questions might be different in environments and contexts often found in less developed countries ('LDCs') than they would be in highly industrialized countries where related issues had been largely 'solved' -- or at least where there was expert consensus on the best way forward (even if that consensus was not having demonstrable impact on actual practice). Related to this, it was assumed that certain questions might be more important or relevant to ask when considering circumstances in less developed countries (research questions around 'interactive radio' might still be quite useful to explore in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, even if the use of educational radio had largely died out across Europe). Given what has been learned over the past decade, I think that this hypothesis holds up rather well -- in fact, failed efforts to simply export 'solutions' from education systems in 'highly developed' countries to developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America underscore for me the need for applied research on educational technology approaches and applications tailored to meet the needs and contexts of decisionmakers in less developed countries. What works well in Oslo may not work well in Ouagadougou -- and vice versa.

2. The link between research & policymaking
Another rather important assumption (perhaps 'conceit' is the more appropriate word) that animated this list of research questions was that research can play an important role in informing policy decisions related to technology use in education. As someone who spends a lot of time helping to translate research findings into language that policymakers can understand and act on, and to communicate knowledge needs of policymakers to the research community, I of course would like to believe that this assumption holds. Unfortunately, though, based on observations of hundreds of educational technology projects over the past decade, it is pretty clear to me that, in too many cases, investments in educational technologies remain a largely faith-based initiative in many places around the world.

3. Equity issues
The number of research questions highlighting issues related to marginalized communities and the potential for differential impacts upon groups within those communities (related to e.g. gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language and geography) is notable. Unfortunately, these still remain areas with insufficient research attention, especially as may relate to findings that may impact policymakers and/or which may inform the daily work of practitioners and local stakeholder groups.

4. A growing amount of research, but ...
There has been notable growth in academic research investigating uses of education technologies in developing countries over the past decade, both on the part of academics in 'developed' countries, and those in developing countries themselves. This is no doubt a good thing (especially the growth in local research and practitioner communities). Events like eLearning Africa provide valuable fora for research and practitioner groups to network with each other close(r) to home (as opposed to having to meet in London or Washington or Berlin in order to share findings with a critical mass of like-minded groups and people). That said, the most remarkable change in this regard for me has been the amount of corporate-sponsored research which has grown up over the past ten years to investigate issues related to technology use in education in developing countries. This is largely a consequence, I think, of the increased recognition by companies that many markets which were once considered 'frontier' are growing rapidly, and that many of them increasingly represent places where there is money to be made in the near term. The heady growth and diffusion of mobile telephony in most of the developing world is the most obvious marker of the fact that, for many companies, countries in Africa and Asia are no longer 'emerging', but rather increasingly occupy places front and center in corporate investment strategies. One of the occasional benefits of my job is that, even though I refuse to sign NDAs, I from time to time get peeks into internal corporately-funded research that is never published. Some of it is really quite good, it is a shame that so much of it stays locked away within companies even after the point where it no longer would convey a competitive advantage to the firm that sponsored it. What's released publicly as 'white papers' often reads to me more like it was written by the marketing department than something that can inform decisionmaking by other groups in useful ways.

5. What is (was) trendy (and what's missing)
Specific mention of a number of things (e.g. 'community telecentres') appears rather quaint from the vantage point of 2015, but there aren't too many buzzwords in evidence in the list from 2005 that are no longer relevant a decade later. I am asked often to provide input on 'emerging research topics in educational technology around the world', and I note that a lot of things that feature prominently in such efforts are wholly absent from the 2005 list. For example, the earlier list of research questions contains:

  • no mentions of mobile learning (although handheld devices are mentioned, research question #29)
  • no mention of MOOCs
  • no mention of open education resources, or OER (although open source software is mentioned in research question #32; while there is no specific mention of intellectual property issues, these were actually meant to be considered as part of investigations into questions related to digital content, see research questions #39-41)
  • no mention of data privacy or security (this is a *huge* omission from the perspective of 2015, in my opinion, even if as a practical matter it remains largely off the radar screen of educational policymakers in most countries)
  • no mention of child digital safety issues
  • no mention of game-based learning (or gamification)
  • no mention of the potential use and impact of social media in education
  • no mention of '21st century skills' (there is mention of 'computer literacy' in research question #2)
  • no mention of how ICTs might be relevant to discussions of things like 'grit' or 'mindset' (which are of increasing research and policy interest in 2015), nor of 'big data' or sensors, 'learning analytics' or 'personalized learning', nor of many other topics considered hot topics for exploration today (Audrey Watters has a useful list of other current educational technology 'buzzwords'; one item that doesn't make her list, but which I have seen crop up in a number of research proposals lately, relates to the potential use of drones in education)
  • no mention of power or electricity (these were of course certainly well known at the time, but they were not identified for specific attention in the 2005 list; despite improvements in electrification over the past decade, increased demand as a result of the increase in availability and use of electronic gadgets has in many ways made this even more important today than it was back then)
  • no specific attention to specific Internet connectivity options (one suspects that 'satellite provision' would have been mentioned as part of such a question)

and finally,

  • no consideration of technology use within a wider systems approach to education (as features prominently in the World Bank's education strategy, for example, and its work under its flagship SABER analytical initiative)



Is this list of research questions related to ICT use in education in developing countries comprehensive?
 No, certainly not. For better or worse, there is a lot missing, especially when one considers certain categories of edtech-related research that are popular in certain circles.

Does it reflect the 'top' or most pressing, most urgent research questions?
 No: It did aspire to do so in 2005, and it still does not do so from the perspective of 2015.

That said, there appears much in this list of research questions that is relevant today -- and indeed remains under-explored.


By far the most common research-type question I am asked today is some variation of: What is the impact of (this type of) technology on education? This is a fair question, to be sure. I often find that my reflexive reply to this seemingly simple question ("it depends: what are you trying to accomplish?") is often not viewed as tremendously satisfying by many people. While I increasingly come across academic papers which attempt to identify the 'impact' of the use of a particular educational technology or technology-enabled approach, I remain quite frustrated that there is comparatively little interest in a related but, from the perspective of the people who make huge and often very costly decisions about such stuff, far more important and practical questions related to understanding how or why this 'impact' occurred: under what specific contexts or circumstances did it take place; what was the related enabling environment or key factors that led to failure; what were the costs of achieving this impact; etc. (A recent interesting paper examining The Effect of Access to Information and Communication Technology on Household Labor Income: Evidence from One Laptop Per Child in Uruguay is one of dozens of examples of research that identifies and investigates 'impact', but offers little guidance for policymakers on specific circumstances, contexts or explanations of why and how such impact may have been achieved.)


Last week global leaders in education, ministers, policy-makers and representatives of civil society, teachers, experts and the private sector met in Korea at the World Education Forum to take stock of successes and failures over the past quarter century related to the achievement of initiatives aimed to help bring about Education For All and to jointly chart a way forward over the next decades. The resulting Incheon Declaration identified a series of principles and steps "towards inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all".

Whatever the future holds for educators, learners and education systems in the years ahead, there can be little doubt that considerations of, and decisions about, education models and practices will increasingly include contemplations of the use of a variety of information and communication technologies, in a variety of ways, to help meet a variety of goals and objectives. Even if their use is not (yet) relevant or cost effective in certain contexts and circumstances, 'ICTs' will increasingly be part of discussions about the 'future of education'. Whether or not related decisions will be evidence- or faith-based will rest in part on the existence of a rigorous and context-relevant research base which can help inform the development of educational policies; related implementation plans; and administrative, teaching and learning practices 'on-the-ground'.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of the acclaimed Dutch phycologist Anna Weber-van Bosse ("let's investigate this systematically") comes from the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam via Wikimedia Commons. It is (c) University of Amsterdam, Artis Library and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


50 research questions: ICT use in education in less developed countries (LDCs)
Research topics and areas of activity meriting further investigation (2005)


Impact of ICTs on learning and achievement

1: How does exposure to and use of ICTs in school affect future employment?

2: What is the impact of ‘computer-literacy’ instruction in schools?

3: What is the gender impact of ICTs in education on access, use of, attitudes toward, and learning outcomes?

4: How can ICTs be used to present, comment on and discuss student work, and what are the implications and impact of such activities?

5: Are some school subjects better suited for ICT integration than others?

Monitoring and evaluation issues

6: What would be a useful set of ‘core’ indicators that could be used across countries?

7: How has monitoring and evaluation work related to the uses of ICTs in education been conducted in LDCs, and what can we learn from this?

8: How should monitoring and evaluation studies of the impact of ICTs in education in LDCS be conducted?

Equity issues: Gender, special needs and marginalized groups

9: What is the gender impact of ICTs in education on access, use of, attitudes toward, and learning outcomes?

10: How can/should educational content for dissemination via ICTs be produced to ensure inclusion?

11: How to the types of learning strategies fostered by the use of ICTs impact special needs and disadvantaged students, and how do they differ by gender?

12: How do different ICT applications, audio/verbal versus visual representations of educational content, and communicative modes impact communicative practices and create/reinforce/ameliorate various exclusions and inclusions as curriculum and communication methods are moved on-line?

13: What are the best practices for producing, disseminating and using educational content in audio format (including via radio) for deaf students?

14: How can issues related to ICT use for special needs and disadvantaged students by introduced into teacher professional development activities, and what are best practice examples of such activities?

15: What are the emotional, psychological and cultural impacts of ICT use on learners from disadvantaged, marginalized and/or minority communities?

16: What is the impact of the promotion of collaborative activities in groups facilitated by ICTs on students with little interest or background in computers, and what practices can better promote their inclusion?

17: Are there differential impacts of ICT use in education on identifiable sub-groups of boys and girls?

18: How can ICTs be utilized to attract and retain out-of-school and at-risk students (for example, through improved communication and provision of alternative modes of learning)?

19: How can ICTs be used to reach out to and teach illiterate youth?


20: What is the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for computers in a variety of educational settings, at both the school and system level? How should we calculate such figures?

21: What are the costs/benefits of situating ICTs for use in schools outside of computer classroom?

22: How can public-private partnerships be used to ‘cut costs’ and what are the resulting cost savings (if any)?

Current implementations of ICTs in education

23: How should ICT components in education projects supported by donors be identified and quantified?

24: How does access to and use of ICTs outside school impact the use and impact of ICT use in school?

Specific ICT tools used in education

25: What models exist for the effective utilization of ICTs to support on-going professional development for educators?

26: What are the best practices for mainstreaming pilot projects involving interactive radio instruction (IRI) at the Ministry of Education, and how are such projects managed and maintained over time?

27: Where should computers reside if they are to have the greatest learning impact in education?

28: Is the use of ICTs as in-class presentation mechanisms as cost-effective use of technology?

29: How have/can handheld devices (including SMS-enabled and 3G mobile phones) be used to support education (especially related to the professional development of teachers and school administration), and what are the emerging best practices?

30: What successful models exist for opening ICT facilities in schools to the wider community?

31: How can existing community and interactive radio networks outside the education sector be used to benefit education?

32: Does the use of so-called “open source software” offer compelling benefits in education?

33: What models exist related to effective public-private-community partnerships in education for ICT equipment provision and maintenance?

Teachers, Teaching and ICTs

34: Can the same types of pedagogical practices and transformations thought to be enabled by the introduction of ICTs be introduced and maintained in environments where ICTs are not used?

35: How can we measure outcomes of ICT use by teachers resulting from participation in professional development activities?

36: Which models of ICT use can provide the most effective and relevant support for professional development, including enabling peer networks, and how?

37: How are ICTs currently being used at the pre-service level (if at all) to train teachers in LDCs, and what can we learn from such use?

38: What are the most successful and relevant strategies for using ICTs to change pedagogical practices?

Content & Curriculum

39: What are the best practices for creating electronic/digital curricular content?

40: What is the relationship between uses of ICTs, curricular issues and standardized testing?

41: What special issues relate to the creation, dissemination and use of curricular content in indigenous languages?

Policy issues

42: How can/should EFA-related issues as they relate to the uses of ICTs be included in the decision-making processes of education officials?

43: What ICT in education policies are currently in place, and how do they address EFA-related issues?

44: How can ICTs be used to facilitate the decentralization process underway or contemplated in many Ministries of Education?

45: How can ICTs be used to combat corruption in the education sector?

46: What are the best practices from implementing education management information systems (EMIS)?

47: What regulatory issues exist related to connectivity and information access issues as they relate to the education sector, and what guidelines and best practices have emerged?

School-level issues

48: What are successful examples of how ICTs have been introduced and maintained in schools?

49: What types of information must be provided to schools to aid in the introduction and maintenance of ICT-related equipment and to promote ICT-related instruction?


50: What models exist for how existing ICT-enabled information distribution mechanisms in education can be utilized to carry information about HIV-AIDS, and what related best practices have evolved?



Michael Trucano

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

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000