What's changed: Ten reflections on ten years of technology use in education

This page in:
illuminating things in Seoul
Earlier this month, the Korea Education Research & Information Service ( KERIS) hosted the tenth annual Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education in Seoul. For the past decade, the World Bank and the Korean Ministry of Education have co-sponsored this event as part of a longstanding strategic partnership exploring uses of technology in education, together with other partners.

One of the early, decidedly modest goals for this event was simply to bring together key decisionmakers from across Asia (and a few other parts of the world -- it would become more global with each passing year) in an attempt to help figure out what was actually going on with technology use in education in a cross-section of middle and low income countries, and to help policymakers make personal, working level connections with leading practitioners -- and with each other. Many countries were announcing ambitious new technology-related education initiatives, but it was often difficult to separate hope from hype, as well as to figure out how lofty policy pronouncements might actually translate to things happening at the level of teachers and learners 'on-the-ground'.

As the first country to move from being a recipient of World Bank donor assistance to become a full-fledged donor itself, Korea presented in many ways an ideal host for the event. (Still is!) The Korean story of economic development over the past half century has been the envy of policymakers in many other places, who see in that country's recent past many similarities to their own current situations. Known for its technological prowess (home to Samsung and many other high tech companies) and famous in education circles for the performance of its students on international assessments like PISA, educational technology issues could be found at the intersection of two important components in a Venn diagram of 'Brand Korea'.

Since that first global symposium, over 1400 policymakers from (at least by my quick count) 65 countries have visited Korea annually as part of the global symposium to see and learn first hand from Korean experiences with the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education, to be exposed to some of the latest related research around the world, to share information with each other about what was working -- and what wasn't -- and what might be worth trying in the future (and what to avoid). Along the way, Korea has come to be seen as a global hub for related information and knowledge, and KERIS itself increasingly is regarded by many countries as a useful organizational model to help guide their own efforts to help implement large scale educational technology initiatives.

While international events bringing together policymakers to discuss policy issues related to the use of new technologies in education are increasingly common these days, across Asia and around the world, back in 2007 the Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education represented the first regularly scheduled annual event of its type (at least to my knowledge; there were many one-off regional events, of course, many of the good ones organized by UNESCO) bringing together policymakers from highly developed, middle and low income countries.

Participating in the event for each of the past ten years has offered me a front row seat to observe how comparative policy discussions have evolved over the past decade in a way that is, I think, somewhat unique. What follows is a quick attempt to descibe some of what has changed over the years. (The indefatigable Jongwon Seo at KERIS is, I think, the only other person to have participated in all ten global symposia. As such, he is a sort of spiritual co-author of these reflections -- or at least the ones which may offer any useful insights. I'm solely responsible for any of the banal, boring or inaccurate comments that follow.)

Given the recent proliferation of such sorts of international meetings, it will be interesting to see what path the Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education may take going forward. Is it still needed? Is the format still relevant? Are there other information or networking needs for policymakers not currently being met through other means that the symposium might evolve to address? Only time will tell.

Those are questions for the future, however. The field of ICT use in education looks much different in 2016 than it did back in 2007, when the first Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education was held. This year's gathering, which included policymakers from 36 countries, offered an opportunity to reflect on what has changed (and what hasn't) over the past decade, at least as was reflected in conversations with, and observable preoccupations of, hundreds of policymakers who have participated, and in the specific technologies and technology-enable education approaches which were highlighted each year. In case they might be of any interest to a wider audience, here are some related observations and comments that were shared in the final session of this year's Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education in Korea: 
What's changed: Ten reflections on ten years of technology use in education
A decade of discussions with policymakers at the
Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education in Korea

1. Aspiration --> capacity; periphery --> (increasingly) mainstream or central
The general tone and nature the policy discussion around technology use in education has changed over the years. Many of the first global symposia featured declarations of hopes and aspirations about what might be possible; over time, as the capacities of many countries to implement educational technology projects have greatly increased, discussions have become more grounded in practical realities. Based on the profile of people who have attended, and the nature of the discussions that they were interested in pursuing, it has been increasingly clear that what was often a fringe or frontier topic for discussion in many countries (the use of new technologies in education) has become increasingly mainstream, and in many instances, more and more central to educational planning. In part this has no doubt been a reflection of the fact that many governments are now spending lots of money on this stuff; in many places this seems, in part, to be a result of a lack of satisfaction with the staus quo in education, and so the introduction and use of ICTs is seen as an important part of an educational reform agenda. 

2. Desktop --> mobile
In the early years of the event, the desktop was still king and the laptop was ascendant. Today, today discussions largely center around mobile devices like tablets and, increasingly, phones. The implications of this evolution have been both subtle and profound.

3. Device --> connectivity; device ratios --> multiplicity of devices
Over the years, specific attention to the specifications for individual devices has given way to broader consideration around the need for, and approaches to providing, and impact of connectivity. Connectivity-related discussions have evolved from ones focused on providing simple access via dial-up to the need for, and uses of, broadband. Where devices have been discussed, the nature of those discussions have changed in some important ways. What is the ideal student:computer ratio? This was a regular topic of conversation in early years of the symposium. Over time, as devices have proliferated, 1:1 has increasingly been the accepted goal (even if in most places it is far from being achieved), and there has been a realization that, in some circumstances and contexts, challenges and opportunities have emerged as a result of students and teachers having access to more than one device (a shared computer at school and a tablet at home, for example -- and a mobile phone everywhere).

4. [____] --> new tools and initiatives
In November 2007, the first Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education was held. At that time, many of the technologies and large scale educational technology efforts which would later come to dominate discussions at the symposium were in their infancy (and some were still to be born). In January of that year, the iPhone was announced (it would appear in stores later that June; smart phones of course existed before the iPhone, but the smart phone era in many ways began at this point), only about a month after Facebook opened up for use to the public (previously it was limited to university students) and two months after the first stable release of WhatsApp. (Instagram wouldn't appear until 2010, WeChat debuted a year after that.) Uruguay's Plan Ceibal, the pioneering effort that provided free laptops to primary school students and connectivity to all schools (and which represented the first large scale implementation of the One Laptop Per Child program), kicked off in May of 2007. Potential uses of instant messaging in education were hot topics in the early years of the event, by 2016 forms of instant digital communication had become so commonplace (although in different forms) that they were hardly remarked upon or discussed.

5. Small projects (NGO) --> large scale initiatives (government)
Where specific initiatives were explored in depth in the early years of the event, they were mostly small scale pilot projects, often conceived of and implemented by NGOs. Over time, more and more large scale, national efforts led by government were featured.

6. ICT literacy --> Coding
Discussions of the importance of basic ' ICT literacy' (often a shorthand for fluency with Microsoft Office applications) have been eclipsed by discussions around the importance of ' coding' (and, to a lesser extent, topics like educational robotics and 'making') and, in conversations usually initiated by policymakers from more 'developed' countries, 'computational thinking'.
sidebar: There is much that hasn't changed, of course. For better or for worse, discussion and rhetoric at the global symposium related to things like project- (or problem-)based learning has evolved very little over the last decade. While the technologies have changed, discussions around pedagogical models haven't changed much (perhaps because they have changed very little in practice?). The importance of teacher training, professional development and support has always been high on the symposium agenda. Complaints about the political nature of many educational technology projects has remained constant (politicians love to be seen handing out devices to kids -- perhaps because real impact on learning is harder to achieve, and rarely offers an attractive photo opportunity). Understanding of a variety of common worst practices has also been rather constant -- even if such practices remain widely observable. Issues related to data privacy were pretty much non-existent in the early years of the global symposium, and not much really changed over subsequent years; it appears that this is still an emerging, 'frontier' topic in most ministries of education around the world.

7. Cyber addiction --> ethics, safety and citizenship
Especially in discussions led by academics from across East Asia, topics related to 'cyber addiction' were quite prominent in the early years of the event (and focused mainly on contexts somewhat specific to Korea, Japan and China). Over time, related issues were largely subsumed within larger discussions around cyber ethics, online safety and digital citizenship.

8. Little evidence --> more rigorous impact evaluations related to learning
Where impact evaluations were discussed in the early years, they were often focused on things that were easy to count (e.g. how many computers had been delivered) and, where an impact on learning was investigated, metrics often related to qualitative perceptions of what had changed, and what the impact of this change had been. (Perhaps not surprisingly, perceptions were almost always positive!) Over time, more and more evidence from  rigorously conducted research began to be featured -- both because there was a growing appetite by key decisionmakers to learn from such research, and because there has increasingly been a body of such research from which useful lessons can be drawn.

9. Access --> equity
Another noticeable general trend has been the gradual shift from discussions about the importance of access to technology to a greater concern about the potential differential impacts of this access, and the observable inequities that are becoming apparent in many places as a result of increased technology use.

10. Answers --> questions
Looking back on my notes from the past ten events, it is notable how much the basic nature of conversations has changed. In the early years of the global symposium, there was a lot of certainty professed around various 'solutions' or answers that were put forth (perhaps because, in many countries, educational technology was still a rather fringe topic within many ministries of education, and so a posture of certainty was strategically useful when trying to get things off the ground). As discussions have evolved over the years, there has been much more focus on asking better and more sophisticated questions (what to do?; is this worth it?; and: how might we know?). In part this has been a reflection of the fact that, as it has become more clear to many people in charge of educational technology efforts in many countries that things aren't quite as simple as they might have first appeared, and so a certain degree of (useful) humility has set in. (To me, this has been an encouraging development!)

Those were some personal, and perhaps idiosyncratic, qualitative reflections on how the nature of discussions at the annual Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education have changed over the past ten years. No doubt they reflect my own biases and interests, and every general 'trend' identified oversimplifies the complexity and diversity of related discussions, as well as the specific contexts of policymakers from a wide variety of countries who have participated in the symposium over the years. (Korea and Cambodia, which have been represented by policymakers in each year of the event, are in many ways at different ends of the spectrum when it comes to economic development, and thus of the use of technology in their respective education systems.) That said, it is clear that much has changed. Conversations have become richer, and deeper, and more tethered to reality.

How will such discussions evolve in the coming years? Who knows? While no doubt a lot of fun, and attractive fodder for both intense research and idle speculation, predictions related to the future of technological advances, and the implications of such advances on teaching and learning, will in many cases look rather silly in hindsight. It is hard to argue, however, that discussions related to the planning for, use of and impact of technologies in education will not become more important, and acute, in the coming years, whatever form those technologies may eventually take. 

Special thanks to the Government of Korea, and the Korean Education & Research Information Service, for their support for the Global Symposium on ICT Use in Education over the past decade. It's been a privilege and honor working with you. 감사합니다  - Gamsa hamnida!

You may also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:  
Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("illuminating things in Seoul") comes from the Wikipedian 조연주  via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


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