Why we need more (not fewer) ICT4D pilot projects in education

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a different kind of pilot ... | image courtesy of World Bank via Flickr, used according to terms of its CC license.One message that is heard consistently at many ICT4D gatherings is that 'we have too many pilot projects', and that this is especially true for the education sector. 'What we need', or so the sentiment usually goes, 'is to scale up the pilot projects that have been on-going'.  Indeed, 'scaling up' seems to be the answer to the funk that many prominent ICT4D organizations currently find themselves in these days, with changes in funding priorities in international donor organizations, foundations and the international private sector provoking many groups to re-examine many of their current practices. Scaling up is then a way to demonstrate (and re-affirm) the relevance of what many organizations have been doing since their inception, and by pursuing no more pilot projects such organizations can better orient themselves to working at scale. Or so the story goes.

I would like to sound a contrary note:

What we need are more ICT4D pilot projects,
not fewer,
especially in the education sector!

When many people talk about 'pilot projects', they are in fact talking about things that just aren't very big.  We shouldn't confuse 'small projects' with 'pilot projects'. The purpose of a pilot project is to test something -- a process, a concept, a technology solution, an incentive system, a hypothesis, an implementation arrangement, etc. -- in order to see if it is worth supporting over time and/or at a larger scale.  By its very nature, a pilot project is meant to have a component of experimentation.  In order to know if something works, how and why it works (or doesn't), it is necessary to systematically (and dispassionately) document the activities and lessons learned from the pilot. Small projects, in contrast, are just things done at a small scale.  There is nothing wrong with small projects, of course ('small is beautiful', as E.F. Schumacher remarked).  Lots of good can come from them, and lots of NGOs do excellent work in supporting myriad valuable small projects utilizing ICTs in the education sector. But there is an important distinction here that many ICT4D organziations, and their funders, might do well to note.

Many developing countries are now moving implement ICT-related activities in education at scale -- many (regrettably) without being informed by pilot projects at all. Some NGOs are big enough to attempt pilot projects at scale ... but only a few ... and corporate social responsibility initiatives seldom reach scale.  Many times, ICT-related small projects in the education sector are supported by groups with a strong (if not exclusive) ICT focus.  Scaling up ICT-related initiatives in the education sector is typically done within the education sector itself.  Not only is there a clash of cultures often at work here (NGO versus government, or, in CSR activities, private sector versus government), but the levers for change are quite different.  For better or for worse, when we talk about doing things at scale in the education sector in most developing countries, we are talking about government action. Based on my experience, it is remarkable, and perhaps a bit depressing, that the lessons learned from so many small ICT4D projects seem to have little or no impact on government planning for such projects at scale in the education sector.  The Stockhom Challenge annually recognizes innovative and successful ICT4D projects in a number of sectors, including education.   To what extent are lessons from such projects being understood by policymakers planning for ICT-related interventions at scale? Not often enough, many would argue.  This is both unfortunate ... and a missed opportunity.

(I do realize that not all of the education projects shortlisted for the Stockhom Challenge are small -- witness initiatives like TOPIC64 in Vietnam -- but a quick scan of all 1272 projects in the education category shows this to be an outlier in terms of its scale.)

If you buy this argument (and I'll be the first to admit that there are some holes* in it), then an important role for some NGOs currently looking to do things at scale might be, instead, to orient themselves on supporting and pursuing true pilot projects, exploring and testing solutions and implementation arrangements in ways that governments are often ill-equipped to do.  Things are changing so quickly in the IT and ICT4D industries, and the demands and challenges contronting education systems are increasingly urgent (and daunting), that a focus on continuous learning is vital to help avoid large 'white elephant' ICT-related investment in education.  Pilot projects can and should play an important role here.

How can we help to transmit lessons from small projects to the people making decsions at scale?  When the World Bank's infoDev program was re-organized a few years ago from a small grant facility to an ICT4D 'knowledge shop', it was expressly to get at this issue (with mixed success).  GeSCI is consciously deciding to work upstream in the ICT/education policy and planning process in a few key countries.  Many NGOs working on e-content or digital learning materials issues (like the the Open Learning Exchange and IADP, to name just two) are consciously trying to pilot things that are potentially relevant to policymakers planning for ICT-related educational initiatives activities at scale. There is room for many more.  There are certain things that you can learn only at scale.  But you can also learn things from small projects that are very relevent to discussions to scale up the use of ICTs in education -- if you are serious about treating them as real pilot projects.  This involves taking risks (and in some cases even experimenting), and accepting that not all small projects can (or should) be deemed a 'success' at the end of their initial funding period and sustained over time.  This may put some NGOs in conflict with their donors, for whom project 'sustainability' is often a key criterion for whether an NGO continues to receive funds for its initiatives. But as we move from an era of many small projects to (expensive) projects at large scale in many developing countries, these are risks that groups have to be willing to take.


*One such hole --> A legitimate counterargument to all of this goes something like this: A focus on 'top-down' approaches to ICT-enabled change is all wrong.  One of the great advantages of increased ICT use is that it can enable change to happen virally, with small pockets of people and activity infecting other groups, spreading innovation incrementally and broadly from the bottom up (witness the development of the World Wide Web, or Linux).  Fair enough.  But in many places, the formal education system is one of the country's most conservative institutions, and has demonstrated over decades that it can be quite resistant to changes from the bottom-up.  In such cases, change from 'below' may need some help from 'above'.


This blog entry was inspired by provocative discussions this week at the International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD), a Dutch NGO well-known in ICT4D circles for its support of grassroots partner organizations in Africa and Latin America. [Disclaimer: I serve on the IICD International Advisory Board.]

IICD has been sharing lessons from some of the projects (some small pilots, some pilot projects) it has helped to support in a number of sectors, including education.  Many of these were collected in a publication with the (perhaps unsurprising) title, ICTs for Education: Impact and lessons learned from IICD-supported activities [pdf].  Additional IICD briefing sheets that might be of interest include:


[Apologies for the delay in posting -- the author was traveling and made a technical mistake when attempting to publish this weekly entry.]


Michael Trucano

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

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