Natoma has completed a "First Principles" document for USAID and American Institutes of Research, called "Designing Effective Education Programs Using Information and Communication Technologies."
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I'll share some of the key sections of the paper (or booklet), plus explanatory notes and comments.
The FP docs are focused on education in developing countries--the situation in schools in those countries is usually different from that of schools in the US or in other OECD countries. Perhaps, however, the sections that we're sharing will support a little discussion of main differences and similarities.
(Limited electrical power supplies? Dissimilar. Cost too high? Similar! But I'm sure we can find a deeper level of conversation.)
One of the key questions confronting schools and governments in every country is: "Why invest in education technology?" The answer might stem from a combination of politics, sensitivity to global trends and hope (or desperation). In a few instances, the reason to invest in technology might be found in evidence of impact from other projects.
However, we're living in a dynamic world where the rate of change is accelerated by our tools. Much of the time, the investment is made before the answer to the question is known.
Alvin Toffler kicks off the FP paper:
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
—Alvin Toffler, American Futurist
The emergence of information and communication technologies (ICT) as a force in social and economic development presents a wide range of possibilities to the education systems of developed and developing countries. ICT also creates challenges: By accelerating the expansion of information and increasing the value of knowledge, technology challenges schools to support learning that helps them build skills that they can use now and that will support their participation in civic and economic life in a dynamic future.
Technology in schools increases the value of knowledge, introduces new sources of information, helps students build skills that they can use immediately and in the future.
If true, what's not to like?
Yet donor agencies, which have driven the introduction of technology into schools in developing countries, are waffling (to say the least) in their support of ICT initiatives.
USAID, for example, is focusing on the development of basic-level skills in reading and math for 100 million kids, plus support for vocational and higher education, and for the delivery of education in emergencies. To the extent that ICT promotes these objectives, it might be supported.
(USAID certainly continues to support many ed-tech projects, as we'll see... but the organization's policy focus is not trained on areas, such as system strengthening and improving the quality of instruction, where ICT has typically been deployed in donor-funded projects. There are more clear-cut cases: A friend at another development agency quoted a higher-up-type when considering activities to not fund, as saying something like, "Well, we all know that we're not going to fund ICT." And that's across all sectors, not only education.)
If your funds are limited (and who's aren't?), and if your target beneficiaries are the poorest of the poor, there are a host of factors—lousy infrastructure, teachers who are themselves poorly educated, and scarce books—that complicate the use of technology and that cry out for immediate attention. If literacy and numeracy (and test scores) aren't improving, perhaps value for money isn't being delivered.
But schools in developing countries confront some of the same pressures that schools in OECD countries do: technology is changing all aspects of society, it's almost impossible to think that students and teachers should inhabit some kind of "technology free" zone while they're in school and then re-enter worlds where mobile phones, radios, televisions, cameras and computers are part of life. Or, as the FP booklet puts it:
Technology has transformed social and economic life in countries with emerging economies, in many developing countries, and in many communities in Least Developed Countries (LDCs). The scope of change includes sectors such as finance, manufacturing, health, agriculture, and government. As these changes are taking place, ministries of education (MOEs) and donor agencies grapple with questions about appropriate, effective, and valuable uses of education technology for learning, teaching, and strengthening educational systems....
The impact of technology is unquestioned. But the importance of technology in schools is unclear. In the US, for example, debate about the limited impact of technology on test scores continues.
But are we asking the right questions? Of ourselves? And of our tools?
I've visited maybe 50 schools in countries from Indonesia to Uganda to Rwanda to Turkey to Bhutan to, well, a few other places, where parents and school committees (the internationally generic name for the PTA) have coughed up scarce dough to purchase computers for teachers and kids. They believe that their hard-won earnings are well spent. They show off their school computer rooms with pride. They don't question the value of the investment.
In any case, country governments, and schools themselves, continue to invest in costly, complex tools that demonstrate limited impact on learning.
What's going on?
The First Principles: Designing Effective Education Programs Using ICT paper is, on one hand, a set of cautionary statements (or "principles") intended to help program planners and designers follow proven good practices and minimize expensive mistakes. Underlying that nuts-and-bolts compendium, however, is the heartfelt encouragement to the international donor community to get out in front of the use of education technology: It's a new moment, with inexpensive but powerful information tools and ways of connecting users to each other and to mighty rivers of information. It's a moment when basic skills are decreasing in value, but when high-value, contextualized skills have never been easier to acquire.
The FP paper also presents information about projects that are noteworthy because they're: a) big; b) innovative; c) effective, or; d) all of these. As in the T4 Project in Bihar...
IRI and more in India: Technology Tools for Teaching & Training (T4) Project
...India’s T4 project uses Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) as its central means of improving instruction. T4 IRI is focused on English language learning and, in the Jhil Mil series, on math, environmental science, and social science. Program evaluations have found high levels of impact on student learning: In the state of Bihar, for example, Class 5 IRI students performed significantly better than their non-IRI peers in math (8.5 percent better), environmental science (10.1 percent) and social science (8.9 percent). In all eight states, evaluations have found that students using IRI make learning gains.
These positive results and other factors have led to rapid expansion of T4, made possible in part by the low capital costs and requirements for support of IRI. Begun in 900 schools in three states in 2003, T4 has grown to provide instruction and support in over 300,000 schools in eight states, and has reached over 42 million students.
In addition to IRI, T4 also provides resources for use in one-computer classrooms. One example is Group Teaching and Learning (GTL) software, which provides CD-based multimedia programming that engages both teachers and students in classroom learning activities. Building off of the IRI model, GTL (via teachers’ manuals) guides teachers in conducting whole-class activities that involve song, movement, small groups, and students interacting with the computer. In addition to GTL, the T4 project also provides instructional audio and video support for learning life skills, plus multimedia kits—incorporating audio, video and print content on CD-ROMs—that help students understand concepts and practices in math and science.
So. Investments—both large-scale and small—are being made. New tools are having impact. What are the pitfalls (real or imagined) that might be convincing donors to scale back their support for ICT in schools?
Coming next: A quick look at the 10 "first principles" for ICT in education