Selected publications (.pdf)

"Education Change, Leadership and the Knowledge Society" 
Global e-Schools Initiative (GeSCI)  

Survey of ICT in education in the Caribbean
Volume 1: Regional trends & analysis
Volume 2: Country reports

Using technology to train teachers:
Appropriate uses of ICT for
teacher professional developmen
infoDev (Mary Burns, co-author)

Project evaluation:
Uganda rural school-based telecenters

World Bank Institute
(Sara Nadel, co-author)

The Educational Object Economy:
Alternatives in authoring &
aggregation of educational software 

Interactive Learning Environments
(Purchase or subscription req'd) 

Development of multimedia resources 
UNESCO (Cesar Nunes, co-author)

Real Access/Real Impact
Teresa Peters &
(hosted for reference; RIP TMP) 


Learning, technology & development


Entries in ICT4E (3)


TED goes out on a limb with Sugata Mitra

The 2013 TED Prize winner is the charismatic, deadly smart Sugata Mitra, whose TED-prize wish is to build a School in the Cloud that supports students around the world to engage in in self-organized learning. 

Thumbnail for version as of 21:04, 2 December 2010

What's the risk to TED? Sugata (I've had a few drinks with him, I'm comfortable calling him "Sugata" although he'd probably call me, "Who?") notoriously avoids serious experimental assessments of the hole-in-the-wall computer, has proposed self-organizing learning as a cure for almost all educational and social ills (e.g., growth of terrorism among rural South Asian youth), and is following in the questionable footsteps of Nicholas Negroponte in postulating the benefits of teacher-less (teacher-free?) learning. 

Fine enough, let's drop a $1 million on this experiment. Sugata might be the only person who can pull it off, based on his experience, notoriety and single-minded pursuit of learning for the unschooled. 

But it's a prestigious award. Is there follow-up? If the resuts are lousy are we asked to say, "Ah, well, it was high-risk, after all"?

But my main question is, Is there any risk to TED's prestige? Next time they drop their award on an outlier-awardee will people again toot the horns of celebration, or will they get that sense of deja vú all over again? 


Principle 1—Use ICT to achieve education and development goals

"Technology is a cross-cutting resource that should be seen as a sustainable, accessible, and valuable means of supporting efforts to improve teaching, learning, school operations, and the education sector as a whole. Projects using technology can entail risks that arise from costs, complexity, and resistance to change at many levels. To make such risks worth the reward, technology should be used to address areas where system capacity is poor, schools are underperforming, or there are gaps in student learning."

As mentioned, the bogey-man lurking behind this principle, and some of the others, is the IT curriculum—and more specifically the acquisition of computers and the funding of resources and the Internet to help kids learn how to use computers. It's incredibly inefficient and wasteful. In some countries, kids start taking basic IT classes in junior secondary school (or middle school) and continue through the end of senior secondary (or high) school. In a lot of instances, the kids don't build many usable skills, although they can identify a CPU, provide the definitino of a motherboard, and tell you how many bits are in a byte. And this requires six years of classes? Plus an exam? 

To be fair, integrating the use of computer tools (e.g., laptops, desktops, tablets, smart phones, netbooks, etc) into other subjects is extremely difficult when the kids don't have basic mousing and keyboarding and file-management skills. But these can be learned in a two-week camp. 

But "development goals" deserves a special call out. In poor countries, it's not unreasonable to consider ways in which education might contribute to social and economic development. Hence, "development goals" are something that can and should be considered in relation to the significant costs and risks of an ICT-supported project. Are the kids going to learn something that, eventually, ultimately, with many confounding factors that make evaluation challenging, will increase GDP? Or that will increase participation in government and civil society? Hmmmm? 

(If not, perhaps the project should be reconsidered.) 

What are some of the sub-principles undergirding Principle 1?:

Use ICT to support comprehensive change.
While education-technology projects often focus on single areas of activity, such as introducing digital learning resources, the cross-cutting quality of technology can enable comprehensive approaches that extend to many core components of the education system... information management and school leadership, teacher development, learning-resource distribution, and direct instruction. 

The point, with this sub-core principle (so to speak) is that you are creating infrastructure, and that infrastructure can support change (and hopefully improvement) across the full spectrum of educational services. Primary-grade math-learning supported by multimedia? TVET for adult villagers? The same system, once it's in place, effectively maintained, and overseen by in-the-know leadership, can provide both. 

Here's the idea, graphically:

Address areas of high need.
Given range of areas where technology can support improvement, projects can target specific factors or problems that have the potential to yield high impact or support further improvement...

Uh huh. Interactive Radio Instruction (IRI) is a wonderful tool, partly because it addresses a common problem in developing-country schools—teachers poor mastery of the subjects that they are assigned to teach. 

Conceive of technology as “education infrastructure.”
Projects that establish the use of technology in schools—whether the tools used are radio, video, mobile phones, or computers—contribute to the strengthening of a school system’s education infrastructure. 

OK, I wrote this sub-principle. But I still struggle to understand it. To my way of thinking, education infrastructure includes all the elements that contribute to a system's capacity. These can include, for example, a VPN linking schools (Indonesia), management skills for technology roll-outs (Syria, Pakistan), and a storehouse of digital content (Armenia, one hopes, and in the US, the excellent Hippocampus website offered by the Monterey Institute of Technology and Education [MITE]). 



First Principles: ICT in Education 

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? 

High school teacher in West Java shows his laptop while another teacher works at her (laptopless) desk

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