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Are ICTs the Best Educational Investment?

Wayan Vota

New information and communication technologies are exciting. Everyone loves to ogle the shiny, flashy products developed by the IT industry and imagine the change that can come from them. The educational field is no exception. Technologists are always thinking of ways to apply the newest and most cutting-edge innovations to try and increase learning outcomes – from the current fascination with the XO laptop to previous excitement around television, radio, even ditto machines.

Yet education is is not a simple task, and educational systems are complex and notoriously resistant to change. Education is steeped in tradition, with educators often working within strict hierarchy and the explicit requirement for exact replication. Add to this the immense pressure to show quantitative results in what is inherently a qualitative experience, and chronic underfunding, and the educational system has few resources available to integrate new technologies and the changes it requires.

So whenever there is talk of investing in ICTs for education, especially educational devices that while cheap individually, require a massive invest to scale nationally, a basic question is raised that needs to be answered:

Are ICTs the best investment for scarce educational funding, or should investments be made first in the familiar tools and methodologies that are already being used?

Over the next month, we hope to engage in a conversation around this question here on the ETD. We’ll have two divergent opinions presented – one favoring greater investment in current tools, another suggesting that ICTs can empower a leap in productivity. We hope you’ll join us by adding your options and commentary to enliven the debate and add to our knowledge.

35 Responses to “Are ICTs the Best Educational Investment?”

  1. Let me what's sure to be a lively argument with a resounding "no." (keep reading, the real answer is, of course "it depends") If educational funding is truly scarce, then the best investment is in teachers (also creates rural jobs!) and basic infrastructure (more job creation, long-term value creation, running water/latrines at school improves health, school can provide community common/gathering spaces). Technology, even the best designed tools available, require some combination of training, electricity, and Internet/cellphone access, and (most troublesome) specialized maintenance.

    If there's funding after providing school buildings and sufficient teachers, then ICTs become important, for all the usual reasons (global competitiveness, ICT can magnify the reach and impact of teachers and materials, engages students in more creative learning, engages boys…).

    I do not believe that any technology replaces an in-person teacher, especially for primary and secondary education, or is a good investment in a zero-sum game competing against more basic educational needs.

    • Hi Jon – you might be interested in what John Daly mentions about radio instruction outperforming teachers /ict-in-education/not-qui

      • I can see a role for radio in cases such as mentioned there where the cost to provide teachers and infrastructure are just too high, but a radio program with some interactive components and a much smaller staff (than a network of schools) can provide some basic instruction. I maintain that the main focus on spending should be on providing teachers and schools, and using appropriate technology to extend the impact where /necessary/ , not when possible.

        Caveat: I'm a huge fan of technology and of the power of various flavors of ICTs to do a lot of good in the world; but I'd rather have slow, organic diffusion of technology that solves real needs than massive roll-outs of shiny new tech with great potential, no buy-in, and lacking critical support infrastructure.

        Also: Did the blog software really strip out the t-i-t from competitiveness? Somebody needs a better regex formula…

    • I suggest the question may be badly posed. The Hole in the Wall project (http://bit.ly/VmfGB) indicates you can get benefits simply by dropping hardware and software in a community, but almost everyone would surround the hardware and software with efforts to improve teaching and learning. Indeed, I would think that any relatively serious effort to improve education in a developing nation would involve some investment in ICT, if only computers for project staff and telephones. Even a technology driven initiative should have considerable attention to development of content to be delivered via the ICT medium chosen, training the people involved in how to utilize the ICT medium and its content, and administration of the effort.

      A better question might be: "how should people think about the costs and benefits of alternative uses of ICT in improving schooling and learning opportunities?"

      • I am so over the Hole in the Wall showing anything but idle time by curious kids will achieve basic computer literacy. Were these Indian street kids learning to read, or read in new languages? Were they gaining an understanding of algebra or even geometry? No, they figured out a mouse and the web. Kudos to them, but that's not education as I would define it.

        And it sounds like you agree when you yourself say technology deployments need "training the people involved in how to utilize the ICT medium and its content"?

        • I think we agree.

          As to Hole in the Wall, I think the project was interesting as a intellectual exercise. I at least was surprised by the degree of interest and involvement was generated by making the device available. It was also useful in generating interest and discussion about ICT applications in non-formal learning situations. I also doubt the likelihood that it will be a widely disseminated innovation, but so what. Lots of research is valuable even though it does not yield immediate social innovations.

          • Ian Thomson

            What I learnt from the Whole in the Wall experiment is that you probably don't need to teach children how to use the computer. But I would argue strongly that you do need adult help (Teachers) to "use the computer to learn"
            And you will need to teach the teachers how to use the computer first, then let the teachers introduce the computers to children and watch them go.

    • I'll add my voice to the chorus here by seconding Jon's quick answer ("no" + "it depends").

      I will disagree with him a bit, though. He writes "If there's funding after providing school buildings and sufficient teachers, then ICTs become important."

      What about situations where we can't build the necessary physical infrastructure and can't put trained and competent teachers into schools quickly enough. and/or at reasonable cost? What if there is no teacher there to replace? What happens to the children while we tackle these two deficiencies?

      It is in such circumstances that many people see the great promise of ICT use to benefit education in many places. This is not to argue against the primacy of the teacher to the learning process, or against investment in on-going teacher professional development. Far from it! If the research literature is clear about one thing, it is the positive impact of good teachers (and, conversely, the negative impact of bad teachers).

      {continued in next comment)

      • (continued from previous comment)

        That said, the cultivation and deployment of quality teachers takes time, and many countries are not willing, indeed not able, to wait for this process to be completed while they have huge spikes in children of primary and secondary school age who are desparately seeking an education.

        It is tough to argue for increased funding for ICT use in places where equivalent monies spent on (for example) school feeding programs would have a much more immediate and unequivocally positive impact on a pupil's educational attainment (to say nothing of her health!). At the same time, some people people argue that the introduction of ICTs in education can change the calculus of such calculations. Who's right? This remains a matter of much debate.

  2. Mike – True; and I've begun to waver on things like radio (appropriate, easy and cheap to deploy in area without grid/telecom, etc.) in the threads above. I maintain that however shiny, laptops and computer labs are almost never going to be the right choice in that setup.

    • "Never" is a long, long time! Did you see that Amazon has announced a new, larger Kindle and is going to start on a trial with five universities for application in education. Perhaps there are few applications NOW for laptops and computer labs in poor countries, but I suspect that they will be ubiquitous eventually.

      I am old enough to remember the excitement I felt when I bought my first four function calculator for $150 (in 1970 dollars) — a device for only the very serious number cruncher. Now of course we require serious graphing calculators for high school students and they are cheap.

      I can't think of a really important technological system that was cost efficient when it was first introduced. (E.g. steam engines, internal combustion engines, electric light, television, printed books). But without early adopters and the development of a body of experience even the most potentially valuable technology will not achieve that potential.

      Meanwhile, focus on "appropriate" educational technologies like radios, recorders and cell phones for poor countries.

      • How useful, really, is the term "appropriate technology"? I agree with the sentiment, and recognize the need to make it more widely understood, but to actual practitioners, it seems that the term can be used as an unchallengeable assertion. But, in reality, it is hard to tell, a priori, what is appropriate (obvious examples notwithstanding). Far more important, it seems, is taking one of many potentially appropriate technologies and making them work through a systemic approach.

        • I still find the word "appropriate" to be appropriate in some context. The "Appropriate Technology" (in caps) movement saw its best days decades ago, but Practical Action which came out of the movement is still around and doing good things. However, the fundamental ideas still hold: a technology has to be affordable, tailored to the cultural setting, maintainable, etc. Still, I want to be flexible. What word would you suggest as an alternative to "appropriate"?

          • How about "intermediate" as an alternative to "appropriate"?

            • Eh… that seems rather teleological.

              I think 'appropriate' is probably the right word, but its use often seems pejorative and not very constructive.

              • The problem you're uncovering is not the importance of projects using technology that works for them, but rather who determines what is "appropriate."

    • Incidentally, even in poor countries it is important to provide some costly education to people in key occupations. A country does not run very well if it has no engineers, no public health physicians, no agronomists and no economists. For small, poor countries, the sunk costs needed to provide good university training for these professionals results in very high per-student costs. I think distance education shared among countries and things like simulated labs can be used to cut per student costs while still achieving adequate quality of instruction.

  3. Actually just tried to flesh out that idea a little more. Would be interested to hear everyone's thoughts: http://blurringborders.com/2009/05/15/a-quick-cha

  4. The notification of this forum on the UNESCO's Friends group on LinkedIn has created a complementary discussion:

  5. The problem is the world over .. they just do not know how to make realistic investments in ICTs and very often opting for state of art systems or technologies to drive ICTs in Education.

    All of us tends to use rich men's platforms trying to reach the poor men…ie. CDs or online systems requiring broadbands. Using broadband to overcome the digital divides will not work. UNESCO's efforts to get EFA to all by 2015 has been reported to be falling short. Well what have they been trying to reach out to the poor guys? Using rich men's tools? How can it ever succeed?

    If you care to look at this powerpoint presentation, you will find out why. Why 5.5 billion people remains unconnected. Why the world over is still developing and putting all their efforts to reach the small elite .5 billion connected .


  6. Anthony Makumbi

    Hello I am enjoying this discussion just got to know about it through the development gateway updates. This is a discussion that has been on for afew years now and seems to never end because of various theories depending on ones profession but my view is first, we need to remeber that Education for developing countries is key to the development of these countries. We know there are various challenges in terms of resources depending on what part of the country you visit. But I will focus on the rural schools. We do know that the education systems in many of the developing countries need to be revamped from just teaching to creating a learning environment that allows students to research, analyse and be able to understand issues better unlike just being taught.

  7. Anthony Makumbi

    These are skills needed for a developing country. We also know the basics need to be in Place like Sanitation facilities especially for Girls to promote Girl education. Programs have been developed where we nolonger provide to create dependency but educate the need for basic sanitation and these schools together with the community build these sanitation facilites to their standard. The key point I am trying to make is proving Education to citizens has to be intergrated. As we try to pomote learning which ICTS do support one needs to take care of the other aspects required for education which may not necessarily require resources in terms of Money.

  8. Anthony Makumbi

    And you focus the scarce resource on the learning process. So the money should go to areas that cannot be provided locally by the communities and thus ways to provide learning materials which are sources of information or knowledge at the minimum cost. Compared to the amount of information/knowledge gained using technology its far cheaper than trying to buy books enough for all these students and can be shared by others without loosing them.

    So for me I would invest money in Technology to promote learning and promote facilitation or support from the communities where they can for a more holistic support to learning.. Because then this builds a sustainable process. There is so much to leverage beyond just the local setting but learn from others too.

    Thank you

  9. Anthony Makumbi

    Please note its a continuous meassage!!

  10. Clayton R Wright

    Is ICT the best educational investment?

    Response: ICT is one of several key investments. It should not be ignored, nor should it receive the bulk of educational funding. It is unlikely that there will be enough funding to hire and train all the teachers that are needed, to provide every child with healthy meals on a daily basis, to provide clean drinking water, to construct latrines, to build schools, and to provide adequate telecommunication and electrical infrastructure. Yet, some funding should be set aside for technology for a variety of reasons. My complete response to this question doesn’t seem to fit in the response box, so if you would like to view my response to the question, send me an e-mail to crwr77@gmail.com

  11. I get confused with discussions such as these. What goes through my mind here is 'are schools really the place we learn?' In a sense it seems the replies seem to presuppose that schools are a place for learning, thus there is a choice of increasing investment in what we are doing or maybe placing technology in the schools to enhance what is being done… But what if we instead presuppose that schools are the wrong place to learn, that essentially they have failed and are not doing what we think they should do? Wayan says :"Education is steeped in tradition, with educators often working within strict hierarchy and the explicit requirement for exact replication." Maybe our expirement with structured schooling is reaching the end. Schooling the world over is very unnatural to so many involved. The correct word was used… education… it is not about schooling… but it is about education… and education happens all around us..

    • Oh let us not go off into this deep end, Tim. Schools are a central place of learning as deemed and reinforced by almost every civilization since the dawn of time. They're not going away anytime soon, so what you call an "experiment" the rest of us consider accepted norms of society.

  12. Are you guys confusing "education" with "schooling"? Think of Africa, where the more than one-third of kids don't complete primary school. That is, a large part of the population spends less than one-tenth of their lives in schools. Yet these folks are facing continuing challenges moving from rural to urban life, in a rapidly degrading physical environment, with rapidly changing economic and social conditions. A major effort seems to be required to provide these folk with opportunities to learn during the large majority of their time that they are not in school. That seems to me to be a major educational challenge, and it seems to me that the only way to meet that challenge is through full use of the information and communications infrastructure. I would think that countries should examine every technological possibility, from print, to radio and TV, to telephones and SMS, to computers and the Internet.

    Again, don't get me wrong. I was enrolled in some kind of formal education for something like 25 years, and I think I too have learned more out of school than in school. Even in poor countries with very uneven educational opportunities, there are needs for lots of opportunities for people out of school to learn things that they need or want to learn. All the technological alternatives should be considered for providing a wide range of lifelong learning opportunities.

  13. Ian Thomson

    So I am an Engineer. What do I know about Education?
    Well, for the last 5 years I have been observing and participating in ICT developments in the Pacific Islands. I am currently working on OLPC projects in 13 countries.
    We have just had a formal review of the last 15 years of achievements on the Basic Education Improvement Plan. The results are staggering.We have a few more children at school, but despite no formal measurements, everybody believes the quality of education is declining and drop out rates are increasing.
    It seems most efforts have gone into things like policy development, toilets, buildings, some books etc.
    When it comes time to look at quality, I believe we must consider ICT. It is the most cost effective way of giving teachers and students access to quality educational resources.
    I work a lot in outer islands and the teachers are untrained and have very few resources to work with. We can help them with ICT and I have seen them respond well to its use. We need to do more.

  14. Greetings. By way of introduction, I can lay claim to being perhaps the earliest and most persistent critics of the One Laptop Per Child program. My opening commentary, from November 2005 entitled "Some Problems with the $100 Laptop", can easily be found through search engines, and starts a thread of comments indexed under "OLPC commentary" on the blog. Other comments may be found in the archives of OLPC News.

    One might surmise from this description that my response to the salient question would be a firm negative, but this is not the case. I believe that there is a significant role to be played in education by ICT, but that the primary focus must not be placed on simple design and delivery of technology. Rather, the technology must fit into the economic and social environment and be generally seen as beneficial by the community. The necessary skills for use and maintenance must be not be hoarded and materials required for support and maintenance must be available from more than one source.

    It is my opinion that such requirements can be met through the kind of application I call "One Telecentre Per Village" (q.v.), in which ICT provides immediate telecommunications capability in support of village economic life, with involvement of students in the system operation. This configuration and application would provide the necessary infrastructural support for educational use but would not be sufficient in that the educational applications and courseware would still need to be provided and/or developed.

    The problem of creating such courseware and applications requires participation and involvement by educators in not only the user countries but at an even more local level, in my opinion. Such work is just getting under way in some of the OLPC pilot projects (established in direct contravention of the original OLPC policy and only when the project had to abandon its original top-down morphology), with OLPC Nepal being perhaps the most advanced.

    My argument can be summarized in the statement that ICT, like all technology, exists within a social matrix which must accept it in order that it might function. This acceptance cannot be secured by fiat and cannot be assumed from mere non-opposition. As a designer I of course see this as a design problem, and a difficult one given that the problem cannot be solved without great interaction between the community of users and the designers.

    This might seem to be a pessimistic outlook, but I am in fact optimistic, given the history of radical redesign of computers and their infrastructure that has taken place in the last 35 years, under no centralized leadership. We have done it before, and we should not shrink from this next necessary step in making the benefits of the technology available on a large and significant scale.

    • It's great to see you in here Lee; the social embeddedness of technology is the root of the "appropriate" technology discussion a few threads up — what is appropriate is in the end, decided by the people who are supposed to be engaged with the technology; and it would be best to include them early on to avoid buying expensive paperweights.

      I think it goes beyond what design itself can solve, though (but good design helps a lot) — there are simply some infrastructure needs (which can be alleviated with design + new, gridless electricity and wireless Internet) and institutional requirements (champions in the school and experts in the private sector who have some time to spare to help out) that need to be available for a technology project to thrive.

  15. Weziwe Sikaka

    I'm a researcher from SA currently writing a paper on factors that hinder a smooth subcription and drift towards knowledge economy. ICT is a core component of knowledge economy. As countries exist in a globally competitive environment, all countries are gearing their economies towards the development a sound knowledge economy. One of the prerequisites for an enabling environment in the development of knowledge economy is skills development. So investment in ICT cannot precede investment in human resource. In other words, before considering an investment in ICT, you need to invest in skilled human resource (teachers). Of course ICT is the best educational investment but priorities need to be set right.

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