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Live Debate Impression: Are ICT Investments in Schools Wasted?

Yama Ploskonka

As a remote participant I went into today’s debate duly confused, an appropriate state of mind for anyone facing honest investing in ICT for education. In addition, this FOR and AGAINST were a bit confusing, since FOR was “against” investment, seeing it as a waste, and vice versa sometimes adding multiple negatives…

Thus, my vote (not logged – we need to get remote participants to be counted!) was “undecided”.

Having gone on the record many times criticizing careless implementation of ICT4E, I have very good arguments agreeing with the FOR motion, that ICT4E investments are a waste. Yet I still invest most of my expendable time and resources supporting the chance we will figure out a way to do it right, thus clearly my action has a strong element AGAINST the motion.

At first the debate didn’t help much. Same old arguments we have rehashed over and over, with the interesting twist that a couple presenters seemed to be defending the other side… Like Wayan (AGAINST team) admitting a lot of investment is wasted, or World Bank Sam (FOR team) conceding there is much interest in ICT spending, which they support. I guess that made them sound as if they were open for the nuance in the word “most” that is part of the debate title, a reasonable “being nice to the opponent” strategy in debate.

As things were closing down and by the time those present in the audience had already recorded their change of vote, during one of the last arguments I remembered the Pascal Dilemma. If I recall it correctly, good old Blaise couldn’t prove if Heaven or Hell existed, but, faced with that uncertainty, he posits that the outcome of ending up in hell is so bad that, even in the absence of certainty, it is better to – just in case – seek salvation and do your best so you end up in heaven.

Mutatis mutandis, the outcome for a country ending up short in the effort to bridge gaps and development is so bad that it is better to risk some investment be wasted, than to be too cautious and end up a loser either way. I am sure that the FOR people do support well qualified investment in ICTs for Education, for so they said, they just want it done right, something I completely agree with. I am sure also that the AGAINST people are completely aware that not all investment is well used, and they also would prefer more care be given, totally in agreement with stuff I have written and stand for.

Moreover, if we follow published so-called “ICT4E research” which is often not much more than infomercials, there indeed seem to be little hard evidence that this field is going anywhere, as the image given is obscured by too much emphasis on mere feel-good, best-case anecdotes. Yet the same can be said for pretty much any initiative in education, the exception being circular notions like enforcing the role of testing, a great fashion in the US, which actually does get better results in tests without yet being it clear how much real-life impact good test scores actually have. For ICT it sometimes seem to be something similar, that we should do ICT because ICT exists.

In answering what is the impact of ICTs, the lack of hard evidence basically proves researchers do not know how to do research, or are clumsy, or both. Or maybe that the impact is too hard to actually measure objectively, something I cautiously disagree with.

I, for one, am among those who got an enormous benefit out of getting into computers (’82, 18 years old), but I would be the last to expect someone to try to scale up and replicate the Yama personal experience to a whole school or country. Things are too complex, people have different outcomes from their encounter with learning and/or with school, experiences not at all the same. Add to that cognition/learning styles differences, etc.

So I am convinced that ICT works great, for some, and also that it will never work, for some. Just like all or any of education, despite our best intentions.

And then, maybe we end up with a simplistic metaphor: you cannot win the lottery unless you have a ticket. Or, following Pascal, it’s in your best interests to try to make it to heaven.

Bottom line, as an administrator in the education field you will often *have* to make choices by faith, more than by evidence, this of course being complicated by the apparent lack of desire to share valid evidence by those who do have access to it.

I would say that this debate has helped me understand that we *should invest* in ICTs for schools, even in the absence – so far – of good evidence of positive outcomes. Thus I changed my vote, to be AGAINST the motion that such investment is a waste.

I don’t want to be too hasty to generalize a conclusion regarding the fact that my side lost, i.e., more votes got changed to FOR, that is, more people apparently gained an understanding that most investments in tech for schools are a waste, than those who, like me, embraced the opposite view as a result of this debate.

If I were hasty I might interpret this vote as an indicator of the start of the deflation of the ICT in Education bubble, if it ever existed. Education has a tendency to pick up fashions, bright ideas that eventually die out (kids develop immunity, some wag said). Is it possible that tech for ed, which actually never really took off, might already be dying even though several countries are embarking in massive programs? Is this related to the general lack of credibility in the model? I can’t blame administrators and big funders for their caution, though of course it draws me crazy they are not supporting my project…

Subjective, feel-good “research” never really helped, and we don’t seem to be able to get much of the other kind to really prove to funders and decision makers that tech for ed makes sense.

Intuitively I have always sided with the feeling that there must be a way to make tech in ed work, because, intuitively, it certainly does makes sense, and so does the majority of people believe and hope. Also I have many times complained that some of the best placed people who could help solve this scientific question are not helping. I just hope we can figure out, soon if possible, real indicators that we can count and show using good research, so the positive role of ICTs in education can be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Until then I stand, a battle lost here in Delhi, but quite ready to fight another day.

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13 Responses to “Live Debate Impression: Are ICT Investments in Schools Wasted?”

  1. Part One

    I wasn't confused by the terms of the debate. Maybe that's what comes of dealing with programming logic. You better learn to keep if-then-else logic straight or you're not going to do very well.

    I've got a response to the Pascal's Dilemma finesse but I'll put that off for the moment.

    What struck me about the affirmative was the lack of any reference to history. It's not as if computers in education are a new idea although the advent of the Internet seems to have resulted in a case of amnesia regarding that historical fact. The first computer system explicitly designed for use in education was the Plato system designed by the University of Illinois in…wait for it…1960.

    Since then there have been an endless parade of projects to use computers in education and to be blunt, they've all failed. Some have failed spectacularly, others have simply not lived up to the promises made and implied at their start and in a few cases the measure of success has been sufficiently vague as to defy attempts to apply the success or failure label. But in terms of demonstrating lower costs or greater educational attainment I don't believe there's any reason to equivocate. Failure from start to finish.

    It would seem to me that this historical reality would be a well-nigh insurmountable obstacle to those advancing projects which propose to improve education via the use of computers and yet it does not seem to be so. Despite a uniform, and very expensive, history of failure new projects are continuously launched as if each is the first to attempt to improve education via the use of computers. Were I on the affirmative I would simply have reprised that history and challenged the opposition to offer some reason to believe that the new projects, indistinguishable except in detail from any that preceded, will succeed where all its predecessors have failed.

    To return to Pascal's Dilemma with regards the use of computers in education, you posit a false choice Yama.

    The false dilemma results from assuming that there's no down side to funding the use of computers in education so might as well. It's a choice between funding the use of computers and *not* building some bridge or road or some other project.

    The false dilemma results from ignoring the nature of education as it exists in most of the world and that's as an extension of government.

  2. Part Two

    Education is funded from, ultimately, the same source as every other expenditure of government. Whether some general gets to buy advanced military aircraft, the minister of health gets to build a hospital, the public works agency gets to build a bridge, the chief of police gets to hire a bunch of police or a bunch of kids get their hands on computers is a function of the amount of funding available and the political influence of the various constituencies.

    The U.S. enjoys the advantage of sufficient wealth to fund military aircraft, bridges, hospitals, schools and, responding to the inevitability of Pascal's Dilemma, mountains of unutilized computers in education. Governments in the developing countries can't be quite so cavalier about such expenditures and so Pascal's Dilemma doesn't apply. There's the possibility for very distinct loss with the making of a bad choice and that's ignoring the rather widespread reputation of government agencies for making bad choices.

    If computers that don't educate children are bought then a road which would incontestably benefit many people won't be built. So it isn't a case of "there's no down side so might as well" but of the forgoing of worthwhile expenditures in favor of expenditures for which there's no history of success. Pascal's Dilemma doesn't apply.

    But considering Pascal's Dilemma does have some value so prepare for a deft segue.

    Since education, particularly primary education, is everywhere overwhelmingly a function of government Pascal's Dilemma plays out against the backdrop of that fact. Education is a function of the political system and cannot escape its antecedents.

    The most obvious of these antecedents is the ultimate measure of success in politics. Whether you're building a bridge, a rocket to the moon or a computer-based education system if you can't get the cash you've failed before you start. Funding is the first, and greatest, hurdle any function of government must overcome. Getting the funding is a measure of political influence. So the ultimate coin of the political realm is political influence. Strong constituencies garner funding in proportion to their influence.

    Since getting the money's the important thing what's done with the money is, necessarily, less important.

    If the bridge doesn't come in on time or within budget that isn't good but it's better then not getting the bridge started. Similarly, for government education agencies success consists of funding increases first and any other measures of success take a distinctly subordinate position and to the extent those secondary measures exist they generally serve the primary purpose. For instance, a poor showing on international education comparisons is a good reason to increase education funding. An excellent showing on international education comparisons is also a good reason to increase education funding. To maintain that enviable position.

    So the mystery of the attraction of the use of computers in education is revealed.

    Computers provide an exciting, and thus attractive, rationale for a significant funding bump.

    Where money's less of a consideration, as in wealthy nations like the U.S., objective measures of success are non-existent. They aren't necessary. Various rationalizations will be manufactured as needed if they're even needed. Parents very much want their children to get a good education and an exciting, cutting-edge technology can't help but promote the achievement of that result. So two constituencies are recruited to the promotion of the use of computers in education: the professionals who benefit from the funding increases and the parents who hope their children will get a good education.

    While I agree with Yama that computers have a role to play in education where we part company is in the unvoiced assumption of the centrality of government in education.

    My description above lays out a part of the case for why the politicization of education is detrimental to the process of education. Since government education is so overwhelmingly dominant it obscures the relationship between teacher and student and thus the role which computers could play in that relationship. I don't mean to say that there can't be a successful use of computers in government education but that government education institutions are particularly barren ground in which the seed of computer-based education ought to be expected to sprout and take root.

    • I am unsure we are parting ways much or at all, Allen. You are right at pointing out the assumption of the centrality of government is unvoiced by me; I beg to state that a reason might be that precisely that I see myself and kids as objects of the existing structures with little room for alternatives, not that such structures are better.

      I am sure that it would merely take some editing and some additions to merge your and my document into one single piece with no contradictions. I mostly agree with all the caveats you point at, and where there might be a difference it might be more a matter of nuancing, raising exceptions within a general principle, and such, than actually a hard difference.

      One such "disagreements" might have to do with the bridge vs. computers concept.

      The fact is, any country in this Earth could have both. I know that Bolivia, obviously where I have learned most in detail about what goes on, is an exception, with a windfall out of natural gas and now being posited to be the next Saudi Arabia because of lithium. But I would dare extend my conviction to Nepal, Indonesia, and other countries I have visited. The inherent problem is not access to resources, but, as you point out elsewhere, the ability to use them. While we are in agreement here, let me add that, for example in Bolivia, the President is said to be fuming or whatever presidents do, because so far only 4% of the annual budget has been spent. This is a pattern, in some areas the last two years more than 50% of the budget had not been used. International cooperation has reduced their aid, because so much goes unused, about 20 million USD last year of money for investments in education was never used, if I recall correctly.

      With the way money is now, a figment of bites in some server somewhere, there is no really need to make "or" choices, if there is reasonable belief by the people sitting on those servers that giving that money for a project is going to be well used.

      And that is where the thorn is. We do agree that there is not much of a factual, valid reason to believe spending in ICTs for education would not be a waste (multiple negatives :-)).

      As to your strong words regarding governments and education, every time I have the chance I congratulate Miguel Brechner of the LATU in Uruguay in that it was them – a semi-gov institution – and not the Ministry of Ed the ones running Ceibal, which in my opinion accounts for the real success they have had regarding logistics and distribution. I agree with you in that there is a pattern, and it just makes sense, the whole field of ICTs relies so much in innovation, that assigning the task to those who have a vested interest in keeping things unchanged is not that clever.

      There seems to be some initiatives that are doing things right, but because they do not have the resources governments have, they are small. Also, we need to work more at communicating effectively with each other so we can really leverage on the good stuff, if we ever find any. I am very active within Open Learning Exchange, and while we have a lot to work out, the very intention of that network of local centers is precisely to try things out, and the fill that gap of communication so that we can share it so as to use it. A long road, but one I *have* to follow, as there must be a pony somewhere.

      • Ref: Since government education is so overwhelmingly dominant it obscures the relationship between teacher and student and thus the role which computers could play in that relationship.


        Ref: Also, we need to work more at communicating effectively with each other so we can really leverage on the good stuff, if we ever find any.

        I agree about the importance of the relationship between teacher and student (and information, knowledge and learning) and about the importance of communication (and taking advantage of the opportunities for communication presented by ICT), although I think we have to be cautious about our assumptions regarding "good stuff" – as different people may think very different "stuff" is "good".

        I agree with the people in the debate who were looking at educational issues not just the technology. Personally what I find fascinating about ICT4Ed is the wide range of new, Internet-enabled, opportunities for education. I don't mean just as an "add-on" to traditional "schooling" I mean in terms of "personal learning journeys"- my own personal learning journey for instance – the peer-to-peer learning, knowledge development through sharing what we know, shared creative problem solving, formulating questions and helping each other to explore possible solutions.

        I love so much about the way that my learning horizons have extended thanks to the Internet:
        > The online communities of interest where I belong.
        > The one-to-one online 'tutorials" I have been given.
        > The topic centred chat-room sessions
        > The tweets and hashtags that send me to blogs and websites that I would never have known otherwise
        > The webinars and online debates
        > The way that online networking is increasingly merging with face-to-face meetings – how the huge reach of the Internet enables special interest groups to emerge locally.
        > The richness of bringing together different viewpoints and varied life experiences
        > The way that people flip back and forth between the role of informal teacher and the role of informal learner as they explore topics.

        Of course, I am an adult learner, not a pupil in school, so "things are different for me" – but I would love to see ICT in schools doing more to give younger students the chance to enjoy the kind of self-directed learning that I enjoy.

        I believe that too often teachers in schools are given ICT simply as an "add on" to existing educational practice, or as a "new subject". I long to see an approach to ICT which is less about the Information and less about the Technology and much, much more about the Communication (and the collaboration) and what we are able to learn from, and with, each other as a result.

        Obviously "self-directed' study has implications for curriculum and assessment – issues which I think can be addressed in a satisfactory way – but cannot be covered in this comment.

      • Sorry Yama but I don't believe any country in the world, including the U.S., can have both bridges and books. There's inevitably a struggle for resources – money – in politics and to the extent one fund-seeker wins another loses. Buy books and you can't buy bridges because funding is a finite quantity. There may be problems utilizing funds but that's no problem at all if you can't get the funding.

        And you know as well as I do that funding requests are governed to a considerable extent by the perception of the likelihood of getting the funding. If all you need to do the job is $100 but you know you can get $200 how many people will only ask for the $100? Not many.

        Bolivia's anticipated bonanza will certainly result in increasing funding for education but it'll result in an increase in funding for *everything*. Every agency and every interest group will be jostling to get to the head of the line to claim their "fair" share, i.e. as much as they can get. It's the nature of politics and the nature of people.

        But as a resident of a nation that's wealthy enough to spend, as a national average, more then twice as much per student as Bolivia's per capita GDP, money doesn't buy a good education. That immense amount of funding has funded a seemingly endless series of projects to utilize computers in education.

        Without exception – and keep in mind what a large number of projects I'm referencing – they've all failed. In some cases the projects weren't even initiated after the funding was spent. Hardware was bought and then mothballed and no child saw any of the computers. But even among those projects that went forward the benefits, to the extent there were any benefits, were transitory and the projects collapsed when follow-on funding couldn't be secured to keep the hardware up to date.

        To clarify, my strong words about governments and education don't preclude the occasional, unusual education professional who has the skills and inclination, along with the special circumstances, to keep a government education agency, whether a single school or nationwide, focused on education. It's just that the realities of politics means that in the main professionals will be rather more interested in seeing to their own needs then to the job they're hired to perform.

        So congratulations to Miguel Brechner, and Marva Collins and Jaime Escalante, but their accomplishments are flashes of light against a greater darkness and when they're no longer able to keep their bit of the educational universe lit it'll most likely go dark. They certainly won't light a fire that feeds on itself because education isn't the most important item on the priority list of government education agencies.

        Let me repeat that and please address the observation; education isn't the most important item on the priority list of government education agencies.

        You may find individuals, and even individual institutions, for which that isn't true but the dynamics of politics, I believe, necessitate a priority list upon which education is not primary.

        If I'm correct in this regard the mystery of how substantial resources can be repeatedly directed at some seeming worthwhile end, and uniformly result in failure, is solved. It's the funding that's important and not the education. So computers in education are a success if measured by success in attracting funding. Education professionals, particularly administrative education professionals will continue to view the use of computers in education as an important priority despite an inability to point to *educational* success.

  3. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Are ICT investments in Schools wasted? I don't think, so, but the ICT in Education initiatives can be implemented better.

    • Oh Cavin, of course absence of evidence is evidence of absence. If you can't prove you're right why should anyone assume anything but that you're wrong? If you think ICT investments in schools isn't wasted you ought to be able to produce evidence in support of that contention.

      After all, computers have been used in schools for decades. I don't think it's asking too much to point to a half dozen examples of unequivocal success.

      Feel free to take up the challenge.

  4. Allen, i wish you were right. If you go to a national park and you fail to see a weaver bird, it doesn't prove , they are no weaver birds in the park. You will have to come up with a better methodology to substantiate your statement.
    Its very easy to say, ICT investments are wasted, and the burden of proof is being placed on one side, i wonder why this is the case?

    I look at ICT investments in schools as a cost cutting measure (among other benefits). Every year, a lot of funds are spent by Governments to purchase books (printed copies), if a good number of schools had computers, then e books or electronic resources would be a cheaper alternative.

    I have stated in earlier posts that ICT projects have a high failure rate, in relation to other disciplines like Engineering (Road construction, etc). The reasons for this are varied, but you have to separate a failed project from the intention. If you fail to win the Olympics, it does not mean the objective is bad, you simply failed, due to a myriad of factors, such as strategy, poor planning, etc.

    • But Cavin, we've been going to that damned national park for decades, along with thousands of other people and no one's seen a weaver bird yet. You think maybe it's time to re-examine our assumptions about the locales weaver birds are likely to inhabit?

      As to why the burden of proof ought to be on the proponents of ICT investment, those are the people who want to spend the money. Who else is supposed to justify the value of the expenditure? If you think it's a good idea you ought to be able to describe why it's a good idea and why your particular version of the solution will avoid the failures of the past.

      Cost-cutting ought to be one worthwhile goal that ICT might help attain but the context is critical. In the context of the public education system cost saving isn't necessarily a good thing and is quite often a distinctly bad thing. Success, in the context of public education, is measured by budget *increases* so a cost-saving technology may be of dubious interest.

      Like I stated above, ICT almost certainly has an important role to play in education but education as a function of government is, I believe, a particularly barren patch of ground for the seed to sprout and prosper. That explains the disproportionate – uniform – failure rate of ICT project in education, I believe.

      So according to me, it's not just a matter of trying until success is achieved but of determining whether success is even possible in the current set of circumstances. I don't believe it is and history's on my side.

  5. Allen, i wish you were right. If you go to a national park and you fail to see a weaver bird, it doesn't prove , they are no weaver birds in the park. You will have to come up with a better methodology to substantiate your statement.
    Its very easy to say, ICT investments are wasted, and the burden of proof is being placed on one side, i wonder why this is the case?

    I look at ICT investments in schools as a cost cutting measure (among other benefits). Every year, a lot of funds are spent by Governments to purchase books (printed copies), if a good number of schools had computers, then e books or electronic resources would be a cheaper alternative.

    I have stated in earlier posts that ICT projects have a high failure rate, in relation to other disciplines like Engineering (Road construction, etc). The reasons for this are varied, but you have to separate a failed project from the intention. If you fail to win the Olympics, it does not mean the objective is bad, you simply failed, due to a myriad of factors, such as strategy, poor planning, etc.

  6. my contributions end here.

  7. my contributions end here.

  8. If ICT was really a wasted expense, will those "investing" in it, as in affluent schools, will do so at all?
    Or is it that the question is being asked specifically in the context of underprivileged schools or those who study there?
    Is it that Sam Carlson or his other supporters panelists will send their children to study to a school with no "ICT" support? Or is it that they would like those cannot afford these technologies not to receive at Govt expense?

    Its unfortunate to put a headline like the one this debate has done!! To ask a question such "When an investment in educational technology achieve less than expected results"? does not ring the same catchiness as the title this debate chose. But it creates a wrong impression and its important to be cognizant of what impressions each statement may create more so when the decision makers form quick impressions and go more by what they feel and believe than their desire to weigh and balance any argument.

    The World Bank folks in India have been supporting computer labs programs despite the fact these do not work in villages, are very expensive to create and in any case do not aid learning other than "skilling". that is like training a potential inventor to just keep typing and never let the creative side come out. But many people find it easier to support questionable policies. All because someone, somewhere found it convenient at some point in time to do it that way and others simply followed!


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