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Sustaining Rather than Sustainable ICT4E

James BonTempo

As a child, whenever I asked my mother what a word meant she would respond without fail, “Look it up!” She almost always knew the meaning but wanted me to seek the answer on my own. To this day I have a healthy fascination with language and I can’t help but wonder if it was somehow fostered by my mother’s insistence that I comb through the dictionary looking for definitions.

So when considering what sustainability means in the context of Information and Communication Technology for Education (ICT4E) I find myself wanting first to understand what it means for something – anything – to be sustainable. I’m not sure if what we had while I was growing up was a Merriam-Webster dictionary, but this is what that venerable publication offers up:

sustainable – capable of being sustained

As you can see, that definition isn’t very helpful, but if we dig a little deeper we get (among other definitions):

sustain – keep up, prolong

So something that is sustainable can be kept up or prolonged. This definition is consistent with the common understanding of sustainability in development programs. Generally, one of the explicit goals of such programs is to establish a system – security, governmental, financial, healthcare – that is capable of continuing to function effectively after external support has been diminished or withdrawn.

Opportunity, Capacity, Motivation

But before we get to what it means for an ICT4E program to be sustainable I’d like to unpack this idea of sustainability just a little bit more and consider what the necessary elements are of an effective system. After all, as Wayan points out in his introduction, we’re working within an “educational ecosystem,” a complex web of interconnected people and processes.

In order to do that I’d like to draw on a framework from a completely different area, but one that I think will help to structure this discussion. It’s not perfect, but it will help establish my main point. The framework is a general one used in developing human resources for health (HRH) – an area I’m familiar with given my work at Jhpiego – and it’s pretty basic. In order to produce and maintain effective human resources you need to have an enabling environment that includes the opportunity to provide services, competent human resource capacity and motivation.


  • Opportunity: Service providers need to have the chance to provide the services they’re expected to (this is particularly important in a task-shifting setting where one cadre will be taking on responsibilities normally associated with another). This is also extended to include things like physical infrastructure and commodities. It’s hard to do your job at all, let alone well, if there’s nowhere to do it and you lack the necessary tools.
  • Capacity: Service providers will also need education or training to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to perform their jobs to at least safe, beginning-level competency.
  • Motivation: Service providers, like the rest of us, need to have a reason to use the new competencies they’ve developed and continue doing their job, day after day, and do it well.

At this point you’re probably wondering, “When is this guy going to start talking about ICT4E?” Well, now I think we’re ready. So let’s unwind. What does it look like if we use the Opportunity, Capacity & Motivation framework in the context of ICT4E?

  • Opportunity: “Service providers” – teachers, faculty, preceptors, etc. – need to have the chance to make use of and integrate ICT into the learning process. In support of that, the necessary infrastructure needs to be in place including power, hardware and software. Depending on the program, there might also be a need for networking and/or Internet connectivity. And the providers need to have sufficient access to the resources.
  • Capacity: Service providers also need to be competent and comfortable in the use of ICT for the development, packaging and delivery of learning content and for supporting learning activities. In addition, and just as importantly, there needs to be support in place for the providers – this could be local ICT staff, shared staff across sites, or even external consultants.
  • Motivation: Service providers need to have a reason to integrate ICT into the learning process. For example, they may feel that the technology can help better educate or train learners.

But as I mentioned above, this analogy to human capacity development is imperfect. The main reason: it focuses on the “providers” and does not include the “consumers.” The consumers in ICT4E are the learners. But we could still apply the Opportunity, Capacity & Motivation framework to them and the details would be largely the same. The consumers need to have access to the infrastructure and opportunities to use it; possess the ability to make effective use of ICT and have support in doing so; and be motivated to participate.

Sustainable ICT4E Systems

Now that we know what elements are necessary to have an effective ICT4E system, how can we ensure that it’s a sustainable system, one that can be kept up or prolonged? The first two things that come to mind are policy and financing – both of which can be applied at the national as well as the local, institutional level.

At the national level, the Ministry of Education – or other Ministries, for example the Ministry of Health in the context of healthcare education and training – can develop and adopt policies that encourage the use and integration of ICT in education and training programs. The appropriate focus at this level is on large infrastructure projects and capacity development.

In addition, existing or newly created bodies can concentrate on curriculum development and providing guidance for the integration of ICT at the level of instruction. Funding to support initial implementations in alignment with these policies could then be secured and maintained through any number of mechanisms: taxation, tariffs, bi/multilateral agreements, development loans, etc.

At the institutional level, school policies can be adopted and procedures put in place that are consistent with those policies and guidelines instituted at the national level by the appropriate Ministries and national boards and bodies. And use of the infrastructure developed through national level initiatives can be integrated directly into the learning process. Additional funding for ongoing support of the local ICT infrastructure – hardware, software, networking, ICT support staff, etc – can be obtained either through national programs or through creative approaches like fee-for-use models that provide access to ICT resources to the public.

But traditional applications of policy and financing only go so far. They work well for ensuring the sustainability of the Opportunity and Capacity elements of the ICT4E system but are largely ineffective at addressing Motivation. As an example from HRH, it has been shown that giving bonuses to healthcare workers leads to short-term improvements in quality of care but ultimately the effect fades over time – it is not kept up or prolonged, it is not sustainable.

Likewise, teachers could be given bonuses, or students could be awarded prizes or provided with some other form of recognition, for their successful and effective use of ICT in learning but that would not lead to sustained behavior.

Motivation is Key

For ICT4E initiatives to be sustainable they must meet the needs and desires – and often the latter more so than the former – of the “end users,” of the teachers and preceptors that use the technology to teach, demonstrate and facilitate as well as the students that use it to learn, connect and have fun. If the program is not aligned with these prime Motivation components then it must venture into the realm of behavior change.

And behavior change is difficult. I’ve learned this the hard way. I’ve left a small trail of failed ICT initiatives in my wake that were unsuccessful not because of the technology but rather because I didn’t have a clear understanding of the culture into which the technology was being introduced, because I didn’t consider Motivation.



And this brings me back to definitions. I began by trying to find a useful definition of sustainable. This led me to:

sustain – keep up, prolong

But I think there may be a better, more useful definition:

sustain – to supply with sustenance: nourish

We need ICT4E initiatives that promote and support teachers’ desires to teach and students’ desires to learn. We need sustaining rather than sustainable ICT4E.

6 Responses to “Sustaining Rather than Sustainable ICT4E”

  1. Tim Kelly

    Thanks, this is a very thoughtful contribution to the topic and the framework of — opportunity, capacity motivation — provides a useful analytical tool. Of these three, perhaps motivation is the critical one and, as you say, is quite culturally specific. Strong motivation to make something work, on the part of educators and students as well as policy-makers, can overcome many hurdles. But let's not underestimate too the importance of finance. Too many ICT4E initiatives come to grief because they are set up as pilots, with project funding, rather than longer-term funding from a school's budget.

    • Tim,

      I would counter that if motivation is there, then by definition, so is momentum beyond just students and into the greater educational community. From this base, there should be political will to allocate funding to continue the pilot into a ongoing program.

      James is right – motivation is the key. And tying it to my comment on price inelasticity, if there is a will, there will be a way to find funding for it.

  2. Scott Kipp

    The etymology is interesting, but it also calls attention to a piece of the discussion which still seems to be lacking: growth.

    The revised definition at the end of James' post, which includes "nourish", hints at this. After all, an education system should have forward momentum. I distinguish momentum and motivation by depth of integration. Do the educational actors want to integrate the technology further, use it in more valuable in profound ways? If yes, is their motivation successfully leading to increased integration or new directions in usage? That would be the momentum, for change and development. 'Sustaining' or 'prolonging' is simply not enough of an adequate measure or end. It begs the label 'ICT4ED' wherein the D includes ed-specific development.

    I think this fits well with the stress on motivation. Even in the most rural of cases, the ebb and flow of new content, new software & hardware is a valuable consideration in measuring motivation. The more motivated ecosystem will seek further development and integration, even new tools and media. The less motivated will stagnate and could face daunting leapfrog challenges when the time does come for an updated deployment. Do the stakeholders know what developments are available? Are the choices within their reach? How are they presented (on a scale of mandatory to completely voluntary)?

    The simple truth is that new content and new technical schematics will change mid-project for any ICT4ED deployment, due to the velocity of the media involved. In and of itself, that is not a bad thing. The implementing school or educational center will need a period of initial adjustment to the media. Once the deployment is ready for development, its momentum must be harnessed carefully. This is perhaps the hardest part of the intersection between James' Capacity / Momentum / Opportunity model.

    It is typically considered the Ministry's responsibility to judge when a system's momentum has started to peak, so that it might consider a development initiative (via expanded support or content / hardware update). How capable is the Ministry of monitoring the need and potential for new developments?

    The timing of such development initiatives is very difficult. It is difficult for any entity to do this in such a way that is not perceived as either too little too late by some or overbearing and stressful by others. That is, there will be some schools / ed centers that have stagnated and lost momentum, and others which are decidedly not quite ready but which will feel pressured to keep pace. The question then becomes, how will the Ministry maintain such a sensitive observance over the pace of educational development?

    In this way, "nourish" fits well because it implies that the Ministry must meet each node of an ICT4ED deployment and develop context-specific means of encouraging growth. I suppose this would be akin to applying Vygotsky's zone of proximal development conception to the ecosystem itself.

    There will be always be outliers that will find a way to thrive on their own, but the vast majority of cases would be maximized with properly-timed and relevant support and development initiatives.

  3. Janet Grant

    James – I really liked your piece. I wonder, though, if the sustaining function actually is related to sustainability. In the work we do, I know that we have to design educational support and systems that are appropriate and feasible. That makes them sustainable. Anything else is not. Once a system is sustainable, then comes in the sustaining factor – about which I am persuaded! But if the initial system design is not sustainable, then no amount of sustaining activity can help.

    So, for me, the two are related.

    Best wishes,



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