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What is “Sustainability” in ICT for Education?

Wayan Vota

When planning ICT deployments in schools, there is much talk around making the effort sustainable. But what does “sustainability” really mean in this context? If we tweak and paraphrase the Wikipedia definition of “sustainability”, we could say that:

Sustainability is the ability of an educational ecosystem to maintain scholastic processes, functions, diversity and productivity into the future.

Yet that’s a pretty broad and vague statement. Bringing it down to a practical level, how might we introduce information and communication technologies into existing educational ecosystems where they can absorb it and own the change?

Starting with cost, where most do, is “sustainability” covering local costs through local fees or taxes? Should national governments be the funder? Or is sustainability actually greater than merely its monetary price, but actually creating community ownership to the point of local customization in implementation, and self-propagating growth and expansion?

Regardless of how we define it, how can schools or Ministries of Education achieve this “sustainability”? What resources do they need or need to re-purpose to achieve it?

For October, the Educational Technology Debate will have two distinguished discussants who will take a holistic approach, considering the many stakeholders in education, and hopefully go well beyond funding, without loosing sight of this always-rare resource:

  • James BonTempo
    James BonTempo is the Learning Technology Advisor for Jhpiego, an international non-profit health organization affiliated with Johns Hopkins University. He is responsible for strategic planning for the integration of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into pre-service education and in-service training programs. He also leads efforts to design, develop, implement and evaluate ICT initiatives in both arenas.
  • Atanu Dey
    Atanu Dey works as the chief economist at NetCore, a technology firm in Mumbai. His area of interest are the use of technology in education, economic growth of India, and the development of rural populations. He worked in product marketing for several years at Hewlett Packard in California, before receiving his PhD in economics from UC Berkeley. He developed a model called “RISC — Rural Infrastructure & Services Commons” while a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford.

Please join us for what we all expect to be a lively and informative conversation exploring “sustainability” for ICT projects in education. Your input can start right now in the comments below, and James and Atanu will post their opening remarks beginning Monday, October 5.

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16 Responses to “What is “Sustainability” in ICT for Education?”

  1. Shouldn't any discussion of "the ability of an educational ecosystem to maintain scholastic processes, functions, diversity and productivity into the future" be preceded by an appreciation of the motivations and priorities of the various involved parties?

    I know there's a certain heretical aspect to the posing of the question but foundational assumptions about education are being challenged which makes any questions about the future of education incomplete – perhaps sufficiently incomplete as to be empty of value – without at least an attempt to clarify the purposes and priorities of the important stakeholders.

    • Which stakeholders are you thinking of? Teachers, students, parents, and administrators are the four that I would expect to be the main stakeholders, with IT firms, IT support staff in educational systems to be also involved.

      • Them and I'd throw taxpayers into the mix as well. Kids are secondary stakeholders their interests represented by the adults.

        As to the IT folks, they're role is to either declare something undoable with current technology or to do it.

        • I think IT folks have a greater role than just deciding or implementing. They are often the ones designing the tools, as well as designing the business models that make deploying the tools financially sustainable for them.

          And while many people put children as the secondary stakeholders, should they really be -the- primary ones?

          • If IT people, and I'm an IT guy from way back with a long-standing, some would say obsessive, interest in the use of computers in education, had much to say about using computers in education and had any clue about how to use them in education computers would long since have ruled the educational roost.

            I attended the third annual MACUL (Michigan Association of Computers Users for Learning) conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1978 and there were already computer learning systems over ten years old and on display. The problem has never been the technology or the technical people; trust me, the interest was high from early on and continues to this day evidence the OLPC project. Before the advent of computers pretty nearly every technical development – radio, television, movies, audio tape – was predicted to be an educational breakthrough. None of them were.

            The problem has never been will, or even resources, but puzzling out how computers fit into education. I don't see that puzzle having been solved yet although not for want of trying.

            The problem, I've gradually come to believe, is one of motivations. The extrinsic and intrinsic motivations of the stakeholders and who is, or is not, a stakeholder.

            And of course children aren't primary stakeholders. You wouldn't ask a child whether they think getting stuck with a needle is a good idea, would you? As an adult you realize that there are far worse things in the world then the momentary pain caused by a vaccination. A stakeholder is someone who does, or ought to have, decision-making power and not just someone effected by the process.

            • Scott Kipp

              The mis-identification of children as secondary stakeholders is the most rampant problem I've encountered anywhere in this field. I work primarily in rural Mozambique with low-energy labs in schools, ed centers, and with one-to-one deployments.

              Allen, even within the text of his last reply, shows the contradiction of what usage of educational ICT actually is. I agree that a stakeholder should considered to be any affected person with decision-making power. That being said, the next question would be, "What is the central power of decision in the case of educational ICT?" It is the child's decision to use or not use the media, and in which way to use it. Although other stakeholders (educators, guardians, administrators) can define minimal usage requirements and deploy carrot and stick tactics, the vast majority of the decision power for usage rests with the children.

              The onus of sustainability should similarly be based on gaining the child's interest and motivation. Without the child's interest and motivation in usage, investments in teacher training, network infrastructure and other arenas are severely devalued. That is, the impact of those investments will be exponentially greater when coupled with high levels of primary stakeholder (child) interest. Why? Because motivated students are easier to engage. In turn, the teachers are more motivated to incorporate the media, the local environment more motivated to support it, and the ecosystem itself is more agile in overcoming technical and/or financial constraint. When funding dries up or the technical schematic hits a snag, the highly motivated environment will find a way to continue the program productively.

              In returning to Wayan's original question: I think Ministries can hope to achieve more sustainable systems by embracing flexibility and humility into program development. In every country, there are NGOs piloting programs ahead of government-sponsored interventions. These are gold mines for innovation and evaluation. A strong evaluation matrix applied equally to a range of project approaches will inevitably identify outliers and characteristics of effectiveness. The Ministry should be humble enough to see that smaller organizations are often far more capable of deploying and accompanying these kinds of projects. The role of the Ministry should then be to aggregate the results from this sector and evaluate them thoroughly and regularly so as to roll out a nimble array of context-specific deployments most likely to result in motivation by all stakeholders, primary, secondary, and tertiary.

              • Motivation of the individual is key so I agree about getting the child's interest. Wikipedia shows what is possible. One of our company aims is to have free on-line courses leading to internationally recognised qualifications. Then anyone with an internet connection and the motivation can get educated. We are a small business start up with 7 employees. We have an EU grant and private equity investment so in that sense a little help from governments but we are also government accredit for qualifications in the UK and this maps to the European Qualifications Framework. We can sell qualifications in the UK and Europe and use the money to build free on-line courses for all. If a few people take up our qualifications around the world we generate the income to maintain a free on-line curriculum. Then the issue is getting an internet connection to everyone. That is what governments can do rather better than we can. You can see a start at http://theingots.org/community/ITQcourse1. We will be putting about 300,000 Euros of investment into more free learning resources over the next two years and hopefully more as we start to earn more and apply for further grants. We also hope children will learn by producing their own on-line learning resources and we will certificate them if they demonstrate learning in this respect. We want to sustain community participation in education and increase learner input.

            • Actually children ARE primary stakeholders and not involving them in discussions about education would be a huge mistake. Children are rights holders and (paraphrasing the convention on the rights of the child) they have a right to be involved in any decisions affecting their lives, according to their age and ability. Not only do they have the right to participate in these decisions, involving and asking them about issues impacting on their lives generally leads to better ideas, better decisions and better programs and interventions. Most children I've worked with place a huge importance on their education, especially in countries where not all children and young people can attain education easily. When looking at sustainability of ICTs in education, a thorough understanding of the local context should necessarily involve discussions with children about their current use of ICTs and their desired use, along with clear probing discussions about realistic use and maintenance of ICTs and local capacity for sustainability.

        • I would also add the policymakers (politicians and bureaucrats) to the list of stakeholders. In fact, they have an impact on the system disproportionate to there interest in the system — that is, they don't really suffer the consequence of any failures that their actions lead to.

  2. Perhaps the real technological breakthrough with computers and comms technologies is that individualised personal learning becomes possible and the old model of subjects and fixed time classes controlled exclusively by a teacher seen as the fount of knowledge eventually erodes. Of course the power base of the social system will resist such change but in the end with home schooling on the increase, the system will have to change or it will become increasingly irrelevant and the kids simply won't turn up. Mostly kids go to school to be with their friends, the learning is incidental. So schools won't necessarily disappear, but the nature of what happens in them will change significantly probably for the first time since mass education began.

  3. la durabilité en TICE.
    tout développement des TIC en éducation doit se faire dans une mouvance durable, perrenne, et concerner des aspects important et vital de l'éducation. tel que la formation des enseignants, l'évaluation, le processus d'apprentissage, la communication entre l'école et la famille, entre l'état et les enseignants, entre les enseignants et les apprenants, entre les partenaires de l'école et l'école. cette durabilité contribuera donc à améliorer la qualité de l'école, à rendre l'école efficace et en adéquation avec la société dans laquelle elle se trouve. à travers les TIC, l'école doit partager ce qu'elle fait, apprendre des autres, participer à la reflexion sur le bien être des ^populations, contribuer enfin à la préservation et à la promotion de la culture ainsi qu'à sa perrennisation.

  4. Manish Upadhyay

    Much like Infrastrcuture and others, Basic Education is a long term investment project. Therefore, any sustainability definition should take into considertion the long term nature of the project. If any donor agency / govt. decides to get started with the basic education project they should look at funding it for a substantial period of the project, say complete schooling years. I am of the opinion that all govts. should invest in education from the perspective that they will get the return, in terms of better ecnomy growth in the future.

    If you are looking at short term education programs more targetted at acquiring vocational skills – adequate loan/ financing options should be available so that the job seeker can start paying from the day one and the sustainability is really not in question – if the program is good enough to get them a job they will pay…

  5. Alex Twinomugisha

    I recently met with a Minister of Education of an African country who defined the means to sustainability of the countries ICT4E initiative as "making sure ICT4E is embedded in the Education Sector Plan". His thinking was that the only way to gurantee funding for ICT4E from both the national treasury and the donor purses was to ensure that it mention in that critical document that donors base their decisions on- the sector-wide plan. Thats a policy makers view. From a practitioner's view, it also makes sense because that's one of the few ways to ensure that ICTs are linked directly to educational processes and outcomes.

  6. joel kamba

    i recently visited a primary school in africa where they were opening a very big and neat computer lab with Pentium IV computers(TFT screens) that came from CFSU.
    only to be told that the lab was constructed by the school management and the PTA, they also went ahead to pay for the computers. They have also sponsored a technician for training so as to take care of the lab.
    The facility will also be used to train the community who will pay some money.That is sustainability!

  7. Anthony Makumbi

    As mentioned a number of you the issue of sustainability in Education looks at a whole spectrum of issues that require effective education system in any nation. They must all bye into this thing called ICTs in the sector and support it. Then it can have meaning and full support at all levels.Thats what sustainability is all about. I like the comment from Alex as that plays a key role at national level as you move down the ladder there are various players even the Parents who are not mentioned. It looks through the whole question of governance in Education


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