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Atanu Dey on Why Most Investments in Technology for Schools are Wasted

Atanu Dey

The Educational Technology Debate is one year old this month and to celebrate, we had a Live Debate: Are Most Investments in Technology for Schools Wasted? at the World Bank offices in New Delhi, India. With six great speakers, we focused on the issues around technology implementation in educational systems of the developing world.

This is the opening remarks and initial response of Atanu Dey, a noted speaker on ICT in education and an economist at Netcore Solutions in Mumbai, India to the question: Are most investments in technology for schools wasted?

Atanu Day at ETD Live Debate

Atanu Dey: (Listen to the podcast)

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, great to have you here. Let me start off by quoting Shakespeare, about my favorite quotes from Henry the IV in which Glendower is trying to impress the prince by making the statement “I can call the spirits from the vastly deeps” to which Hotspur says “ why so can I and so can any man but will they come when you do call them”.

So in that same spirit I would like to say that yes you can make a lot of investment in technology. The question would be, but will it be of any use? My argument today with my colleagues over here on the right side that most investments in technology for education are wasted and the reason is fairly straight forward.

So I will start off by arguing that what is technology and what is it supposed to do and what does investment in technology translates into and what are the problems that education has in specifically in a country like India. Let’s start off by saying how do we understand technology to be. So technology has always been present in education. Since the printing press, the printed book is a technology. It is a communication technology. When we say ICT I suppose we mean high technology, which is computers and Internet and all the new fangled worldwide web. So there is some space for technology.

The problem is how it is being used – that is the fundamental problem.

About technology there are two very salient facts that we need to remember. Technology is something that enters what we call the production function, economists call it a production function or whatever we are trying to do, multiplicatively. It doesn’t enter any function additively. So you had nothing to begin with if you impose technology on it. If your production was not very good to begin with technology just amplifies that not very good part. So technology amplifies things.

The other part of technology is especially high technology requires a deep back end. It requires an ecosystem to support the use of that technology. If you don’t have that ecosystem support then the investment in that technology is wasted. So I would argue that in the case of India specifically that ecosystem doesn’t exist and because of which the investment made into technology is wasted.

So you can tell just so many stories and anecdotes. So let me just take your time and give one anecdote that I am personally acquainted with. There was this school in rural India where the government had spent several million rupees in bringing computers or PCs to the school. Two months into the thing they had not even unwrapped. They were still in the boxes. A year later they were taken out of the boxes but nobody was there to be able to fix it up so that it could have been worked and finally it was fixed up so that it could now work and the power was not available most of the time. Therefore after two or three years, the PCs were just boxes that had never been used and all that investments was wasted.

The problem with investment in technology for schools or education in India is that this investment is probably made with public money and as Friedman would have reminded us there are three ways in which money could be spent. You can spend your own money on yourself and in that case you are very careful about wasting or you could spend somebody else’s money on yourself and in that case you are not that concerned about the expenditure part of it but you are very concerned about what benefits you are going to get of it but in the case of the government, the government takes from Peter to pay Paul so the government is not interested in seeing the expenditure side of it nor what the benefits are. It is just interested in entering a lot of money to very sticky fingers.

In this case I find that much of the investment that is made by government in the education sector in technology gets wasted because the people who are in charge of making the decisions how to use it and so on, they are not really concerned. It is not their money. It is somebody else’s money and there is very little accountability.

Then finally we have to ask ourselves what exactly is wrong with our education system? Is it something that requires a technical solution? In many cases, you do require technology but it is by no means a given that every problem that we have in education admits to have technological solution. In many case what happens is that it is a lazy person’s way of doing things. They just say let’s bring in computers because in those places they use computers so maybe if we use computers we will get the same results.

They sometimes bring in a solution and then they start looking for a problem to solve it with. The old adage about somebody with a hammer finds every problem has a name holds very true in this case. People who have been brought up with technology they think that every problem could be solved through technology.

So with those remarks I think I am going to conclude my time. Thank you very much and I am feeling sorry for my opponents on the other side because they have a very hard road to follow. Thank you.

Tim Kelly:

Atanu, I think I will begin with you. You gave us a just story about computers that were in boxes. They weren’t unwrapped and a year later there was no power. It was a story of failed investment. Now actually that is about just stories and not a basis for your evaluation. How do you think we should be doing evaluation of ICT investment and how can we do it that we actually get to the other side of this debate that the investment is worthwhile?

Atanu Dey:

Yeah Tim that is a very good point that you raised and it was a just told story because I wanted to point that this is an example of what happens when ecosystem is not available for the use of a technology, which is not appropriate at a specific call.

I think to most of the other side where we say that yes the investment being made in technology in education is not being wasted is well your money that is on the table. It is not somebody else’s money. It is because the government is spending the money that is creating a problem. If you go to a private sector school or a school where the people ask questions about what were the returns on investment in this. That is how you are going to get on the other side.

I think what Ashish had started out by saying that ICT is great for this and ICT is great for that but no one questions that at all. It is completely given and as Sam said on our side, the proposition is in again in that again ICT can be useful but problem is it now being wasted.

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