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Benjamin Vergel De Dios: Most ICT are Wasted in Schools due to Human Tendencies and Organizational Choices

Benjamin Vergel De Dios

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 Benjamin Vergel De Dios, Programme Officer for ICT in Education at UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok, Thailand, to the question: Are most investments in technology for schools wasted?

Benjamin Vergel De Dios (download the podcast)

Good afternoon. Most investments are wasted as a result of human tendency and organizational choices; I base my argument on true to life examples from real countries. I will use however fictitious names for these countries for political sensitivity.

Country Alpha
Country Alpha made huge investments in two areas. ICT infrastructure in schools and content development for teachers. People in country Alpha needed no convincing that technology can do wondrous things. It is like a superhighway they said, where cars can run as fast as 200kmph yet the Ministry of Education is perplexed as to why schools and teachers are not using them.

They are of course two government agencies. First deploys infrastructure in schools and the second develops content for teachers to use, because of ongoing turf war between these two agencies, they never talk to each other. So there were schools that received equipment but the teachers could not use them because they are without content. And there were teachers who received training how to use the content but no equipment in their schools. The result, huge investment not working as intended.

Country Bravo
Country Bravo is one of the few leading countries in deploying technology in schools. Most countries do it in few selected schools, mostly in urban areas where electricity and connectivity are stable. But country Bravo has done it in almost all schools, so imagine the investment! A large chunk of the national education budget spent on technology.

The government prides on that accomplishment, and then I had a chance to talk with one of the contractors supplying equipment to schools. He told me that the unit cost of computers is only about five hundred dollars. However the government insisted in adding specs that teachers are not likely to use, the cost ballooned to almost two thousand dollars per set. With forethought, expensive investment is not always equal to wise investment.

Country Charlie
Country Charlie is a small but rich state. It is also smart by asking companies to do a bidding war. The winner will exclusively supply branded computers to all government offices, schools and teachers. The big contract was awarded a few months before we conducted a workshop in Country Charlie.

And the director of ICT came to me and confided, “I wish we had this workshop last year” what did he realize? The government made an investment based on what is the best technology out there where in fact the question should have been which technology would best serve the countries educational needs.

Country Delta
Country Delta is a populist developing country where education budget is not always enough due to sheer number of schools and students. The government boldly decided to putting up computer labs in more than 30,000 secondary schools. With funds obviously not enough, the government will always play cut shop. By the time all the schools are covered, many of the computers will need replacement.

Why did Country Delta choose to invest in 30,000 secondary schools rather than prioritizing a few hundred higher educational institutions? Big investments bring more visibility and major mileage. Governments use ICT investments as political showcase rather than a genuine educational solution.

These examples are only from poor countries but the human tendencies and organizational changes and organizational choices that they make are characteristically universal. Most likely they also exist in many other countries:

  • Lack of Co-ordination,
  • Organizational turf war,
  • Wanting to buy the most expensive and best available technology out there,
  • Using ICT as a political showcase.

These mistakes can’t be corrected unless we do something, so most investments in ICT for schools will likely to be wasted.

Dr. Kelly – Benjamin, So why is UNESCO for this motion? I mean, aren’t you not sitting on the wrong side of the table?

Laughs from the audience

Because we want to help countries don’t waste their money on bad investments. We do a lot of capacity building to policy makers, educational planners. We encourage them to invest in ICT in education but we also want them to plan well organize projects, design projects very well so that there will be no waste of government money, taxpayer’s money on implementation.


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One Response to “Benjamin Vergel De Dios: Most ICT are Wasted in Schools due to Human Tendencies and Organizational Choices”

  1. Look, I hate to dump on someone's presentation out of context. However presenting these hypothetical or "anonymous" examples of poor project design and implementation in a forum that's intended, eventually, for international publication via Education Technology Debates is irresponsible.

    First, artificially restricting your presentation to national programs of ICT in education ignores the substantial innovations and implementations that have occurred in schools, in classrooms, at the initiative of NGOs, and in the actions of individual teachers and students, over the course of the past 30 years. (I am not moved to document these at present, if anyone reading this post would like a list of, say, five or 50 interesting and/or worthwhile accomplishments in relation to ICT4edu, and if you honestly can't find these on your own, please contact me via my website.)

    Second, and more important, your post, by establishing straw-person examples of unidentified or non-existent countries, draws on all the failings of policy and design and implementation without entering into discussion of successes, partial successes, and enabling infrastructure (see below). Such qualified successes range from school-by-school broadband adoption in Uganda, among many other countries, to long-term/scaled solutions in Chile, Syria, Costa Rica, Trinidad/Tobago, and elsewhere, to unlikely and ambitious successes in 1:1 computing in Uruguay, Nepal and other countries.

    Third, you say "These examples are only from poor countries," but in fact investments in ICT in schools occur in OECD countries, in emerging economies, in LCDs and across the board. More important, you say "Most investments," without doing more to back up this claim than to create or cite four examples of ways that such investments can go bad. And, to gild the lily slightly, we have enough history under our belts to point to examples of initial investments – in Turkey, say, from 1997 to perhaps 2000, or in Barbados in the last 7 years – that were terribly implemented at the start but that laid the groundwork ("enabling infrastructure") for real impact and real innovation before the stale-date of the hardware and technologies that were originally deployed.

    I challenge you to do better. Tell us how much is invested in ICT-related inputs in education — in developing countries and in OECD countries, at a minimum. And show us what proportion of these investments are wasted, and for what reasons. Give us an informed guess, an estimate of amounts and proportions. Not the untestable assertion, "most."

    We can all point to crappy, even _unbelievably_ crappy, ICT4edu implementations. We can all also point to successes in Singapore, South Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, Namibia for goodness sake,
    Costa Rica, Chile, Uganda (hmm), and a host of other countries. Even, before the utter collapse of Mugabe-riddled society, Zimbabawe. I would be so much more interested in an analysis of the factors leading to success and those leading to failure than I am in a non-specific characterization that finds that "most" "investments" are "wasted."


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