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Sam Carlson: There is Enormous Wastage in the Implementation of Education Technology for Schools

Sam Carlson

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 Sam Carlson, World Bank Lead Education Specialist and project team leader for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in India, to the question: Are most investments in technology for schools wasted?

Sam Calson: (download the podcast)

Thank you very much Tim Good afternoon everyone, worthy opponents, comrades in this particular motion.

Let me start by saying I am a huge proponent of educational technology and I spent seven years of my life working 24/7 trying to get technology, Internet, into secondary schools in over 35 countries around the world, establishing the very first school based Internet connectivity in over 10 of these countries. When we came to work here in India, actually I worked with Ashish as our India Coordinator for this program back in 2001 and 2002. And I am absolutely passionate about the vision, about the potential, of education technology.

But this motion is not about the justification for education technology or the vision or the potential. Its about the reality of the implementation. This motion is about most investments in educational technology are wasted. That’s an implementation question and it’s not a question about vision or potential or the justification.

I am a big believer in education technology. I am great disbeliever in how education technology has been implemented and I believe it has led to enormous amount of wastage.

Why is that? I come back to the point that I raised earlier this morning that the basic problem is that teachers are not given the incentives, the time, the encouragement, the opportunity to take advantage of the educational technology, which is made available to them. And if the teachers are not given the incentives, the time and the opportunities in order to take advantage of this then the technology investment in the computers and the internet content activity, and the building of the computer lab and putting in the electricity and all of those activities will be wasted.

Secondly, teachers actually have a disincentive particularly in India to incorporate educational technology into their learning because of the board examination system in this country. The board examination system is the tail that wags the dog. The board examination system here measures factual recall of material that is in the textbook.

There were some efforts and it had board exam change right now but it is on the margin and it is very timid. CBSE has tried some reforms but the state board exam system here has not changed and the questions that are on that board exam come directly from the textbook. And if a teacher deviates from the factual filling in people’s heads from those textbooks, and goes off in project collaborative learning to develop information reasoning skills, problem solving skills, team work skills, and all the things that the labour market says want, those children will do less well on that board exam. And that is ultimately how secondary school teachers are measured, is by how well the students do on a board exam. The pass rate percentages here in the first division and second division.

Unless the board exam system changes to measure things that educational technology can help develop in terms of information reasoning skills, problem solving skills, collaborative skills, then that teacher will not invest time and energy in learning about the technology and how to use it, to enhance real fundamental learning.

Third point, the point that was eluded to us earlier. Policy makers typically believe that they only have to put computers into a lab and magic will happen. Having computers at the other end of the school doesn’t help a teacher in his/her classroom at her time to teach science, not having electricity obviously does not help, not having a reliable internet connection obviously does not help.

Not having really serious teacher professional training to do the job – and I do not mean 2 days, 5 days, 10 days – I mean a sustained 2-3 year iterative program where by teachers, the same teachers are led through a process, initially ICT literacy, then its thinking about how can I use the resources that are immediately available to me in my class, and then its about how can I start collaborating other networks with other subject matter teachers around me. Then in the fourth phase, it’s about how can I start developing new e-content. That’s a process iterative process and learning is fundamentally a social process.

Technology is just boxes, right, its not a social process. So all I am saying is technology, if we are going in the wrong way down the road, which I believe most of the Indian Education system is, the technology will just get you further down the road and more quicker.

Fundamentally what has to be re thought is the examination system, the kind of pedagogy, the kind of real skills that we want our students to be learning, and until that’s done, most investment in educational technology will be wasted.

Thank you

Dr. Kelly: Thank you Sam, a very persuasive argument. Sam you bring the distinction between aspiration and implementation, arguing quite correctly that this title that we have posed is not about the aspiration, it’s about implementation. What can we as a World Bank, what can we as an organization committed to improve the situation, what can we do to improve implementation?

Well I think there are a number of things that we can do to improve implementation. First I would agree with my colleague from UNESCO that one has to plan investments in educational technology so that they succeed. Because bad educational technology investment discredits the whole promise in the concept and the potential and you end up turning people against something when it could be very useful and positive.

So part of it is just good planning and looking at that whole ecosystem and not putting your money on the table until that whole ecosystem has got some promise to all be in place and not just jumping off.

Secondly , I think we have to promote as much learning about experience on the ground as possible, to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. Wayan made a very good point that its important to be able to try, to take risks, to be willing to make mistakes, but there has to be a learning curve about those mistakes so that they are not repeated. I guess disappointingly to me, is too many of the policy makers are not on this learning curve and they are just repeating the same mistakes that would be made ten years ago and that’s very discouraging when I see that.

I think whether its the world bank or other developmental organization, or its the private sector or NGO’s or trust foundations, we all have a greater task to play, to hold the policy makers accountable for at least learning from the previous experience and not just repeating the mistakes of the past.

Thirdly, I would say we should be funded innovation and funding pilots, and funding new ideas in the area of education technology and see what works and what doesn’t work on a small scale, evaluate it and then to disseminate it and get the information out to the policy makers who are at the real resources in their hands. I think we need to use some of our money is venture capital or risk capital to experiment with education technology and not be experimenting with the government’s larger resources.

I think we have a responsibility and opportunity to help the governments plan, to help them learn from the past, and also to help them learn from the future so that the decisions they make are good decisions. I don’t think we are fulfilling that role as well as we could or we should because if we were, we would not be seen in these circumstances today .

I think if that ship is going in the wrong direction then yes we have an obligation to drive again in the front of the ship and say “don’t go this way”, it needs to be steered in a different direction otherwise you are gonna end up on the rocks and just keep slamming the ship against the same rocks I don’t think is a very useful exercise.

I keep coming back to the question that the human ware is far more important than the hardware and the software and that’s where the bug lies, that’s where the education technology investments have broken down. Because we do not invest in the people to make the investment in the technology – the hardware and the software – worthwhile.

Until that investment in the people who are going to be using it, and understanding why they are using it, and why they get some benefit in using that – until that happens, then the politicians and the parents may decide to keep pumping technology into the schools but that to me is not a good investment with scarce resources.


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10 Responses to “Sam Carlson: There is Enormous Wastage in the Implementation of Education Technology for Schools”

  1. Amanda Ruddick

    Wasted Taxpayer Money____After many years of observing district technology funds wasted on every new kind of gadget imaginable, I have decided to speak my mind. Before I start, I would like to make it clear that there are many excellent districts that have good technology integration programs. Unfortunately, the bad ones outweigh the good. You might ask yourselves, "What is the reason for this?",or " Why have districts not noticed what is happening?" and if they have, then "Why haven't they done something about it?"

    will tell you exactly why. Many technology departments are run by a director who is a non-educator who believes they know exactly what they are doing when implementing new educational technology programs. In addition, this director might try to run the Educational Technology Department also, and it really becomes worse when a district places a non-educator over both the IT department and the Educational Technology department. This gives this individual the power to make very important decisions. See Part II

    • Amanda Ruddick

      Amanda Ruddick
      Part II

      In addition, district employees tend to try and hide the failure of these programs. In my experience, I have seen two middle school 1:1 laptop programs fail. You would think the people who evaluate these programs would know better than to try another 1:1 program, but oh no, the go full force with another one and the board never questions it. In fact, when you talk with them, they were clueless.

  2. My reasons are a little different. I have observed that there is little correlation between the expertise as an educator or a non-educator leading the technology initiatives. It boils down to the person rather than the training. There are equally impressive examples of how a non-educator has done a commendable job of things.

    The issue is what are we valuing? Can we say that despite all its prosperity the USA is a failed society because it has about the highest proportion of its population serving as the inmates of the state? And that that is the case because not enough trained law enforcement folks run the system?

    Sometimes it helps to just ask simple questions. Do we want our children to have access to technology or not? Would you send your child to study to a school where they have greater access to technologies of our times or lesser access? Its clear that the way evaluations take place- applying past criteria to judge future results, is so inherently flawed after all. Why not just use common sense (often so uncommon indeed!) rather than complicate things to a point of negative return on investment in analysis?

  3. My 2-paise.

    Sam, You are right in pointing out the Board Exam and the way education system works towards the board exam (teachers, parents, schools)… there is no way you/me/Even Manmohan Singh for that matter !! 🙂 can change that.

    What you should be concentrating in Indian education system is from Class III-Class VIII. From IX to XII no-one can enter into that current way of education (that is like trying to stop the storm with bare hands). Put your efforts in bringing up guys who are going to get into Board exams.

    Educate the educator that is more than good enough (that is what is required and makes sense as well) than trying to educate the learners. That is whole hell of a pool of learners (millions)….if you try directly addressing the kids … that is like forming a entire education system in any country. Leave the system to work as it works and try making difference where people don't give much a damn about change.

    i) concentrate on III-XIII standard students.
    ii) Educate the educators
    iii) Attack the area where people don't mind experimenting.



  4. Sam's point – that we need changes at the exam/testing level – transcends India and is a real issue with ICT4E in every country. I see time and again, innovative solutions and excited teachers are blunted by the need to conform to standardized tests – themselves a ICT4E technology I think we could've done without.

    The real challenge, which incidentally I think technology can solve, is how to make tests able to measure information reasoning skills, problem solving skills, and collaborative skills. Or a parallel challenge, which is beyond technology, is how to get administrators to accept less empirical and more judgmental testing situations. Its not like we get multiple choice questions in the real world, or clear cut answers either.

    In this, I fully agree with Sam – humanware is far more important than hardware or software.

  5. Let me comment on some threads in this discussion: 1) the role of the exam systems; 2) the role of teachers; 3) the potential of ICT admin systems.

    1) Yes, exams tend to determine what teachers teach. However there is an old saying that it is easy to measure unimportant things and difficult to measure important ones. That's certainly true for educational exams. As the Director of the Test Development and Research Office of the West African Examinations Council in the 60's, I saw the impact of the exam on efforts to improve the curriculum. The major barrier to change was not the exam itself, that was easy to change; the barrier was with educators in the schools who believed the traditional exam represented "quality". They resisted a "downgraded" exam that included what they considered the softer sides of learning even though "enlightened educators" thought otherwise. A second challenge for exams is their predictability. In the majority of countries the exam score is a major determinant of admission to the next level of education. Objective, multiple choice types of exams are highly predictive of future success within the "system." For example, in West Africa those primary school students who could correctly answer a question that involved the melting of snow were more likely to be highly successful at in high school than those could failed such questions. Not a "fair" question certainly but highly predictive.

    Direct attention to organizing a review of the goals of the examinations system and the methods for achieving those goals merits attention. The exams may be easier to change than we imagine. The softer measures are much more expensive, much less reliable, and often only marginally more valid. But the entire question of assessment merits a lot more dispassionate exploration.

    2) Teachers. We know that teachers who are enthusiastic about teaching and who establish high expectations for their students, tend to get high performances from their students, almost, but not quite, independent of the circumstances of their students. That one variable by itself is probably the most predictive of achievement. As others have said, teachers need to be comfortable with any ICT they use and they need to believe that such tools enable them to be more successful as a result. So, much more attention needs to be placed on how to empower teachers with ICT before thinking that ICT in the hands of students will achieve a lot.

    3) ICT admin. This is an area where the ROI of ICT in education can be enormous. Keeping track of student progress, absences, keeping track of teacher attendance and the progress of the teachers students, making records appropriately accessible to teachers, parents, students, connecting teachers with each other by subject or grade level so they are less isolated. Exams that are interactive and themselves learning devices. There are many possibilities for ICT to improve the educational system as a system. We need to pay more attention them.


  6. Here's an opportunity to discuss this theme of systematic change within education:

    INVITATION: World Bank EduRadicals Seminar Series featuring Frederick Hess: Education Unbound: Releasing the Education System for Sustainable Education Reform – June 2, 2010, 4:00 – 5:30 pm, IFC Auditorium (2121 Pennsylvania Ave, N.W., Washington, DC)

    <img src="/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/36799742.gif"&gt;


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