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Hardware Costs are not a Barrier for ICT Use in Literacy and Reading

Wayan Vota

tablet and laptop eBook e-readers

If you looked at the buzz in ICT for education, you would think the solutions to problems of teaching literacy and reading are mainly around hardware price points. You have everyone talking endlessly about $100 laptops, $30 tablets, $15 teacher laptops and projectors, and $10 talking books. But all this is fluff. The sideshow to what is the real cost issue: how much everything else costs, how to raise funds for it all, and how to show the impact of the investments.

The Hardware Issue

In struggling to understand why there are so few literacy and reading interventions that use ICT, I thought long and hard around the hardware angle. Is there some inherent missing gadget that could increase the ability of educators to teach reading skills? Is there a gadget that can help a child write or a learner combine both reading and writing for true literacy in their native language?

Yes, it would be nice to have more interactive e-book readers or more intuitive electronic writing tablets, but that didn’t seem to be the real issue. We have an entire quiver of education tablets to choose from. What seems to be missing is not hardware, but a specific focus on literacy in education that incorporates information and communication technology. I posit there are three overarching reasons for this lack of ICT in literacy across the educational systems of the developing world:

How much everything else costs

In Vital Wave Consulting’s landmark study on the costs of ICT in education, they found that in ICT4E, its not the cost of the gadget that matters that much:

The quest for a $100 laptop and the subsequent development of low-cost and ultra low-cost computer categories have focused the discussion about computers in the education environment on the initial hardware cost. This focus is misplaced, as the initial hardware investment represents less than 28% of the total cost of ownership over a five-year period. In the case of ultra low-cost computers, the initial hardware investment is only 13% of the five-year TCO.

Where are the majority of ICT4E costs? In the technical support, training, connectivity, and electricity required to maintain the chosen solution over time. Oh, and the specific solution didn’t matter that much either – costs among different devices is about the same. Yet, VWC’s study didn’t even get tot the other two legs of the three-legged stool of educational technology: teacher professional development and content development.

I have yet to come across a comprehensive study of how much it costs a Ministry of Education to fully deploy and ICT4E intervention, especially one on a national scale. The best I’ve heard is this small mention in Miguel Brechner’sTEDxBuenosAires talk about Plan CEIBAL‘s XO laptop costs, but these seem like awfully low numbers:

How much did it cost us? We invested around one hundred million dollars. So that we do not delve too much into figures, each computer cost us around $188. Sixty dollars was the rest of the cost: servers, networks, antennas, tech support, parts, logistics, delivery… everything else. This was all accomplished with public funds, both domestic and foreign.

If we calculate four years of effective life per machine, it will cost us about $75 per year, of which $48 is the computer and $27 the rest of the servicing a project of this magnitude requires. To give you an idea: in the deployment phase that’s less than 5% of the educational budget, and less than one two-thousandth of the gross domestic product.

So if a country or a company wanted to invest in an ICT solution that could impact the literacy rates in a country, their first challenge would be to figure out how much such an investment would cost. I stand ready to help if needed – it’s a calculation that would be educational for everyone involved.

How to raise funds for it all

Getting people and donors excited for a new gadget is easy. Just show off a prototype, and even if it doesn’t work, or is just plain vaporware, you’ll have multiple press stories championing your achievement. From there, it’s slightly harder to get the money rolling in to fund a working prototype and pilot deployment.

What is hard is getting the funding to work on something as basic and un-sexy as teacher professional development or digital curriculums.

The net result is that we have great projects like Worldreader and CyberSmart Africa, which are at their heart about changing the way teachers educate to improve student literacy, but everyone else refers to them as the Kindle project or interactive whiteboard project.

Now there is hope. USAID and World Vision have a forthcoming All Children Reading Grand Challenge for Development that invites organizations to submit innovative ideas, practices, products, or programs for improving student reading in primary grades. Winning submissions will be provided seed funding from combined resources of USAID and World Vision. I have heard there will be an ICT component to the grand challenge as well but we’ll see if it also focuses on the learning ecosystem to make that ICT successful.

How to show the impact of the investments

What is “success” in reading, writing, and literacy? We have the Early Grade Reading Assessment which can be given and measured electronically, but even if a stated ICT intervention happens between two EGRA assessments, and there is a positive change over the assessment period, how can we know it was the iCT intervention that caused the change?

In other words, how do we prove causation not just correlation?

I believe this is the largest challenge in ICT interventions that propose to improve literacy in any educational system, not just those in the developing world. With ICT, it is easy to show a great excitement about school – everyone loves a new gadget – or even a greater usage of ICT via server logs and the like, but its much harder to show that excitement translating into greater scholastic achievement.

In fact, I challenge you dear reader, to find an ICT intervention in any aspect of the learning process, that can show that the ICT intervention itself is the primary cause for an increased learning outcome.

It is that fuzziness in impact that makes it so hard to raise funds for an ICT intervention in literacy. And without the money to get investors and school systems excited in the teacher professional development and the content creation required to augment a gadget purchase, we are stuck in a vicious cycle.

Cheaper and cheaper gadgets are showcased as the solutions to the woes of educational systems, while more and more of us come to the conclusion that technology should not be the focus of educational strategies. And the smart people who could be working on ICT for literacy choose to expend their efforts elsewhere.

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4 Responses to “Hardware Costs are not a Barrier for ICT Use in Literacy and Reading”

  1. Andrew,

    Thanks for these links, though they actually make a greater point that we should all be aware of. Here is the conclusion from the first link: Comparative Effectiveness: The CAL program was tested at the same time as a remedial tutor-based program, Balsakhi. The CAL program was shown to be highly effective in raising students' skill levels in math, but was less cost-effective than the tutor-based Balsakhi program.Ooops! Yes, technology did have an impact, but less than a trained teacher, using good content, and no technology at all.

  2. Wayan:

    You are spot on with all your points. And in particular how difficult and rare it is to show educational impact of ICT solutions in the classroom. But after 20 years of working on this, our nonprofit is tantalizingly close. Last school year, in a four-school pilot of our TeacherMate handheld beginning literacy system in Washington DC, we raised benchmark passing first grade reading scores from 19% to 49%. Every teacher and principal is convinced that the gain was solely due to our ICT implementation. Based on these results, DC purchased iPads and iPod Touches for 50 first grade classrooms to start the rollout of our ICT solution in the District (our System now runs on iOS devices, with Android coming soon). This will be a good test of the scalability of our solution.

    • Seth, can we talk about getting your software onto Fedora Linux and the forthcoming XO-3 tablet? You can talk to our hardware and software developers about what would be needed to support your approach. There are also important development projects in other countries that are digitizing their textbooks, rolling out fiber optics to their villages, and planning to build their own educational laptops and tablets.

  3. Seth,

    First of all, congratulations on your gains. Those are quite impressive. The question I think being raised is how to isolate variables. Is it the handheld, or the instruction that’s embedded on the device that’s making the difference? Educational Technology has been having these “media debates” since film was first hailed as a revolution in instruction. We can’t confuse the delivery truck for the items it is delivering. An airplane, a train, lorry/truck, ship and porter all have different affordances that make carrying certain items from one place to another more or less desirable (for instance, ships are good for carrying lots of things economically, but are slow and can’t make deliver to mountaintops; airplanes are good for getting things places quickly, but can’t take things to an individual address, etc.). But in the end, it doesn’t matter which vehicle is doing the shipping if all that’s in the container is junk. So too, technology has different affordances (television is good for somethings, books are good for others, tablets are good for still other things, and chalkboards are good for others). But if the instruction is not sound and built for the affordances of the media, than it’s just junk. A bad teacher with an interactive white board is still a bad teacher. So I don’t think we will ever be able to statistically prove one device has an impact on learning. People have been asking that question way too long and have come up with the same “no statistical significance” argument for tvs, radios, interactive video disks, computers, mobile phones, 3D simulations, social media…. Rather, we should be asking ourselves, how can we design for good learning? That is, as Waylan pointed out much less sexy (who want’s to have a photo op with the instructional designer when you could have a photo op with Bill Gates), but is the only thing that matters in the end. And quite frankly, it’s one of the things missing from too many projects.


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