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The greatest challenge: starting with the solution, not the problem

Samantha Burton

The greatest challenge with promoting literacy with ICT is that ICT may not be the most appropriate tool to promote literacy.

The issue here is that we are starting with the solution instead of the problem. We are asking: “How can ICT help address low literacy levels?” Instead of: “How can low literacy levels be addressed?”

This might seem like semantics at first, but there is a fundamental difference between those two questions:

  • The former prescribes a solution: ICT.
  • The latter does not.

This is significant because when we start with a solution already in mind, we tend to reduce the problem to only those factors that can be solved using that prescribed solution. In this case, we’ve been inundated with cheap hardware and e-content that hasn’t demonstrated a concrete ability to improve literacy.

But, perhaps more significantly, the factors that our prescribed solution can’t solve get left out as a result. This is particularly troubling in this case, because the low level of literacy in many developing country contexts is not a primarily technological problem.

There are bigger factors at play, such as:

  • Teachers are inadequately trained and poorly compensated;
  • Curriculum is outdated;
  • Schools are poorly equipped and maintained;
  • Students’ families cannot afford school fees.

ICT alone cannot fix a broken educational system or compensate for poor pedagogical practice. In a context where these issues exist, it is extremely difficult to improve literacy in a significant, sustainable way if you ignore them.

This isn’t much of a revelation. The ICT4E community has been aware of these facts for quite some time.

But, somehow, this knowledge still doesn’t seem to be manifesting itself in the way most ICT4E projects are designed. So, what do we do?

My suggestion is this:

1. Start with the problem.

This seems obvious, but it’s something many ICT4E projects aren’t doing. When we start with a particular technology—or even technology in general—we risk falling into the trap above.

So, we start with a problem. Whether it be literacy in primary-level students or poorly trained teachers or outdated teaching materials, the problem should be something concrete. A good indicator is to ask: is this an issue that we can measure progress towards solving?

For example, “education” is not a problem because we can’t measure progress towards education in any kind of tangible way—we need to be more specific (ie. define what we mean by education or literacy) in order to do that.

2. Brainstorm solutions to the problem. Pick the one that is most appropriate for your context.

Now that we have a problem—low levels of literacy, for instance—we can start to think about solutions. Different ICT interventions will probably be among them.

But then we need to look at the context where we want to implement this solution, which is where all of the other challenging factors identified in this month’s ETD discussion (technology restrictions, human constraints, market failure, language, total cost of ownership, etc) come into play.

Taking all this into account, we might find that the best approach to addressing low literacy levels (or solving educational problem X) doesn’t even involve technology.

Or maybe it involves ‘old’ media—like radios or feature phones—that can get overlooked in ICT4E because they are no longer ‘in fashion’.

This is unnerving for many of us ICT4E folks, because if we draw this conclusion then we potentially make our involvement in some projects obsolete. But if we’re serious about the “E” in “ICT4E” we’re more concerned with improving education than with promoting ICT as a solution. And if that means ICT isn’t the best way forward, we’re going to come to terms with that.

But to be honest, I don’t think this will happen. There are lots of contexts where ICT may very well be the most appropriate approach to improving literacy levels or addressing other educational challenges. In fact, I think that, given the right human and technical resources as well as the range of ICT available, ICT has the potential to be a powerful tool in this regard.

We just need to start with the problem and not the solution so that we know 1) what we want technology to help us do, and 2) pick the right technology to help us do it.

3. Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate

The third piece of this puzzle is figuring out how we know if technology is doing what we want it to do.

One of the big issues, which has already been flagged in this month’s discussion, is that we don’t have enough evidence to show a positive correlation between ICT interventions and improvements in literacy. In fact, there’s a troubling lack of monitoring and evaluation happening in the ICT4E field as a whole.

The only way to keep ourselves from repeating past mistakes is to know when we’re making a mistake.

But monitoring and evaluating a project is pretty hard if you don’t have a concrete goal to begin with—which, again, is why it’s so important to start with a problem that we can measure progress toward solving.

Now, I realize that’s easier said than done. Defining ‘success’ is a slippery topic that deserves its own discussion.

The challenge with defining ‘success’ in ICT4E is also a possible reason that some projects start with solutions as opposed to problems: it’s much more straightforward to measure ‘success’ when it’s defined by the saturation of laptop:child, for instance, than having to deal with pinning down what ‘success’ is in terms of improving something intangible, like literacy.

But skirting around this issue is leading us away from singling out the more effective uses of ICT to enhance education. If that’s really what we want to do—and we want to get better at doing it—we’ve got to figure out how we know when we’re doing it right.

The first step towards that is starting with a problem, not a solution. And accepting that the most appropriate solution to an educational problem, such as addressing low literacy levels in developing country contexts, may not be ICT.

I think that USAID’s recently announced Grand Challenge for Development: All Children Reading is a great step in this direction. It clearly starts with a problem–“793 million adults worldwide cannot read these words”–and is sourcing for solutions. From the information available right now, it looks like technologies (mobile ICT in particular) are going to be one of several focuses when looking at possible solutions.

I’m interested to see how this process pans out, and what kind of research emerges from the initiative.

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16 Responses to “The greatest challenge: starting with the solution, not the problem”

  1. Lindsay Poirier

    Samantha, I really appreciate the organization and concreteness of the points made in this article.

    I have recently been working with an educational software research group that has failed to adhere to the points you have brought up, and this has created a great deal of frustration for me. In particular, in testing the educational software with students, the group has not developed a plan for measuring student success or a series of objectives that the students should be gaining from use of the software. The effectiveness is entirely unmeasurable because the students are simply handed the software, and instructors are instructed to attempt to gauge how much they learn from using it. Your well-structured approach to measuring student success seems to be very applicable to this instance of research, and I will be sure to reference it in future meetings.

    • Hi Lindsay, I'm so pleased that you see potential to apply these ideas in practice! That's precisely what my hope was in writing this post.

      It's unfortunate that the situation you are describing seems to be a common one in ICT4E. But taking these sorts of ideas and using them to (try to) change how implementers think about project design–as you are taking about doing–is exactly what I believe we need do to start learning from and avoiding these kind of pitfalls. If you do end up trying these ideas out with your project, I'd be really interested to hear how it goes!

  2. What do you mean by ICT4E? If you mean for Education, why not use the well-established "educational technology" and not the over-used ICT4___(fill in the blank)? Otherwise, you have some wonderful points that are true of every educational technology project. See Larry Cuban's Oversold and Underused. http://www.amazon.com/Oversold-Underused-Computer

    • Ah, the ever-contested world of acronyms! Debates about the merits of 'ICT4E' vs 'ICT4Edu' and 'ICT4D' have been abounding lately, so I think it's pretty fitting that you bring this point up. Let me take a moment to explain my reasoning a bit:

      When I say "ICT4E" I do mean the 'E' to stand for education. However, I would argue that terms 'information and communication technology for education' (ICT4E) and 'educational technology' are not, in fact, interchangable.

      The term 'educational technology' places the emphasis squarely on the technology itself. It is a thing: a type of hardware or software that is designed (or primarily used) for educational purposes.

      The term 'information and communication technology for education' (ICT4E or ICT4Edu) has a stronger emphasis on education. ICT4E is not a thing, but an action: putting ICT at the service of education. The wording implies that education is the end goal and ICT can help facilitate reaching it.

      I think this is a fundamental difference. However, as I mention in my post, I do think that the ICT4E 'ideal' I'm describing has been lost somewhat in practice–actually, you might even say that my argument above is that too many projects that call themselves ICT4E are in fact 'educational technology' projects as opposed to 'ICT4E' projects!

      • How does using "technology" twice in one name make it twice the technology?

        Barring those who can create little and pronounce their lack of wisdom on everything, as one may have noticed often by OLPC beaters on this forum, educational technologies may easily sum up all technologies that aid education.

        Just agree to work with any simple classification, unless you are an expert and make a living out of a little niche that you wish to be identified for the sake of livelihood.

        • I have to disagree with your statement that we should "just agree to work with any simple classification". I think that debates about terminology and wording are extremely important, as the way that we choose to speak about and frame concepts (as well as *who* has the power to speak about and frame those concepts) can have a significant impact on the concepts themselves.

          That said, I don't expect everyone to agree with the definitions I've provided, and welcome discussion on the subject.

  3. I would just add 1 factor as a major problem to literacy issue, 50% of the kids who drop out of school are not being taught in a language they speak, so any ICT solution which does not offer a solution suitable for non english speakers and for minority languages in general, will not bring the expected outcome.

    • Please think before you generalize.. I have seen schools where children are taught in languages other than their mother tounge or the language they speak at home and drop outs are entirely incidental.

      Children drop out of schools more because (1) education is not interesting and delivered by teachers who do not know what "education" means and personal circumstances of children that force them to take a different path. The rest are incidentals

      • I think that @iLearn4Free raises an important point: literacy and language are both factors to consider when evaluating the contextual appropriateness of a solution. I also think that reasons that children drop out of school can differ considerably depending on context, so we should try not to generalize problems or solutions and instead look at the particulars of the context we're concerned with.

  4. Samantha, you sound the like the world was born yesterday or it did not exist before you!

    A critique knows just that. Critiquing.

    Consider the work of Piaget, Pappert and Negroponte? Did they start with a solution?

    They worked with problems at as comprehensive levels as may have been possible thus far by human endeavor. What they came up with may be "a" solution. But as of date its contribution in transforming educational capabilities of the underprivileged affordbaly is unparalleled.

    Rather than listening to Intel paid commentators, you may want to see its impact on the ground and then come up with your observations and there be a lot of value in that, no matter which way it falls.

    • Dear Nisha,

      I didn't intend for this post to come off as condescending, in fact my aim was to provide a fairly straightforward outline of an approach that is quite 'common sense' among many in the ICT4E community, but yet does not seem to have been widely integrated by projects–hence the value in reiterating it.

      I'm curious about your comment that "what they [Piaget, Pappert and Negroponte?] came up with may be "a" solution. But as of date its contribution in transforming educational capabilities of the underprivileged affordbaly is unparalleled."

      Could you be a bit more specific about the solution you are referring to, and what kind of transformative impact on the "educational capabilities of the underprivileged" has it demonstrated?

      • When a child in an environment where a vernacular BA cannot write a correct sentence in his/her language of choice begins to write correctly after 3 months of learning with OLPC, that is not just progress, that is amazing!

        When a child of 7 years begins to write sentences in two languages, that is little short of exceptional.

        When a child of 8 years starts programming with OLPC on his/her own, that is truly amazing indeed.

        How do you want people to spell it out?

        If you do not believe in what you see happening with OLPC, and are on a forum that is paid for by the commercial or international interests where those with ivy doctorates take it upon themselves that they understand everything without exhibiting an iota of creativity, what can one say.

        We see the same things, differently. That is what triggers discussion. I believe that usually every observation is partially right. But the EduTech debate is getting polarised around OLPC versus the rest and if nurturing creativity is any objective, even then the contribution of OLPC seems to outweigh that of the rest!

  5. lorithicke

    @ilearni4free, that is an intriguing statistic that 50% of dropouts are not being taught in a language they speak. Are you referring to the developing world?

  6. Survey of School Administrators Explores Digital Classrooms, Major Challenges

    By Stephen Noonoo
    Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of school administrators who responded to a recent survey said 1:1 computing classrooms where teachers act as a coach for students are the future of education, in a poll that looked at some of the changes, opportunities, and challenges that lie ahead for schools.

    More than 300 district superintendents, assistant superintendents, and school principals from districts with 2,500 students or more participated in the online survey, which was fielded by Interactive Educational Systems Design (IESD) and funded by curriculum provider Time To Know, a company that provides solutions for 1:1 computing classrooms.

    When asked their preference for a comprehensive curriculum if cost were not a factor, 80 percent of respondents indicated a preference for a comprehensive curriculum program with 1:1 computer access and an interactive whiteboard in combination with some print or printable electronic materials. Only 5 percent of respondents preferred the opposite–most materials presented in a print format with some supplemental work conducted on computers.

    A vast majority (84 percent) of respondents also said 21st century skills–which included critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to think creatively–are a high priority.

    When it came to challenges, 69 percent of the administrators polled cited budget constraints as a top concern; 58 percent cited academic achievement challenges related to student performance and learning as a top concern. Of those who identified academic achievement challenges, the largest percentage (66 percent) of respondents identified "low testing performance" as one of their top concerns in this area; 38% identified "students not motivated to learn and not engaged in the learning process" as a top concern.

    “It’s clear that educators believe that effectively integrating technology in the classroom will play a key role in preparing students for success in our global economy,” said Ellen Bialo, president of IESD in a statement.

    The survey has a margin of error of ±5.5 percent.

    About the Author

    Stephen Noonoo is associate editor of T.H.E. Journal.

  7. I think turning this discussion into an "OLPC vs The Rest" debate does a great disservice to what I feel is a very important issue raised by Samantha. Taking a human-centered approach to finding/designing solutions to problems improves their chances of success. If thinking about educational technology this way and actively monitoring and evaluating these projects improves their chances of higher impact per dollar spent, (and the end of endless pilots) practitioners in ICT4x should at the very least interrogate it further.

    It may be of little importance what we call the vehicle (ICT4E, ICT4D, OLPC, EduTech…), what should be of greater importance is the outcomes in the community such as improved quality of life and less people living in poverty.

  8. Jessica Curtis

    Is literacy intangible or hard to measure? I don't think so. Don't we routinely measure literacy (reading skills, vocabulary, grammar etc.) as an aspect of school performance? Certainly literacy is a better target for measurement than laptop penetration. Creative and critical thinking seem a bit harder to measure, though laudable goals. .


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