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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  • Curriculum is outdated;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 Whether it be literacy in primary-level students or poorly trained teachers or outdated teaching materials, the problem should be something concrete.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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