The potential uses of information and communication technologies — ICTs — are increasingly part of considerations around education planning in all sorts of places.
One challenge for educational policymakers and planners in the remote, low income scenario is that most models (and expertise, and research) related to ICT use come from high-income contexts and environments (typically urban, or at least peri-urban). One consequence is that technology-enabled ‘solutions’ are imported and (sort of) ‘made to fit’ into more challenging environments. When they don’t work, this is taken as ‘evidence’ that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant (and some folks go so far to state that related discussions are irresponsible as a result).
There is, thankfully, some emerging thinking coalescing around various types of principles and approaches that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of ICT in education initiatives in such environments.
Here are 10 principles or approaches to consider when planning to introduce ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments.
1. The best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford
The introduction of a new technology is considered on its own to be ‘innovative’ in many circumstances. Parachuting in the ‘latest and greatest’ device or gadget may have strong political appeal, and fatten the bottom lines of certain firms, and may possibly even be effective in some cases, but instead of instinctively trying to ‘innovate’ using new technologies, which bring with them lots of challenges, it may be useful to ask, How can we innovate using what we already have? In poor, rural, isolated communities, the technologies already at hand are almost always mobile phones and radios. Before considering the latest and great new gadget, why not see what quick gains might be made by utilizing technologies which already exist (and are being used, and sustained) in such communities? It might be that using such technologies in complementary ways (an interactive radio program, for example, supported by SMS-based outreach to and between teachers) might achieve many of the objectives that a single, ‘new’ technology can. Or maybe not. But it’s worth asking the question.
2. Start down and out, and then move up and in
What types of educational technology projects are most likely to scale — those that are piloted in relatively ‘privileged’ environments until they ‘work’, and then expanded to reach other, less advantaged communities, or projects that take the opposite approach? If it (the technology, the model, the approach) works in a privileged environment, success may be a product of a number of factors that that don’t apply in other, less advantaged places. If you want to go to scale with your educational technology initiative, first start down and out before you move up and in. Your learning curve will be steeper in the short run. The ‘model’ you end up with may have more modest goals when compared with what can be achieved in some of the most privileged and advantaged schools and communities. But it just might work *everywhere*. Or, if not everywhere, at least it might work in a lot more places than if you had started ‘up and in’, and then tried to move ‘down and out’.
3. Treat teachers like the problem … and they will be
Over the years I have talked with lots of people who see teachers (and teachers’ unions) as a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘solved’. One ‘solution’ increasingly considered is to figure out ways to use ICTs as a sort of metaphorical stick with which to prod teachers into various sorts of actions. This impulse is perhaps understandable in places that suffer endemic challenges related to (for example) teacher absenteeism, which is certainly a very serious problem in certain (often poor, rural) communities. That said, it may not be all that productive at a practical level. A well known study done by researchers at the MIT Poverty Action Lab a number of years ago (and well worth reading, in my opinion) looked at a program in Udapur, India in which “teachers were instructed to have their picture taken each day with students and were paid only when the cameras recorded them present.” According to the authors, in this case “objective monitoring with incentives worked” — in other words, a mechanism was found to motivate teacher attendance. On numerous occasions, in conversation with policymakers in many different countries, I have heard this study cited as proof that technology (in this case, a digital camera) can be a ‘solution’ to the problem of teacher absenteeism. Perhaps. But there is a real danger in many such discussions of confusing the symptons with the underling pathology. So-called ‘silver bullet solutions’ (aim the right weapon at a problem and you can ‘kill’ it) figure prominently in the checkered history of educational technologies. Things are seldom so simple, however. Yes, the fact that mobile phones with cameras are increasingly ubiquitous in rural communities around the world does mean that it may be possible for community members to stand outside schools and take pictures of teachers as they enter and exit (a scenario I have had pitched to me on three separate occasions — in one case students were meant to wield the cameraphones themselves) and send them on to education authorities or post on a web site for public shaming. But there just might be some unintended consequences from such activities …. Another option might be to explore how ICTs can be used to support teachers with positive incentives linking them to other teachers via text messaging groups to help form professional support communities, or to help them save time in lesson preparation by providing additional learning resources via television (or delivered all at once on a USB stick), or to help improve their mastery of the subjects which they teach through interactive radio instruction. Sticks can sometimes work … but so can carrots. Do you want to use ICTs to punish, or to nourish?
4. It’s the content, not the container
All too often, educational technology initiatives focus largely on the technology itself. It is possible to become so enamoured with the technology (and so distracted by device-related questions: should we buy tablets or laptops?) that insufficient attention is given to how to use whatever devices are eventually deployed to their full effect. As we move to a greater proliferation of devices, combined with the fact that we will be accessing more content from multiple places, a greater value will be placed on the content, and how that content is used, rather than on any one particular device. Viewed from this perspective, the future of education is in the content, not the ‘container’. It’s about more than just content, of course — it’s also about the connections and the communities (students collaborating with each other, teachers supporting other teachers) that technologies can help enable, catalyze and support as well.