Tag Archives: Education

The dark side of using ICTs in education


Much evidence has been adduced to suggest that ICTs enhance not only the quantity but also the quality of education and learning; those selling such technologies have skilfully created an atmosphere where it is usually unquestioningly assumed that ICTs do indeed have a beneficial impact.  However, the opportunity to undertake research recently for UNICEF on the future of ICT use in education provided me with the chance to explore some of the darker aspects of such use, and I summarise my thoughts here to encourage a more balanced approach to discussions about ICTs and education.

In recent years there has been an increasing amount of evidence that sheds doubt on the claimed benefits of ICTs for education, and also highlights their limitations and dangers (see for example UNICEF’s recent report on Children in a Digital World).  Four themes are particularly pertinent:

  • doubts about the overall efficacy of ICTs in enhancing learning;
  • the distractions that they provide;
  • their use for behaviours intended to harm children; and
  • the increasingly blurred interface that they create between humans and machines

Do ICTs necessarily improve learning outcomes?

One of the first major studies to examine the overall impact of ICTs on learning outcomes was an OECD report in 2012 that concluded that “Overall, the results of the estimates presented in this report point to a generalized negative correlation between the use of ICT (in terms of either intensity or deviations from the mean) and PISA test scores”. The authors were very cautious about their findings, and PISA scores are only one measure of learning, albeit a one that many governments treat very seriously.

More recently, the OECD has produced a comprehensive report on Students, Computers and Learning, that also questions the overall impact that ICTs have on learning.  This shows that the exposure of children to computers in schools varies considerably between countries and within countries.  Most significantly, though, it concludes that the use of computers does not seem to be an important factor in explaining the variation in student performance in mathematics, reading or science as reflected in the PISA scores.  The report concludes (p.15) cautiously that “the connections among students, computers and learning are neither simple nor hard-wired; and the real contributions ICT can make to teaching and learning have yet to be fully realised and exploited”.

One important conclusion from this and associated research is that if poorer countries outside the OECD invest substantially in the use of ICTs in schools there is no guarantee that it will improve traditionally defined learning outcomes.  Moreover, it seems evident that ICTs by themselves do not necessarily have a clear and positive impact on learning outcomes.

Other research has gone further and shown that many educational skills, especially relating to memory, are not as good when using ICTs as when using more traditional methods.  Kirschner and Neelan have thus reported that handwritten notes are much more effective for learning than those made using a digital device, and Mangen et al. have also shown that students who read texts in print score significantly better in reading comprehension than do those who read them digitally.  Much more research is needed about the impact of different methods, particularly with and without ICTs, on the learning achievements of children.

Mobiles as distractions

A decade ago, in the early days of mobile devices, it was often argued that bring-your-own devices could be a means of enabling schools to introduce ICTs without having to expend large amounts on hardware. Such schemes have been widely criticised because of the inequalities that they can perpetuate, but an increasing amount of evidence is available to suggest that the use of mobile devices in classrooms also has a negative impact on children’s learning, especially because of the distractions that they cause.  Much of the opposition to mobiles in classrooms comes from frustrated teachers and parents, and finds its expression in popular news media.  Headlines in mainstream media such as “Schools ponder classroom ban on ‘distracting’ mobile phones” (The Times) are increasingly common. This is closely related to concerns about the digital distractions that are now seen as harming labour productivity later in life.

There is a growing body of research that supports such general concerns.  In a ground-breaking study, Kuznekoff and Titsworth, for example, have shown in a small-scale study that university “Students who were not using their mobile phones wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their mobile phones”. Likewise, in a survey of schools in four English cities, Beland and Murphy have shown convincingly that student performance in high stakes exams significantly increases after mobile ‘phones have been banned, and the these increases in performance are generally driven by the lowest-achieving pupils.  As a result, they suggest that restricting mobile phone use in schools can be a low-cost way to reduce overall educational inequalities.

In the light of such general concerns, several countries have sought to prohibit the use of mobiles in schools.  In much of China, secondary pupils in boarding schools are only permitted to use their ‘phones for short periods each day, and they are not allowed to use them in classes.  Likewise, a decision by the French government to ban mobile ‘phones in school from September 2018 has received widespread publicity.  Reasons for the ban include a general concern about the health implications of children regularly using ‘phones before the age of 7, about the desirability of them physically playing in breaks rather than just being on their devices, and the perception that they cause distraction during lessons.  It is salient to note that attempts to introduce a similar ban in New York City in 2006 largely failed, and it was lifted in 2015.

The dark side of digital devices: addiction, bullying and harassment

UNICEF’s important review Children in a Digital World, highlights three forms of digital risk to children: content, contact, and conduct.  In particular, it emphasises the threats of cyberbullying, online child sex abuse and exploitation.

In most instances, when children use ICTs in schools they are usually subject to some kind of control or supervision.  However, when they are outside school, they are very much freer to use such technologies, despite the potential control measures that some parents seek to impose.  Hence, it is very easy for children to be subject to abuse or harassment from their peers and others once they have left the confines of their schools.  This raises important questions about the relative balance of responsibility between schools and parents in helping children grow up safely in a digital world.

In all uses of ICTs in education, it is essential that the highest priority should be given by schools to:

  • The secure management of children’s data;
  • Digital relationships between teachers and pupils, especially on social media;
  • Behaviours of children online, especially to one another; and
  • The potential for external individuals or organisations to influence children in their care.

Above all, though, it is essential that schools provide extensive training for children in the wise use of digital technologies, covering not only the above  requirements but also issues around critical thinking relating to information on the internet, the use of search engines, social media, privacy, and all aspects of their interface with ICTs.  These need to be balanced, and stress both the positive potential of ICTs alongside their dangers and threats.  Schools cannot do this alone, and there needs to be extensive collaboration between governments, companies, civil society, and parents, but schools are very well-placed to be the central point through which such education and training are provided.

Increasingly, national governments are providing regulations as well as guidance for schools about keeping children safe online at schools and at home.  The UK, for example, announced new measures to tackle this in 2015, requiring all schools to have in place filters and monitoring systems to prevent access to potential harmful material, and to ensure that children are taught about online safeguarding.  Many poorer countries, though, do not have such systematic regulations in place, and there is an urgent need for all governments to create systems of support for schools to help them share good practices relating to child online protection.  It is also important that examples of good practice are widely shared, and sources such as those provided by the European Commission’s Better Internet for Kids service platform, and the ITU’s guidelines on child online protection should be more widely known and acted upon.

Globally, there is insufficient awareness of the significance of many of these issues (see for example the work of the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation).  Whilst overt bullying, harassment and exploitation are becoming increasingly discussed, insufficient attention has been paid until recently on the rising impact of digital addiction on children.  South Korea, for example, sees Internet addiction as a national health crisis, with there being an estimated 2 million addicts, most of whom are children or young adults.  It is estimated that one in ten South Korean children is a digital addict and there is increasing evidence that excessive screen time is damaging developing brains.

Recent warnings in the UK likewise highlight the addictive dangers of giving children smartphones, with a third of children between 12 and 15 admitting that they have difficulty balancing their use of smartphones with other aspects of their life. A particularly worrying aspect of this addiction is the normalisation of sexting, whereby young children are convinced into believing that sending nude pictures of themselves us completely normal.  One survey reported in 2017 has suggested that around two-thirds of primary teachers said they were aware of pupils sharing inappropriate sexual material.

Responsibility for this addiction, and how best to deal with it, are topics that require detailed consideration by all those interested in education.  The design of social media platforms is thus increasingly being seen as problematic, and gives rise to considerable debate.  It has, for example, been claimed that Facebook was explicitly designed as an addictive form of social media, which exploits a vulnerability in human psychology through its social-validation feedback loop.  Others, though, see the value that such social media platforms offer, and suggest that only a relatively few people become seriously addicted to it.  Most recently, following the launch of Messenger Kids for children under 13, a group of 100 leading academics, practitioners and organisations have written an open letter to Facebook claiming that young children are not ready to have social media accounts, that it will increase the amount of time young children spend with digital devices, and that the app’s overall impact on families will be negative.

Moreover, there is also growing evidence that the recent rise in depression amongst people born after 1995 in the richer countries of the world, and especially the USA, can be directly linked to the dramatic increase in smartphone use since 2012.  Twenge, for example, has found that teens who spent more than 5 hours a day online were 761% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor than were those who spent only an hour a day online.

Another general issue that requires further discussion is the use of children’s data by companies providing educational services.  All data are potentially hackable, and school generated data are often seen as being particularly vulnerable because of lax cybersecurity.  In 2017, high profile hacks in school systems across the USA brought the ease of this, as well as the damage that it could cause, to public awareness. UK school systems have also been targeted with relatively simple scams that defraud them of large sums of money. More worrying is the vast amount of data that governments and companies, such as ClassDojo, gather on a regular basis through digital educational systems and platforms, especially relating to examination performance and children’s personal backgrounds.

Cyborgs and transhumanism

A final, and much deeper, ethical question that also needs to be considered is the ways through which the use of ICTs in schools may be influencing the long-term relationships between humans and machines.  The notion of cyborgs, organisms that combine organic and biomechatronic parts and have enhanced abilities through the integration of components that rely on feedback systems, has been discussed heatedly since the 1960s. However, the rapidity of recent technological development has meant that some now see all human life as inevitably becoming more entwined with that of machines.  Elon Musk, the serial scientific inventor and business magnate, has thus argued that humans must indeed become cyborgs if they are to stay relevant in a future dominated by artificial intelligence, and he is not alone in his thoughts.  Such life-changing rhetoric requires vociferous challenging by those who do not wish to see such a future, and it is important that there is a balanced and open debate about transhumanism and the desirability of humans becoming cyborgs.

Those with pacemakers, artificial limbs and cochlear implants, are already combinations of machine and humans, and companies such as Calico, a business within the Alphabet group that also owns Google, are already undertaking research that will use technology to enable people to lead much longer and healthier lives.  Those who wear “fitbits” that transmit their bodies’ physical data to companies that then use it to generate revenue from marketing or insurance are already virtually cyborgs.  It will not be long before more people start arguing for humans to be chipped with their digital identities just like their pets, so that they no longer have to have physical biometric identity cards. Transhumanism (also known as H+) is an extreme form of such thinking that seeks to transform humans by using technology to enhance human intellect and physiology.  Companies such as Kernel are seeking to develop a wave of new technologies that will be able to access, read and write from the human brain.  Even if most people reject the extremes of H+, the general argument that ICTs should be used to enhance humans is now becoming much more widely accepted than it was previously.

This has very significant implications for education systems, especially in terms of the ways that humans store and process memory.  Children are increasingly relying on digital memories, especially access to the Internet or the memories on their digital devices.  They are also being encouraged to use their brains for skills other than merely acquiring knowledge, although good traditional education systems were never merely about simple knowledge acquisition as is often claimed.  We know that brains adapt remarkably quickly to their environments, but insufficient research has yet been done on the systematic way through which ICTs are changing brain function.

 

This is the third in a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the first was on Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education, and the second was on Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.  The original report for UNICEF contains a wealth of references upon which the above arguments were based, and will be available should the report be published in full.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under cybersecurity, Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Transhumanism

Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education


Exploring the future of the interface between ICTs and education for UNICEF recently provided a valuable opportunity to reflect on the conflicting evidence about the influence of ICTs on education.  Despite all of the research and evidence gathering about the use of ICTs in education, it still remains extremely difficult to know what their real impact is, and how best to deliver on the potential that they offer, especially among the poorest and most marginalised.  There are at least seven main reasons for this.

1. The time for educational change to have an outcome

Learning and education are cumulative; they take a lifetime.  Measuring the impact of education interventions is therefore fundamentally different from measuring, for example, most health-related impacts.  It is possible to inoculate populations with a vaccine, and to measure its impact almost immediately in terms of the health outcomes.  However, it is impossible to inoculate against ignorance; there is no vaccine that can guarantee successful learning.

It is therefore extremely difficult to measure the long-term significant outcome of a relatively short and novel educational intervention, such as the introduction of tablets into schools for a couple of years, without there being a consistent and long-term method of actually measuring those outcomes.  Some things can certainly be measured in the short-term, but these may not actually be the most important and significant long-term learning outcomes.  Moreover, it is extremely difficult over a long period of time to assess the precise impacts of any one intervention.  Many factors influence educational change over time, and it may be that observed learning outcomes are not necessarily caused by the specific technological intervention being studied.  Determining real causality in education is extremely difficult, especially in longitudinal studies.

Linked with this, many ICT for education interventions are specifically initially planned for a relatively short periods of 3-5 years.  This is usually the sort of duration of research grants and donor-funded projects, but it is far too short a term to enable real impacts fully to be grasped.  The pressure of reporting, and the need to show success within a short time, to seek to guarantee further funding, also has a significant impact on the types of evidence used and the ways through which it is gained.

2. Diversity of research methods: you can show almost anything that you want to

Different kinds of research lead to different types of conclusion.  Research results also depend fundamentally on what the aims of the research are.  Two pieces of perfectly good research, that are well designed within their own fields and published in peer-reviewed journals, can thus show very different results. Three particular challenges are relevant.

First, there are often very different results from short-term quantitative and long-term qualitative research.  It is relatively easy to go into a number of schools for a short period, gather quantitative data about inputs and outputs, and find the evidence to write a glowing report about the positive outcomes of an ICT for education intervention.  However, most such accounts are based on self-reporting, schools can prepare to show off their best attributes for the day of the visit, and researchers can be beguiled into believing what they hear.  In contrast, long term qualitative immersion in a small group of schools for several months can show much more clearly exactly what is going on in them, and usually leads to very differing types of conclusions with respect to ICT in education. Moreover, there is a systemic bias in much evidence-based policy making, especially by governments and international organisations, whereby they prefer large scale quantitative studies, which have apparently representative samples, to the insights gained from in-depth hermeneutic and qualitative approaches.  This tends to lead to a focus on inputs rather than outcomes.

Second, biases are introduced because of the interests of the people doing the research or monitoring and evaluation.  Many ICT for education initiatives have begun as pilot projects, either by companies eager to show the success of their technologies, or by researchers eager to prove that their innovation works.  It is perfectly natural that the ways through which they design their research, and the indicators that they choose to assess will seek to highlight the intended positive outcomes.  All too often, though, unintended consequences are ignored or simply not looked for, despite the fact that these frequently provide the most interesting insights.  Very little research on the use of ICTs in schools to date, for example, has explored the impact that this might have on online child sexual abuse, or other forms of harassment and bullying.

Third, much depends on the aims of the research.  Tightly constrained experimental design to explore, for example, how the use of a particular device influences activity in certain parts of the brain, can indeed show apparent causality.  Linking that, though, to wider conclusions about children’s learning and the desirability of incorporating a specific technology into schools is much more difficult. Much of the good quality research to date has tended to focus on relatively closed systems, where it is indeed possible to undertake more rigorous experimental design.  Much less research has been undertaken on the more holistic and systemic interventions that are required to ensure the successful adoption of new technologies.  In part, this is because of the different approaches that exist in the academic community between the physical sciences and the social sciences.  The aims of research in computer science or mathematics are, for example, often very different from those in sociology or the humanities.  This reinforces the need for there to be much more emphasis on multi-disciplinary research for there to be clearer conclusions drawn about the overall impact of ICTs in education.  Moreover, much of the experimental research, for example using Randomised Control Trials, has been undertaken in the richer countries of the world, and all too often conclusions from this are then also applied to poorer contexts where they may well not be appropriate.

3. Transferability and context

There is considerable pressure to identify solutions that can work universally, and it is a natural tendency for people to hear of something that has appeared to work in one context and then try to apply it to another.  All too often, though, they do not realise that it may have been something very specific about the original context of the intervention that made it successful.  The pressure for universal solutions has in large part been driven by the interests of the private sector in wishing to manufacture products for a global market, and also by donors and international organisations eager to find universal solutions that work and can be applied globally.  All too often the reality is that they cannot be applied in this way.

4. The diversity of technologies

Many contrasting ICTs are being used in education and learning in different contexts, and it is therefore not easy to make generalisations about the overall effectiveness of such technologies.  The use of an assistive technology mobile app, for example, is very different from using a tablet to access the internet.  Determining exactly what the critical intervention is that can benefit, or indeed harm, learning is thus far from easy.  Indeed, because of this diversity, it is actually rather meaningless to talk about the overall impact of technology on learning.

5. The focus on inputs

Inputs are much easier to measure than are real learning outcomes.  Indeed, performance in examinations or tests, which is the most widespread measure of educational success, is only one measure of the learning achievements of children, and may often not be a particularly good one.  Most studies of the application of ICTs in education therefore focus mainly on the inputs, such as numbers of computers or tablets, hours of connectivity, amount of content, and hours of access to the resources, that have been implemented.   They show what the funding has been spent on, and they are relatively easy to measure.  Using such data, it is possible to write convincing reports on how resources are being used on “improving” schools and other learning environments.  This is one reason why governments often prefer quantitative studies that measure and represent such expenditure, since it reflects well on what they have done in their term of office.

However, it is extremely difficult to link this directly and exclusively to the actual learning achievements of the children, not least because of the multiple factors influencing learning, and the great difficulty in actually proving causality.  All too often a dangerous assumption is made.  This is that just because something is new, and indeed modern, it will be of benefit to education.  There have been far too few studies that seek to explore what might have happened if the large amounts of money spent by governments on new ICTs had actually been spent on some other kind of novel intervention, such as improving the quality of teachers, redesigning school classrooms, or event putting toilets in schools.  What evidence that does exist suggests that almost any well-intentioned intervention can improve the learning experiences of teachers and pupils, primarily because they feel that attention is being given to them, and they therefore want to respond enthusiastically and positively.

6. Success motives

One advantage that ICTs have in this context is that they are seen by most people as being new, modern, and an essential part of life in the 21st century.  Parents and children across the world are therefore increasingly viewing them as an integral and “natural” part of any good education system, regardless of whether they actually are or not. The myth of modernity has been carefully constructed.  The motives for success of those advocating their adoption in education, may not, though, be strictly to do with enhancing education.  The need to show that ICTs contribute positively to education, and thus the results achieved, may not actually be driven primarily by educational objectives.  Politicians who give laptops with their party’s logos on to schoolchildren are often more interested in getting re-elected than in actually making an educational impact; technology companies involved in educational partnerships are at least as likely to be involved because of the opportunity they offer to network with government officials and donors as they are because of any educational outcomes.  The key point to emphasise here is that monitoring and evaluation studies in such instances may not actually be primarily concerned with the educational outcomes, but rather with the success anticipated by those with powerful interests, and should therefore be treated with considerable caution.

7. Monitoring and evaluation: a failure of funding, and reinventing the wheel

A final reason why it is so difficult to interpret the evidence about the impact of ICTs on education concerns the general process of monitoring and evaluation of such initiatives.  All too often, insufficient funding is given to monitoring and evaluation, regular self-enhancing monitoring is not undertaken, and any thinking about evaluation is left until the very end of a project.    A general rule of thumb is that the amount spent on monitoring and evaluation should be around 10% of total project costs, but those seeking to use ICTs for education, particularly civil society organisations, often argue that this is far too high a figure, and that they want to spend as much as possible of their limited resources on delivering better education to the most needy.  All too often, monitoring and evaluation is left as an afterthought near the end of a project at the time when reports are necessary to convince funding agencies to continue their support. If good baseline data were not gathered at the beginning of a project, particularly about learning attainment levels, then it is not possible to obtain accurate evidence about the real impact of a specific piece of technology.

A second main challenge with monitoring and evaluation is that practitioners and researchers often seem to reinvent the wheel and develop their own approaches to identifying successes and failures of a particular intervention, rather than drawing on tried and tested good practices.  As a result, they frequently miss important aspects of the rather different processes of monitoring and of evaluation, and their work may also not be directly comparable to the evidence from other studies.

Implications

One obvious implication of the above is that we need more independent, multi-disciplinary, cross-sectoral and longitudinal research on the use of technology in education.  However, all research will represent the interests of those involved in its commissioning and implementation, and needs to be treated with the circumspection that it deserves.

A second important conclusion is to question the validity of much so-called evidence-based policy making in the field of technology and education.  If research evidence is based upon a particular set of interests, then it is logical to suggest that any policy based on it will in turn also reflect those interests.  Such policies can never be purely “objective” or “right”, just because they claim to be based on evidence.  Indeed, a strong argument can be made that policies should be based upon visions of what should be (the normative) and not just what is (the positive).

 

This is the second of a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the first was on Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.  The original report for UNICEF contains a wealth of references upon which the above arguments were based, and will be available should the report be published in full.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Learning, Monitoring and Evaluation, poverty, Uncategorized

Interesting practices in the use of ICTs for education


I have all too frequently been asked to suggest examples of “best practice” in the use of ICTs for education, and have always so far resisted.  “Best practices” tend to be promoted by those who wish to assert their pre-eminence in a field, or make considerable sums of money by selling their “solutions”!  I strongly believe that there is no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” in education, and instead I argue that there are numerous good practices from which people can learn and develop their own local and contextualised educational activities using ICTs.

The opportunity recently to do some forward thinking with colleagues in UNICEF about the future use of ICTs in education, especially amongst some of the poorest and most marginalised children in the world, nevertheless provided the chance to reflect on the diversity of different dimensions of education in which ICTs are used, and also to identify examples of each from which we can all learn. The list below is a very attenuated summary of these case studies, drawing explicitly from different parts of the world and in different languages (although English dominates).  They were chosen in part based on the recommendations of colleagues with a wealth of experience working in the field, but the final choice of examples is my own.  Readers might like to add their own favourites as comments!

Visually impaired girl with BrailleEducational content and skills development

The development of different ICTs over the last two decades has led to an explosion of new types of content, and new ways of delivering it, increasingly through the plethora of apps on mobile devices.  Such content varies hugely in quality, in cost, and in the level of learning for which it is intended.

  • The power of multimedia One of the greatest strengths of ICTs is to bring learning to life through a diversity of multimedia resources.  In particular, games, videos and audio can enliven learning, and provide real world examples of how things work that cannot be experienced in schools.  Examples of multimedia include:
  • Re-versioning and localising content One of the benefits of open content is the opportunity that it provides for re-versioning existing content into local contexts.  Examples include:
  • Local content development Demand for local content in schools can also provide the basis for local economic growth in poorer countries of the world.  Examples include
  • Learning platforms for content and skills Content needs to be delivered in an appropriate and appealing format, that is also flexible and easily searchable.  Numerous such platforms have been developed, both for students and teachers.  Examples include:
  • Open and Proprietary Content  Many of the above initiatives are Open, but there are many Proprietary solution also available, especially for richer children.  One example where a government has chosen to purchase licences for proprietary content and make it available for free to its citizens is:
  • Teaching the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity  Some ICT-based initiatives have focused on new ways to develop the basic skills such as literacy and numeracy that are required building blocks for the more advanced skills of communication and creativity.  Examples include:
  • Assistive technologies enabling children with disabilities and special needs to access content About half of the world’s children with disabilities are out of school.  These are some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged children in the world, and yet have the most to gain from assistive technologies.  Examples include:

Pedagogy and the practice of teaching

Shuang Bai TTS computer labThe role of the private sector has been substantial in disseminating new ICT-based teaching practices. For many years, ICT corporations such as Microsoft and Intel have provided basic courses and training for teachers in how to use digital skills in the classroom.  These have traditionally tended to emphasise training in basic “Office” skills software that can be applied to an educational context.  There are few convincing examples of successful teaching training initiatives that have really inculcated a comprehensive understanding of how the balanced use of ICTs can enhance the delivery of education in the poorest countries of the world.

Digital skills

laptopIn a world increasingly dominated by technology, the successful acquisition of digital skills by young people has become a high priority for many governments and companies.  It is important to differentiate between three broad types of digital skills: the basic skills necessary to use digital technologies; advanced skills specifically in areas such as coding and programming, often linked to an emphasis on the perceived importance of increasing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education; and the skills associated with knowing how to live in an increasingly digital world and to negotiate the challenges of digital technologies as well as their benefits.

Monitoring and evaluation

Unless high quality and appropriate monitoring and Girls school teamevaluation is undertaken on the impact of ICTs on educational outcomes, existing systems will not improve, and the real effects of new interventions will not be known.

Administration

It is widely recognised that the successful use of ICTs in education programmes is heavily dependent on the enthusiasm of head teachers, principals and school administrators.  An integral part of the success of such initiatives has been the design and use of appropriate Educational Management Information Systems (EMISs) that provide for digital collection, processing, analysis and reporting of school data.

Assessment

It is important to differentiate between the use of ICTs for formative and summative assessment

  • ICTs in formative assessment Many of the platforms and content delivery mechanisms through ICTs described above also contain quizzes and tests that can provide an important element of formative assessment for children.  Examples include:
  • ICTS in summative assessment ICTs are also increasingly being used for summative assessment, especially since more sophisticated systems are now available that enable securer communications and reduce the ability of students to cheat.

Access to the potential benefits of ICTs in education in low-resource environments

1Providing ICT for education connectivity and content in low-resource environments remains challenging.  The following examples illustrate some of the ways in which infrastructure, devices and content have been made available in these circumstances.

 

This is the first of a series of short summaries of aspects of the use of ICTs in children’s education across the world based on my work for UNICEF (the second is on Why we don’t really know very much about the influence of ICTs on learning and education).  I must stress that these contain my own opinions, and do not in any way reflect official UNICEF policy or practice.  I very much hope that they will be of use and interest to practitioners in the field.

2 Comments

Filed under Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, Uncategorized

“The future of learning and technology in deprived contexts”: a report for Save the Children International


Save coverIt was an enormous privilege to work with David Hollow, Meghan Brugha and Mark Weber last year on a report for Save the Children International about the future of learning and technology in deprived contexts.  I am delighted that this has now been published in a slightly abridged version (available online here), and this post provides a short overview of our approach and our main findings.  The report looks forward to 2020 and 2025, and addresses three main issues;

  • the future of basic education,
  • ICT use in deprived locations, and
  • the use of ICTs in primary school learning, especially in deprived contexts

Method and approach

The report was based on: a detailed review of the literature; interviews with 32 leading authorities with direct experience of the use of technology in education, especially in low-income and crisis affected areas; a workshop that brought together 29 practitioners and academics from 9 countries working at the interface between technology and education to seek consensus as to the most likely scenarios that will emerge over the next decade; consultations with 22 Save the Children staff from 12 countries to ensure that their experiences were included in the report, and to validate our emergent findings; and our experiences of implementing and reviewing ICT for education activities across the world over the last 20 years.

Nine likely observations about basic education by 2025

Children 2We concluded that nine broad changes in basic education are likely to be apparent by 2025:

  • The pace of change in education is likely to remain slow in most countries
  • There will be increased diversity and inequality in learning practices and opportunities
  • Advocacy about the importance of qualified teachers will increase
  • There will also be increased advocacy about the need for fundamental curriculum and pedagogical change
  • The diversity of content provision will increase
  • There will be greater emphasis on non-formal and life-long learning
  • Holistic approaches to learning will become increasingly common
  • The private sector will play an increasing role in the delivery of education
  • The use of technology will be all-pervasive.

Eight generalisations about ICTs in 2025

Predicting the future of technology is always challenging, but there was general agreement amongst those we consulted that the following eight things are likely:

  • ICTs will become increasingly all-pervasive in human life
  • ICTs and their benefits will be increasingly unequally distributed
  • Digital technologies will become increasingly mobile, and newer types of mobile digital communication will be created
  • The costs of devices and connectivity will continue to decline
  • There will be a dramatic expansion in the production and use of large amounts of data, especially with the advent of the Internet of Things
  • There will be considerable increase in the personalisation of ICTs
  • Major global corporations, both in China and the USA, will play an ever more controlling role

ICT use in basic education in deprived locations

Drawing on both of the above sets of conclusions the main part of our report explores the implications for how ICTs will be used in basic education in deprived locations in the future.

ICTs in education in 2025

  • Our most important prediction is that the use of ICTs in education will become very much more diverse by 2025
  • There will be changes to the school systems of many countries that will encourage greater use of technology in education
  • In 2025 teachers will remain fundamentally important in education systems still dominated by schools.  However, in the best systems their role will have changed from being that of providers of knowledge to being guides to help children learn to navigate the world of digital information
  • There will be a new mix of digital content and device provision. Existing trends suggest that there will be much more digital educational content available, but it seems likely that much less of it will actually be used effectively by learners
  • Advances in the range of AI and IoT technologies combined with the increased power of big data analytics will enable much more personalised and refined assessment of pupils
  • There will be important changes in the role of parents and communities enabled through new online resources. It seems possible that the increasing failure of education systems across the world by 2025 will lead to a greater emphasis on learning outside school and in informal contexts

Implications for ICT deployment in education in low-income and peripheral areas

Five likely trends for ICT deployment in education in low-income and peripheral areas are:

  • There will be an increase in innovative solutions for ICT use in deprived locations; the use of ICTs will  become much more widespread in remote communities
  • Device sharing is already widespread in locations where access to them is expensive or difficult, and it is likely that this will continue to be the case in 2025
  • In areas that remain without much digital connectivity or electricity in 2025, it is likely that multi-purpose learning hubs, especially if they are co-located with schools, could remain a valuable addition to the array of options for delivering effective education and learning
  • Downloading and caching of key educational content, especially bandwidth heavy video, in locations where there is good connectivity, and its subsequent use in a distant unconnected school is likely to remain an excellent way through which content, and indeed management of administrative processes, can be undertaken cheaply and effectively
  • Learning will be increasingly mobile, and more of it will occur outside schools.  Parents who occasionally visit distant towns will be able automatically to download relevant learning content on their devices, including educational games and videos for their children, and everyone in their households could then benefit from accessing such content back at home.

ICTs for education in crisis affected areas

We identified a further set of likely roles of ICTs for education specifically in short-term acute crises, and also in long term protracted crises

Short-term acute crises

  • Mobile technologies will increasingly enable children fleeing such crises to continue to participate in both formal and informal learning
  • Much more extensive use will be made of online resources  to provide counseling for many different groups of people, including children traumatised by disasters and war
  • Online resources will be available specifically to provide children in acute crises with additional information about any crisis in which they are caught up so that they will be better able to survive
  • It is likely that by 2025 numerous different ICT-enhanced school-in-a-box solutions, combining connectivity, electricity, devices and content, will be available that can be set up quickly and effectively wherever in the world there is a need.
  • There will be much greater use of mobile phones by refugees to find out information about entering other countries, and what they need to know about the different cultures and ways of life there in order to survive

Long-term protracted crises

  • Many more digital community and learning centres will be created to provide online resources in refugee camps, where the ICT connectivity can also be used for a wide range of other purposes, including delivery of telemedicine and health training
  • Digital content, especially the use of video in multiple languages, accessible through robust child-friendly devices, can prove to be very valuable in such contexts to help create hybrid cultures of learning even where there is not Internet connectivity

Risks associated with digital learning in low-income and crisis-affected locations

While ICTs offer enormous potential for enhancing the delivery of appropriate learning for deprived children in marginalised areas, there are important risks that also need to be considered. These include

  • There is  an urgent need for all ICT initiatives, both in schools and more widely in community learning initiatives, to prioritise the safeguarding of children and the secure management of all information about children
  • A second concern that many have about children using ICTs, and especially the internet, is that of Internet addiction, whereby lives are ruined by causing neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems
  • Third, many schools across the world, in both economically rich and poor countries alike, prohibit the use of mobile devices in school classrooms because they are seen as being disruptive, although other concerns over cheating, health and bullying are also often cited

These problems, though, do not mean that children should be prevented from accessing the Internet or using ICTs.  As discussed above, ICTs can provide very valuable learning experiences and indeed enjoyment for children, and any risks need to be weighed up against the overwhelming benefits that can accrue from using digital technologies.  The critical need is to ensure that children, parents and communities are indeed all aware of the threats that exist, and that action is taken by governments (both national and local), companies, schools and individuals to address them.

Our report concluded with a series of specific recommendations for Save the Children at both the policy and programme levels.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Education, ICT4D, Inequality

Against “EdTech”…


Sitting in on a recent donor-stakeholder discussion about the use of ICTs to support education for poor people in developing countries, inspired me to formalize my critical thoughts on the increasingly common usage of the term “EdTech”.   There are three main reasons why this terminology is so problematic:

  • children-in-malawi-schoolFirst, the term EdTech places the emphasis on the technology rather than the educational and learning outcomes. Far too many initiatives that have sought to introduce technology systematically into education have failed because they have focused on the technology rather than on the the education.  The use of the term EdTech therefore places emphasis on a failed way of thinking.  Technology will only be of benefit for poor and marginalized people if it is used to deliver real learning outcomes, and this is the core intended outcome of any initiative. It is the learning that matters, rather than the technology.
  • jica-stm-ptc-computersSecond, it implies that there is such a thing as Educational Technology. The reality is that most technology that is used in schools or for education more widely has very little to do specifically with education or learning.  Word processing and presentational software, spreadsheets, and networking software are nothing specifically to do with education, although they are usually what is taught to teachers in terms of IT skills! Such software is, after all, usually called Office software, as in Microsoft Office, or Open Office. Likewise, on the hardware side, computers, mobile phones and electronic whiteboards are not specifically educational but are rather more general pieces of technology that companies produce to generate a profit.  Learning content, be it open or proprietary, is perhaps the nearest specifically educational technology that there is, but people rarely even think of this when they use the term EdTech!
  • intel-classmate-zambia-2010Third, it is fascinating to consider why the term EdTech has been introduced to replace others such as e-learning or ICT for education (ICT4E) which clearly place the emphasis on the learning and the education.  The main reason for this is that the terminology largely reflects the interests of private sector technology companies, and especially those from the US. The interests underlying the terminology are a fundamental part of the problem.  EdTech is being used and sold as a concept primarily so that companies can sell technology that has little specifically to do with education, and indeed so that researchers can be funded to study its impact!

1

Those who use the term EdTech are all conspiring to place the emphasis on the technology rather than on the education.  This is often deliberate, but always misguided!  Many of those who use the term are also concerned primarily in generating profits from education rather than delivering effective, life-changing opportunities for people to learn.  If you ever use the word again, please think twice about it, and preferably use something more appropriate!

4 Comments

Filed under Development, Education, ICT4D

Education reform in Pakistan: rhetoric and reality


Shia TretOne of the most interesting aspects of my visit to Pakistan in January this year was the informal, anecdotal information that I gathered about educational change in the Punjab, and in particular DFID’s flagship Punjab Education Support Programme II.  I should declare right at the beginning here that I used to work for DFID (between 2001 and 2004), and I am a member of their Digital Advisory Panel.  I have many friends in the Department, and I admire much of the work that they do.  I was therefore indeed shocked by what I was told and what I summarise below.

When ever the subject of this particular programme came up in conversation in Pakistan, it was always greeting with severe criticism, even derision.  Most of my conversations were with educationalists, academics, landowners, and rural people in the Punjab.  I have not shared these comments before, because they were indeed anecdotal, and I did not see the evidence with my own eyes.  Nevertheless, a report that a colleague recently shared with me by Gethin Chamberlain in the Mail on Sunday (not a paper that I ever usually read!) updated on 14th April 2016,  coincides so strongly with what I was told that I do feel it is worth sharing some of my insights here.

In summary, the Mail on Sunday report commented that:

  • “Department for International Development gives £700m to Pakistan
  • In Punjab, which gets £383m, auditor general uncovered huge corruption
  • 5,000 schools and 40,000 teachers syphoning off cash in other area, Sindh
  • Rana Mashhood is under investigation for corruption”

To be sure, such allegations undoubtedly reflect internal political battles within Pakistan, and continuing complaints about corruption more generally in the administration of agriculture in Punjab (see for example, reports in the local press about matters such as laser land levelling technology, and the widespread corruption in the Agriculture Department of the Punjab Assembly). They are also intended to add fuel to the newspaper’s campaign to “end foreign aid madness”!  However, they nevertheless reflect poorly on the role of DFID and on the implementation of this particular programme.  There is an amazing dissonance between the rhetoric of success, and what I heard on the ground in Punjab.

The DFID programme is ambitious, as highlighted in a report in 2013 by Sir Michael Barbour (DFID’s Special Representative on Education in Pakistan, and Chief Education Advisor at Pearson) entitled The Good News from Pakistan: How a revolutionary new approach to education reform shows the way forward for Pakistan and development aid everywhere.  In this, he says “This time it’s going to be different” (p.9).  The work of DFID is wide ranging, and has many elements to it, but one of Barber’s main contributions was to explore ways through which expansion in low-cost private sector educational delivery might spur the government to reform itself (pp.49-50).  The private sector is also involved heavily in other ways, with British Consultancy Firm iMC Worldwide (an International Development and Engineering Consultancy) being the main contractor in rolling out much of the school building programme on the ground, through the Humqadam initiative.  iMC maintains the rhetoric of success, claiming that “In Punjab, the programme is helping the government to meet overall provincial needs, by providing missing facilities in 16,000 schools and providing 27,000 additional classrooms”.  The Humqadam website itself provides further euphoric statements about Britain’s support for education in Pakistan, noting that “Evidence regarding Pakistan’s education opportunities comes from none other than David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Great Britain.  Following a recent visit to Pakistan, he laid the foundations for the initiation of this programme by highlighting the importance of education and Great Britain’s deep commitment, the Department of International Department (DFID), to support education sector reform and the promotion of a quality education for all school age children” (sic).  Humqadam goes on to note that they are working on school construction and rehabilitation using a £184 million allocation of funding from DFID, as well as funding from the Australian DFAT.

Irrigation and peopleThe reality, as it was relayed to me, is very different. Clearly, these are anecdotes, but the following were the main points that my colleagues mentioned:

  • They felt that the project was well behind schedule, and feared that delays would mean that delivery would thus be rushed in an attempt to catch up, leading to poor quality.  The programme was frequently described as a “joke”.  In contrast, DFID’s Development Tracker page suggests that there was a substantial over-spend in 2013/14, and a slight underspend in 2015/16, with 2014/15 being just about on budget.  Moreover, DFID’s most recent review of the project dated January 2016 had provided an overall very positive account of the work done so far, although it did note that “The school infrastructure component has been slow to perform” (p.2).
  • There was also a strong perception that those involved in the design of the project had not grasped the actual realities of the educational challenges on the ground in Punjab.  The truth of this is much more difficult to judge, but there was undoubtedly a feeling that the views of influential “outsiders”, who rarely visited schools and villages on the ground, but spent most of their time talking with senior government officials in offices in Lahore or Islamabad, had been prominent in shaping the programme.  Interestingly, I also overheard a fascinating conversation between two foreign aid workers over breakfast one day in a smart international hotel.  They were absolutely scathing in what they said about the programme in both design and delivery, and seemed to verify the comments that I had previously received from my Pakistani friends.  I so wanted to go over and ask them more, but I had felt guilty about listening to their conversation; in my defence, they were speaking so loudly that it was actually impossible not to hear what they were saying!
  • CowsFor me, though, the most important thing was what people said about the actual delivery of school building on the ground, and how it did little to counter the  power of landlords.  I was, for example, told on several occasions that some landowners used the newly built school buildings as cattle byres, and that the first thing that teachers had to do in the morning was to clean out all of the manure that had accumulated overnight before they could start teaching.  More worryingly, I was given one account whereby my interlocutor assured me that on more than one occasion a landlord’s thugs had beaten teachers and threatened to kill them if they ever returned to their new school buildings.  The reality and threat of rape for women teachers was a common complaint.  Again, I never witnessed this, but the assuredness of those who told me these stories, many of whom I deeply trust, makes me inclined to believe them.  This is the perceived reality of education reform on the ground in Punjab.

Even if these stories are untrue, and are themselves myths designed to undermine DFID’s important work in trying to help deliver better education in the Punjab, they are indeed damaging to DFID’s reputation.  I would love to know more about the reality of these claims, but as was pointed out to me during my time in Pakistan, it is not easy for a white European to spend time in villages, especially overnight, in the parts of Punjab where such things might be happening.

The main thing that persuaded me to write this piece was a Facebook message I received this morning, that then suddenly disappeared.  It read:

“It is true though Tim Unwin.  What is really pathetic is that neither Dfid nor Sindh/Punjab government are made accountable for those children whose education will discontinue after this debacle. Education Fund for Sindh boasted enrolling 100 thousand out of school kids. Overnight the project and project management has vanished, website dysfunctional…Poof and all is gone. There is no way to track those children and see what’s happening to their education”

This is so very sad.  We need to know the truth about educational reform in Pakistan – and indeed the role of donors, the private sector and richly paid consultants – in helping to shape this.   I cannot claim that what I have been told is actually happening on the ground, but I can claim that this is a faithful record of what I was told.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Development, Education, ICT4D, Pakistan, Uncategorized

Thoughts on mobile learning for the EFA GMR 2015


GMRI was delighted to have been asked by UNESCO to write an overview of the evolution of mobile devices and their uses in learning (m-learning), focusing especially on the fifteen-year period of the first Millennium Development Goals, as a background paper for the 2015 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, and it is great that this has now been published.

I thought it might be useful to summarise some of the key points here. The paper highlights eight emerging good practices, and six significant policy implications. The emerging good practices are:

  • Focusing on learning outcomes not technology
  • Involving teachers and users at all stages from design to implementation and review
  • Involve participatory approaches in design so as to ensure that adoption of technology is user-centric
  • Consider sustainability, maintenance and financing right at the beginning
  • Think holistically and systemically
  • Ensure that all relevant government departments are involved
  • Ensure equality of access to all learners, especially those who are marginalised
  • Appropriate and rigorous monitoring and evaluation must be in place

The policy implications identified are closely linked to these and can be summarised as:

  • Joined up approaches across Governments
  • Sharing of effective and rigorous monitoring and evaluation findings
  • Ensuring affordability
  • Providing connectivity
  • Effective multi-stakeholder partnerships
  • Development of relevant content

Four case studies drawn from different parts of the world and at different scales were used to illustrate the considerable success that can be achieved through m-learning. These were:

  • BBC Janala in Bangladesh;
  • Red UnX: a mobile learning community for entrepreneurship in Latin America;
  • Learning on the Move in Singapore; and
  • Worldreader: making books available to primary school children in low-income countries

However, the paper also illustrates clearly that unless very considerable efforts are made to ensure that the poorest and most marginalised people and communities have access to appropriate devices, connectivity and electricity, any increased attention on digital technologies is likely to increase inequalities rather than reduce them.

It concludes that to date, great strides have been made in using the very rapid expansion of mobile devices for the benefit of education, and for those companies involved in exploiting this. However, as a review of delivery on the past EFA goals and MDGs, it is apparent that much remains to be done in using such devices to help achieve universal primary education and gender equality in education.  Looking to the future, as more and more people gain possession of, or access to, mobile devices, they will have the opportunity to use the Internet to access an ever more innovative array of learning tools and content. The challenge, particularly for governments, is how to pay for and use this potential to enable universal access, and thus equality of opportunity within the education sector. Given the central role of teachers and administrators within education, an important concluding recommendation is that much more attention should be paid to providing training, resources and support to them in the use of mobile devices. A well-equipped, knowledgeable and inspired cadre of teachers, capable of using mobile ‘phones effectively in their classes, is a crucial first-step towards delivering m-learning for all. Sadly, all too often, even in the richest countries of the world, children are told to switch off their mobile ‘phones before entering the classroom. M-learning has much potential, but we are still a long way from using it to benefit the world’s poorest and most marginalised.

Leave a comment

Filed under 'phones, Development, Education, ICT4D