Tag Archives: ICTs

On digital happiness


Are digital technologies making people across the world any happier?  I recently posed this question on social media, commenting that I did not think they were, and was challenged by a colleague from Africa who implied that it was obvious that ICTs had increased human happiness in his part of the world.  Whilst I have touched on this issue in my previous work (ICT4D, 2009,  and Reclaiming ICT4D, 2017), I have never really teased out the difficult issues involved in answering such questions, preferring instead to focus mainly on the impact on inequality of economic growth supported by technological innovation , and the differences between development agendas based on absolute and relative definitions of poverty.  It is timely to address this issue in a little more depth.

Defining happiness

Butterfly mediumA large part of the challenge in exploring the relationships between digital technologies and happiness depends on the controversial issue of how happiness is defined.  Philosophers, psychologists, medical doctors, theologians, and even economists have long debated what happiness really is, and each has their own definition.  In psychology, one of the best-known approaches to happiness is Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs, but self-determination theory, free-choice approaches (see some of Inglehart‘s work, as well as Sen’s notions), and positive psycholoy (largely influenced by Seligman) all have much to say about happiness.

In very general terms, happiness is a collective word to describe positive feelings such as success, amusement, gratification and joy.  Many of the difficulties with the word derive from the observation that although we may know when we feel happy or sad, we do not always know the cause of the emotion, and it is not easy to measure it consistently.  Indeed, at the extremes, one person’s happiness might be another person’s sadness.  It is thus perfectly possible that one person playing digital games for six hours on end could feel elated as a result, whilst another could feel suicidal.  This illustrates the well-known view that digital technologies act primarily as an accelerator of things such as economic growth or human emotion.

Digital technologies, international development and happiness

Over the last two decades some work has explicitly explored the interface between  digital technologies, international development and happiness. As noted above, my own work has briefly explored this, as for example has Heeks in his 2012 paper on ICTs and Gross National Happiness.  Both of us, I think independently, were drawn to this important notion coined by the King of Bhutan in 1972, and have highlighted its role in leading Bhutan to measure Gross National Happiness as a key indicator of progress, emphasising that development should be holistic, combining both well-being and economic growth.  This clearly runs counter to the global hegemony on development largely as economic growth, which is enshrined in the MDGs and SDGs, and sees digital technologies as one of the prime drivers of such growth.

There are also now various new initiatives that are explicitly exploring the interface between digital technologies and happiness.  One of the most interesting of these is the University of Oslo TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture’s HAPPY project focusing on Responsible innovation and happiness: a new approach to the effects of ICTs, which is funded by the Norwegian Research Council.  Its core objective is to explore how we can “assess the complex and multifaceted impacts of ICTs on individuals’ welfare, and shape ICTs research and innovation activities towards responsible trajectories”.  One of its partners is NUPI, which has also published Maurseth’s (2017) useful overview on ICT, growth and happiness.

On the dehumanisation of labour

AI for Bad 2019

Most people still read this as “AI for Good”; image altered to make the point!

Until recently most digital technologies or ICTs have been largely seen as agents for good.  The ITU’s “AI for Goood”, or the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress with its 2018 slogan “Creating a Better Future” are but two graphic examples of this.  Underlying this positive image, though, have been the very significant advertising efforts of large global corporations eager to expand their markets by focusing exclusively on the positive benefits brought by ICTs; they truly make the world better, and people happy!   Moreover, this is all too frequently represented through the logic of increasing economic growth, and reducing absolute poverty.

Back in the 19th century Marx wrote passionately about the ways through which the rise of the factory system under capitalism dehumanized labour.  Very similar arguments have also been applied to the ways through which digital technologies are dehumanizing not only labour, but also many other aspects of human life as well in the 21st century (see my, 2016, Dehumanization: cyborgs and the Internet of Things, and more fully in Reclaiming ICT4D).  Almost by definition, dehumanization seems opposed to happiness.   Two simple digital examples can be used to illustratge this.  E-mails and online learning have dramatically extended the working day for office labourers who are now usually expected to be available online wherever they are for well beyond the traditional norm of 8 hours daily work – are they happyer as a result?  Likewise, 3D-printing is now replacing the happiness of human craftsmanship involved in creating fine objects.

Much more worrying, though, is the dark side of digital technologies, which is all too often hidden from the innocent eye.  To be sure, digital technologies do indeed have many positive benefits, but increasing research and attention are now at last shedding more light on their negative aspects.   UNICEF’s (2017) excellent report on Children in a Digital World, for example, provides a well balanced account of both the positive aspects of digital technologies and the harm that they can do.  Increasing evidence points to the link between smartphone use and depression amongst young people (see for example Twenge, 2017), addiction to digital technologies is becoming a growing concern (Brown, 2017) with clinics being set up across the world to treat it (see also Gregory, 2019), online gambling has been widely criticised for the harm it causes, and the role of social media in the rising tide of suicides is now being seen as an urgent prioirty that needs to be addressed by governments.  All these provide clear evidence that digital technologies do not always lead to the blissful happiness promoted in the advertising campaigns of digital corporations.

On method – historical and comparative

There is a clear need for much further research on the conditions under which digital technologies can indeed lead to greater human happiness, and those where they lead to a downard spiral of misery.  Methodologically, we need both historical and comparative studies to identify who is happier and why they are so when they use these technologies.  We need to understand more about the longitudinal experiences of those who were alive before computers and mobile phones became readly available and affordable.  We also need to understand much better what it is that enables some people to use digital technologies quite happily, whereas for others they can be the cause of misery so severe that people kill themselves.

The digitisation of human life

In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on what the future holds.  It has traditionally been thought that human happiness comes in part from the use of all of our senses of feeling, touching, seeing, hearing and smelling.  If this is so, happiness can be seen to derive in large part from fulfilment of this sentient being in the world.  Sitting for hours in front of a computer or other digital device has already been widely condemned for the negative health impacts that it causes: obesity, muscle degeneration, eye damage, back pain, and organ damage.  This is hardly happiness.  However, with the increasing commingling of human and machine, it may be that our cyborg future will no longer require traditional sentient experiences for us to be happy.  Our happiness may derive in the future from electrical impulses directed by neurally connected chips to stimulate feelings of happiness.  The rise of Transhumanism (H+), and the increasing numbers of people who are choosing to have microchips inserted in their bodies, is but one more step on this journey.

BirdI am privileged to have been born long before mobile phones existed, and vividly recall the first laptops, digital typewriters, and the pleasure of physically printing out cards to run my Fortran programmes.  I have also had the pleasure of recovering from broken bones, and the exhilarating happiness of playing the sports that caused them!  This has given me the sense that living life to the full as humans, being truly happy, does indeed require use to use all our senses.   We need wide public debate on the future relationships that we want to have with machines, a debate not driven by the economic interests of global capital, but one in which the joys of human sentient happiness can also be applauded and priortised.

 

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The gendered language of ICTs and ICT4D


I have long pondered about writing on the gendering of language in the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), but have always hesitated because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.  However, I feel that the time is now right to do so following the recent launch of our initiative designed to change the attitudes and behaviours of men in the ICT/tech sector (TEQtogether).  This post may offend some people, but I hope not.  It is an issue that needs addressing if we are truly to grapple with the complexities of gender in ICT4D.

The way we use language both expresses our underlying cognition of the world, and also shapes that world, especially in the minds of those who read or hear us.  My observation is that in the ICT field most writers and practitioners have been blind to this gendering of language, and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualisation of ICT4D.  Four very different examples can be used to highlight this:

  • The gendering of electronic parts. For a very considerable time, electronic parts have been gendered.  Take, for example, male and female connectors.  This is summarised graphically in the populist but communal Wikipedia entry on the subject: “In electrical and mechanical trades and manufacturing, each half of a pair of mating connectors or fasteners is conventionally assigned the designation male or female. The “female” connector is generally a receptacle that receives and holds the “male” connector … The assignment is a direct analogy with genitalia and heterosexual sex; the part bearing one or more protrusions, or which fits inside the other, being designated male in contrast to the part containing the corresponding indentations, or fitting outside the other, being designated female. Extension of the analogy results in the verb to mate being used to describe the process of connecting two corresponding parts together”.  Not only are different electronic parts gendered, but such gendering leads to an association with heterosexual intercourse – mating.  Interestingly, in digital systems, it is usually the male part that is seen as being “active”: keyboards and mice (male) are the active elements “plugged into” a female socket in a computer.  Yet, in reality it is the processing IMG_3261power of the computer (perhaps female) that is actually most valued.  Moreover, the use of USB “sticks”, often phallic in shape, can be seen as a clear example of this male/female gendering associated with heterosexual sex.  The use of such sticks to infect computers with viruses can also, for example, be likened to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in humans.  The shift away from the use of such male and female connectors to the increasingly common use of WiFi and Bluetooth can in turn perhaps be seen as one way through which this gendering might be being broken down, although much more research needs to be done to explore the gendering of all aspects of digital technologies.
  • The use of language in ICT4D.  Far too often the language associated with the use of technology in international development carries with it subconscious, and (hopefully) usually unintended, meanings.  In the light of the above discussion, the DIGITAL-IN-2018-003-INTERNET-PENETRATION-MAP-V1.00widely used term “Internet penetration” is, for example, hugely problematic.  The “desire” to increase Internet penetration in poorer parts of the world can thus be interpreted as a largely male, north American and European wish sexually to “penetrate” and “conquer” weaker female countries and cultures.  Whereas normally countries are “seduced” into accepting such Internet penetration, the forceful and violent approach sometimes adopted can be akin to rape, an analogy that is occasionally applied to the entire process of imperialism and its successor international development when considered to be exploitative of “weaker” countries or economies.  The implication of this is  not only that great care is needed in the choice of particular words or phrases, but also that the complex subconscious and gendered structures that underlie our understanding of technology and development need to be better understood.   For those who think this too extreme a view, why don’t we just talk about the spread of the Internet, or Internet distribution?
  • Digital technologies represented by male nouns. At a rather different level, languages that differentiate between male and female nouns often consider ICTs to be male.  Thus, a computer is un ordinateur in French, ein Computer in German, un computer in Italian and un ordenador in Spanish.  Likewise a mobile phone is un téléphone portable in French, ein Handy in German, un cellurlare in Italian, and un celular in Spanish.  Not all ICTs are male (it is, for example, une micropuce for a microchip in French), but it seems that in languages derived from Latin the majority are.  The implications of this for the mental construction of technologies in the minds of different cultures are profound.
  • Computer code: bits and qubits.  Computer code is usually based on a binary number system in which there are only two possible states, off and on, usually represented by 0 and 1.  Binary codes assign patterns of binary digits (or bits) to any character or instruction, and data are encoded into bit strings.  The notions of male and female are similarly a binary distinction.  However, it is now increasingly realised that such a simple binary division of gender and sexuality is inappropriate.  The recognition of LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning) identities challenges the traditional notions of binary distinctions that have long held sway in scientific thinking.  In particular, it can be seen as being closely isomorphic with many concepts of quantum computing, most notably the use of quantum bits (qubits) that can be in superpositions of states, in which any quantum states can be superposed (added together) to produce another valid quantum state.  This fluidity of gender, paralleling new notions in quantum computing, is particularly exciting, and may be one way through which the traditional maleness of ICTs and digital technologies may be fragmented.

These are but four examples of how the language of ICTs can be seen to have been traditionally gendered. They also point to some potential ways through which such gendering might be fragmented, or perhaps changed.  For some this will be unimportant, but let me challenge them.  If a largely male ICT or digital world is being constructed in part through the way that it is being spoken about (even by women), is it surprising that it is difficult to engage and involve women in the tech sector?  If we want to encourage more women into the  sector, for all the undoubted skills and benefits that they can bring, then surely we can all rethink our use of language to make the world of ICT4D less male dominated.

Finally, it is good to see that some of these issues are now being considered seriously by academics in a range of fields.  For those interested in exploring some of these ideas further, I would strongly recommend that they also read papers on gendering robots such as:

See also the following interesting article from a UK civil service (Parliamentary Digital Service) perspective on gender and language:

And thanks to Serge Stinckwich for sharing this interesting link from the BBC:

 

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Why the notion of “frontier technologies” is so problematic…


The term “frontier technologies” is increasingly being used to refer to the latest generation of technologies, especially digital technologies.  It is often also associated with the deeply flawed concept of a “fourth industrial revolution”.  The UN in particular has latched on to “frontier technologies”, mainly in the context of the impact of  Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning, as for example in the UN Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination’s series of papers on Frontier Issues, and UN DESA’s Economic Analysis and Policy Division’s work on Frontier issues: the impact of the technological revolution on labour markets and income distributionSadly, much of this work is ill-informed, and reflects a particular set of interests.  Whilst there is indeed some interesting academic work on the potential of so-called “frontier technologies” for international development, as with Ramalingam, Hernandez, Prieto and Faith’s (2016) IDS report on Ten frontier technologies for international development, most such research fails satisfactorily to consider the deep problems with the notion and the interests that underlie it.

In undertaking some foresight work for UNICEF recently on the future relationship between digital technologies and learning, I had the chance to reflect on some of these challenges and interests, and I am sharing these reflections below, in the hope that readers will understand more about the implications of such terminology, and will cease to use the term!  These are the introductory few paragraphs to a section of my report for them on Technological changes over the next decade:

“Currently, much attention is being paid to the likely labour impacts of the latest ICTs, and the kinds of education that will be required to enable people to gain appropriate employment in the workplaces of the future.[i]  The term “frontier technologies” is now frequently used to describe the latest technologies,[ii] and their implications for education have recently received increasing attention.

However, the concept of “frontier technologies” is deeply problematic, as is the notion of a fourth industrial revolution.[iii]  Such terms are used largely by, or about, the “heroes” of these self-conceived revolutions, in the hope of a self-fulfilling future; they beg no critique, nor any consideration of those left behind.  For example, the notion of “frontier technologies” draws heavily on the deeply embedded idea of the “American Frontier” in which US “civilization” was forged westwards, in large part through the use of new technologies.

The Frontier is thus conceived heroically, with the “savage” Native Americans, or First Peoples, being pushed westwards, to be replaced by “civilized” people mainly of European origin, as so clearly illustrated by John Gast’s famous late-19th century picture above.  Whilst the frontier was seen as being positive for the Europeans, carrying with it images of heroism and taming of the wilderness, it was anything but that for the Native Americans.  The latest “frontier technologies” of the 21st century can similarly be seen a vehicle through which USAn-led neo-imperialism is being further enforced on “peripheral” peoples and states beyond the “frontier”.  It is therefore strongly to be recommended that such terminology is rejected by those organisations and entities concerned with enhancing education in these poorer, more deprived contexts.

At a more mundane level, one person’s frontier can be someone else’s backwater; a 2G phone may indeed be novel to someone who has never had one before, whilst even a chip implant is now becoming passé for the digital human who has everything. This section therefore seeks to avoid such terminologies, and focuses instead simply on some of the most likely implications of technological change for education in the near future.”

———–

[i] See, for example, DESA (2017) Frontier Issues: the impact of technological revolution on labour markets and income distribution, https://www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/publication/2017_Aug_Frontier-Issues-1.pdf, accessed 30th March 2018.  There is considerable debate about the likely impact of AI on labour, and employment, with the latest OECD report arguing that the potential for AI to lead to considerable employment loss has been exaggerated in the past; see Nedelkoska, L. and Quintini, G. (2018) Automation, skills use and training, Paris: OECD, DELSA/ELSA/WD/SEM(2018)3, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/2e2f4eea-en.pdf?expires=1522776823&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=A498DE4EAEA4DDCC90DBE424AFB8DB0A, accessed 3rd April 2018.

[ii] See for example, Ramalingam, B., Hernandez, K., Prieto Martin, P. and Faith, B. (2016) Ten Frontier Technologies for International Development, Brighton: IDS, https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_524607_en.pdf, accessed 30th March 2018.

[iii] World Economic Forum (2016) The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/, accessed 30th March 2018.

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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.

 

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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.

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Filed under Education, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, Uncategorized

ICTs and the failure of the SDGs


Back in 2015 I wrote a short post about the role of ICTs in what I saw as being the probable failure of the SDGs.  Having attended far too many recent international meetings, all of which have focused to varying extents on how ICTs will contribute positively to the SDGs, I am now even more convinced that they have already failed, and will do very little to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

My 2015 post focused on five main issues.  In summary, these were:

  • There are far too many goals (17) and targets (169).  This has already led to diffusion of effort and lack of focus, not only within the ‘global system’, but also in individual countries.
  • Target setting is hugely problematic.  It tends to lead to resources being directed too much towards delivering measurable targets and not enough to the factors that will actually reduce inequalities and empower the poorest.
  • The SDGs remain largely concerned with absolute poverty rather than relative poverty.  The SDGs will do little fundamentally to change the structural conditions upon which the present world system is based, which remain primarily concerned with economic growth.  Although SDG 10 (on inequality) is a welcome addition, it is all too often ignored, or relegated to a minor priority.
  • These goals and targets represent the interests of those organisations driving the SDG agenda, rather than the poorest and most marginalised.  I suggested in 2015 that these were primarily the UN agencies who would use them to try to show their continued relevance in an ever-changing world, but they also included private sector corporations and civil society organisations
  • The need to monitor progress against the goals/targets will further expand the “development industry”, and consultants and organisations involved in such monitoring and evaluation will benefit hugely.

Subsequently, in 2017 I was part of the ITU’s collective book venture published as ICT-centric economic growth, innovation and job creation, in which I led on the second chapter entitled “ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements”.  This chapter argued that serious issues need to be addressed before there can be any validity in the claim that ICTs can indeed contribute to sustainable development.  The present post seeks to clarify some of the arguments, and to summarise why the SDGs and Agenda 2030 have already failed.  There are in essence five main propositions:

  • Inherent within the SDGs is a fundamental tension between SDG 10 (to reduce inequality within and among countries) and the remaining goals which seek to enhance “development” by increasing economic growth. Most of the evidence indicates that the MDGs, which were almost exclusively focused on economic growth as the solution to poverty, substantially increased inequality, and ICTs played a very significant role in this.  The SDGs are likewise fundamentally focused on economic growth, in the belief that this will reduce absolute poverty, while quietly ignoring that such growth is actually increasing inequality, not only between countries but within them.
  • There is also a fundamental tension between the notions of “sustainability” (focusing on maintaining and sustaining certain things) and “development” (which is fundamentally about change). Although there has long been a belief that there can indeed be such a notion as “sustainable development”, this tension at its heart has been insufficiently addressed.  What is it that we want to maintain; what is it that we want to change?  ICTs are fundamentally about change (not always for the better), rather than sustaining things that are valued by many people across the world.
  • The business models upon which many ICT companies are built are fundamentally based on “unsustainability” rather than “sustainability”. Hardware is designed explicitly not to last; mobile ‘phones are expected to be replaced every 2-3 years; hardware upgrades often require software upgrades, and software upgrades likewise often need hardware enhancements, leading to a spiral of obsolescence. (For an alternative vision of the ICT sector, see the work of the Restart Project)
  • The ICT industry itself has had significant climatic and environmental impacts as well as giving rise to moral concerns: satellite debris is polluting space; electricity demand for servers, air conditioning, and battery charging is very significant; and mining for the rare minerals required in devices scars the landscape and often exploits child labour. We have not yet had a comprehensive environmental audit of the entire ICT sector; it would make much grimmer reading than most would hope for or expect!  In 2017, the World Economic Forum even posted an article that suggested that “by 2020, Bitcoin mining could be consuming the same amount of electricity every year as is currently used by the entire world”.
  • Finally, the SDGs have already failed. In their original conceptualisation, each country was meant to decide on, and set, the targets that were most relevant to their needs and priorities.  As some of us predicted at the time, the number of goals and targets was always going to be a challenge for countries, especially those with limited resources and capacities to make these decisions.  Few, if any countries have actually treated the targets seriously.  Instead, the development industry has blossomed, and various organisations have set up monitoring programmes to try to do this for them (see, for example, UN Stats, OECD,  Our World in Data).  If countries haven’t actually established targets, and do not have the baseline data to measure them, then it will be impossible to be able to say whether many targets have actually been reached.

The SDGs serve the interests of UN agencies, and those who make huge amounts of money from the “development industry” that seeks to support them.  Private sector companies and civil society see the Goals as a lucrative source of profits since governments and international organisation are prioritising spending in these areas.  This is why the original choice of goals and targets for the SDGs was so important; people and organisations can make money out of them.

There is much debate over whether target setting, as in the MDGs and SDGs, serves any value at all.  Despite many claims otherwise, the MDGs failed comprehensively to eliminate poverty.  It must therefore be asked once again why the UN system decided to create a much more complex and convoluted system of goals and targets that was even more likely to fail.  The main reason for this has to be because it served the interests of those involved in shaping them.  They do not and will not serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.  We are already nearly one-fifth of the way from 2015 to 2030, and the SDGs have not yet properly got started.  They have therefore already failed.  It is high time that governments of poor countries stopped even thinking about the SDGs and instead got on and simply served the interests of their poorest and most marginalised citizens.  They could begin to do so simply by spending wisely for their poorest citizens the money that they waste on attending the endless sequence of international meetings focusing on how ICTs can be used to deliver the SDGs and eliminate poverty!  ICTs can indeed help empower poor people, but to date they have failed to do so, and have instead substantially increased inequality, both between countries and within them.  We need to reclaim ICTs so that they can truly be used to empower poor people.

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ITU and UNESCO Chair in ICT4D session at WSIS Forum 2018: International decision-making in ICT – where are the women?


The ITU is strongly committed to achieving gender equality across its organisational structures, and has been one of the driving forces for achieving gender equality in and through ICTs across the world, not least through its involvement in creating the EQUALS initiative.

One of the key international gatherings convened by the ITU has been the series of World Radiocommunication Conferences held periodically to reach international agreements on Radio Regulations, with new and revised Resolutions and Recommendations.  Traditionally, these have been very male dominated, and the ITU has therefore taken steps to encourage greater involvement of women at all levels in its decision-making processes.  One aspect of this has been the creation of the Network of Women for WRC-19 (NOW4WRC19), led by Dr. Hanane Naciri, which aims to encourage increased participation of women in the conference being held in 2019.  Its main objectives are to have a better gender balance among delegates, to prepare women for key roles in WRC-19, and to grow the women’s community capacity and contribution.

As part of this process, the ITU and the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D convened Session 113 at the WSIS Forum 2018.  This began with a lively panel discussion, opened by Dr Hanane Naciri (Radiocommunication and Software Engineer, Radiocommunication Bureau, ITU), with Sahiba Hasanova (Vice-Chairman, ITU-R Study Group 4 / Leading Adviser, Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies, the Republic of Azerbaijan), Caitlin Kraft-Buchman (CEO/Founder Women@theTable, Geneva, Switzerland) and Brigitte Mantilleri (Director of the Equal opportunities office of the University of Geneva).  The speakers shared some of their experiences of leadership in the field of ICT, commented on the challenges facing women who wish to participate in such events, and suggesting what needs to be done to involve more women at all levels in such processes (summary).

workshop

Building on these inspirational introductions, participants then shared their experiences, insights and suggestions for what still needs to be done to ensure that women contribute fully and appropriately to international ICT decision making, and especially to WRC-19.  Twelve themes were identified, and these were captured in a mind map which is available on the ITU and UNESCO Chair for ICT4D sites:

  • Top leadership and champions: it is essential that top leadership supports the increased participation of women, and that champions are identified who can promote such participation;
  • Ensuring that women are in powerful positions: women need to be supported throughout their lives, and particularly encouraged to take leadership roles;
  • Building and promoting networks: it is essential that we work together in intergenerational networks that can support and advise women participating in such decision-making activities;
  • Involving men: we must have male feminists as well as female ones who are willing to help change attitudes and cultures of oppression;
  • Training: more effective training programmes are necessary, particularly ones that help men to understand the relevant issues;
  • Organisational structures: addressing elements of organizational culture is key, and it is important to equip women to survive and flourish in the environments where they work;
  • Awareness and communication: the need to provide much more information about how women can contribute to such decision-making gatherings, and to confront people who have negative behaviours;
  • Changing norms: the need to address and revisit many underlying assumptions;
  • Incentivisation: the need to provide incentives to organisations and individual women to participate in such events;
  • The role of recruitment: recruitment agents can play a key role in ensuring balanced interview panels and processes, and in supporting a charter code of practice on gender;
  • Remember that inclusion is not the same as diversity: diversity is not enough and we need to be inclusive to ensure that women feel comfortable in whatever environment they find themselves; and finally
  • Recognising it may not happen overnight: given how slow change has been so far, we need to recognize it may not happen swiftly, but we must develop the momentum so that it will happen as quickly as possible.

Participants were committed to supporting EQUALS and working with the ITU to ensure that there is much greater involvement of women at all levels in WRC-19.

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