Last week in London, 93 countries’ representatives attended the largest non-declaration-producing gathering of international education leaders worldwide. Over 100 education ministers and their delegations attended the 10th annual Education World Forum (EWF) in London sponsored by the British Council, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, HP, Promethean, Pearson and many other partners. The discussion centered on the role of technology and the broader challenges and opportunities that countries face in pursuit of their goals. The EWF culminated in guided tours of the Bett, the largest education technology show on earth, where delegations, often accompanied by innovation ministers, researched technology solutions for their school systems. Attending delegations represented 77 percent of the world’s learners and included countries ranging from Sweden to Uzbekistan to Sri Lanka.
There are many aspects of the use of technology in education that are universal, despite different contexts and applications. No matter the level of development, technology should be fit for the purpose set out by education planners. Without a clear framework driven by policy objectives, priorities and values, technology may replicate or even magnify problems in the sector at greater risk and expense. Still, exposure to technology-driven models informs policymakers of a wider range of tools to prepare students for the idea economy, as argued in a Getting Smart by former Gates Foundation Executive Director of Education Tom Vander Ark. Playing with the Promethean Activ Table, for instance, provides a powerful illustration of technology’s ability to support collaborative learning in elementary school students—the table is designed to support play among six children, and each one has to agree before changing tasks by pressing the touch screen.
Worldwide, planners grapple with the question of whether or not technology will directly impact learning outcomes. The theory that replacing pen and paper with tablets and in-class demonstrations with avatars will better excite and involve children may be rooted in our experiences observing the magnetic force field of iPads and videogames on children from as young as one year of age. Although we still need more evidence about how the many new forms of technology affect learning, exchanging pen for stylist without improving other critical conditions in developing countries is unlikely to transform learning outcomes. Additionally, the positive impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is mediated by many factors, including infrastructure, understanding of ICTs among teachers and leadership, the extent to which technology meaningfully supports pedagogy, and time to learn about and plan for the integration of technology. In many developing countries, limitations in these and other factors create barriers to technology adoption. Meanwhile, evidence from the United States emphasizes the importance of basic elements of education—with the effectiveness of the teacher the most important in-school factor affecting learning outcomes. At the Bett show, one of the best attended demonstrations was given by a teacher who passionately illustrated the power of the quadratic equation with a rope with bobbles on it as a means of showing what his computer was doing automatically. His antics, not the computer, were captivating.
Worldwide, technology is transforming the reach of education. In developing countries, a variety of forms of technology—including mobile phones, radio and television—have supported learning in innovative ways, creating an extended virtual classroom. In high- and low-income countries alike, blended and e-learning modalities are powerful ways to reach learners—equally in rural Nova Scotia and Botswana. Once learners are connected, technology is also seen as an equalizer: In Uruguay, parents refer to Plan Ceibal, a program which distributed tablets for 500,000 children, as a democratization of learning because any child with access can equally fulfill their curiosity.
Many ICT strategies in low-income countries now hinge on electrification or solar energy and internet coverage as critical steps toward more ambitious goals. The extent to which low-income countries will focus on attaining power and coverage in remote areas and for marginalized groups such as young mothers or people with disabilities depends on national priorities. Just as in the case of access to education, access to technology in rural, poor and sparsely populated parts of a country may be more expensive per user or less of a political priority. If disadvantaged groups are not explicitly targeted by ICT strategies, the inadvertent result may be that they fall further behind. On the other hand, ICT strategies and specific technology can be used to counteract challenges that disproportionately affect marginalized groups, for instance the use of digitized curriculum to support teacher training and gender-sensitive practices in rural India.
Despite the cost related to adoption, over time appropriate technology adoption offers the opportunity for cost savings and efficiency on a scale that cannot be ignored. In many countries, the cost of textbooks is one of the larger line items in education budgets. The introduction of pre-loaded tablets, at a cost as low as $50 per student, could significantly reduce this cost over time and opens up possibilities for publishing in local languages. Similarly, countries are analyzing the potential savings related to the introduction of simulated science labs where an initial investment in hardware and software replaces the recurring cost of laboratory materials and reduces safety hazards. Education management systems offer the possibility of removing person-hours in exam review—this could cut costs over time and the amount of time that students in low-income countries have to wait to receive end-of-school results (wait times can be as much as five months for secondary students in Malawi, during which time rural girls are susceptible to societal pressure to accept marriage proposals). In the U.K. and other developed markets, schools increasingly turn to cloud-based systems or blended systems as more efficient than servers alone.
Where teaching and pedagogy are evolving in line with our changing world, technology can support teachers and reinforce the need for relevance in education. OECD data shows that even with high levels of unemployment in 2010, over 40 percent of employers in Australia, Japan, Mexico and Switzerland still reported difficulty filling jobs with qualified candidates—pointing to the fact that education systems are not adequately preparing learners for the demands of market. Skills drive outcomes, and the skills that the 21st century workforce demands include problem-solving and collaboration. A powerful example of how technology has responded to this reality is the Assessment & Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) assessment system developed after three years of research in partnership by Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and the University of Melbourne to promote collaborative learning and ICT skills. The assessment system focuses on tasks that teams of students perform and provides formative assessment data to teachers within thirty minutes. Australia, Finland and Singapore have introduced the assessment into their education system. Developing country delegations at EWF were interested to learn that Costa Rica made 21st century skills a priority and implemented the assessment system while still tackling challenges related to literacy and numeracy. A variety of other tools also encourage collaborative work through interactive hardware and software. “Flight Up” in Finland supports brainstorming through the use of tablets and an interactive blackboard, giving better opportunity to introverted students who are less likely to raise their hands. Pre-loaded tablets support changing pedagogy in another way: Teachers are able to give reading assignments based on where children are developmentally, instead of having one assignment for the class that leaves some students behind. This could help to address the damaging effect of overambitious curricula and the need to allow children to read and learn at stage-appropriate levels.
The field of technology and education is hard to navigate given the multitude of options and the unclear evidence of impact. In this environment and given scarce resources in developing countries, it is critical to root choices in priorities that support learning outcomes and to consider the fundamentals that will affect foundational skills. Although the evidence to support best practices in technology adoption is inconclusive in many regards, studying data from pilot projects and considering how technology promotes effective teaching and education system management, extends the reach of the classroom, prepares learners for the demands of the market and the world, and creates cost-savings can help guide decisions.