One of the first activities in my professional career was to participate in the Technology-Enhanced Learning Investigation of the South African Department of Education in the early 1990s, which ultimately led to the establishment of the South African White Paper on e-Education. This policy was gazetted in 2004 and, at the time, widely lauded as being the most comprehensive policy on ICT in education on the continent, although very few of its policy objectives were ever achieved. Since then, I spent considerable time researching, documenting, and evaluating ICT in education initiatives on the continent; for example in an extensive report produced for the Association for the Development of Education in Africa’s Working Group in Distance Education and Open Learning in 2003 and another co-authored report on ICTs for Education in Africa produced for eTransform Africa in 2011. More recent reports, such as a UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) Information Paper on ICT in Education in sub-Saharan Africa and another from Agence Française de Développement, Agence universitaire de la Francophonie, Orange, and UNESCO on Digital Services for Education in Africa, both released in 2015, provide rich descriptions of many ongoing initiatives to harness the purportedly massive educational potential of ICT to solve key educational problems of different kinds and prepare African students more effectively for the rapidly changing world of work into which they are entering.
Sadly, my experience, both in terms of my own professional practice and my readings of many thousands of pages of research, has been that, despite more than two decades of ICT in education policy development, strategic planning, and implementation across the continent, many millions of dollars of investment, and widespread access to evaluation and research reports documenting lessons learned from hundreds of different projects, the pattern of mistakes made has changed remarkably little (interestingly, the UIS report still describes this continental practice as ‘embryonic’ despite the many years of implementation, illustrating the limited progress made). While the mistakes come packaged in different forms, especially when projects harness the latest technological innovations and experience the problem as ‘new’, the list of key reasons for failed investments has changed remarkably little over the years.
Deriving from the reports linked above, here is a summary of key problems that occur repetitively in ICT in education initiatives:
- The absence of comprehensive policies which enable and support interventions and which are supported by clearly defined and resourced strategies for implementation at national level as well as at the level of educational institutions.
- Lack of financing and prioritisation of ICT investments. ICT integration in education requires national budget support as well as nationally driven partnerships with the private sector. Total reliance on donor-funded projects that are necessarily driven by differing donor agendas will lead to standalone projects that are not sustainable.
- Limited infrastructure of the kind required to support the use of ICT in education (particularly connectivity and energy).
- Lack of capacity at all levels to integrate and support the use of ICT in education effectively. Of particular relevance here are: the capacity to manage initiatives effectively at Ministry level; capacity across the system (whether it is internal or outsourced) to maintain infrastructural investments); and capacity of school principals to develop effective school strategies to integrate ICT into the day-to-day operations of the school.
- Lack of necessary ICT skills among teachers, and of the specific training needed to be able to use ICT appropriately in the classroom. There tends to be limited emphasis on a change of focus from computer literacy for teachers to understanding ICT integration in education from a pedagogical perspective.
- High turnover of skilled technical personnel, as institutions are unable to pay salaries that are competitive with the private sector.
- Short supply of appropriate and improvised content ranging from learning materials to learning support tools.
- Lack of accurate, comprehensive, up-to-date data on education, which can be used to make ongoing management decisions about intiative rollout. Missing information might include data on device types, deployment patterns, bandwidth in schools, teacher capacity, and professional development activities, amongst others.
- Lack of investment in systemic research, monitoring, and evaluation on ICT for education and development.
Although of course, not all problems apply equally to all initiatives, and there have been some success stories, it is telling that the patterns of mistakes made are so common when reviewing reports that span than 20 years of practice.
Why is this? It seems strange given that there are so many reports, all freely available online, that describe these challenges and urge planners and policy makers to avoid them, and these reports are routinely consulted during project planning processes. Although they are all avoidable and there are good projects that have manged to avoid many of these pitfalls, there are other underlying issues, often less discussed that increase the likelihood of them recurring, even when plans are ostensibly in place to avoid them.
Often, these problems emerge because so many ICT in education initiatives are driven by a political imperative to distribute devices to schools and students, in an effort to garner short-term political support rather than to improve educational outcomes. Although this is not necessarily problematic per se, it introduces three distorting tendencies:
- No matter what subsequent planning is done and statements are made about the educational benefits of this intervention, the drive remains rollout of technology not improving education. Indeed, the key political promise is typically the promise of delivery of hardware of some kind. This means, for example, that rollout needs to continue to meet political promises, regardless of whether the process is demonstrating educational success.
- Typically, politically driven initiatives are allocated special, once-off budgets, which are used to procure technology and connectivity, do marketing, train teachers, and sometimes develop content. This lack of integration of ICT budgets into the annual operating budgets of the education system generally makes the initiative unsustainable in the long run, as little consideration is given to how technology will be replaced and maintained, connectivity costs sustained, teacher and principal professional development continued, and the services of full-time personnel within the Ministry of Education retained, amongst other ongoing costs.
- Even where careful initial planning is done, politically motivated projects inevitably face pressures to deliver, forcing accelerated timelines. When there is political pressure to deliver results, an almost inevitable consequence is that technology procurement and rollout runs ahead of other aspects of the initiative, such as development of high-quality educational resources, school-level planning, and capacity-building of principals, teachers, and other key stakeholders. This results in technology rolling out before the system has been equipped to absorb and harness it meaningfully, which seriously undermines the effectiveness of the investment.
Linked to the above problem, initiatives to create ICT in education policies, even where they lead to a fully-fledged policy, fail because they are not effectively integrated with overall educational policy. Mostly, they stand separately as policies, rather than ICT investments being seen as integrated strategies to achieve overall educational policy goals. This type of policy development has the unintended effect of contributing to policy complexity, a self-reinforcing cycle that can be depicted as follows:
ICT in education policies contribute to this cycle when rollout of ICT comes to be perceived as a policy priority in its own right, rather than as a tool to help to actual educational problems. Although most ICT in education policies read well in their own right, when considered within the broader context into which they are to be implemented, they are typically hopeless unrealistic in defining the scale and level of systemic change that will occur within limited timeframes. When this happens, ICT investments end up being layered on top of education systems as an additional expense, without driving any significant other changes in educational practices or creating any new systemic efficiencies. They are then not accompanied by, say, meaningful curriculum reform that jettisons much of the irrelevant curricula and teaching approaches that form the dominant focus of most students’ school experience and that do not require technology to teach; school-level timetabling changes that might enable ICT investments to drive meaningful transformation of schooling systems and how they are resourced; or displacement of existing costs, such as manual costs of communication, administration, and monitoring of schools and the wider system so that technology investments can be sustained. In the long run, this will, at best, be unsustainable and, at worst, can contribute to eroding systemic capacity as money is diverted into ICT expenses without improving either productivity or efficiency in the system.
Finally, at the heart of many of the challenges routinely documented in this field is that large-scale ICT in education are typically centrally conceptualized and take a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to implementation. This problem is not exclusive to ICT in education, but just one example of the tendency to treat all public schools as if they are operationally similar, although this is simply not true. One consequence of this is that the ICT investment in every school is largely the same regardless of their levels of preparedness, their working culture, their level of engagement with the school community, and the quality of their school management, amongst other factors. This problem is exacerbated by centralized procurement processes, which favour such implementation approaches and typically procure services that must be delivered within defined timeframes regardless of whether or not these timeframes are realistic. Annual government budgeting processes, which often prevent rollover of project funds from one year to the next only worsen this problem.
There are unfortunately no easy solutions to this problem unless and until ICT in education initiatives are systematically aligned to specific measurable educational policy objectives, rather than to political objectives that are largely unmeasurable in their effect.
In my experience, this can usefully involve considering the following possibilities, amongst others:
One: Arguments about how to harness ICT most effectively in education should start, at least in part, with understanding how these technologies can be used to improve the efficiency of operations of the underlying systems of education, where benefits and cost-savings are already proven. Successful application of ICT in improving systemic efficiency and operations can lead to improvements in delivery of all education, regardless of what teaching and learning strategies are finally being used to communicate with students. In particular, initial investments should be made in developing applications that:
a) Significantly improve the quality of management information systems (at national and institutional level) and the ability to use these systems to support strategic decision-making and policy implementation; and
b) Contribute to stimulating free and reliable flow of information and communication throughout the education system.
Until these investments are successful, there is likely insufficient evidence of systemic preparedness to harness ICT for direct educational purposes to justify further investment.
Two: At a high level, decisions should be taken to halt or significantly slow the pace of certain policy implementation processes, with a view to giving the education system additional space to solve a small number of fundamental problems thoroughly and sustainably. Education systems in the developing world simply do not have the capacity to do everything simultaneously, despite the strong pressure to do so. This process may have to include decisions to dismantle – or temporarily freeze – identified policy implementation structures to create more distinctly phased implementation of policy frameworks. As part of this process, consideration could usefully be given to massively simplify regulation of education, so that it can focus on ensuring that a few basic aspects of education are implemented effectively and accountably, with ICT playing a key role in supporting this process.
Three: Develop implementation and procurement strategies that enable phased rollout of ICT according to proven capabilities of institutions to harness the investment. This might conceivably have to phases:
- Phase One: ‘Pushing’ Technology to Educational Institutions, which might focus on:
- Establishing a robust, scalable ICT connectivity network for the public education system;
- Rolling out ICT infrastructure for administration and management purposes, both for administrators and managers and educators;
- Rolling out ICT infrastructure for teaching any subjects for which the curriculum explicitly requires computer infrastructure.
- Phase Two: Enabling Educational institutions to Take Ownership of ICT Integration. Once an institution has reached a basic level of e-maturity, the responsibility for defining its ICT needs and vision should shift to the educational institution itself. Institutions need to be supported by an enabling environment created by the Ministry of Education at all levels, but would ideally be responsible for defining and driving their own investments in ICT to suit their educational vision, context, and objectives. This shift might be described as a ‘pull’ strategy, as individual institutions would not receive further investments in ICT in education unless this is specifically requested within the framework of a documented institutional educational technology plan.