An interesting online course has started a few weeks ago, called CodeYear, organized by Codecamedy,  a start-up created by Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski.  The course takes one year and stimulates participants to take up the challenge to learn coding.  The focus is on object-oriented programming, in particular Java.

Screenshot CodeYear homepage, January 18

I’ve signed in and completed the problems for the first week.  The exercises are small chunks and introduce gradually the Java syntax.  For every problem you can access a forum with  Q&A for that specific problem.  Gradually you build up “achievements” and “badges”, intended to motivate you to continue.  It is unclear for me whether a certificate or ‘badge’ can be printed when reaching the end of the course.

The course works more as a clever tutorial for me, though, rather than an online course like MOOCs (e.g. change11) or my OU course.  There are no speakers, no clear course facilitators and interaction with other participants is rather absent (except through the Q &A forum).  

Apparently, the idea is to expand the course with assignments submitted by users.  That could be interesting, as it would lift the course from a nice introductory programming course to a collaborative and evolving course, in which you deal with real-life coding examples.

Screenshot on Return function (Week 2), CodeYear

The course relates to the wider discussion on what should be in a school’s ICT curriculum.  Should programming skills be considered as a basic digital literacy skill, as writers such as Douglas Rushkoff state?

“In 20 years, programming will be just another blue-collar job or related to almost every major employment field,” (Mr. Sims, co-founder Codecademy)

(NY Times)

“Children are being forced to learn how to use applications, rather than to make them. They are becoming slaves to the user interface and are totally bored by it,” he said.  (Mr. Livingstone, author Next Gen report)

        (BBC News)

I find it worthwhile to have the discussion whether a school ICT curriculum should move beyond learning to work with expensive, corporate software programmes.  I believe that programming would do more to develop children’s analytical skills, and also creativity.  Crucially, it will enable children to change their viewpoint of the internet as something you use, but cannot change to something you can shape.  

Student-Centred Approaches for Science Teacher Trainers

This week we organize the first in a series of workshops on student-centred approaches for science lecturers and Ministry of Education officials in Cambodia.Integrating student-centred approaches has received support from the Ministry of Education in recent years.  It has been integrated in the revised curriculum for teacher training and teacher trainers are regularly stimulated to move away from rote-learning and adopt a more active approach.Below I include the presentation I gave during the opening session, which provides some background on the concept of student-centred learning as an introduction to the more practical sessions of the workshop.

A main point in the presentation is that student-centred learning is not the same as working in groups. It means that students take more responsibility over their learning.  Some techniques that are introduced in this workshop focus on self-assessment, critical thinking, identifying misconceptions and active reading & writing, all techniques that can be done as individual activities.This workshop is only the first step in a change process.   Curriculum and assessment remain overtly content-oriented.  Follow-up activities are necessary to guide and stimulate teacher trainers, but are time-costly.  School directors, ministry officials and inspectors need to be convinced of the benefits as well, in particular in a hierarchical society as Cambodia.  

Why a bus system in Phnom Penh doesn’t make sense

A family vehicle

Traffic is undoubtedly a major annoyance for expats (and many locals) in Phnom Penh.  My daily ride to Takhmao, 10 km outside Phnom Penh, resembles a live video game dodging packed motorbikes, “remorque motos” full with garment workers, tortoise-like Lexus SUV’s and fume-belching Hyundai trucks. But, rejoice, because the city of Phnom Penh is considering introducing a bus system with assistance (meaning donations of discarded buses) from international donors.

There are many reasons to get frustrated by Phnom Penh’s traffic, but a lack of public transport is not one of them.  True, there are no buses in Phnom Penh – except for long distance buses and the ubiquitous minivans, plying the routes to neighbouring towns, and neither is there a tram or metro system.  No, Phnom Penh has a demand-based, flexible, cheap and door-to-door transport system.  It consists of ‘tuk-tuks’ and ‘motodops’. Motodops are motorbike drivers at street corners taking passengers. Tuk-tuks can take between 1 and 6 (for locals: 15) passengers, but can double up to transport motorbikes, furniture or about anything else.

Phnom Penh’s famous public transport system
Tuk-tuk sir?

I don’t understand the fixation on bus systems.  They offer no escape to congestion and, having experienced many bus trips in Cambodia, I wouldn’t call them safe either. Phnom Penhites don’t like walking to bus stops, which is understandable given the walking-unfriendly climate – with blistering heat (March -June) or torrential downpours (July – October) – and the absence of pavements (and shade).  No, the way forward is a better regulation of motodops and tuk-tuks, nurturing a convenience that is impossible to match with a standard bus or tram system.  

Phnom Penh’s emerging congestion is caused by a switch to cars by an increasingly affluent middle class. Chances are slim they would trade their newly acquired luxury for daily bus rides.  Buses would inevitably become the transportation mode of the poor, a stigma that western countries are desperately fighting.

The focus on tram and bus systems betrays lazy thinking and imposing western policies in a context that is culturally and environmentally very different. As in education, it makes sense to try understanding what people think, how existing capacities can be strengthened and how a city can be made more liveable for all its inhabitants.

Poor Education

I’ve been reading Poor Economics, from Abhisit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  The book that has been raking up awards and recommendations in 2011 (The Economist, Financial Times & Goldman Sachs, The Guardian, De Tijd).  It’s an engrossing read that contains loads of interesting information making you want to read it again as soon as you put it down, for fear of losing all the interesting insights the book contains.

The authors, affiliated to MIT and its impact evaluation spin-off J-PAL, take an evidence-based approach to poverty reduction, providing an overview of recent research in various domains of development economics (health, demography, finance, food, entrepreneurship…).  There’s a separate chapter on education.

The book highlights the frequent disagreement with “supply wallahs”, experts who focus on supplying goods and services to combat poverty, versus “demand wallahs”, who favour creating demands for goods and services by the poor themselves and creating free-market conditions.  These two viewpoints are highlighted for different topics of the book.  In education, for example, the supply wallahs focus on providing financial support to build schools, pay teachers and provide conditional cash transfers to parents to send their children to school.  Conversely demand wallahs see more benefit in increasing the (perceived) benefit for parents of sending their children to school by providing relevant skills, informing parents or increasing job opportunities.  When the benefits of education become high enough, enrolment will rise without the state having to push it.  People will send their children to cut-throat private schools (like in Cambodia), or if that is too expensive, they will demand that local governments set up schools.

The authors refer to the 3 I’s as the enemy of an evidence-based approach.  Many policies are driven by ideology, often clash with ignorance of ground-level realities and inertia at the level of the implementer.  Instead of starting from a grand vision to poverty reduction, they focus on evidence collected from (but not exclusively) randomized-trials in developing countries.  This evidence forms pieces of a puzzle that can inform us in designing sensitive development policies and creating incremental improvement in poor people’s lives.

“it is possible to make very significant progress against the biggest problem in the world through the accumulation of a set of small steps, each well thought out, carefully tested, and judiciously implemented…The political constraints are real, and they make it difficult to find big solutions to big problems. But there is considerable slack to improve institutions and policy at the margin…These changes will be incremental, but they will sustain and build on themselves. They can be the start of a quiet revolution”.

Often interventions are based on the intuition and experience of local aid workers, accepted wisdom and (cherry-picked) academic research.  A monitoring & evaluation programme is set in place, but is often more geared towards satisfying donors’ reporting needs than towards creating sound evidence for making informed changes to the project design.

Could we use randomized trials in our education programme in Cambodia?  Our main objective is to reduce the number of drop-outs from primary and lower secondary schools.  For example, we could try out various strategies and measure the effect on the drop-out rate in similar school clusters in the country:

  • School cluster 1: We provide cash to parents who keep their children at school
  • School cluster 2: We train teachers in using student-centred pedagogies to make lessons more relevant and interactive.
  • School cluster 3: We provide schools with ICT and multimedia
  • School cluster 4: We give teachers a topping-up to their salaries if a certain percentage of students pass their exams at the end of the year and enrol for the next one.
  • School cluster 5: We focus on outreach activities to parents and mass organisations to make them aware of the benefits of education.
  • School cluster 6: This is our control group, where no measures are taken.
Cambodian teacher trainers measuring

the Sun’s apparent movement

This kind of programme design would allow us to compare various measures to address high drop-out rates.  After a few years we could compare results in an objective way and scale up the most successful solution.  Or not?

When I think about the potential for applying similar rigorous testing in the education programme in Cambodia I see some obstacles:

  1. The field of development partners is very crowded in ‘donor darling’ Cambodia. This makes it difficult to create a level playing field in which measures can be compared with each other and with the status quo.
  2. Interventions in education aim at mid and long term effects. Some strategies such as focusing on teachers’ or teacher trainers’ teaching skills might take year to resort effects. Other policies, like building more schools may create immediate effects, making strategies hard to compare within the limited lifetime of most development programmes.
  3. Response and culture bias are important challenges in Cambodia, characterised by high power distance and the importance of avoid ‘losing face’. Honest evaluations of a programme are hard to achieve and require trust and strong facilitating skills. Often people say, write or do what they think you want to hear or what they think would yield them most benefit, ready to switch back to old habits as soon as the intervention stops.
  4. Even if an randomized trial that takes into account long-term effects, culture and response bias and the crowded development field would point out that conditional cash transfer is more effective than improving teachers’ pedagogical skills, would that then imply that we – as VVOB – would better switch our attention to conditional cash transfer programmes? Various strategies can be complementary. Results from randomized trials illustrate a measurable correlation at a given time and place in a particular culture, but do not necessarily proof causation. In other words, they don’t always have much predictive value in other contexts.

I find Poor Economics an invitation to look more closely at development interventions and try to avoid the lazy thinking that reduces every problem to the same set of principles.  Details matter.  The poor seem to be trapped by the same kinds of problems that afflict the rest of us – lack of information, weak beliefs, and procrastination.  We need to force ourselves to understand the logic of people’s choices, tailor interventions and be prepared to learn.

Some interesting (development economics) concepts from the book with relevance for education

Time inconsistency

 “In the present we are impulsive, governed in large part by emotions and immediate desire: Small losses of time or petty discomforts that have to be endured right now feel much more unpleasant in the moment than when we think about them without a sense of immediacy.  The reverse, of course, goes for small rewards that we really crave in the present; when we plan for the future, the pleasure for these treats seems less important.” (p. 65)


The use of incentives to give people a reason to act today, instead of convincing them first that the action is the ‘right thing to do’.  The key challenge is to design nudges tailored to the environment of developing countries.

Elite bias among teachers and parents

Teachers tend to pay only attention to their best students.  They ignore children who have fallen behind and focus on preparing the best students on the final exam.  Education systems in developing countries fail generally in their two basic tasks: providing children with a sound basic set of skills and identifying talent.  As a consequence, many parents stop taking interest in their children’s education. This behaviour creates a poverty trap even where none exists in the first place.  Many parents believe the returns to education are low at low levels and only high at higher levels, and that it is unlikely they will ever get to the higher levels, they may not want to make the effort to invest in the lower levels or hedge all their bets on one child. Parents seem to see education primarily as a way for their children to acquire wealth.  They see education as a lottery ticket, not as a safe investment.  Research indicates that each year of education has a similar value.  The combination of lack of information and incorrect expectations create an illusory poverty trap.

On Technology in education

“The current view of the use of technology in teaching in the education community is, however, not particularly positive. But this is based mainly on experience from rich countries, where the alternative to being taught by a computer is, to a large extent, being taught by a well-trained and motivated teacher.  This is not always the case in poor countries.  And the evidence from the developing world, though sparse, is quite positive.” (p. 100) 

This highlights what is particularly good about the computer as a learning tool: each child is able to set his or her own pace through the program.

On the poor as so-called natural entrepreneurs

Enterprises of the poor often seem more a way to buy a job when a more conventional employment opportunity is not available than a reflection of a particular entrepreneurial urge.  The emphasis on government jobs suggests a desire for stability, which brings a transformational effect: access to loans, higher value assigned to education, ‘mental space’ by reduced uncertainty.

PS The Economist has run a discussion on Poor Economics on its “Free Exchange” blog.