Computers in Schools: Why Governments Should Do Their Homework

Time and time again, governments and NGOs herald the purchase of ICT as a panacea for improving the quality of education. The recent plans of Gauteng in South Africa are a good example. This study from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) provides an useful summary of the research done on the impact of ICT in primary level classrooms.  Latin America and the IDB have been at the forefront om some high-profile “One Laptop per Child” projects such as the Plan Ceibal (Uruguay), Enlaces (Chile) and the OLPC Programme in Peru, on which I blogged before.

Some extracts:

The evidence so far is quite persuasive that programs that overlook teacher training and the development of software may yield low returns.

One promising avenue lies in the use of ICT to realise productivity gains in school management:

The collection, transmission, and analysis of data on enrollment, absenteeism, test scores, and infrastructure can help principals spot a problem in a given classroom, administrators spot an exemplary school, and policymakers track the performance of the educational system and the resources available. However, the gains in productivity seen in the business sector are rarely seen in the educational system, some have argued, because most education managers are not knowledgeable in the use of information management tools.

Studies that measured the impact of ICT, both of the access to computers and the use of computers, found more often than not no significant impact on learning outcomes – an overview is included in the report.  The authors note that it’s not sufficient for ICT investments to produce a positive impact, they should produce a positive impact compared to traditional instruction and, even better, to similar investments in other areas such as teacher training, smaller classes or libraries.

All other things being equal, the impact of ICT investments will be higher when the quality of teaching is low, as the potential for learning gains is higher. This underlines the risk of extrapolating findings from developed to developing country context.

Some recommendations from the report:

  • Given the high investments, the low number of decent impact studies is surprising.  The impact of ICT investments heavily depends on the context and on the implementation.  As such, results from impact studies cannot be generalized over different programmes.  Start on a limited scale and build impact evaluation into the programme design is important.
  • Important to keep the Total Cost of Operation (TOC) of ICT investment into account rather than the purchase price. This includes maintenance, training, connectivity and electricity costs.  Recurrent costs typically take up about 40-50% of the initial investment (in Latin America).  These are permanent costs, which imply savings elsewhere in the education system or an overall increase in expenditure. A large share of rural schools, high electricity and connectivity costs and high wages (as in South Africa) thus increase the share of recurrent costs.
  • Most successful ICT project implementation focus on honing ICT skills of learners and pursuing Computer-Aided Instruction (CAI), for example for maths.

Piketty and Inequality in South Africa

Every month, hundreds of children are fleeing abject poverty in Zimbabwe and heading to South Africa. It’s a dangerous journey, but many take the risk in the hope of a better life. But once on the other side, there is help. With the support of UKaid from the Department for International Development, there is food, shelter and the chance to go to school. Find out more in our feature: Africa is a very unequal country.  It has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, in particularly since various Latin American countries managed to bring their coefficients down in recent years.  It should be noted that the Gini coefficient is an indicator of inequality in income, not in wealth.  However, given South Africa’s history of Apartheid and colonialism, including wealth into the equation is not likely to reduce inequality.  Conceded, the Gini coefficient also ignores progress that has been made in the provision of basic services to the poor in housing, electricity provision, healthcare delivery and education infrastructure.

Why does inequality matter? A certain degree of inequality may well be positive for society.  It stimulates people to find their talents and get the best out of them.  However, too much inequality poses various problems.   It’s morally indefensible that some people earn orders of magnitude more than others, whatever their skills. There’s also research that points to negative political effects of high inequality.  In unequal societies democracy tends to be hollowed out as decision processes are captured by a tiny elite, the masses are powerless and become disentangled and the social state is dismantled.  No longer “having skin in the game”, they vote for extremists.  Economically, high inequality reduces consumption, compared to a more even distribution of means.  High inequality also reduces social mobility, wasting talent.

Economists disagree on the evolution of inequality.  Kuznets argued that in the initial stages of development, a country becomes more unequal.  Some people move from poor to rich and compared to (almost) everyone being poor, this constitutes more inequality.  As more people grow rich, inequality would drop.  This view was challenged by Piketty in his book Capital.  Piketty’s central thesis is that inequality naturally rises within a capitalist system, because the rate of return on wealth exceeds that of income (or economic growth).  Rather than focusing only on equality of opportunity, Piketty shows that we should also worry about the inequality of outcomes.  Piketty’s thesis has drawn both praise and criticism.  Most critics acknowledge that inequality is rising, but dispute whether it’s an inherent characteristics of capitalism or whether they are other factors at play, such as globalisation and its tendency for delocalisation and winner-takes-all markets and automation, threatening many low-skilled and medium-skilled jobs.  Piketty favours the ‘utopian’ solution of a global, progressive wealth tax. Awaiting utopia, progressively taxing income and property may help.  Piketty argues that insufficiently progressive tax rates are at the basis of skyrocketing top wages.

How relevant is Piketty’s analysis of inequality for developing countries?  South Africa, with 1% of the population earning 15% of total labour income and with two thirds of the population living in poverty, seems like a good illustration of Piketty’s thesis.  Economic growth has been anaemic for years, whereas income from property and assets have been rising.  High youth unemployment and lack of unemployment benefits are one driver of inequality.  A second is the high wage gap within the workplace.  The low quality education system churns out too many unqualified people and too few qualified ones. For maths, only 3% of Grade 9 learners achieve a score higher than 50% at the latest Annual National Assessments (ANAs) and 90% remain stuck in the lowest category, which indicates a total lack of basic numeracy.  As a result, skilled people can command a premium and the former remain stuck in menial, poorly-paid jobs.  High inequality gradually erodes democratic institutions and public services are steadily privatized.

In other developing countries the situation is opposite. High inequality in countries such as Cambodia is rather the result than the cause of weak public institutions.  An effective administration to collect taxes, regulators to deal with monopolies and anti-corruption watchdogs, an impartial justice system are absent favouring a corrupt elite.  In this case, taxing the rich more will not help. Only building more effective institutions can address this.  This extends beyond nation states.

Solutions need to be found on a global scale.  Unfortunately, global governance institutions such as the WTO, WHO and the IMF provide global public goods, but suffer from a lack of democratic legitimacy, especially in developing countries.  Strengthening legitimate and global governance may help to address global inequalities.

Piketty’s book focuses on advanced countries, but the wealth of discussion it has triggered includes plenty of analysis of its relevance for developing countries.  Rising inequality within and between states is one of the defining themes of our times, partly causing and caused by Piketty’s work.

More information on the relevance of Piketty’s book for resp. developing countries and South Africa in particular can be found here and here.  Both articles are well recommended.

The picture at the top of this post is courtesy of DFID and is released under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Why Gauteng’s Plan for Introducing Smartboards in Every Classroom Is Not a Good Idea

monkeysLast week the MEC for Education in Gauteng announced plans for replacing all blackboards by whiteboards.  This comes after earlier plans to distribute tablets and connect schools to the internet.

There is hardly any evidence for a positive relation between the amount of ICT in a classroom and learning outcomes. In some cases, this might be due to a mismatch with traditional assessment practices and curricula.  Some highly performing education systems are famously ICT-absent such as Finland.  Large-scale projects such as One-Laptop-per-Child didn’t find such a positive relationship (see also my blog post on IDB study of OLPC Peru) and are now largely discredited.  At the very least, learners should get a personal device and teachers should be extensively trained and guided during implementation.  They should get time to explore and make mistakes. As Michael Trucano writes: personal laptops does not yet make personalized learning.  Systems with a few tablets or computers per class have a dismal track record. Apart from that, tablets are arguably the worst possible choice of device, as they’re designed for consuming content, much more than for creating content. Finally, curricula and assessment practices are often not adapted to the different kind of education that ICT enables, so that teachers will rather fit computers into their traditional ways of teaching and learning.

South Africa spends 6,2% of its GDP on education (2013 data), about the same as Belgium. However, about 90% are personnel costs, leaving schools with little space for investing in infrastructure. ICT infrastructure is expensive, in particular when the Total Cost of Operation (TOC) is taken into account (which is rarely done), which includes costs for bandwidth, electricity, insurance, security and maintenance.  Often the TOC is 10 times the initial purchase cost of the equipment.  It’s hard to see how South African schools are going to finance this.

The lack of research evidence stands in stark contrast with the discourse of policy makers.  This is easy to understand.  ICT holds the promise of ‘fixing’ a ‘broken’ education system. Policy makers are seen to take ‘decisive action’ and to be ‘modern’, ‘innovative’, finding ’21st century solutions’ for current-day ‘digital natives’.  This optimism is based on the potential of ICT in education, rather than its actual track record.  What often happens is that policy makers, assisted’ by vendors, have sought to simply transfer ICT-related models and practices from classrooms in industrialized countries to less developed education systems in other parts of the world, assuming reliable electricity and connectivity, well-trained teachers, sufficient available time-on-task, highly literate students, space to implement student-centric pedagogies, relevant content, etc. that do not correspond with local realities.

South Africa consistently ranks near the bottom of international rankings of learning outcomes such as those from SACMEQ, TIMMS and WEF. Massive investments in ICT hardly seems like the most urgent priority in a system with massive challenges in teacher competence, basic infrastructure such as sanitation.  Rolling back-outs, called load shedding in South Africa, raise the question how all these computers will be charged.

Additionally, dotted with one of the most unequal countries in the world, it’s hard to see how investing in ICT will bridge the digital divide in education.  Despite rhetoric that argues the contrary, introduction of ICT in schools often exacerbate various entrenched inequities in education systems (urban-rural, rich-poor, boy-girl, linguistic and cultural divides, special needs students ). Mitigating these inequities is possible, but requires explicit attention

So, is there no role for ICT at all in South African education?  The following areas seem more promising to me than equipping each learner with a tablet and each teacher with a smartboard:

  1. ICT’s main added value initially lies in school and class management. Helping educators to keep electronic learner records, lesson plans, test results etc. can greatly improve efficiency and monitoring quality.
  2. Helping teachers to become information literate, including basic online search skills, collaborative editing and knowledge management greatly improves their access to knowledge and resources such as OERs.
  3. Simulations and animations have proven to be helpful in science lessons, where many processes are too slow (geological processes), too fast (falling objects), too big (planetary movements) or too small (atom interactions) to demonstrate.

#H809 Research on MOOCs

credit: Freedigitalphotos

credit: Freedigitalphotos

Week 12 in the H809 course and MOOCs – the official educational buzzword of 2012 – couldn’t remain absent.  The focus in this course is not so much on what MOOCs are, their history and the different types with their various underlying pedagogies and ideologies.  I blogged on MOOCs before, as a participant in LAK11, a connectivist MOOC on learning analytics.  In H809 the focus lies on issues such as:

  • What kind of information and research is available on MOOCs?
  • What kind of MOOC research would be interesting to do?
  • What are benefits and limitations of the type of information on MOOCs that is around?
  • What is the educational impact (rather than the press impact) of MOOCs?

Much information on MOOCs consists of the so-called grey literature.  Main information sources include:

  • blogs from practitioners and academics, with an overrepresentation of academics from Athabasca Un. and the OU.
  • blogs from participants in MOOCs, sharing their experiences
  • articles in open academic journals such as IRRODL, EURODL, Open Praxis
  • articles in more popular education magazines such as Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of HE.
  • articles in the general press such as The Economist and The New York Times

Some comments on these sources:

  1. The term ‘grey literature’ may sound a bit disparagingly.  However, as Martin Weller writes, notions of scholarship and  academic publishing are evolving.  Blogs and open journals constitute alternative forms of scholarship with more interaction, less formality and shorter ‘turnaround’ times.
  2. Information and research on MOOCs is heavily Anglo-Saxon centred (or perhaps better Silicon Valley-centred?).  I couldn’t hardly find any articles on MOOCs in Dutch, although that might not be so surprising.  Although MOOCs (xMOOCs) are often touted as a ‘solution’ for developing countries, there are few perspectives from researchers from developing countries.  As Mike Trucano writes on the EdTech blog from the World Bank:

    “Public discussions around MOOCs have tended to represent viewpoints and interests of elite institutions in rich, industrialized countries (notably the United States) — with a presumption in many cases that such viewpoints and interests are shared by those in other places.”

  3. It’s interesting to see how many of the more general news sources seem to have ‘discovered’ MOOCs only after the Stanford AI course and the subsequent influx of venture capital in start-ups such as Coursera, Udacity and edX.  The ‘original’ connectivist MOOCs, that have been around since 2008, let alone open universities are hardly mentioned in those overviews.  A welcome exception is the Open Praxis paper from Peter and Deimann that discusses historical manifestations of openness such as the coffee houses in the 17th century.
  4. The advantage of this grey literature is that it fosters a tremendously rich discussion on the topic. Blog posts spark other blog posts and follow-up posts. Course reflections are online immediately after the course. Events such as a failing Coursera MOOC or an OU MOOC initiative get covered extensively from all angles. This kind of fertile academic discussion can hardly be imagined with the closed peer-review publication system.
  5. The flipside of this coin is that there are a lot of opinions around, a lot of thinly-disguised commercialism and a lot of plain factual mistakes (TED talks!).  MOOCs may be heading for a ‘trough of disappointment’ in Gartner’s hype cycle.  Rigorous research would still be valuable.  For example, most research is descriptive rather than experimental and is based on ridiculously small samples collected in a short time.  Interrater reliability may be a problem in much MOOC research .  Longitudinal studies that investigate how conversations and interactions evolve over time are absent.
  6. Sir John Daniel’s report ‘Making Sense of MOOCs‘ offers a well-rounded and dispassionate overview of MOOCs until September 2012.

Interesting research questions for research on MOOCs could be:

  • What constitutes success in a MOOC for various learners?
  • How do learners interact in a MOOC? Are there different stages?  Is there community or rather network formation? Do cMOOCs really operate according to connectivist principles?
  • What are experiences from MOOC participants and perspectives of educational stakeholders (acreditation agencies, senior officials, university leaders) in developing countries?
  • Why do people choose not to participate in a MOOC and still prefer expensive courses at brick-and-mortar institutions?
  • What factors inhibit or enhance the learning experience within a MOOC?
  • How to design activities within a MOCO that foster conversation without causing information overload?
  • How do MOOCs affect hosting institutions (e.g. instructor credibility and reputation) and what power relations and decision mechanisms are at play (plenty of scope for an activity theoretical perspective here).

A few comments:

  • High drop-out rates in MOOCs have caught a lot of attention.  Opinions are divided whether this is a problem or not.  As they are free, the barrier to sign up is much lower.  Moreover, people may have various goals and may just be interested in a few parts of the MOOC.
  • MOOCs (at least the cMOOCs) are by its nature decentralized, stimulating participants to create artefacts using their own tools and networks, rather than a central LMS.  cMOOCs remain accessible online and lack the clear start and beginning of traditional courses. This complicates data collection and research.
  • Although MOOCs are frequently heralded as a solution for higher education in developing countries, it would be interesting to read accounts from learners from developing countries for whom a MOOC actually was a serious alternative to formal education. The fact that MOOCs are not eligible for credits (at the hosting institution) plays a role, as well as cultural factors, such as a prevalent teacher-centred view on education in Asian countries.


Overview of posts on MOOCs from Stephen Downes:

Overview of posts on MOOCs from George Siemens:

OpenPraxis theme issue on Openness in HE:

IRRODL theme issue on Connectivism, and the design and delivery of social networked learning:

Armstrong, L. (2012) ‘Coursera and MITx – sustaining or disruptive? – Changing Higher Education’,

Peter, S. and Deimann, M. (2013) ‘On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction’, Open Praxis, 5(1), pp. 7–14.
Daniel, J. (2012) ‘Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility’, Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 3, [online] Available from:

Low-Cost Private Education in Developing Countries: The Beautiful Tree

The Beautiful Tree from James Tooley provides a powerful antidote to the one-sided focus on public education as the only route towards universal education.

Tooley uses historical and geographical arguments to illustrate that public schools are not the only way to educate children.  Public schools were introdCover image of The Beautiful Treeuced by nation states as an instrument to exert more control over education and ‘building society’.  Motives for education have evolved from instilling democracy to preparing an industrial workforce. Standardized education systems with grades, curricula and exams are a reflection of an industrial society.  Before the introduction of schools, however, alternative education systems were in place based on community learning and apprenticeship, such as the Madras method with older students teaching younger ones.  Jean Lave described such forms of learning in developing countries, which formed the base for his concept of ‘Communities of Practice’.  

The title of the book refers to a quote from Gandhi, in which he refers to the introduction of standardized, school-based education by the British colonialists, who claimed that no education system was in place,  as the ‘uprooting of a beautiful tree’.  Neither is public education the only game in town in developing countries.  Tooley describes numerous private schools in slums and poor neighbourhoods, charging parents around 5$ per month.  But why would parents pay for education if  free public education is available?

Tooley presents research showing that  low-cost private schools in poor regions often do a better job in educating the poor than public schools. There are different reasons for this.  The main one is direct accountability, creating clear incentives to provide quality education.  Directors in private schools are under pressure from parents to recruit and train teachers well and to control them.  Teachers are under pressure to perform as parents want value for money and check on their children’s learning.  Directors have more flexibility to reward and lay off teachers.  In public education, accountability is much lower and indirect, through elections and bureaucratic monitoring systems. The result is  rampant absenteeism and low motivation.  Tooley quotes Kenyan figures of 30% absenteeism (about 1 chance in 3 that an unexpected visit finds that a scheduled lesson is not going on), and I think Cambodian figures could well be in the same order.  In Cambodia, many public school teachers double up as teachers in private schools, adhering more importance to the latter.

Private schools charge fees to poor parents. This might seem immoral at first sight, but Tooley dismisses the image of private schools directors as heartless capitalists. Most schools waive fees for the poorest.  Public education is free in name only. Informal  (uniforms, books, exam fees) and hidden (obligations to take additional tutoring, ‘contributions’ for exams) fees make public education often  quite expensive.  Public schools tend to be bigger and less concentrated in poor neighbourhoods than private schools, as they need scaling to cover for higher teacher and administration salary costs.

Finally, as Tooley and Duflo and Banerjee argue, people, even poor people, are willing to pay for education, provided they get value for their money.  Data on the number of poor people choosing to send their children to private schools, despite so-called free public education, are quite staggering.  In Cambodia private schools are popping up everywhere, many charging 5 to 10 dollars a month, an amount feasible for many Cambodians.  Many seem more interested in quality education, rather than free education.

Tooley blames development partners in putting all focus on achieving ‘free public education for all’, crowding out local entrepreneurship with donor money and neglecting quality and accountability.  Parents preferring private education are dismissed as ‘ignoramuses’ (quoting Oxfam), who don’t know what’s good for them. Instead of propping up inefficient government systems, he advocates helping educational ‘searchers’ (a term from Easterly)  through legal support and micro-finance   Targeted vouchers for poor students are more efficient than subsidising everyone. He advocates ‘brand’ development to help parents identify quality, similarly to the brand McDonalds guarantees a certain ‘quality’ of hamburger (hmm, perhaps not the best example).  

It’s a thought-provoking book, questioning many strategies we apply in Cambodia. Inefficiencies in the government system (low salaries, low teacher motivation, low accountability, corruption…) are considered as ‘external’ assumptions and mostly ignored. Donors cooperate with governments and supporting private schools would actively undermine the government’s own education system.  Western approaches to schooling and education are unquestioningly transferred to developing countries.  Private initiatives to  education are condemned as ‘antisocial’ and ‘low quality’.  I recommend Tooley’s book as it challenged assumptions about the role of the state and the school in education, not only in developing countries.