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10 Worst Practices in ICT for Education

By Wayan Vota on August 30, 2010

Michael Trucano, a recognized expert on deploying ICT in education, recently blogged about Worst practice in ICT use in education:

Here’s a list of some of what I consider to be the preeminent ‘worst practices’ related to the large scale use of ICTs in education in developing countries, based on first hand observation over the past dozen or so years. I have omitted names (please feel free to fill them in yourself). The criterion I used for selection was simple: The given worst practice was easily observable in multiple prominent initiatives, with (one fears) a high likelihood of re-occurrence, in the same or other places.

As one of his humble understudies in ICT4E, I found myself in agreement – these are worst practices that are repeated again, and again, and again, when technology and schools are mixed. As you read them, please think about how you’ll NOT let these practices happen in your next educational deployment:

1. Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen
This is, in many cases, the classic example of worst practice in ICT use in education. Unfortunately, it shows no sign of disppearing soon, and is the precursor in many ways to the other worst practices on this list. “If we supply it they will learn”: Maybe in some cases this is true, for a very small minority of exceptional students and teachers, but this simplistic approach is often at the root of failure of many educational technology initiatives.

2. Design for OECD learning environments, implement elsewhere
With the best of intentions, and often ‘assisted’ by vendors, many groups (including many governments) 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. Sometimes this works, but unfortunately many places roll out programs and products that have at their core sets of assumptions (reliable electricity and connectivity, well-trained teachers, sufficient available time-on-task, highly literate students, space to implement student-centric pedagogies, relevant content, a variety of cultural norms, etc.) that do not correspond with local realities. The result is often (and not unsurprisingly) not very good.

3. Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware
Deploying lots of computer infrastructure in schools is expensive (and complicated). So expensive, in fact, that many critical complementary investments (in training, in tech support, in content, etc.) are ‘postponed’ until a later date. Sometimes this is a calculated bureaucratic maneuver/risk — the thinking is that, once the hardware is in place, the need for content will be more clear, and it will be easier to make the case for related funding at that time) — and other times this is simply a lack of good planning. But it is a fact that, in many places, only once computers are in place and a certain level of basic ICT literacy is imparted to teachers and students is the rather basic question asked: What are we going to do with all of this stuff? Related to this …

4. Assume you can just import content from somewhere else
Some places recognize the need for quality educational content from the start, but assume they can simply import it from somewhere else. In addition to obvious potential cultural issues, the successful integration of content developed elsewhere into daily teaching and learning practices is inhibited by a lack of clear understanding by teachers of the relevance of such materials to the required curricula. Much effort typically needs to be expended to map this content to explicit objectives and activities in the local curricula. (And of course: Teacher training helps too!)

5. Don’t monitor, don’t evaluate
This should be self-evident. That said, there are only a handful of really credible, rigorous impact evaluation studies done of educational technology initiatives in developing countries. Most evaluation work focuses on (perceptions of) changes in attitudes as the result of the use of educational technologies, and the success (or lack of success) in meeting varius simple metrics (number of computers installed, number of teachers trained, etc.). Such information is important, of course, but it is hardly sufficient. What is the impact of ICT use in education? If we don’t evaluate potential answers to this question, rigorously and credibly, all we are left with is well-intentioned guesswork and marketing dross.

6. Make a big bet on an unproven technology (especially one based on a closed/proprietary standard) or single vendor, don’t plan for how to avoid ‘lock-in
Let’s acknowledge that the speed of technological changes almost always outpaces the ability of educational planners to keep up. In response, some policymakers seek to get ‘ahead of the curve’ by placing large bets on new, largely unproven technologies in an effort to ‘leapfrog’ what is happening in other education systems. In other cases, education systems effectively outsource most of the capacity to manage activities in this area to a vendor or other third party. There are potentially valid reasons to pursue such courses of action in some cases, but they are inherently very risky, especially if clear plans are not made on how to ‘exit’ such decisions and relationships.

7. Don’t think about (or acknowledge) total cost of ownership/operation issues or calculations
What does ICT use in education cost? Some people would have you believe it is only the initial cost of hardware. Businesses have long known that this is not the case, but many education policymakers seem not to have grasped (or willfully ignore) this fundamental issue. We know that “total cost of ownership or operation” (TCO) is often underestimated, sometimes grossly, when calculating costs of ICT in education initiatives in developing countries. Estimates of initial costs to purchase equipment to overall costs over time vary widely; typically they lie between 10-25% of total cost. That said, there is a dearth of reliable data, and useful tools, to help guide education decisionmakers in their assessments of the true costs of educational technology initiatives.

8. Assume away equity issues
One compelling justification for large-scale investments in the use of ICTs in education is that theycan help address equity issues related to the ‘digital divide‘. That said, 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 — the list is long). Things can be done to mitigate such challenges, and indeed pro-equity approaches of utilizing ICTs are possible, but they don’t happen without careful proactive attention to this issue.

9. Don’t train your teachers (nor your school headmasters, for that matter)
If there is one clear lesson from the introduction of educational technologies in schools around the world, it is that teacher training is critical to the success of such initiatives. Outreach to teachers, through both regular technical and pedagogical support and on-going professional development, should be seen as cornerstones of any large ICT investment in schools. And: Targeted outreach to school principals is often crucial if teachers are to have the necessary freedom to take advantage of new opportunities offered through the use of ICTs.

10. ___

[I thought I would leave #10 blank as an acknowledgement that there are many additional worst practices that merit mention, but I have run out of space. Do feel free to submit your candidates below.]

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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2 Comments to “10 Worst Practices in ICT for Education”

  1. Since my arrival in East Africa a few years ago, I notice they still teach classes in MS Access and Visual Basic for programming. WHY are they not teaching the kids Python and using MySQL or PostgreSQL for database training??
    Also, they really need teach new stuff — like setting up and using broad open source apps like Moodle, WordPress, vTiger, OpenERP, TrixBox (Asterisk).

    They also need to get off the Windows cool-aid and explain the rationale for using Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, etc. One other thing…they need to really explain WHY virtualization is important and how to use it.

    These kids study the “old crap” and are totally UNAWARE of where ICT’s heading.

  2. I love your list. My suggestions below could probably be wedged into your categories; but I offer them nonetheless.

    Some potential candidates for number ten:

    10a. Fail to manage the expectations of experienced ICT users from the developed world when they interact with novice developing world users. This way you can ensure that young people with heaps of ICT experience develop prejudices about the non-responsiveness of less fortunate users and do not rise to the challenge of mentoring them. You could also have the added benefit of one or two small groups of high-bandwidth and high experience users flooding or imbalancing your sites with messages, requests and content that obscure the diversity of your community and misdirect its energies.

    10b. Fail to anticipate that corrupt USB drives will incapacitate your machinery every other week. Put no system in place for wiping computers and updating anti-virus software. This way you can blame your users for not understanding that, for example, the digital camera you gave them can actually carry viruses that cripple whole networks.

    10c. Treat local academic calenders and scheduling restraints like they don’t mean anything. Train when it is convenient for you to do so or when your budget cycle requires. Don’t worry about whether or not your users go on a two month forgetfulness-inducing holiday immediately afterwards.

    10d. Assume that it is inherently beneficial for young people to submit *any* content in their posts. Just count their posts. If they are posting, everything is fine. Take our hyper-individualized methods of using ICT and project them into rural and under-served environments and try to get as much content as you can in as little time as possible. Don’t emphasize teamwork or build capacity in critical thought exercises. Allow developing world users to misrepresent themselves as hasty and unfocused contributors because you assume that the world will eventually norm their behavior.

    10e. Make your program dependent on electricity and connectivity. Don’t put the work in to developing offline modules and activities that can sustain the momentum of your program in an intentional and deliberate way during periods of infrastructure troubles. This way, whenever there is a small, everyday problem with power or signal strength, your users can become discouraged and make excuses for doing nothing and growing rusty.