We Must Answer 6 Open ICT4Education Questions to Have Real Impact

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With years of experience in attempting to effect large scale educational change, using technology, I’ve come up with six “game changing” topics (and I don’t use the phrase lightly) we need to address in order to really make a difference.
I hope you’ll join me in debating them now and during the upcoming 2016 mEduction Alliance International Symposium, “From Innovation to Impact,” to be held from October 18-20 in Washington D.C.
1: Which business models hold the promise to achieve massive scale?
Affordability is a huge driver of sustainability, and without viable business models to achieve scale it is reasonable to believe that mEducation programs will not make it beyond the pilot phase. What are examples of business models that hold the promise to address the dire need for education at massive scale?
I recently spoke at the West Africa Com conference where telecom operators told me that they are tired of investing in mEducation projects that are not based on viable business models and are too expensive to scale. This begs the question, “What is an appropriate cost (total cost of ownership) for a quality mEducation program in order for it to achieve scale?”
2: Which new technologies can better serve the needs of ICT4E?
Telecom equipment and networks are major enablers of ICT4E. The best quality content and training are useless without equipment and networks that are appropriately designed, easy to use, affordable at scale, and maintainable in the context of harsh and challenging operating environments – and lack of electricity.
Still, there have been very few new technologies designed bottom-up to serve the needs of schools in sub-Saharan Africa (and elsewhere in the developing world). Other than a handful of modest integrations, the ICT4E community has relied on the telecom industry to provide the solutions. Why is this the case, and what can we do to improve equipment and networks – or is the status quo sufficient? What are examples of innovative equipment and networks that hold the promise to improve the availability of quality learning?
We have all seen way too many failed projects and broken-down computer rooms which provide clear evidence that the ICT4E community needs to do a better job to harness technology in service to development. How many mEducation programs have failed due to a variety of issues completely unrelated to the learning objectives these programs were trying to achieve? How many of these issues impacted failure, but were never sufficiently discussed in post-project reports?
3. When can we really start using existing educational apps?
There is deep knowledge and global expertise available to quickly adapt or develop education apps to address the needs of all nations and subject matter. Every major publisher creates and sells e-content and hundreds of thousands of education apps from phonics to physics – are available for free or little cost. According to Pew, 8 percent of apps available on Google Play were education apps. Apple reported over 80K education apps available in the Apple Store.
The field of instructional design has matured to the point where undergraduate and graduate courses and degrees are available through countless universities globally. Instructional Design Central, a community of practice, has over 15K members alone – students, teachers, and professionals. Nearly every university provides online learning opportunities too.
If anything, the data shows that there is a glut of digital learning content relative to the world’s ability to absorb it all.
Still, there are few (if any) major repositories of education apps targeted for use in developing nations, and most of the apps coming out of developing nations are amateurish at best. What can be done to drive more great content into developing nations? Where’s the bottleneck, and what can be done about it?
While the rest of the world has embraced ICT4E as a given for living and learning in a globalized world, the development community is still discussing the validity of impact. In the meantime, the digital knowledge gap gets deeper, and deeper, and deeper.
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4: How can ICT4E advance within the context of dysfunctional governmental infrastructures?
Enabling sustainability for impact within the context of antiquated and broken education and governmental infrastructures remains a huge challenge for the development community. See the USAID Corruption Assessment: Senegal for examples. Words, policy, and signed agreements are easy to create; but sustainability requires more than “buy-off.” As a result, our options for impact are:

  • work entirely outside the traditional system
  • implement projects which only have impact for the duration of their funding
  • engage in aggressive, no-nonsense activities to force political reform (rarely, if ever done) and address the realities of systemic incompetence and corruption, or
  • figure out how to work within existing systems and actually create positive impact.

How can the ICT4E community more effectively operate within the context of significant governance issues?
5: What can be done to assist the real-world application of ICT4E standards?
Both the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and UNESCO have put forth tremendous and commendable efforts to create and promote standards to advance the effective use of ICT in education. The standards have been designed to help lead educators through the complexities of teaching and learning in our digital, globalized world.

Still, many ministries of education in developing nations are not aware that these research-based standards exist, and go about implementing ICT4E programs (including mobile learning programs) in a vacuum, without the expertise that has been available to them for years.
What can be done to help developing nations build their own informed capacity to acquire, adapt, and create quality digital content that are aligned to international standards?
6: How can the private sector become more actively involved to improve the use of ICT4E?
All of the equipment and networking capabilities used by the ICT4D are provided by the private sector, principally the telecom industry. Yet, the private sector (which has perhaps the most to gain from the rapid growth of ICT4E) is substantially under-represented within the mEducation Alliance and at its upcoming conference. What actionable steps can be taken to reverse this?
I look forward to participating in the conference and facilitating discussions or related activities on any of these topics. Most important, I hope that the organizing committee and mEducation Alliance leadership will be able to take action on them in one way or another.