Big educational laptop and tablet projects — Ten countries to learn from

Big educational laptop and tablet projects — Ten countries to learn from


Recent headlines from places as diverse as Kenya (“6,000 primary schools picked for free laptop project“) and California (“Los Angeles plans to give 640,000 students free iPads“) are just two announcements among many which highlight the increasing speed and scale by which portable computing devices (laptops, tablets) are being rolled out in school systems all over the world. Based on costs alone — and the costs can be very large! — such headlines suggest that discussions of technology use in schools are starting to become much more central to educational policies and planning processes in scores of countries, rich and poor, across all continents.

Are these sorts of projects good ideas? It depends. The devil is often in the details (and the cost-benefit analysis), I find. Whether or not they are good ideas, there is no denying that they are occurring, for better and/or for worse, in greater frequency, and in greater amounts. More practically, then:

What do we know about what works,
and what doesn’t (and how?, and why?)
when planning for and implementing such projects,
what the related costs and benefits might be,
and where might we look as we try to find answers to such questions?

The World Bank has not thus far been involved in providing substantial direct financial assistance to support these sorts of programs (although we have been involved in numerous related policy dialogues, and have done some evaluation work here and there, as a way to help inform such policy dialogues). A number of the high profile ‘one laptop per learner’ projects have now reached new phases of development, and new sets of large scale educational laptop programs are being announced. At the same time, ‘educational tablets’ have gone from a curiosity and novelty in some education systems to become the primary computing devices meant for students and teachers in others. A few years ago, the EduTech blog published a list of ‘1-to-1 educational computing initiatives around the world’ in an attempt to identify large scale programs providing each student with her own laptop computer. Much has (obviously) happened since then. Despite being over three years old, that blog post still generates a decent amount of traffic, and the list apparently still is cited rather often. I have asked been asked by groups in a few places for updated pointers to some prominent initiatives from which useful lessons might be learned in the coming years. In case this information may be useful to or of interest to anyone else, I thought I’d offer, in no particular order, a small list of

Big educational laptop and tablet projects: Ten countries to learn from

1. USA
Reflexively, many countries look to, and hope to compare themselves against, the United States when considering educational technology initiatives. (Whether or not this is a good or useful practice, especially for many less affluent countries, or for countries with decidedly different educational contexts and socio-economic circumstances, is perhaps fodder for another discussion.) The United States is of course a very big and diverse place, with a very decentralized education system (some might say it is actually a collection of education systems). Technology purchasing decisions are not made at the national level, but at the state or, more often, the district level (the country has over 14,000 school districts in total), which tends to complicate other countries’ attempts to ‘benchmark’ their level of use of educational laptops and tablets against ‘the U.S. experience’. Focusing one’s gaze at the state or local level can be more useful. While some elements of its program may change going forward, the U.S. state of Maine has been, and continues to be, a global pioneer in the use of laptops in schools, andlessons from the Maine experience have influenced policymakers in scores of other places. The recent decisions of the Los Angeles Unified School District to purchase iPads for its students (here are some thoughts from Larry Cuban on this announcement) and that of education officials in Miami Dade (Florida) to ensure access to digital devices to all students are worth noting, as these are two places likely to receive a great deal of media and research attention in the coming years. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that many school districts the U.S. are increasingly promoting ‘bring your own technology‘ (or ‘BYOT‘) initiatives (also known as BYOD, or ‘bring your own device’) as a way to increase the access to laptops and tablets within schools, which raises sets of additional questions worth considering related to things like (among others) equity, costs, maintenance and digital safety.

2. Uruguay
The first country in the world to provide all primary school students with free laptops (in public schools), Uruguay’s pioneering Plan Ceibal now finds itself at a crossroads. While the project continues to enjoy wide support from citizens, the sight of young children toting and using their small green and white One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptops is no longer novel, but rather part of the educational and cultural landscape. How can the level of excitement and momentum engendered by Plan Ceibal be maintained and sustained, especially as the really tough work begins: helping to catalyze and enable change as part of larger efforts at ‘whole system reform’?

3. Thailand
While most large scale efforts to introduce ‘1-to-1 computing’ in education have featured laptops, Thailand is notable in that it has instead chosen to use tablets. Heralded as thelargest educational tablet initiative of its kind when it was first announced (although this title is now claimed by another country, see below), Thailand’s efforts are just beginning, but, as with similar initiatives in many other countries, have already served as lightning rods for criticism and optimism.

4. Peru
Close to one million OLPC XO laptops have been distributed to students in Peru, a process which began in 2008, focusing initially on small schools in poor (and often rather remote) communities. Examining the Peruvian experience, colleagues at the Inter-american Development Bank (IDB) has been engaged in the first large-scale randomized evaluation of the impact of the OLPC program. The results so far should provide much food for thought for educational reformers and technology proponents in other countries who feel that large scale introductions of new technologies will, in and of themselves (and perhaps magically), bring about a variety of promised positive changes in educational systems. Reality can be a little more complicated — and messy.

5. Kenya (and Rwanda)
While it has not yet even begun, the bold three-phase plan in Kenya to begin rolling out laptops in its education system in January 2014 has already attracted muchinternational attention. Starting with 400,000 free laptops delivered to new first graders, this project, if it proceeds as announced, would quickly become the largest effort of its kind on the continent. While Kenya has been home to a number of encouraging small pilot projects, the logistical challenges of doing something this large, this quickly, will be, as they like to say in Silicon Valley, ‘non trivial’. Lessons from its East African neighbor, Rwanda, which has distributed over 200,000 OLPC XO laptops so far, are no doubt being eagerly consumed and digested by policymakers and experts in Nairobi. While difficult, success in logistics is only a means to an end. Impacting the teaching and learning process inside and outside of schools in positive ways, fuelling the aspirations of a new generation of Kenyan students (and their families), sustaining positive momentum and results over time — these are much more difficult goals to achieve. And then there is the question of how to pay for all of this, especially in ways that do not impede or constrain efforts to address other pressing educational and developmental priorities. In these and in other regards, the Kenyan experience with eduactional technologies will definitely one to watch in the coming months and years.

6. Turkey
While Thailand’s plans to introduce tablet computers into the hands (and onto the laptops) of its students immediately marked it as a potentially pioneering middle income country in the scope of its use of educational technologies, the scale of what is being rolled out in that Southeast Asian country has since been dwarfed plans and efforts at the other end of the continent, where Turkey’s FATIH (“Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology”) project is introducing over ten million tablets (and tens of thousands of interactive whiteboards, printers and other peripherals) into Turkish schools. Large scale pilots are already underway, as is a huge tender process to award contracts to roll out and support the project. In contrast to how the tablet project was conceived in Thailand, local manufacturing is meant to play a very important role in the project in Turkey.

7. India
Before Turkey, and before Thailand, it was the Aakash project in India which excited the imagination of many proponents of putting huge numbers of tablet computers into the hands of students in a developing country. That project has moved forward in fits andstarts, but is only one of numerous efforts to introduce tablets at laptops across the continent-sized South Asia country. Large efforts in Rajasthan have recently been announced, following on efforts which began earlier in states like Uttar Pradesh. Initiatives across India will be particularly interesting to monitor, given the scale at which they will be occurring, and the fact that there is already a great deal of local knowledge about various approaches that have worked, and that haven’t, based on earlier educational technology programs in the country.

8. Argentina
Building in part on lessons from early efforts in San Luis province, Argentine projects likeConectar Igualdad and Plan S@armiento BA (in the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires) will eventually be, in aggregate, larger than the one laptop per child initiatives in Peru and Uruguay combined. Given the size and variation of these projects in these three countries, policymakers in other parts of the world seriously interested in learning from the hard won lessons of others before embarking on their own 1-to-1 education computing programs could do worse than to learn some Spanish (not a terrible amount of related information is available in English, let alone other international languages) and reach out to (and perhaps visit with) their colleagues in South America.

9. Portugal
The most ambitious European effort to date to provide students with laptops has beenin Portugal. Given its recent history (a member of the European Union, Portugal was itself a developing country not that long ago), lessons from the eEscola project and Magellan initiative may be particular relevant and useful for middle income countries about to embark on large scale 1-to-1 educational computing programs — especially those that wish to utilize ‘public-private partnerships’ along the way.

10. ____
As is the practice with lists of ten presented on the EduTech blog, #10 here has been left deliberately blank, as both an invitation for people to tell me what I have missed (or ignored), and as an acknowledgement that my own knowledge of such things is decidedly incomplete.

There are certainly lots of other places to look for inspiration, for best (and worst) practices, for hard-won implementation expertise and (hopefully) for hard data on costs and impacts. While Mexico recently cancelled a 240,000 unit procurement of laptops for students, this may perhaps be viewed more as a short-term hiccup in longer-term plans. A recent survey of technology use in education across Europe (One laptop per child in Europe: how near are we? [pdf]) highlights the extent to which students in countries like Denmark and Norway, as well as Latvia and Spain, already learn in environments where one laptop/tablet per learner is the norm. Netbooks on the rise [pdf] attempts to survey and distill lessons from across the Europe. Australia, the country that is often touted as having the first 1-to-1 computing initiative (at Methodist Ladies’ College way back in 1989 is nearing the end of a program that has seen almost a million laptops distributed to schools while at the same time tablets seem to be quickly gaining ground. (Side note: The Australia-based Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation (AALF) is a great resource for information on 1-to-1 computing efforts.) The EduTech blog has previously looked at educational laptop efforts in Georgia (the country in the Caucasus, not the state in the American South). A post on lessons from Quebec’s Eastern Townships has long been in the queue for publication; those who don’t want to wait are directed to related research published late last year.

Some closing remarks

Most of the large proposals for educational technology programs that come across my desk these days highlight the use of tablets (almost always Android devices, for what that’s worth, presumably for reasons of cost, and because the iPad, the market leading tablet device in OECD countries, does not currently have wide distribution in most middle and low income countries). Rarely (or more accurately: almost never) do I find a compelling reason why tablets are being chosen over laptops (or desktops … or … anything else, really). This is not to say that there aren’t potentially compelling reasons why purchasing tablets for use in schools and/or by teachers or students might make sense (although seeing hybrid devices, laptops with touchscreens, and tablets with dockable keyboards does leave me confused at times about where to draw the line between various product categories), rather that this technology choice often seems driven by assumption rather than as a result of careful deliberation. Worldwide, the general trend is clear: PCs and laptops are slowly being eclipsed by tablets in the consumer space. I do suspect that what I am seeing in many of the education project proposals I read is in part just the latest manifestation of a long-observed trend that refuses to die: that of simply wanting to buy the latest popular gadget for use in schools. All too often, the related question being asked is not ‘what challenges are we trying to solve, and what approaches and tools might best help us solve them?’, but rather, ‘we know what our technology ‘solution’ is, can you please help us direct it at the right problems?

As in other parts of life, in education the answer you get is usually a function of the question you ask. In the process of attempting to formulate their questions related to the purchases and implementations of huge numbers of new laptops or tablets (or whatever tomorrow’s device of choice may be) to help support teaching and learning, hopefully more education policymakers and politicians will take the time and effort to try to learn from the experiences of their counterparts in other countries who have already been down similar paths. While studying lessons, both positive and negative, from some of the countries listed here may not provide them with all of the answers they seek, doing so just might help some of them re-think and re-frame some of the questions they are asking.

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