David Barth

the director of USAID’s Office of Education, speaks with Creative Times about Technology and Education

December 3, 2010

Q: What benefits and caveats do you see with regard to the use of computers and information technology in educational reform and in the classroom?

Technology in education is highly contextual. One has to ask what technology – if any – is the most appropriate and accessible for what intended educational outcomes are fundamental questions, particularly in many of the low-resource countries where we are working. Even research in more developed countries, including the US., suggests that the utilization of technology in classrooms will not produce learning gains independent of time in the curriculum, proper integration into subject matter context, and teacher training There are indeed 21st century skills which classroom technology can facilitate – problem-based analysis, online collaboration, teamwork – but you would need creative learning opportunities and space within the curriculum within a classroom to maximize technology utilization in these areas. A particularly promising area where technology could prove extremely useful is in education system strengthening. For example, we are supporting the development of both national and school level education management information systems which can track school level administrative data, such as number of students at a school, teacher and student attendance, and other data points that can substantially improve school effectiveness and ultimately learning.

Q: Is USAID seeing a demand for this technology in schools from host countries? Are there recent examples of this that stand out?

Yes, in many of our countries there is keen interest in technology as these are seen as visible reference points of progressive and relevant 21st century skills development. One of our roles is in helping our country clients think about the associated total cost of ownership implications for various technology-supported interventions. We have a wide range of technology interventions that we have supported, from Interactive Radio Instruction in several African countries, the development of children’s television programming in Indonesia and elsewhere, and teacher training college and classroom ICT integration in Egypt, Jordan, Jamaica and Kenya just to name a few. We do insist that we will only fund technological solutions where the interventions are appropriate and where there is a demonstrated commitment to utilizing and maintaining systems. There are too many cases where technological solutions have been left to atrophy because of a failure to maintain and keep current a particular system.

Q: USAID’s implementing partners at times find it is difficult to get beneficiaries, who are just starting out with education technology, to focus on how the technology is used to improve learning or school management rather than just the infrastructure itself. Based on USAID’s experience, what is the best way to engage beneficiaries on this deeper level?

To start at the ground level in discussions with these partners and government stakeholders and to ask the fundamental questions identified above – what learning impacts are you hoping to obtain, what are your human, technical and financial resource constraints (total cost of ownership). And it is very important to assess the trade-offs. If we undertake this particular course, what are we NOT doing? Because of the relative newness of many of these programs, countries need to understand that results are not guaranteed. And without a more comprehensive program of reform, results from technology alone are not likely to be great.

Q: How has USAID used public-private partnerships to promote the effective technology in schools? Are there particular successes that come to mind? Are there cautions or limitations that readers should be aware of?

We are enormously excited by a number of current and proposed Global Development Alliance Partnerships with private sector organizations, including with Microsoft, Cisco and Intel. We are particularly proud of the models piloted in Kenya and now Tanzania, where these three organizations along with local partners have collaborated together to strengthen education programming. Being able to harness the vast experience of private providers has deepened our knowledge pool and is allowing for the flourishing of all manner of innovation. Interestingly, we find that much of the innovation is coming from our local partners. The private sector partners bring in brilliant ideas, but it is the local partners that help us understand how to put them to work for the benefit of their citizens.

Q: From your perspective, what are the main reasons why technology projects succeed or fail?

Individuals and organizations are keen to explore new approaches for education impact. Technology is often seen as a short-cut in this regard. As previously noted, it’s just one tool among many in bringing about improved learning outcomes. Its proper contributing role needs to be contextualized within a broader education framework and dialogue. In technology projects, the hardware and software typically represent 20-30% of your total project/program implementation costs. Countries fail to factor in teacher training, maintenance, upgrading, evaluation etc. They severely underestimate the cost of the programs and overestimate the immediate impacts.

Q: What role do you see donors playing in the future with regard to information technology in education?

Donors have a vital role in supporting innovative pilots, in helping evaluate program successes, and in disseminating the most current and useful information about the role of technology in education. We have the benefit of working in over fifty countries and have seen the programs that both success and fail. Donors can also play a pivotal role in helping to scale-up promising practices. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, donors can help broker the public-private alliances around technology that will provide the sustainability of the project long after our particular program has ended. If we can help in these three areas, we will have done well.