We are living through a period in which the economic structure of our societies is changing, often rapidly, to accommodate new technologies. Communication, entertainment, shopping, and business deals are all carried out on the internet, workers in India provide technical support for American consumers, and growth is driven by companies like Apple, whose cutting edge products are brought to market by complex, precise supply chains that stretch from California to China.
In much of the world, this new economy is defined by a paradigmatic shift from growth based on mass production to growth through innovation fueled by knowledge creation. This shift has had profound effects for education systems that find themselves unprepared to produce graduates with the necessary technological skills and the problem-solving, creative mentalities that the new economy demands. It is in this context that education reformers have looked increase the presence of what is known as information and communications technologies (ICT) into classrooms and curriculums.
Bringing ICT into the education system can mean many different things: expanding teacher access to students in remote areas via video links, training teachers to use online resources to upgrade their lesson plans, or providing students with their own low cost computers.
Policymakers have been attracted to the promise of ICT reforms such as these for several reasons. A critical factor for middle and low income countries is that by connecting their students to the broader world with these technologies, the positive spillover effects reach beyond the educational system and go to the heart of social inequality and exclusion, since connecting students often means connecting families and entire communities that had previously been isolated and marginalized. There is also the promise of increased prosperity that comes with a “knowledge society”, since better trained workers and higher skill employment lead to higher value-added industries which attract the type of private sector and foreign investment that powers sustainable development.
However, even as our societies are flooded with technology, the efforts to integrate ICT into educational systems have lagged, and the results of those efforts have often been inconsistent. For instance, even in European schools where there is close to 100 percent student access to computers, only 66 percent of teachers surveyed had integrated ICT into their curriculum in the past year. At the same time, UNESCO reports that, based on the aggregated results of 75 international assessments, integrating ICT into classrooms only inconsistently produced higher test scores. Clearly, adding the technology alone is not enough – it must be implemented, supported, and monitored effectively.
What, then, are the conditions for successful ICT reform? Based on the experience of countries such as Uruguay, Chile, Jordan, and Singapore that have all committed in various degrees to reform, three central pillars of success emerge.
The first and most obvious pillar is access to equipment and supportive infrastructure – including the technology itself, its software, and technical support for individual schools, as well as policy continuity that supports broader infrastructure requirements such as a national broadband network. A second, and often overlooked, pillar is the need to increase teacher capacity along with technological capacity. Existing teachers must be trained, new teachers hired, and all teachers must be given a motivation – perhaps including financial incentives – to embrace a cultural change in the way they teach and structure their lessons. And finally, there must be effective monitoring and evaluation systems capable of assessing the outcomes of ICT reforms.
Uruguay’s experience, in particular, has shed some light on why some countries succeed in this effort and others don’t. Beginning in 2006, Uruguay was the first country in the world to embark on a nationwide effort to provide every student with a laptop. Beginning with a single pilot program that was then scaled up, by 2009 Uruguay had distributed 380,000 laptops, trained 18,000 teachers, and provided 2,000 schools with internet access. It has provided computer access for all primary students and teachers, and will soon move on to secondary schools.
What are some lessons that other countries can take from this? First, the importance of political commitment at the highest levels – President Tabaré Vásquez personally drove the reform effort and successfully framed it as a national crusade. There was political buy-in across society, with the national teachers unions supporting the effort and private sector sponsors contributing funds and equipment. Uruguay also committed to teacher training and professional development while at the same time leaving the implementation to an organization that was outside of the educational system and thus independent of insider interests – the national Technology Laboratory.
Uruguay started with some inherent advantages as well – a relatively high income and literacy rate, a highly urbanized society that made infrastructure development easier, and a relatively well-developed institutional capacity. But nonetheless, it has demonstrated that political commitment and follow through, paired with effective implementation of the three pillars, can dramatically improve ICT access in a nation’s schools in a short time. As our economies continue to evolve, these lessons are more important than ever.