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Addressing innovation and sustainability in developing countries

23 Apr 2014
Clara Hervás-Lezcano and Tim Kelly, ICT Sector Unit, World Bank,
Developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) since the latter part of the 20th century are widely seen as having heralded an information age in which economic and social activity has been widened, deepened and transformed. ICTs have the potential to advance human development -- from providing basic access to education or health information to making cash payments and stimulating citizen involvement in the democratic process. They are ‘transformative’ in application.1

ICTs are becoming more accessible in developing countries. For instance, the African continent has seen an explosive growth of mobile phones over the past decade with some 650 million mobile subscriptions in 2012, more than in either the US or the European Union.2 As mobile phones are coming close to universal in coverage, they can be used to empower people, create and sustain jobs, improve social service provision and alleviate poverty.3

In general, the benefits of ICTs for children come in the form of a delivery mechanism for a wide variety of services ranging from improved education to health facilities. In addition, the transparency and efficiency in governance that these technologies facilitate can also improve the reach and delivery of public services, and enable citizen feedback.4 There are many ways in which these possibilities are currently being explored, but a case in point is the use of ICTs for education, or ICT4E.

There is a wide variety of ways in which ICT is being used in education. For example:

- By introducing technological devices for students in schools, like in the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program in Rwanda (100,000 laptops in schools by 2009)5 or the FATIH (Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology) in Turkey (introducing over ten million tablets into schools).

- By providing access to open educational resources (OER) for educational and technology practitioners.

- By providing opportunities for informal and out of the classroom learning like the Nokia Mobile Mathematics initiative.6

- By improving management information systems in schools like the CU@School pilot project in Uganda using mobile phones to monitor teacher and pupil attendance and absenteeism

- By improving the connectivity of schools and universities, such as KENET7 (Kenya Education Network) platform.

- By improving broadband access at home for students; countries that have the highest household penetration of broadband, like the Republic of Korea or Finland, also tend to have the highest scores in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment.8

- By providing technology that helps teachers to become more effective in their practice, like projectors or Promethean Boards.9

A key thing to remember is that technology is only a tool, not an end in itself. Many commentators agree that ‘no technology can fix a bad educational philosophy or compensate for bad practice’10. The ways in which the technology is used are at least as important as its availability. When thinking about ICTs for education then, it is essential that choices are made in terms of educational objectives, methodologies and roles of teachers, parents and students before decisions can be made about the most appropriate ICT interventions. Technology is an important piece of the puzzle, but so are individuals and the government.11 There is also a basic difference between what has been termed ‘Education using ICT’ - using technology as an add-on to make the current model of education more efficient, more equitable and cheaper - and ‘ICT in Education’ - a radical systemic change that integrates technology throughout the entire education system.

According to a survey of education and ICT in Africa conducted by infoDev in 2007,12 we are witnessing a transition from a decade of experimentation towards a new phase of systemic integration with national government policies and multi-stakeholder-led implementation processes. An example of a ‘whole system reform’ is Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal, which made that country the first in the world to provide all primary school students with free laptops in public schools. In a four-year plan, starting in 2007, 450,000 laptops were distributed to schools and internet access was provided free of charge. In addition, the plan included training for teachers; the active inclusion of society in the project; and monitoring and evaluation operations to measure the impact nationally.13

Michael Trucano, paraphrasing in a recent blog-post, wrote: "If you think technology can solve your education problems, then you don’t understand the problems and you don’t understand the technology. The solution lies in the process, systems and people" 14- and technology is simply a particularly effective enabler. Therefore ‘dumping hardware’ and expecting a positive outcome may not be the best course of action. There are still, however, many countries and projects that focus on the development of ICT infrastructure as the ‘silver bullet’ for achieving socio-economic development; and this is paralleled by trends like wanting to buy the latest popular gadget or focusing solely on the retail prices of such devices, without considering specific learning goals to be achieved. In addition, the methodology to test the impact of ICTs on student achievement needs to be reinforced. The rhetoric around ICT in education is to develop ‘21st century skills’, however, there are few systematic attempts to measure the benefits of ICT use in education.15

It is clear that ‘innovation’ is not simply a case of acquiring the latest gadgets. Rather, innovation involves new ways of using existing as well as new technologies. It is true that a new wave of education technologies could revolutionise education but in certain contexts, especially developing countries with limited resources, the best technology may be the one that they already have, know how to use and can afford. This is because ‘education and technology’ can be ‘classist’.16 When implementing ICT4E projects one needs to consider issues of access, context and support which require time, money and capacity, thus having the potential to favour the rich. The mobile phone, however, could prove a very effective education technology for all. According to a working paper by UNESCO,17 transforming ubiquitous mobile devices into tools for learning could provide affordable solutions to educational challenges. Eneza Education for example, was founded in 2011 by Kenyan teachers and educators as an SMS-based system where students could prepare for exams and teachers could obtain automated data to target their students’ needs.18

In addition to considering the technology to be deployed in a context-relevant way, it is essential to have committed and trained teachers. Those involved in integrating technologies into the teaching or learning process have to be convinced of the value of the technologies, comfortable with them and skilled in using them.19 Technology is only ten per cent of any social solution. Real innovation is about trusting people with the tools to solve their own problems.20 However, most professional development programs tend to concentrate only on teaching educators how to use the technology itself when the focus should also be on pedagogical issues around ICT in learning. If teachers are not integrated in ICT4E projects or feel threatened by them, sustainability and success of a project are not secured. This is one reason why the Kenyan project, recently announced by the Jubilee coalition government, to provide laptops to first graders, following Rwanda’s example, is one to watch as it is creating a controversy, especially among teachers.21

In summary, technology is a tool. It is only one element in classroom innovation, providing new opportunities in the field of education in ways that were not previously available. But, as with any development project, it is people that need to harness such potential, and institutional practices that need to keep pace.


1- World Bank and African Development Bank (2012). The Transformational Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Africa. Available at

2- World Bank and African Development Bank, ibid.

3- infoDev (2013). Mobile Usage at the Base of the Pyramid: Research Findings from Kenya and South Africa. Available at:

4- Chandrasekhar, C. and Ghosh, J. (2001). ‘New approaches to harnessing technological progress for children’ in Cornia, G. (ed) Harnessing Globalisation for Children: A report to UNICEF.

5- Kenya Television Network (KTN) 2013. ‘KTN Perspective: Rwanda Laptop Project’ at





10- Haddad, W. and Draxler, A. (2002). ‘ICTs for Education’ in Haddad, W. and Draxler, A. (eds) Technologies for Education: Potential, Parameters and Prospects. Available at

11- The Guardian podcasts (2013). Technology is the developing world. Available at

12- Farrell, G. and Shafika, I. (2007). Survey of ICT and Education in Africa: A summary Report, Based on 53 Country Surveys. Washington DC: InfoDev. Available at

13- Michael Trucano ( July 2013). ‘Big Educational laptop and tablet projects: Ten countries to learn from’ in Edutech, World Bank Blog. Available at

14- Michael Trucano (May 2013). ‘A different approach to scaling up educational technology initiatives’ in Edutech, World Bank Blog. Available at

15- See, for example the EduTechDebate on the Peru trial at:

16- Aggrawal, S. (May 2013). ‘Technology in Education is Classist’. Available at

17- UNESCO (2013). Policy guidelines for mobile learning. Available at


19 Haddad, W. and Draxler, A. (2002). ‘ICTs for Education’ in Haddad, W. and Draxler, A. (eds) Technologies for Education: Potential, Parameters and Prospects. Available at

20- See Sharad Sapra, UNICEF Uganda country representative (2013), quoted at

21- Kenya Television Network (KTN) 2013. ‘KTN Perspective: Rwanda Laptop Project’ at