Learning From Failure

Zach Mbasu, Senior Education Consultant

25 May 2016

When I was growing up my parents and teachers used to offer me advice encouraging me to learn from the best. Occasionally, my teachers back in primary school would invite alumni students, who by then were schooling in some of the best high schools in the country thanks to their excellent performances in the national exams. I was encouraged to learn from top notch lawyers, doctors, scientists etc.

This practice is not only used in this context but it is normally applied in government policy making as well as in business. It goes by the phrase “best practices”. By definition, best practice is a method or technique that has been generally accepted as superior to any alternatives because it produces results that are superior to those achieved by other means or because it has become a standard way of doing things.

If you have worked in government, benchmarking is common. Occasionally, teams of experts make trips, either domestic or International to go and learn about best practices in health, education, technology etc. This is one of the “safest” ways to learn about how institutions, companies and governments have been able to make tremendous progress in the various fields. These teams go and learn how the education systems in South Korea work.

They get to learn how East Asian countries scored highly in PISA assessments. It is assumed that when we adopt these best practices, things will work out back at home. This is very dangerous. The common assertion that just because something was successful in place A will be successful in place B is flawed. Indeed, history has shown us that it can be very difficult to learn from the best. So, is it always good to learn from the best? Can we go to bench mark in worst case practices?

Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)

Photograph from http://www.oecd.org/pisa/

Interesting things have been happening over the past few weeks. The government of Kenya after a three years wait announced has finally rolled out its ambitious laptop program in selected schools country wide. The disbursement has been done in 3 schools per county. These efforts are commendable. According to MOEST the components of this project include: Improvement of ICT infrastructure, development of digital content, capacity building of the teachers and procurement of ICT devices.

As the government rolls out this ambitious project, it is important to reflect on past failures of ICT in education projects in other countries and learn from their mistakes. The first and common mistake is dumping hardware in schools and expecting that change will come automatically. There is a common assumption that by simply supplying these gadgets learners will benefit.

“Traditional one time workshops may not be effective in helping teachers to feel comfortable using ICT and integrating it successfully into their teaching.”

For example, Peru, rolled out one of the most ambitious one laptop per child project. The government was able to distribute 800,000 laptops to primary school children. Five years into the program, there arose serious doubts about whether the largest single deployment in the initiative was worth the more than $200 million that Peru’s government spent. The laptops were released without necessarily preparing the teachers especially in rural schools. Ill-prepared rural teachers were often unable to comprehend and teach with the machines, software bugs didn’t get fixed and most had no way to connect to the internet.

These issues cannot be ignored by countries that are rolling out such ambitious programs, some of which have already been looked into. Since having internet connection is a costly affair, the government of Kenya has resorted to have offline educational content in the laptops. The biggest issue, however, will not be internet connectivity but having ill prepared teachers and this might spell a doom for the project.

Children using laptops

Photograph via OLP Corps Kenya

Magical thinking that the mere distribution of laptops to children and a five-day training means that things will change automatically is delusional. More careful thought on the real challenges that could render this ambitious project need to be thought through. Whereas the Kenyan project intends to conduct training to teachers on the use of ICT in education, we also need to understand that teacher training is a process and not an event. Traditional one time workshops may not be effective in helping teachers to feel comfortable using ICT and integrating it successfully into their teaching. Therefore, ongoing regular support and training should be done in order to maximise the benefits of ICT in education.

We could have better structured teacher training programs. These teaching programs should be structured in ways that do not make the program seem like an event. For example, periodical trainings for teachers should be carried out during school holidays. It is through this that important concepts such as video making for educational purposes should be emphasised on. We could also introduce incentives that would encourage more uptake of ICT in education among teachers. For example, certification, pay increases, paid time off formal and informal recognition within the school and the community could be introduced.

Finally, this project has to be made to work through constant evaluations by relevant stakeholders. To do this, immense support through public-private partnerships is needed either through logistical support or through financial backing since digital literacy is critical in 21st all aspects of human life in the 21st century.

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