Research finds that technology interventions in developing countries can affect students’ academic growth, but that many technology programmes – especially large-scale programmes – fail.

Poor planning is a central reason for their failure. Technology initiatives must be carefully designed to ensure that these powerful tools will connect with and improve the way teachers teach and students learn in each educational context. They must also be cognizant of the local context – taking into account the infrastructure and capacities required to make technologies work. The full technology ecosystem described below will be most viable in contexts that have reliable electricity, Internet access, teacher training in technology use, and sufficient resources to cover the basics. But programme designers and policymakers working in other contexts should consider which components of the ecosystem will best support their educational objectives.

Technology is only a small part of a successful education transformation. Successful 
e-learning projects require policy changes, new teaching practices, new education resources and additional training and ongoing support for educators – all of which are where the real educational benefit lies. However, it is fundamental to get the technology part right to enable the desired transformations in teaching and learning. While the current discussion on one-to-one learning suggests that the basis is ‘one device’ for every student, the focus should not be on a single technology device, but rather on how to use multiple technologies to reach the more meaningful goals of improving teaching practices, access to educational resources and, finally, what and how students learn.

“Technology is only a small part of a successful transformation in education.”

If one objective is to improve teaching and learning in the classroom, computers become much more powerful learning tools when they are embedded in an ‘ecosystem’ that uses technology to overcome other challenges often present in schools in a (middle-income) developing country. These challenges include a lack of education resources, minimal teacher training, or isolation from other educators and new ideas. There are five components that I see underpinning a technology ecosystem that can support learning. Programme designers should consider which of these would be most important for the educational contexts they work in. These components are: children’s access to devices; teachers’ devices; interactive whiteboards (IWBs) or projectors; Internet access; and virtual learning environments or learning management systems.

Each component supports different types of changes in teaching and learning. Costs and other factors may limit what programmes can do in regards to any one of these components, so it’s important to identify the educational goals of an e-learning initiative and the components that are most relevant in each context. Countries may be better served by investing a little on each component rather than focusing on only one. An intense investment in one component may be underutilized if other components are not there – for example, providing every child with a personal laptop, but with no Internet connectivity, may be less powerful than having classroom sets, but with connectivity, or, having just teacher devices with access to robust education resources for lesson planning and preparation. Programme designers should think carefully about which components to focus on and to what degree.

The first component is giving students access to computers, because this opens up new opportunities and changes how students engage with content. Students can access information; engage in interactive activities; use multimedia resources; communicate with peers, teachers, parents, or the community; and create products and artifacts that represent what they are learning and doing.

Opening up access to information beyond their textbooks allows students to explore and actively engage with the content. For example, a Turkish social studies teacher described a lesson where she assigns a scene from a history play in which leaders of the Ottoman Empire debate whether to go to war. In the computer lab, students research the context and motivations of each character on the Internet, and like the characters in the play, they analyze and debate the merits of each character’s reasoning.

Children’s access to computers means having computers, tablets or similar devices available when needed. This component is clearly the most expensive, but students do not need to have their own device – shared devices can work well. But students must be able to find their work, notes and materials whenever they need them (which is easier to do with new networked solutions – see below). That can be accomplished on a personal device, classroom sets of computers or with shared devices.

The second component to consider is teacher devices. Of course, teachers can share devices, but given their importance in the education system, I feel they should have their own devices if they are expected to prepare and deliver lessons on information and communication technology (ICT), review and grade students’ technology products, or use technology for administrative tasks. ICT can change teachers’ professional lives in a myriad of ways that will improve the classroom for students.

Technology can also ease teachers’ administrative burden, help facilitate classroom logistics, allow them to track students individually and free up time to work with students. For teachers in schools with no library and few resources, a computer can allow them to find new resources and activities for their students over the Internet. For instance, a primary school teacher in rural Argentina can now find stories that are relevant to the lives of her rural students, unlike the government texts, which are based on city life. Teachers can also find more innovative resources; a science teacher I spoke with in the Republika Srpska translated interactive learning apps for physics from the University of Colorado for his students.

A third important component of a robust ICT ecosystem for learning is an interactive whiteboard (IWB) or projector to share information with the whole class. Despite many programmes to promote more student-centred learning, my experience in many countries suggests that a lot of teaching in developing (and developed) countries still involves whole-class activities. IWBs or projectors can help take full advantage of class time, with features such as the ability to change or remove displayed content quickly, and use multimedia or interactive resources (text, video, drawings, simulations, apps, etc.). For example, we saw a teacher in India use videos of rivers and irrigation and visualizations of evaporation to explain the water cycle.

BridgeIT – a global initiative of UNDP, the Pearson Foundation and Nokia – offers interesting examples of how two of these components can come together without a full computer but still enrich the learning environment. Through the programme, teachers in Tanzania access digital resources on smartphones, which they then connect to a projector to use with students. Less powerful teacher devices are combined with the ability to access web-based resources when needed, and a projector to support teachers in ways that any of these components by itself would not.

As is clear from so many of the examples above, the Internet can be a vital component. Having access to the vast amount of information available on the Internet can change the lives of teachers, students, and families. Internet access, at least at school, is critical to making the other components of the technology ecosystem viable. Constant access to the Internet is ideal but expensive, so strategies that give more limited access to the Internet can still allow teachers and students to download new materials or communicate with others. For example, schools within range of the cellular network can use cellphones or Wi-Fi Hotspots to provide access when needed. Without access to a wide range of resources and information on the Internet, the educational value of a computer or an IWB is seriously compromised.

The fifth and final component is a virtual learning environment (VLE) or learning management system (LMS) that helps facilitate communication and sharing among all stakeholders (teachers, parents and students). A VLE or LMS creates a controlled virtual space for the school community where administrators, teachers, students and parents can access resources, save work and projects, share and communicate. It is also a shared storage site so that students or teachers can find their work on the VLE from any device. This enables shared sets of computers to support all students – students no longer need their own device to keep track of their own work. A VLE does not always require the Internet – there are strategies such as mesh networking that create a local network that connects devices within a school to each other with no Internet. For example, a school I visited outside Banja Luka, Bosnia, that did not have Internet connection was using the built-in mesh network on their Classmate PCs to share resources with students. The teacher downloads resources to his laptop at a cybercafe and distributes them to his students when he gets to class and his laptop is the hub of the network. Not only do VLEs offer substantial logistic improvements that allow teachers and students to spend more time on learning tasks, they can also make it easier for teachers to give individual students different types of work depending upon their needs.

For e-learning initiatives that cannot afford all the components, it’s important to think through which aspects of an e-learning ecosystem will be most beneficial given local context and needs. Especially for governments contemplating one-to-one initiatives, there may be value in shifting resources from purchasing a device for every child to employing shared devices and redirecting some resources to build a richer e-learning ecosystem around teacher devices. Technology initiatives are expensive – too expensive to let them fail for lack of planning.