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Personalized learning: Hype or Help?

© CC-BY-NC-ND Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

The promise of digitally-enabled personalized learning dates back to the 1960s. As with many early predictions, it took decades before the potential began to be realized. For the first time we are seeing personalized learning being adopted as a strategy by schools and districts, the results of research and lessons emerging, and the actual software maturing enough to be interesting (I use that word intentionally because there are way too many solutions claiming to offer personalized learning, that just don’t cut it).

We should be jumping for joy, right, for the related benefits are at hand: students having control over their own learning; differentiated instruction; real-time feedback for each learner; and teachers having more time to spend on teaching?

But while the benefits sounds ideal for education, personalized learning has its critics. Beyond that, it’s really hard to get right and we’re still not “there”. In 2012, the K-12 Horizon Report put Personal Learning Environments on the four to five year horizon, by 2016 the report described Personalizing Learning as one of the “wicked challenges: those that are complex to even define, much less address”.

The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning

Education Week has recently published a series of articles in a special report Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality. Since our default techie position is one of open arms to this vision, the best article with which to start is The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning, which offers three broad criticisms of the movement.

What Does the Evidence Tell Us?

Concerning the evidence for personalized learning, a 2015 RAND study showed large gains from the practice. But a Brookings Institute blog post describes how more recent research of personalized learning implemented at scale shows modest achievement gains and identifies implementation challenges. The article offers insightful views into what could be the cause of this (including that radical change often has an initial negative effect — but more on that in a future post.)

Let’s Do This Thing

Also from Education Week, lessons from three schools reveal three common challenges around personalized learning implementations: ensuring teachers are trained enough for a new way of teaching; differentiating instruction in a standards-based world; and ensuring students who are now allowed to work at their own pace,  keep the pace. The lessons are useful for those wanting to implement personalized learning.

Now it’s too personal

The more personalized software knows about you, the better it can work its magic. The balance between having the system collect data about students while protecting their privacy is the grand challenge of our time. While not specifically concerned with personalized learning, the New York Times article about Google in the classroom is an excellent case study of this tension.

What about ICT4D in general?

While these articles focus on education, the principles of personalized learning and, more broadly, personalized usage, are important for all of us. Increasingly the data available can drive targeted user experiences and track user development. What does that mean for the future of mHealth SMS broadcasts, or agricultural extension support? Instead of taking assessments to demonstrate learning levels, what if behaviour change, recorded digitally, marks learning in practice and drives appropriate information and services? We should always be thinking of our target audience not as users, but learners.

Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

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Digital for Development Roundup

© ABALOBI ICT4FISHERIES

For your Friday reading pleasure, the focus this week is on digital skills, or the lack thereof, that represents a major barrier to digital inclusion for billions of people. If you want to create usable and scalable ICT4D solutions, you can no longer ignore this issue. Expect much more on digital skills as we work to bring the next 50% of the world online.

Case studies of inclusive digital solutions for low-skilled and low-literate people
Released as part of the UNESCO-Pearson Initiative for Literacy: Improved Livelihoods in a Digital World, the first five case studies, in a series of 14, explore how inclusive digital solutions can help people with low skills and low literacy use technology in a way that supports skills development and, ultimately, improves their livelihoods. There are some great insights and lessons learned in designing for low-literate users. (UNESCO)
+ Meet the people behind the solutions and what inspired them.

Digital skills for work
The recently released UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report tracks progress towards achieving SDG4 on education, including indicator 4.4.1: Percentage of youth/adults with ICT skills. The key messages: it’s really hard to globally track digital skills, and from the existing data the results are bad. Using ITU survey data, we see that most adults in low and middle income countries did not perform even the most basic ICT functions. For example, only 4% of adults in Sudan and Zimbabwe could copy and paste files; only 2% to 4% in Egypt and Jamaica could use basic arithmetic formulas in a spreadsheet. The question is: how relevant is copy and pasting in Sudan? Perhaps there is a need for differentiated skills based on local contexts. (UNESCO)

Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit
There are many excellent initiatives aimed at developing digital skills and literacy. One resource for everyone is the GSMA Toolkit, which is a guide for training people in basic mobile internet skills in India. What is useful is the accompanying ‘How To Guide’, designed to support replication of the Toolkit in different markets — in other words, for training of your users. (GSMA)

Low digital literacy a barrier for India’s poor to enjoy digital financial services
Policies to transform India into a digital economy have resulted in a range of new products aimed at achieving digital financial services (DFS) for all. But, argues IFMR LEAD, a number of barriers remain for India’s poor to enjoy DFS, including low levels of consumer capabilities. A 2016 FII survey found that 49 percent of Indians had low levels of digital literacy. This was even more acute for vulnerable groups: the elderly were 18 percent more likely than the youth to be digitally illiterate, and both women and those with lower levels of education were also less digitally literate than average. (NextBillion)

Designing for the “oral” segment
Clearly work is needed to up skill and develop suitable products for vulnerable groups. But how does one design a user interface for non- or neo-literate users, or those in the “oral” population, who may not be able to read or write, but are highly adept in handling cash and making financial calculations? In an insightful report, MicroSave and My Oral Village share the research, user definitions, design principles and first prototype for a mobile wallet phone app for illiterates. (Microsave)

Digital for Development Roundup

For your Friday reading/watching pleasure …

Principles for Digital Development
While not new, the principles are slightly updated and have a new website.
The Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) is now the custodian of this living resource.

mHealth design toolkit
While we’re on principles, these ones, even though they are for the health sector, definitely apply to education.
The mHealth Design Toolkit is a collection of insights, tools and key principles to increase adoption and customer uptake of mobile health services by involving end-users in the service development process.

mHealth gender webinar and report: Key principles and tips to reach women
As above, very relevant for education, literacy and the UNESCO-Pearson initiative.
This webinar and report explore some practical things that mobile network operators, service providers and NGOs can do to ensure that their mHealth service includes women as well as men. Topics covered include content, platforms, user testing, pricing and bundling, and marketing and promotion. (GSMA)

Literacy builds life skills as well as language skills
Schoolchildren who read and write at home with their parents may build not only their academic literacy skills, but also other important life and learning skills, a recent study found. (New York Times)

A quick introduction to block chain technology
What will be interesting to work out is block chain’s role in education. Storing certification data is one obvious role, where the data is not tied to the issuing institute but shared in a secure, public ledger.

Digital for Development Roundup

For your Friday reading pleasure …

Project Literacy Lab – new ventures announced
Pearson and The Unreasonable Group expand the world’s first accelerator for entrepreneurs focused on closing the global literacy gap with a new cohort of 12 ventures. Watch their elevator pitches here.

New Broadband Commission report highlights emerging global skills gap
A UNESCO and ITU-authored report from the Broadband Commission entitled “Digital skills for life and work” shows that education systems worldwide are only just beginning to help learners cultivate the digital skills they need to excel in in our increasingly digitized societies.

The Future of Work Is Uncertain, Schools Should Worry Now
Automation and artificial intelligence are disrupting the labor market. What do K-12 educators and policymakers need to know? (Education Week)

For better learning in college lectures, lay down the laptop and pick up a pen
“A growing body of evidence says “No.” When college students use computers or tablets during lecture, they learn less and earn worse grades.” (Brookings Institute)

The future of farming in Africa is not agriculture but agribusiness
Of interest to m-agri practitioners, livelihoods  and the UNESCO-Pearson initiative. (QUARTZ Africa)

Digital for Development Roundup

For your Friday reading pleasure …

Private education is growing faster than public education in Africa
“With the expectation that one in four young African students—or 66 million—will be enrolled in a private school by 2021, the potential for investment and impact in the sector has “rarely been greater,” a new report declares.”

Alphabet expands in Africa
Google is expanding its Africa initiatives, including the training of 10m people in digital skills, grants and a version of Youtube for low connectivity contexts.

EdTech in Africa: Who Gets it Right?
A few themes and examples of edtech innovations across the continent.

Mobile Learning: Key Principles for Success
A few years ago I wrote a short piece for the Centre for Education Initiatives, also distilling principles from a range of initiatives.

The rise of artificial intelligence in Africa
Examples from agriculture and health sectors, but still interesting.

UNESCO report on mobiles for teacher support

unesco_supporting_teachers_cover_smallOn World Teachers’ Day (5 October) we celebrate the wonderful people all over the planet who have dedicated their lives to the education of others. Without the commitment and patience of teachers, none of us, the educated, would be where we are today.

However, on this day we also know there are not enough teachers in the world. In fact, to meet the first target of Sustainable Development Goal 4 — ensure that by 2030 all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education — is it estimated that 69 million new teachers will need to be recruited. Furthermore, pre-service and in-service teachers need to be trained and supported throughout their careers. All viable options, including digital technologies, need to be leveraged to achieve this goal.

In the spirit of solving the twin challenges of teacher supply and teacher quality, UNESCO recently released the report Supporting teachers with mobile technology, which draws lessons from UNESCO projects implemented in Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Senegal between 2012 and 2014. I managed the project in Nigeria along with Mark West, the report’s co-author. The projects, implemented through a partnership between UNESCO and Nokia (now part of Microsoft), aimed to explore how mobile learning technologies can support teacher development.

The report offers rich descriptions of the four different project contexts, approaches and evaluations, and is well worth reading. Below is a selection of key points from the conclusion, some well known in mobile learning, others new. Hopefully they inspire the edtech community to keep working to support teachers.

Findings about the perceived impact of the projects

  • Contrary to the notion that educators are tech-phobic and resistant to change, in all four projects the participating teachers were enthusiastic to experiment with ‘outside the box’ approaches to teacher professional development.
  • Teachers wanted more training. Even though there were significant efforts to provide initial and ongoing support, more can only help. The range of tech troubles also cannot be underestimated, which require on-site and virtual support.
  • Unsurprisingly, teacher use of ICT increased substantially as a result of the intervention, which led to them reporting dramatically improved ICT skills. This, in itself, is noteworthy (as reported in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018), as teacher digital literacy is crucial for mobile learning.
  • While teacher pedagogy was not formally measured by the project evaluations, in all countries teachers reported increased learner participation in the classroom, especially in Pakistan and Nigeria.
  • No clear increase in communication between teachers was found. This result is somewhat disappointing as mobiles have been shown to enable peer-to-peer learning amongst teachers. The report notes that more attention could have been paid to encouraging this type of communication.

Lessons learned

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Teacher training in Nigeria

  • Mobile phones appear to provide a viable means to expand access to professional development opportunities. As the report notes, this is exciting because it means that an increasingly widespread technology offers a vehicle to support teachers living in areas where traditional capacity building opportunities are scarce.
  • Access to mobile phones should not be conflated with a mobile learning solution. An ecosystem approach is needed, including compelling content, institutional partners, extensive teacher training, ongoing project support, communication campaigns and buy-in from education leaders.
  • Consistent and well-curated educational resources appear to be hallmarks of effective mobile learning content. The report describes how the UNESCO projects seemed to work best when they provided teachers with discrete, well-organized and sequenced packages of learning resources that established clear learning pathways. Highly interactive content is not always needed or appropriate.
  • Mobile learning solutions carry significant costs. Digital is not always cheaper, not only regarding the tech itself, but the complementary activities. For example, the teacher training workshops proved to be the most expensive and logistically complex aspects of the four country projects.
  • Mobile learning solutions for teachers have numerous limitations and are not yet substitutes for traditional and evidence-based teacher training and development. While mobile phones offer much potential for professional teacher development and support, they also come with limitations such as small screen sizes that limit interaction possibilities. Tablets and laptops overcome some of the barriers but, even for them, mobile learning solutions should supplement rigorous teacher training programmes, not replace them.

The report offers a few recommendations for the continued efforts to support teacher professional development using mobile technologies.

What Business can teach Development

For twelve years I was a practitioner and researcher in the fields of ICT for development, education, government and digital media, always developing tech solutions for social good. Then, in 2014 I left the non-profit world of international organisations and moved to a corporate when I joined Pearson South Africa’s Innovation Lab.

I made the move purposefully: to learn and to develop a business perspective on education technology, to see it from the “other side.” I always intended to take insights back to the non-profit sector one day, since for-profit and non-profit have much to teach each other, to make each more effective and efficient. I have now returned to UNESCO and so it’s time to reflect on the question: what did I learn in the years at Pearson? What can Business teach Development?

I learned many new things, and was reminded of many known truths (like implementing a tablet program for 8,000 students across 13 nationwide campuses is a deeply complex exercise). But I think my clearest lesson was the value in following an agile product development approach.

During the time I was at Pearson the company started to adopt — across the globe — something it calls a Product Lifecycle (PLC) approach. The PLC consists of six stages: idea (developing the initial concept), explore (researching the need for the product or service), validate (confirming the assumptions and proposed solution are valid), grow (launching the solution and growing revenues, reach and learner outcomes), sustain (maintaining revenues, reach and learner outcomes, and achieving operating efficiencies), and retire (closing down or divesting).

Each stage in this framework has activities and gates, which need to be validated before commencement (or not) to the next stage, as decided by a product council that meets regularly. A product development approach is not new in the development sector. But is it applied at the implementation and funding level? And is it done in an agile way, with a common set of actions, triggers and validation points? Doing this is very effective at (i) quickly weeding out bad ideas and validating good ones, (ii) showing how good ideas may need to pivot, and (iii) being honest about when to kill off projects that have reached their end.

In the development sector at least the first three stages (idea, explore and validate), if not first four (including grow), are bundled into a well-planned pilot – one stage, essentially. This is a bad idea as it isn’t lean enough, doesn’t encourage “fail fast, fail often” in the words of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The whole solution is built and rolled out before asking key questions like: does anyone actually want (not need) this service? Will they pay for it – financially or with their time? What are the real pain points of the group we’re serving? In other words, we don’t know at the end if there is a neat product-market fit, because the product hasn’t been developed iteratively with the market.

Development should break down these activities into distinct stages. Each stage is essentially a mini-pilot. Funders should demand the same, but key for them is to offer funding agreements that allow for flexibility and the ability to adapt and learn from the different stage activities. So, there is the potential for full funding of the project, but key gates must be opened along the way. In this model donors fund stages, but commit to fund more based on results.

But surely, you may be thinking, it’s precisely because donors only fund short-term pilots that much development effort suffers from pilot-itis. The problem isn’t that donors fund pilots, it’s that they fund ones that don’t add value. If they follow a more agile approach, there’ll be more early stage pilots and fewer, more successful and sustainable, bigger ones.

When a well-intentioned non-profit organisation proposes a two-year project with neat predicted outcomes, it is essentially saying to funders: we need two years to show you this works before we scale it to the whole world. This is madness. We need proposals – and calls for proposals – that are more agile so that both implementer and funder are open to new trajectories being forged in the project. Even in a five-year programme, the principles of being agile should still apply. The NGO should say: we have an idea and we think it’s a solid one, but we need to explore and validate it before moving further. And if we need to adapt it, we need your support.

There are many agile or lean models, centred around the sound principles of iterative development and designing with real users. Development organisations should choose one and go agile. There are some development pioneers beginning to move in this direction. By moving towards a more agile way of operating – like Google and Facebook – we will get much more impact from preciously scarce funds.