Reposting this here from Panoply Digital.

The allure of educational technology in serving those who have remain underserved for so long is tough to resist. It drives us in the educational community towards totalizing terms: the seamless, ubiquitous, and evidence-based results of technological interventions. The end-to-end solution, the driving of test scores, the tables and rankings, the address of the digital divide, the stock photos of children gleaming over tablets in otherwise modest classrooms. I understand why we adopt the neoliberal, totalizing rhetoric put forth by the private community in providing these services. It makes sense. It is a vision, however hollow, of a better future.

And it continues to miss the mark. We see evidence of this throughout the developing world (and developed as well) most recently manifest in Liberia as it has been announced that “the entire pre-primary and primary education system would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies to manage.” The bolded emphasis is mine from my first reading of the article as I thought it was a typo, or some over-exuberant marketing blurb. I was wrong.  

“Under the public-private arrangement, the company will pilot the programme in 50 public schools in 2016, as well as design curriculum materials, while phase two could have the company rollout mass implementation over five years, “with government exit possible each year dependent on provided performance from September 2017 onwards.”

I am impressed on some level that they even had an exit clause (from September 2017 onwards), but exiting from such deals is notoriously difficult. Once you have the technology and, more importantly, once you have the pedagogy in place that supports that technology (and undercuts any indigenous curriculum that existed in the first instance), exiting is onerous. There might be other levers we are unaware of, ones in parallel fields that are linked here, other contracts awarded elsewhere, etc. but more than likely the Government of Liberia saw an opportunity to potentially offload an administrative burden and Bridge International Academies saw what they are engineered to see: profit. 

I don’t inherently fault either party in that process; however narrow or ultimately counterproductive, it is still a decision to try. What I do critique is how we as a community continue to struggle in dissecting the rhetoric being used to advance these positions, how we have yet to develop a coherent counter-narrative of teacher training with ICT, of using tech to mentor teachers and model ‘good’ teaching, of building coherent curricula, of avoiding the mistakes of these tech airdrops (literally, in some cases) of the past. Much of this totalizing rhetoric is alive and well:

Bridge says that given the alternatives – which include government schools staffed by unmotivated teachers and other non-formal schools offering little in-house teacher training – the private school chain offers an education that’s more accountable, and subject to rigorous testing and review.

In any case, under the traditional model, what a child is able to learn is “always limited by what the teacher knows, so you can never have the child leap-frog previous problems within that town, city or country,” -Bridge co-founder Shannon May.

Unmotivated teachers being held accountable. Rigorous testing. Leap-frogging previous problems. We have heard this before. I grow weary of the blame being placed on these “unmotivated teachers” with all their limitations. Education as reductionism, testing and output and all that jazz. Yes, I know this songsheet. 

Yet Liberia isn’t alone. Ethiopia is locking themselves into Microsoft with their new Education Transformation Agreement, which provides access to tools and applications, along with teacher credentialing programmes to support their use. Similar partnerships exist in Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and on and on. Ethiopia’s is linking their rhetoric to workforce development: 

“Our economic competitiveness as a country depends on how our schools and universities use ICT to prepare students for the modern workforce. The agreement will ensure that our technology investments are used to support our broader national education goals.” -Dr. Kaba Urgessa, State Minister for Higher Education in Ethiopia. 

To Ethiopia’s credit, at least there is rhetorical linkage here between tech adoption and national educational goals and I certainly have no pedagogical issue with working with teachers and schools to make better use of ICT. It is the way all of this is couched in language that is untenable and reductionist that bothers me. The rhetoric emerging from South Africa goes even further and links underperforming schools to social cohesion:

“Social cohesion makes for a more orderly society, which in turn, is good for business. This is particularly important for South Africa, given the high levels of educational inequality. What is needed is a shift in the idea of business being merely an observer, but an active corporate citizen working together with the National Department of Basic Education to find ways to support underperforming schools, teachers and learners.”

At least it is forthright enough to acknowledge this is about business. But education, however reduced to output and test scores, is a messy business. It is about developing human potential to solve problems and transform societies in ways we can’t envision now. About preparing the youth for jobs and roles that don’t even exist now. It is not always exact and needs a broad enough approach to account for disparate interests, talents, desires, and, more importantly, visions of a future that has yet to materialize. ICT can play a huge role in this process, but a complementary one: supporting teachers’ professional development, mentoring teacher trainers with regional and international communities, linking tech to national curricula, improvements to numeracy, and all sorts of literacy. These can be tangibly evaluated. No need to offload the entire enterprise. No need to accept the totalizing rhetoric. 


Panoply Digital

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

2 thoughts on “Rhetoric, Neoliberalism, and Edtech in Liberia, Ethiopia, and South Africa”
  1. Yup, quite worrying that local teachers are being bypassed or being given scant attention in this drive to adopt technology in some African countries. The difference between the reality and rhetoric is vast. I’m sure that you’ve seen the rhetoric about the #paperlessclassrooms here in Gauteng, Johannesburg. The focus on technology and not on the teacher is the opposite of what the 2004 white paper on e-education suggested.

    This is such a pity as technological determinism will never solve our local education woes, because it locks us into companies that I’m afraid do not have our interests at heart, but their shareholders.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    1. Great to hear from you, Derek, and agreed with all your points. Akin to the white paper, it was like we spent all this time hacking out strategies, pedagogies, learning paths and flows, and then decided to discard all of that in some rush for tech acquisition. I can’t say this is even an African-specific problem as teachers are being undercut throughout the globe (in Asia as well) in favor of technology, or some allusion to productivity. The more I follow this path of edtech, I feel as though teacher training is where I want to spend the rest of my career as I can see the most immediate results. Tech-assisted teacher training, not tech-deterministic. I think as an educational community we really need to be better at seeing marketing rhetoric as rhetoric rather than educational practice. Good to hear from you!

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