He writes that technologies are merely instruments to be deployed by human beings involved in the implementation of development programs. He describes them as "magnifier of human intent and capacity", and writes (and I quote extensively),
"But as we conducted research projects in multiple domains (education, microfinance, agriculture, health care) and with various technologies (PCs, mobile phones, custom-designed electronics), a pattern, having little to do with the technologies themselves, emerged. In every one of our projects, a technology’s effects were wholly dependent on the intention and capacity of the people handling it. The success of PC projects in schools hinged on supportive administrators and dedicated teachers. Microcredit processes with mobile phones worked because of effective microfinance organizations. Teaching farming practices through video required capable agriculture-extension officers and devoted nonprofit staff...
technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around.
Technology is a magnifier in that its impact is multiplicative, not additive, with regard to social change. In the developed world, there is a tendency to see the Internet and other technologies as necessarily additive, inherent contributors of positive value. But their beneficial contributions are contingent on an absorptive capacity among users that is often missing in the developing world. Technology has positive effects only to the extent that people are willing and able to use it positively. The challenge of international development is that, whatever the potential of poor communities, well-intentioned capability is in scarce supply and technology cannot make up for its deficiency."
Ironically, techonology as a magnifier of human capability also results in exactly the opposite outcomes when capability and intent are absent or very weak. Echoing the digital divide voices, he writes,
"The greater one’s capacity, the more technology delivers; the lesser one’s capacity, the less value technology has. In effect, technology helps the rich get richer while doing little for the incomes of the poor, thus widening the gaps between haves and have-nots."
There are two recent stories about the use of technology in education that are classic examples that overlook the wise words of Prof Toyama. First, the NYT reported about the use of cameras to videotape classroom instruction and use them to both remotely assess teachers and help them improve. Supported by the Bill Gates Foundation, a number of American school districts are videotaping classes and score teacher performance remotely by independent assessors. The teachers will also be provided feed-back and training to improve the quality of instruction.
In a Mint op-ed Harvard Professor Tarun Khanna pointed to the success of South Korean on-line learning website, Megastudy, with improving education quality. Megastudy's core idea is that good teachers are videotaped, and then others can pay to subscribe to their lectures, via online access to the videos. Prof Khanna reasons that the incentive structure in Megastudy's model (teachers get a share of the revenues) encourages the good teacher and "the underperforming ones understand how they must improve". Further, it also enables access for all children to the best available teachers.
Both these are typical examples of technology-driven euphoria glossing over the real-world challenges of replicating such models. Especially if the objective is to use these technologies to improve the quality of instruction and increase student access to the most powerful learning resources in developing country environments.
The videotape model to assess teachers is simply too fanciful to even cross the first stage of laboratory trial. While theoretically attractive, it becomes simply impractical when viewed through the lens of implementation on scale. The exorbitant installation cost and maintenance itself should be enough to junk such ideas (at $1.5 million for a district with 140 schools. it would cost nearly $12 bn to instal in 1.1 m Indian schools).
Even overlooking the cost and the very relevant questions about whether a videotape can capture all the different dimensions of classroom instruction, there still remain issues of implementation. Who will watch the videotape? How do we ensure quality of their assessments? How can the subjective opinions of the thousands of assessors be standardized? How do we administer the teacher feedback mechanism? We could easily end up subsituting an ineffectual assessment system by principals or supervisors with an equally inefficient system involving third-party assessors sitting at remote locations!
And then there are the real world issues. Any such technology and approach to assessment is vulnerable to being subverted. Cameras will develop problems and some will be made to develop problems and fail to record! And even when they do record, some of them would certainly end up recording something else (or without sound)! The possibilities are too numerous to be addressed to any level of satisfaction.
The Megastudy model offers little towards improving learning outcomes and teacher performance in any meaningful manner. Given the massive scale involved (1.1 million schools and nearly 200 million students in India), such websites will always have marginal reach. The small sliver of students who can afford it will benefit and increase their learning gap with the rest. The good teachers (and here too the chances are that there will be very few from government schools) would of course increase their bank balances.
In fact, on-line learning websites, admittedly not exactly Megastudy-model based, are already widely available in India. The sheer size of the education market in countries like India mean that firms like Educomp (which offer such services) can expand rapidly for a long time to come by merely concentrating on the top 5-10% of the market. It would be decades before the aforementioned models start penetrating the mass-market, involving government schools. In any case, why go for paid Megastudy material, when you can get the Khan Academy for free?
The businessman in me (and I am not in that profession!) will be excited by the commercial possibilities of videotaping and on-line classroom content distribution. However, the public official in me (and I am one!) sees limited possibilities for its scalability.