Jagannathan, S. (ed.) (2021) Reimagining Digital Learning for Sustainable Development: How Upskilling, Data Analytics and Educational Technologies Close the Skills Gap Routledge: New York/London, pp.379, eBook: US$39.16

Who are the authors/editor?

Sheila Jagannathan, the editor and author of five of the 27 chapters, is the Head of the Open Learning Campus at the World Bank. She provides policy advice and technical assistance to World Bank country-level capacity building programs in East Asia, China, the Middle East and North Africa.

The 36 contributors are an eclectic collection of people from international agencies, from leading institutions in emerging countries, and also include a handful of Western experts in digital learning.

Full disclosure: I was interviewed for one of the chapters (on re-imagining pedagogy for a digital age.)

What is the book about?

The book aims to help learning leaders in emerging countries develop a flexible mindset and a set of strategies to modernize learning by harnessing educational technology in their respective institutions and countries.

The book argues that the disruptions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Covid-19, climate change, the need for skills development appropriate for a digital age, and the challenge of global learning poverty, all demand major capacity development in emerging countries, and educational technologies and digital learning must be essential components of such capacity-building.

What is in the book?

The book is organised around eight themes:

  • learning in the 21st century
  • innovative pedagogies
  • new models for deeper learning (MOOCs, serious games, virtual reality)
  • digital and blended learning in action: case studies
  • content development and open educational resources
  • smart technologies and tools
  • modernizing learning measurement, evaluation and credentialing through data analytics
  • mobilizing partnerships to support pathways to work

My response to the book

It is certainly a book that should be read not only by ‘learning leaders’ in emerging countries, but also by those in developed countries. There is a lot of reading and I will focus on the main issues

The challenge of learning in the 21st century

The early part of the book is a firehose of information, ideas, values and approaches that frankly I found overwhelming. Across several chapters in the book it is argued that all the following are happening:

  • increased automation and mechanisation of low-skilled work
  • major changes in the nature of work, from an agricultural or industrial economy to a digital economy
  • massive shifts in the labour market, with the need for not only initial education and training, but lifelong learning opportunities, to enable workers’ skills to remain relevant
  • massives shifts in demographics – particularly the ‘youth bulge’ in many emerging countries
  • rapid development of new digital technologies
  • the need for major structural changes to government administration and higher education institutions, in particular a move from ‘brick-and-mortar’ to digital and blended environments,  to enable the opportunities of new technologies to be fully exploited
  • the need for cross-sectoral partnerships between higher education institutions, businesses, and government agencies.

If this was not enough, all this has to be aligned with Sustainable Development Goals (SDS) on quality education for countries that often have massive ‘learning poverty’, in terms of children out-of-school and inequalities within society, in particular the digital divide in emerging countries (for instance, 60% of school children in India cannot access online learning opportunities, according to a report by the Azim Premji Foundation).

Digital and Blended Learning in Action, Good Practices and Cases

However, by the time you get to Theme 4, the book starts getting down to more concrete initiatives. There was a good description of how Tec de Monterrey in Mexico has developed its digital learning strategy that now reaches into 18 countries. There was a similarly concrete description of how the government of Malaysia has steadily implemented a national e-learning strategy for higher education to the point where all Malaysian higher education institutions now have an e-learning strategy with key performance indicators.

In another chapter, there are descriptions of two interesting digital learning developments in China: the China Construction Bank University (CCBU) which provides courses that support creative and entrepreneurship skills across a range of topics, and NetDragon University, established by a prominent developer of online games, initially to train its own staff and managers, but now also offering programs to a wider public. It uses gamification and AI as part of the pedagogical design of its programs. Not surprisingly given that that these institutions operate in China, the number of learners reached by just these two initiatives is staggering.

There are also chapters on the role of the Inter-American Institute for Economic and Social Development in using eLearning  to improve performance, competencies and employability in Latin American countries; and the role of the Skill India Mission and the National Skill Development Corporation in India in training Indian youth in vocational and technical education. There are also two useful chapters on open educational resources.

All these chapters provide concrete examples of successful attempts to use new technologies to address specifically the skills gap in emerging countries. They demonstrate that progress is possible.

New models for deeper learning

The two chapters covering artificial intelligence, blockchain and 5G provided clear descriptions and noted some of the current limitations, but these chapters did not make the case to me that they have immediate value for education in emerging countries.

The chapter though on developing a metaknowledge framework for the use of smart mobile learning applications, with two examples of applications of the framework across 22 Arab states and with training doctors in five south Asian countries, was particularly interesting, given the ubiquity of mobile phones in emerging countries.

Measurement and evaluation

There are three chapters on the need to modernise the evaluation and measurement of learning. One provides a six-step framework for evaluating the impact of digital learning, one suggests ways in which learning analytics could be used, and the third examines alternative credentials such as badges. Again, these are useful descriptive chapters, but none really addressed how these developments could be implemented or applied in an emerging country context.

Partnerships for sustainable development

I found the (almost) last chapter the most interesting. This describes, with examples, eight different kinds of partnership arrangements established in Africa for using educational technology to further sustainable development goals. The author, Shafika Isaacs, convincingly argues that ‘no single entity…or institution can address complex and “wicked” educational problems on its own… partnerships are critical cornerstones to problem-solving in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.’ She is frank about the difficulties in forming effective partnerships, but also offers several principles for building effective partnerships. 

From concepts to action

In her concluding chapter, Sheila Jagannathan not only summarises the eight main themes, but suggests the following conditions for success in reimagining digital learning for sustainable development:

  • take equity and inclusion seriously
  • embrace multi-stakeholder partnerships
  • empower learning providers
  • curate rather create digital learning assets
  • capture data for evidence-based decisions
  • communicate change frequently
  • think like a futurist

She ends the chapter with a call to action.

Strengths and weaknesses of the book

I have given plenty of space to this review because this is an important book for emerging countries. The book provides a comprehensive overview of the opportunities and challenges that digital learning will bring for emerging countries. Many of the chapters provide concise and easily understood briefings on many key issues associated with digital learning. There are several good examples of how some emerging countries have addressed some of these issues. ‘Learning leaders’ who read this book will be appraised of many of the issues that need to be addressed, and will have some suggestions about how to proceed next.

However, after reading the first few chapters, I wouldn’t be surprised if many ‘learning leaders’ in emerging countries suddenly felt the need to take early retirement, especially as even the most developed countries have yet to address successfully these issues. We are dealing with what one author calls a complex and ‘wicked’ problem, that of radically changing existing educational and training systems to adapt to an equally rapidly changing world. Nor was it helped that several of the early chapters were written at a high level of abstraction or generalisation. Indeed, the first chapters of this book reminded me very much of the problem with addressing climate change. Agreeing the goal is not the problem; the problem is finding ways to implement the necessary actions without massive disruption and threats to powerful interests. There are though plenty of examples in the book of how emerging countries are successfully tackling this ‘wicked’ problem.

Nevertheless, I would have liked a more critical view of the relevance, or the dangers, for emerging countries in particular of some of the new technologies described. The issue of technological colonialism was not discussed at all, and I was still left wondering about priorities. Yes, emerging countries need to be able to participate fully in the digital age and this will require major changes in education and training, but is this compatible with the need for education for all, or will digital learning be a privilege just for the elite in emerging countries?

It could be argued that these latter issues are well beyond the scope of the book, which is long enough already. Certainly the book will be a valuable briefing document for ‘learning leaders’ in emerging countries. I strongly believe though that the solutions to the challenge of digital learning will best come from within these countries, rather than from outside. Nevertheless, this book will be a valuable resource in helping emerging countries move in that direction.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here