August 14, 2018

Online learning and disruptive change at the UK Open University

The old Walton Hall on the OU campus in Milton keynes

Sturm und Strang

I’ve was in England last week,  attending the 7th eSTEeM conference at the Open University as the opening keynote speaker, only my second visit to the OU since I left nearly 30 years ago.

The Open University, described by several commentators as one of the most successful innovations in Britain since the Second World War, is currently going through an existential crisis, which culminated two weeks ago with the resignation of its Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, following a devastating vote of no confidence by faculty and staff.

The OU is facing enormous pressure, due mainly to the policies of the recent Conservative governments. Over the last six years, the government has treated the OU just the same as other, more traditional, universities in England and Wales. The government severely cut the OU’s operating budget requiring it to dramatically increase fees, and also made all part-time students (i.e. students not taking a full annual course load) ineligible for government-guaranteed, low interest loans. It also has required students at the OU, like all other students in England and Wales, to complete their bachelor studies within three years, compressing their time for study. It is expected to have a £20 million (CS$36 million) operating deficit this year and was proposing to save £100m from its £420m annual budget by cutting courses and staff.

Since the vast majority of its 200,000 students in 2012 were part-time, working adults without a first degree and who required the maximum flexibility in their studies, it’s hardly surprising that its student numbers have dropped by more than a third since 2012. At the same time it has invested heavily in FutureLearn, a MOOC-type platform which is still struggling to find a viable business model. The recent changes mean that the whole concept of open-ness and accessibility for OU students, and its unique position in the British higher education system, are under existential threat. 

To cap all this, the university itself recognises that it needs to fundamentally change its operational model. Like many other Open Universities, it has not changed fast enough to accommodate to the digital revolution in post-secondary teaching. It is burdened with a heavy legacy of a print-based design model and an expensive regional tutoring system, despite the recent elimination of all local face-to-face operations.

“We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud, a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy,” according to Horrocks. As a result the (now leaderless) executive team is working on a ‘transformational model’ for the university, which is still a work in progress.

This is the battlefield into which I parachuted this week.

The eSTEeM conference

The Open University has offered science and technology programs since its inauguration in 1971. It initially used a combination of print, home experiment kits mailed to students’ homes, and one week residential schools in the summer. The residential schools have long since gone (too expensive) although in general students loved them and at least in the early days the residential schools provided such a morale boost for students that many who would have dropped out then went on to continue successfully.

For the last seven years, the STEM Faculty/academic department at the OU has been holding an annual conference to demonstrate the scholarship of its faculty and staff. I was the opening speaker for this year’s conference, on the topic: ‘Digital learning in an era of change: challenges and opportunities for STEM teaching and the OU.’

However, as well as the very interesting STEM components of the conference, on which I will write two separate posts, there was an almost full day, well-organised workshop called ‘Digital by Design’, which focused on what the future as a whole should be at the OU. The workshop enabled a quick and close, if incomplete, ‘parachute’ view of some of the challenges the OU is facing and how academic and regional staff are responding. In this post I will focus on these general, internal challenges that the OU still has to resolve that emerged from this and other discussions in which I participated.

Online but not digital

It is clear that many of the teaching staff have not really ‘got it’ with regard to digital learning. In many cases, print still remains the core teaching technology, and where online is heavily used, it is often just a print model moved online, with a heavy emphasis on content transmission. Many in the OU are still arguing for a ‘blended’ learning model, which in this case refers to a mix of print and online, with print having at least an equal contribution.

In particular, the OU is really weak in its exploitation of the networking and student collaboration that the web offers and in its integration of social media within the design of courses. In this it is not unlike many conventional universities, but nevertheless this realisation came as a real shock to me. This was the original open, distance university, not a conventional one.

Why I am so shocked is that one of the many reasons I emigrated to Canada in 1989 was that I got frustrated at the inability of myself and others at the OU such as Robin Mason and Tony Kaye to get the OU to take online learning seriously. We had contributed to a course, DT200, in 1988 that had an online discussion forum component that had merely been bolted on to the standard 36 week print and broadcast design. The next logical step would have been to have pioneered a fully online course, but neither the university management nor the faculty were interested.

It is important to understand that the OU has a relatively small core of permanent faculty based at its headquarters in Milton Keynes who are primarily engaged in the design of courses, in particular the choice and structuring of content, and a legion of regional staff tutors who provide most of the student learning support. There is a long-established Institute of Educational Technology, where the staff have full academic status, and conduct research as well as advise the OU’s course teams on best practices in the design of distance education.

Here I am 30 years later, and there are still arguments going on about the wisdom of going fully online. This despite the fact that Gilly Salmon, who wrote a standard text on teaching online (2011), worked at the OU for several years, and despite the fact that the OU has an Institute of Educational Technology that has excellent design models developed for online learning that it struggles to get faculty to adopt. This is so reminiscent of Athabasca University and its failure to exploit the expertise of Terry Anderson and its other distance education specialists

The fixation on print as the ‘core’ medium/technology

I participated in several discussions where I challenged the focus on printed material as the core teaching technology. First though I would like to set out some of the arguments OU staff put forward in support of print.

Arguments for print

These were made mainly by OU staff to me.

  1. The OU made its reputation in its early days in the 1970s by the very high quality of its printed materials. As well as being beautifully produced and illustrated (full colour), they were and still are extremely well structured. This was recognised immediately by many faculty in more traditional universities, and the quality of its printed materials is still much appreciated by the students. If it was effective then, it must be effective now.
  2. Access: there are still students in Britain who do not have access to the Internet or cannot afford a computer.
  3. Most OU students are working and many spend all day at work looking at screens; the OU printed material provides an essential break from being on-screen all day.
  4. Students prefer to read printed material; it’s easier for study purposes and revision than searching online.
  5. If the textual material was delivered online rather than printed, the OU would be transferring the cost of print to the students, as they would want to print out the textual material.

Arguments against print

These were made mainly by me to OU staff.

  1. Online learning provides students with the opportunity of ‘any time, any place’ discussion and interaction with each other and teaching staff.
  2. Student activities and interaction with online text is more integrated and immediate than with printed text. In particular immediate feedback can be provided through online tests or automated feedback, etc.
  3. Students are not limited by the boundaries of the printed course material once they go online. Everything on the Internet is potential study material. In particular students can access open educational resources from many different sources.
  4. In order to develop the skills students need in the 21st century, we need to focus more on skills development than on the transmission of content. Online learning can focus better on the development of these soft skills, such as communication and knowledge management.
  5. Access has always been a limitation for any technology. For instance students with visual impairment or dyslexia have difficulties with print. When the OU first started, many students did not have access to the broadcasts. Most students in Britain now have access to the Internet, although in more remote areas there are still bandwidth limitations. The OU’s policy in general has been that when access exceeds 80% of the target audience, alternatives are found for the remaining students. It is wrong to deny the benefits to the vast majority of students because of the needs of a small minority which could be met in other ways.
  6. Students need to learn digitally if they are to earn digitally. Digital literacy is now a core skill required by everyone.
  7. The costs for a print-based system are very high, not just in the actual costs of full colour printing, but in the editing, and above all, the lengthy time it takes faculty and instructors to prepare, check and revise the printed materials (many OU courses take at least two years to design). Savings by going digital could be used to reduce substantially tuition fees.

The need to think digitally when designing online learning

The issue is not whether print has educational value; it does, and there may be specific situations where students may prefer to have hard copy. However, it should not be the default medium. It’s really important when designing online learning to be open to all the media the Internet enables: text, audio, video, computing, augmented reality, simulations, social media, and so on. This requires thinking digitally when designing courses, which is difficult if your first and preferred option is always print.

Of course, this is identical to the challenge that on-campus instructors face about digital learning, but instead of print, their default option is face-to-face teaching.

This is why moving to online learning requires a major cultural change and why it takes so long. However, in the OU’s current existential crisis, it does not have the time for gradual change (that should have started back in 1989). The need for change must be embraced now, ironically, not for financial reasons but for pedagogical reasons: only this way will it better prepare its students for the future. The financial pressures merely make this devastatingly urgent.

Necessary but not sufficient

Forcing change for financial reasons is unlikely to work. Making changes that are not accepted or resisted by staff is more likely to lead to failure or collapse in an organization. Even if by some miracle the (remaining) OU staff manage to pull it off, moving to the University of the Cloud (whatever that means – some kind of heaven for students?) will not meet the needs of the nation that the former OU met.

Lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity in a digital age, where the knowledge base expands exponentially and citizens need to continuously learn new content and new skills. Traditional universities do not do lifelong learning well; they are not really designed for it. The OU was, but government policies of starving financial support for part-time learners and reducing the flexibility of study to fit some 1950s view of elite higher education is going to be disastrous for the future British economy. At no time has the OU been more important to Britain. Without a radical change of government policy though its future is indeed dismal, whatever else it does.

Up next

Your intrepid online learning war correspondent will do two more posts from my visit to the OU:

  • the OU’s use of learning analytics for analysing student course evaluations
  • the OU’s use of online labs

Also I will be reporting on a conference on active learning I attended this week at the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario. Buy, busy, busy. (Don’t even ask about retirement).

Reference

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Five old educational technologies

Etherington, C. (2018) Five educational technologies, circa 1918 ELearning inside news, January 1

Despite rumours, I was not around in 1918, but this article is a very nice reminder of what was happening 100 years ago with educational technologies. The five technologies are:

  • magic lanterns
  • chalkboards
  • ink pens
  • abacuses
  • radio

When I started teaching, in 1965, in my school it was still compulsory for students to use ink pens (not ‘nasty Biros’, which were available then). This was a real problem for left-handed pupils, who tended to drag their hand across the wet ink when writing from left to right. I fought hard to get an exemption but my headmistress was adamant – no exceptions were allowed. We have made at least some advances since then regarding accessibility and accommodation to the needs of minorities.

As the article points out, radio was still a couple of years away from actually being used for instructional purposes, although it was increasingly available by 1918. The first BBC adult educational radio program was broadcast in 1924 and was about fleas: a talk on Insects in Relation to Man.

Nevertheless, these old technologies also illustrate how little has changed in many classrooms in terms of pedagogy. PowerPoint is nothing more than a merger of a magic lantern and a chalkboard, but the form of teaching remains the same.

It is much easier to identify technology changes then over 100 years but far less progress has been made on improving teaching methods –  or do you disagree?

Tracking innovations in online learning in Canada

Rue St Jean, Québec City. Temperatures ranged from -17 C to -23 C -without wind chill added

I’ve not been blogging much recently because, frankly, I’ve been too busy, and not on the golf course or ski slopes, either. (Yeah, so what happened to my retirement? Failed again).

Assessing the state of online learning in Canada

I am working on two projects at the moment:

These two projects in fact complement one another nicely, with the first aiming to provide a broad and accurate picture of the extent of online learning in Canada, and the other focusing on the more qualitative aspects of innovation in online learning, and all in time for not only for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada (which was really the creation of a new, independent state in North America) but also ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October, whose theme is, guess what, Teaching in a Digital Age (now there’s a co-incidence).

Of course, I’m not doing this on my own. In both projects I am working with a great group of people.

Methodology

My mandate for Contact North is to identify 8-12 cases of innovation in online learning from all of Canada other than Ontario. I started of course in British Columbia, early in January, and last week I visited six post-secondary institutions in four cities in Québec.

To find the cases, I have gone to faculty development workshops where instructors showcase their innovations, or I have contacted instructional designers I know in different institutions to recommend cases. The institutions are chosen to reflect provinces, and universities and colleges within each province.

Each visit involves an interview with the instructor responsible for the innovation, and where possible a demonstration or examples of the innovation. (One great thing about online learning is that it leaves a clear footprint that can be captured).

I then write up a short report, using a set of headings provided by Contact North, and then return that to the instructor to ensure that it is accurate. I then submit the case report to Contact North.

I am not sure whether Contact North will publish all the cases I report on its web site, as I will certainly cover much more than 8-12 cases in the course of this project. However, it is hoped that at least some of the instructors featured will showcase their innovations at the World Congress of Online Learning.

Progress to date

I have conducted interviews (but not finished the reports yet) for the following:

British Columbia

  • the use of an online dialectical map to develop argumentation skills in undergraduate science students (Simon Fraser University – SFU)
  • peer evaluation as a learning and assessment strategy for building teamwork skills in business school programs (SFU)
  • the development of a mobile app for teaching the analysis of soil samples (University of British Columbia)
  • PRAXIS: software to enable real-time, team-based decision-making skills through simulations of real-world emergency situations (Justice Institute of British Columbia)

Québec

  • comodal synchronous teaching, enabling students to choose between attending a live lecture or participating at the same time from home/at a distance (Laval University)
  • synchronous online teaching of the use of learning technologies in a teacher education program (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières – UQTR)
  • achieving high completion rates in a MOOC on the importance of children’s play (UQTR)
  • a blended course on effective face-to-face teaching for in-service teachers (TÉLUQ)
  • use of iBook Author software for content management for cardiology students and faculty in a teaching hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke University Hospital: CHUS)
  • a decision-making tool to develop active and coherent learning scenarios that leverage the use of learning technologies (Université de Montréal).
  • Mathema-TIC: francophone open educational resources for teaching mathematics in universities and colleges (Université de Montréal).

These visits would not have been possible without the assistance of France Lafleur, an online instructor from UQTR who not only arranged many of the meetings but also did all the driving. Anyone from outside Québec who has tried to drive across the province in winter, and especially tried to navigate and drive to several parts of Montréal the same day, will understand why this help was invaluable.

Response and reaction

Faculty and instructors often receive a lot of criticism for being resistant to change in their teaching. This project however starts from an opposite position. What are faculty and instructors actually doing in terms of innovation in their teaching? What can we learn from this regarding change and the development of new teaching approaches? What works and what doesn’t?

It is dangerous at this stage to start drawing conclusions. This is not a representative selection of even innovative projects, and the project – in terms of my participation – has just started. The definition of innovation is also imprecise. It’s like trying to describe an elephant to someone who’s never seen one: you might find it difficult to imagine, but you’ll know it when you see it.

However, even with such a small sample, some things are obvious:

  • innovation in online teaching is alive and well in Canadian post-secondary education: there is a lot going on. It was not difficult to identify these 11 cases; I could have easily found many more if I had the time;
  • the one common feature across all the instructors I have interviewed is their enthusiasm and passion for their projects. They are all genuinely excited by what they were doing. Their teaching has been galvanised by their involvement in the innovation; 
  • in some of the cases, there are measured improvements in student learning outcomes, or, more importantly, new ’21st century skills’ such as teamwork, evidence-based argumentation, and knowledge management are being developed as a result of the innovation;
  • although again these are early days for me, there seems to be a widening gap between what is actually happening on the ground and what we read or hear about in the literature and at conferences on innovation in online learning. The innovation I am seeing is often built around simple but effective changes, such as a web-based map, or a slight change of teaching approach, such as opening up a lecture class to students who don’t want to – or can’t – come in to the campus on a particular day. However, these innovations are radically changing the dynamics of classroom teaching;
  • blended learning is breaking out all over the place. Most of these cases involve a mix of classroom and online learning, but there is no standard model – such as flipped classrooms – emerging. They all vary quite considerably from each other; 
  • the innovations are still somewhat isolated although a couple have gone beyond the original instructor and have been adopted by colleagues; however there is usually no institutional strategy or process for evaluating innovations and making sure that they are taken up across a wider range of teaching, although instructional designers working together provide one means for doing this. Evaluation of the innovation though is usually just left to the innovator, with all the risks that this entails in terms of objectivity.

Next steps

I still have at least one more case from another institution in British Columbia to follow up, and I now have a backlog of reports to do. I hope to have these all finished by the end of this month.

I have two more trips to organise. The first will be to the prairie provinces:

  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which I hope to do in mid-March.

The next will be to the Maritimes,

  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland, which I will do probably in April or May.

No further cases or institutions have been identified at this moment, and I am definitely open to suggestions in these provinces if you have any. The criterion for choice is as follows:

  • The focus is first and foremost on practice, on actual teaching and learning applications – not policy, funding, planning issues, descriptions of broad services, or broader concerns.
  • The interest is in applications of pedagogy using technology for classroom, blended, and online learning with the emphasis on student learning, engagement, assessment, access, etc. The pedagogy is as important as the technology in terms of innovation.
  • The emphasis is on innovative practices that can be replicated or used by other instructors.
  • We are particularly looking for cases where some form of evaluation of the innovation has been conducted or where there is clear evidence of success.

If you can recommend a case that you think fits well these parameters, please drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca.

In the meantime, look out for the case studies being posted to Contact North’s Pocket of Innovation web site over the next few months. There are also more cases from Ontario being done at the same time.

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion

Edvard Munch's The Scream (public domain) Location: National Gallery, Norway

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (public domain)
Location: National Gallery, Norway

This is the second post on the topic of technology, alienation and the role of education, with a particular focus on the consequences for teaching and learning. The first post was a general introduction to the topic. This post focuses on how technology can lead to alienation, and provides a framework for discussing the possibility of technology alienation in online learning and how to deal with it.

What do I mean by ‘alienation’?

Alienation is a term that has been around for some time. Karl Marx described alienation as the perception by people that they are becoming increasingly unable to control the social forces that shape their lives. Ultimately, highly alienated workers come to lose the sense that they can control any aspect of their lives, whether at work or at home, and become highly self-estranged. Such people are profoundly discontent, prone to alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, violence, and the support of extreme social and political movements (Macionis and Plummer, 2012). Although Marx had an industrial society in mind, the definition works equally well to describe some of the negative effects of a digital society, as we shall see.

Causes

There are of course many different but related causes of alienation today:

  • the increasing inequality in wealth and in particular the perception by unemployed or low paid workers that they are being ‘passed by’ or not included in the wealth-generating economy. The feeling is particularly strong among workers who previously had well paid jobs (or expectations of well paid jobs) in manufacturing but have seen those jobs disappear in their lifetime. However, there are now also growing numbers of well educated younger people struggling to find well paid work while at the same time carrying a large debt as a result of increasingly expensive higher education;
  • one reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs is the effect of globalization: jobs going abroad to countries where the cost of labour is lower;
  • dysfunctional political systems are another factor, where people feel that they have little or no control over decisions made by government, that government is controlled by those with power and money, and political power is used to protect the ‘elites’;
  • lastly, and the main consideration in these posts, the role of technology, which operates in a number of ways that create alienation:
    • the most immediate is its role in replacing workers, originally in manufacturing, but now increasingly in service or even professional areas of work, including education;
    • a more subtle but nevertheless very powerful way in which technology leads to alienation is in controlling what we do, and in particular removing choice or decision-making from individuals. I will give some examples later;
    • lastly, many people are feeling increasingly exploited by technology companies collecting personal data and using it for commercial purposes or even to deny services such as insurance; in particular, the benefits to the end-user of technology seem very small compared to the large profits made by the companies that provide the services.

Symptoms

Here are some examples of how technology leads to alienation.

There have been several cases where intimate images of people have been posted on the Internet, without permission, and yet it has been impossible for the victims to get the images removed, at least until well after the damage has been done. The Erin Andrews case is the most recent, and the suicide of the 15 year old Amanda Todd is another example. These are extreme cases, but illustrate the perception that we have less and less control over social media and its potentially negative impact on their lives.

Sometimes the alienation comes from decisions made by engineers that pre-empt or deny human decision-making. I have always driven BMWs. Even when I had little money, I would buy a second hand BMW, mainly because of its superb engineering. However, I am driven crazy by my latest purchase. The ignition switches off automatically when I stop the car and automatically switches on again when I take my foot off the brake. One day I drove into my garage. I had stopped the car, and turned round to get something off the back seat. I took my foot off the brake and the car lurched forward and hit the freezer we have in the garage. If I had been on the street and done that, I could well have hit another car or even a pedestrian. The car also automatically locks the passenger doors. I have parked the car and started to walk away only to see my passengers pounding on the window to get out. I could cite nearly a hundred instances from this one car of decisions made by engineers that I don’t want made for me. In most cases (but not all) these default conditions can be changed, but that requires going through a 600 page printed manual. Furthermore these ‘features’ all cost money to install, money I would rather not pay if I had a choice.

We are just starting to see similar decisions by engineers creeping into online learning. One of the most popular uses of data analytics is to identify students ‘at risk’ of non-completion. As with the features in a car, there are potential benefits in this. However, the danger is that decisions based on correlations of other students’ previous behaviour with course completion may end up denying access to a program for a student considered ‘at risk’ but who may nevertheless might well succeed. In particular it could negatively profile black students in the USA, aboriginal students in Canada, or students from low income families.

A framework for discussion

I am dealing here with a highly emotive issue, and one where there will be many different and often contradictory perspectives. Let’s start with the ‘moral’ or ‘value’ issues. I start from the position that alienation is to be avoided if at all possible. It leads to destructive forces. In education in particular, alienation is the opposite of engagement, and for me, engagement is critical for student success. On the other hand, if people are really suffering, then alienation may well be a necessary starting point on the road to change or revolution. So it is difficult to adopt an objective stance to this topic. I want therefore to focus the discussion around the following issues:

  • what are the main developments in online learning that are occurring or will occur over the next few years?
  • who are the main drivers of change in this area?
  • what is the main value proposition? Why is this area being promoted? Who stands to benefit most from this development?
  • what are the risks or what is the downside of these developments? In particular, what is the risk that such developments may actually increase alienation in learners?

I will look at each of the following developments in the next series of blog posts within this framework, developments in online learning that have great promise but at the same time could, if not carefully managed, end up increasing alienation:

  • competency-based learning;
  • personalised and adaptive learning;
  • learning analytics;
  • online assessment methods (badges, machine marking, e-proctoring, e-portfolios, etc.);
  • unbundling of educational services

I will then end this series of posts with a discussion of ‘defensive’ strategies for learners and educators to deal with the negative impact of technology in a digital age.

References

Macionis, J. and Plummer, K. (2012) Sociology: A Global Introduction Don Mills ON: Pearson Education

Why digital technology is not necessarily the answer to your problem

The darker the shade, the higher the Internet population

The darker the shade, the higher the Internet population

World Bank (2016) World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. Washington, DC: World Bank.

What is the report about?

This 359 page report, partly funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development and the International Development Research Centre, involved the work of several hundred people and was based on consultation meetings in 27 different countries (see here for more information on these consultations).
The report notes that more households in developing countries own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water, and nearly 70 percent of the bottom fifth of the population in developing countries own a mobile phone. The number of internet users has more than tripled in a decade—from 1 billion in 2005 to an estimated 3.2 billion at the end of 2015.

The key question addressed by this report then is as follows:

Have [these] massive investments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) generated faster growth, more jobs, and better services? Indeed, are countries reaping sizeable digital dividends?
I can only briefly summarise this lengthy report, and if this post peaks your interest, please read the full report.

Main conclusions

Despite this vast investment in digital technologies, the digital dividend in terms of greater productivity, less inequality, more democracy, and greater wealth for all has not been gained. For instance:

  • global productivity growth has slowed;
  • labor markets have become more polarized and inequality is rising—particularly in the wealthier countries, but increasingly in developing countries;
  • while the number of democracies is growing, the share of free and fair elections is falling.

Digital divide Africa 2

Furthermore:

  • nearly 60 percent of the world’s people are still offline and can’t participate in the digital economy in any meaningful way;
  • many advanced economies face increasingly polarized labor markets and rising inequality—in part because technology augments higher skills while replacing routine jobs, forcing many workers to compete for low-paying jobs;
  • public sector investments in digital technologies, in the absence of accountable institutions, amplify the voice of elites, which can result in policy capture and greater state control;
  • because the economics of the internet favour natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms;
  • not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits, circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.

The fundamentals (‘complements’) of development are:

  • good governance;
  • a robust and open business market;
  • accountability (i.e. lack of corruption);
  • strong human capital (i.e. a well educated work-force)

In countries where these fundamentals are weak, digital technologies have not boosted productivity or reduced inequality. These poor trends persist, not because of digital technologies, but in spite of them. Thus while digital technologies have been spreading, digital dividends have not. On the other hand, countries that complement technology investments with broader fundamental reforms reap digital dividends in the form of faster growth, more jobs, and better services.

Thus the report’s main conclusion is:

The full benefits of the information and communications transformation will not be realized unless countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in people’s education and health, and promote good governance.

Barriers to success

For digital technologies to improve productivity and reduce inequality, there are important ‘analogue’ factors that must accompany or support (‘complement’) the introduction of digital technology in order to get the benefits:
  • digital technologies can make routine, transaction-intensive tasks dramatically cheaper, faster, and more convenient. But most tasks also have an aspect that cannot be automated and that requires human judgment, intuition,and discretion; the better educated the workforce the higher the quality of such human decision-making;
  • when technology is applied to automate tasks without matching improvements in other, non-digital social, economic and political activities, such as governance, accountability and education, technology can fail to bring broad-based gains;
  • the digital revolution can give rise to new business models that would benefit consumers, but not when incumbents control market entry;
  • technology can make workers more productive, but not when they lack the know-how to use it;
  • digital technologies can help monitor teacher attendance and improve learning outcomes, but not when the education system lacks accountability.

What should be done?

  • make the internet universally accessible and affordable. The internet, in a broad sense, has grown quickly, but it is by no means universal. For every person connected to high-speed broadband, five are not. Worldwide, some 4 billion people do not have any internet access, nearly 2 billion do not use a mobile phone, and almost half a billion live outside areas with a mobile signal.
  • access to the internet is critical, but not sufficient. The digital economy also requires strong regulations that create a vibrant business climate and let firms leverage digital technologies to compete and innovate; skills that allow workers, entrepreneurs, and public servants to seize opportunities in the digital world; and accountable institutions that use the internet to empower citizens.
The Internet promoted development through three mechanisms

The Internet promotes development through three mechanisms

A favourable business climate, strong human capital and good governance are standard requirements for economic growth. But digital technology has two particular roles to play in development:

  • digital technologies amplify the impact of good (and bad) policies, so any failure to reform means falling farther behind those who do reform. With digital technologies, the stakes have risen for developing countries, which have more to gain than high-income countries, but also more to lose;
  • digital technologies can enable and accelerate the impact of these standard requirements for growth, for example, by creating new jobs and business opportunities, through online learning raising the skills level of workers, and by enabling government to make evidence-based decisions.

Comment

This report is a powerful antidote to those who think digital technologies are the silver bullet for increasing equality, improving education, and reducing the gap between rich and poor. What becomes very clear is that digital technology amplifies change: if things are going badly, digital technology will make it happen worse and faster; if things are going well, digital technology will make it better. Thus digital technology is neither cause nor effect in development, but a catalyst that amplifies change.

This means of course that the hard work of making governments and business transparent and accountable, developing an educated workforce, and having an open, well regulated business environment all need to be done. Digital technology can facilitate this, but on its own it will not lead to a better world except for a very few.

One last point. There is a very interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail newspaper by Jim Balsillie, one of the founders of Blackberry, railing against the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, because it protects incumbent intellectual property holders. This gives a huge advantage to the USA, by protecting them from innovation originating in other countries with a small number of patents, relatively speaking (such as Canada). Balsillie argues that one reason digital technology has led to a greater increase in inequality is because of the distortion of U.S. patent law which makes it very difficult for new entrants to the digital technology market – although China, interestingly, has been smart enough to work around these barriers by its sheer size and more closed culture. Another barrier we see here in Canada is the power of incumbent organizations such as the three telecommunications companies who, through their control of national network infrastructure, can freeze out new competitors.

It sure ain’t a fair world out there, and digital technology is not helping. We need better regulation, and patent reform, that’s for sure, if digital technology is to reap fully its promise.