They fail because of an inability to create value with curriculum, instruction and assessment. Not convinced? Allow me to explain.
Over a week ago, the very brilliant Mike Trucano wrote a summary about the use of tablets in K-12 education in several parts of the world, particularly the enthusiasm amongst governments of developing nations to make big bets. He was careful not to exclude the saga of Los Angeles's school district's iPad rollout. It might take a short while of going through the gold on that blog, but a little more reading of his thought-provoking writing will help you soon superficially internalize the complexities in implementing such initiatives. Spend a little more time on sites like infoDev and OLPCNews, and you will be slightly overwhelmed by the theories and magnitude of complexities of these seemingly straightforward IT projects. After all, how hard is it? Isn't it just acquiring a large number of tablets/laptops, setting up WiFi in schools, and getting teachers all excited before giving one to one child?
Don't know about you - but that's what I used to think. In 2009, I very adventurously decided to spend 3 months in the most dense and experimental deployment* of OLPC (thanks to the help of some incredible people). In short, like many other consultants do after technology for development tourism, I came back with a detailed report of several things that were wrong about the policies, procurement, in-service professional development, local ICT support, lack of local content and internal communication. I did what every amateur consultant does - wrote a long document highlighting several flaws, because I couldn't cut-to-the-chase with where the core of the problem lay. My fellow consultant and I guessed that more was merrier. In hindsight, we were wrong.
I did have a hunch though, which took me a year or two to come to terms with**. My hunch was that the most deeply complex problem at the heart of these failures was lack of locally-relevant curriculum. This hunch came from my reflection on some fatigued classroom memories: we had spent several late nights all week setting up a suite of tools including Moodle on a web server where 20kbps on the VSAT internet was luxury, running teacher orientation sessions, tweaking routers for optimal allocation of bandwidth. After all of that, I observed the complete breakdown of learning in the classroom. Why? Because there was nothing closely tied to the local syllabus (New Zealand curriculum) on these laptops - no tools, no content library, no quizzes. None of that technology mattered.
A lesson from startups' playbook
Startup founders complain. Just like old grandmas who watch television all day long while compiling a list of problems in their mind to talk about with the kids later in the evenings. Founders complain about lack of funding, lack of user trust, poor marketing, no sales, poor conversion, bad talent, their recent breakup, and a lot more.
My advisor Sam Altman consistently talks about the importance of Y Combinator's (a seed stage startup investor) big mantra: focus on growth and everything else will take care of itself. It stems from Paul Graham aka PG's realization that startups are all about growth, and "if you get growth, everything else tends to fall into place" . Call it traction, growth, users, critical mass - whatever your word for it is, most people would struggle to argue against that (honestly, if you have a raised eyebrow right now, I suggest putting it to good use elsewhere). Sam's unique in his ability to break that mantra down into very tactical advice, one that touches your bones.
It's not THAT complex, but it really is
I think we can draw a powerful lesson from this unique learning in the startup world, in an analogous way. Which means that instead of growth, there might be another thing that we need to dedicate all our attention on, which upon being fixed, will solve or simplify other problems.
With a strong confidence, I believe that that thing is value created through the curriculum, instruction and assessment. If we solve for this, everything else will fall into place. Demand for tablets will increase, parents will form committees to build the best environments for students' use of laptops, portable power, remote connectivity and offline caching problems will be deployed after being Indiegogo-ed, and a wave of vendors who can support the hardware locally will crop up. If tablets and laptops don't work, desktops or feature phones will. And everything else.
What do I mean by this phrase "value created through curriculum, instruction and assessment"?
Don Jones used to say that your value and innovation should be 1/3rd the cost or three times the value of already what's out there for you to build and win as a startup out there. This is in no way accurate, but you get the point. This should be our benchmark for these tablets (or laptops) to succeed.
In jargon-free words, the tablets should be much better than their existing curriculum: in terms of breadth of relevant content-knowledge and accessibility, and in more advanced cases, in terms of problem-solving skills and deeper learning. The tablets should be much better than their existing classrooms' states in helping the teacher teach better lessons on a daily basis, across subjects, grades and topics. Lastly, the tablets should be much better than their existing assessment and examination processes at assessing student abilities, providing feedback, helping inform the teacher so they can alter instruction, and lastly, may be even solve for the bottom-line of most K-12 education systems in developing countries with centralized systems: helping students score more in final examinations.
Any short of this, and we will continue to keep failing forever. But is this too utopian or technology-centric a vision? Futuristic: sure, utopian and technology-centric: somewhat, but definitely not close to impossible. If we focus our energies on this, IMHO the right problem, we will be able to make significant strides much sooner than we'd imagine at first.
Here's what I am advocating for***: let's allocate our resources towards the problem that will be our equivalent of growth: curriculum, instruction and assessment. Don't be fooled: it may not be complex like the multitude of problems social and technological problems we discussed earlier, but it is incredibly complex in its own ways. But its all we need to solve for. Let's fail on the right problem for a while, rather than succeed on a wrong one. There is a lot to be done to make it happen, but we can begin in simple ways by not solving for the wrong problem (eg. this).
* As Joe Mertz likes to put it, "every child in the country had been given a laptop, all 500 of them"! This was a very interesting experiment for OLPC and the Secretriat of the Pacific Community, almost reminding you of Jeff Sach's model villages project.
** To give a context of how long it took for me to make sense of this, I decided to write about this in 2011 and start working on OpenCurriculum in early 2012 seriously, to solve this problem. That's 2-3 years after my brief stint in Niue. My thought process was: while others worry about solving these other complex problems, I'll try to work on this curriculum problem, because it excites me deeply.
*** Unfortunately, we are far from where need to be. I know this and the problem's dismal state of funding and focus right now, because I have been living and breathing it for more than 3 years, and thinking and generally working around it for about a decade. There are a lot of people who have spent a longer time in this area, but their views most likely will not differ.