International Hotspots Make the U.S. Look Tame

Last winter when I learned about Sao Paulo’s $2.7 billion educational technology tender, I wondered what other significant international educational ICT initiatives might be escaping notice of those who don’t devote resources to following that sort of thing. My research paid off: I discovered interesting programs, some dwarfing the biggest we have in the U.S., spread around the globe. Here, in alphabetical order, is a partial list of those that caught my attention: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Brazil, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Tartarstan, Thailand, Turkey, UK, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Vietnam. A number of the bigger hotspots, as well as the drivers behind this global wave of educational ICT, are profiled below. Read on to see why the U.S. may not be quite the ICT market leader you’ve thought it was.*

Some of the Bigger Hotspots

As rough benchmarks for the scale of the programs highlighted below, the Maine statewide 1:1 laptop program reaches fewer than 200,000 students, and the new Los Angeles Unified School District iPad project will reach some 650,000 students when fully implemented.

  • Russian Federation– Whose school systems include millions of students, intends to deploy tablets on a massive scale to achieve cost savings from replacing printed textbooks.
  • Malaysia – Has adopted Google Apps for its 10 million students, as well as all of its teachers and administrators, and has supplied at least one Chromebook to each of its schools.
  • India– You’ve no doubt heard of the government’s low-cost Aakash (also called the Ubislate) tablet program, originally designed for higher education. What’s less well known is that the country pays a 2% education tax on top of their income tax so that, among other benefits, in some poor rural areas with no electricity, government-supplied 3G service allows kids to use Khan Academy on cheap tablets.
  • Mexico– President Enrique Peña Nieto has recently committed to distributing 4.5 million laptops to all of Mexico’s fifth- and sixth-graders. In another initiative, the Ministry of Education purchased a suite of ESL software from the UK’s LittleBridge for use by seventh- through ninth-graders nationwide. Interestingly, since the product is generally web-delivered, Mexico’s is on CD partly because only 18% of their school computers are connected to the Net.
  • Thailand– The government has committed to distributing 5 million tablets to primary students and teachers by 2015, of which 1.7 million will go out this school year.
  • Turkey– As a new phase of its long-running FATIH Project to upgrade its educational ICT infrastructure, the government plans to distribute between 6 and 15 million tablets to students and teachers and some 600,000 interactive whiteboards to classrooms, under a program whose value has been estimated at up to US$6 billion.

What Are the Drivers Behind This Educational ICT Wave?

  • Global Competitiveness/Economic Development– Governments see that without a digitally prepared workforce, their economic future will be severely compromised. Putting technology in the hands of students is also seen as having a secondary benefit, a “digital inclusion wave,” by exposing their digitally illiterate parents to it. Another more direct payoff is seen by requiring local hardware manufacturing, for example, of Intel Classmate form factor devices, tablets as well as laptops, contributing to strengthening their in-country electronics fabrication industry.
  • Cloud/Mobile– 90% of the world's population now has access to mobile coverage, making delivery of digital educational services feasible in places where it was previously impossible or impractical. For example, according to Michael Trucano of The World Bank, Tartarstan’s education ministry “does everything in the cloud.”
  • Low-Cost High-Tech Devices – Virtually every kind of computing and communications device, all of whose prices are plunging, is being adapted for or applied to education, including  phones (feature and smart); tablets (Android, Intel Classmate, custom devices, such as India’s Aakash a.k.a Ubislate, iPad, etc.); netbooks, such as Google Chromebooks; and laptops, such as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).
  • Saving on Printed Textbooks– Education authorities responsible for school books nationwide are taking a greater interest in the prospect of cost savings from digital books to be distributed to student and teacher devices. In Poland, for example, under a recent government initiative to develop free digital textbooks for students, commercial publishers refused to bid on the projects so the jobs were given to university departments.
  • English as the Global Language– With English increasingly recognized as the lingua franca for international commerce, in many countries the study of English as a second or foreign language is required in more grades, both younger and older than previously, and the acquisition of TESOL certification is made a higher priority for pre-service and in-service teaching professionals. Given the wide range of digital ESL, EFL, and TESOL resources, this, too, has been a powerful incentive for school systems to go digital.

The Other Side of the Story

Selling internationally requires a long-term commitment of people and resources. It isn’t for the faint of heart. Success in each market is built upon relationships that must be carefully recruited, screened, cultivated, and nurtured. In a related upcoming article, I’ll look at why many past big international ICT initiatives have been “Boulevards of Broken Dreams” for the education systems that initiated them as well as for vendors, what’s different this time around that may improve the odds for success, potential low-hanging fruit for U.S. vendors, and how to get your foot in the door.

*This article is based in part on my EdNET 2013 presentation, “International ICT 2.0: Smart Boxes -> Smart Programs” and related slides.


Dr. Nelson Heller is President of The HellerResults Group, a global strategic consultancy serving business and non-profits seeking growth opportunities in the education market. His international focus includes particular interest in Latin America and China. He is the founder of The Heller Reports newsletters and EdNET: The Educational Networking Conference, both started in 1989. The EdNET News Alert, successor to The Heller Reports publications and now published by MDR, reaches over 31,000 education executives worldwide every week and features a regular column from The HellerResults Group each quarter. In 2009, he was inducted into the Association of Educational Publishers’ (AEP) Educational Publishing Hall of Fame, and in June 2012, he chaired the first AEP/AAP International Markets Forum. You can learn more about Nelson and his industry leadership at The HellerResults Group. You can reach Nelson at 858-720-1914, by email at nelson@hellerresults.com, and on Twitter @NelsonHeller.