If you want to see the future of online education, lots of people will tell you to head out to Silicon Valley or New York City or Cambridge (either of them) or London -- or to some other ('highly developed') place that tends to be written about by the (English-speaking) press. Fair enough: You can find lots of cool stuff going on in such locations.
I tend to think that it can be even more interesting to talk with local groups and people exploring 'innovation at the edges', especially those who are trying to solve educational challenges in places outside of the 'highly developed industrialized economies' of North America and Europe, Australia and Japan. If you believe that some of the most interesting innovations emerge at the edges, talking with NGOs, start-ups and companies in places like Nairobi or Cape Town, Mumbai or Bangalore, Jakarta or Karachi, who are trying to address educational needs, contexts and challenges of a different nature and magnitude than one finds in, say, Germany or Canada or Korea, can be pretty eye-opening. Observing what is happening in 'developing countries' -- where, after all, most of the world lives -- can provide a quite different perspective on what the 'future of education' might look like. This is especially the case in places where people are not trying to port over educational applications, content and experiences developed e.g. for desktop PCs and laptops, but are rather pursuing a mobile first approach to the use of technologies in education.
If you want to get a glimpse of what the (or at least "a") future of online education might look like in much of the world, you might want to direct your gaze to consider what's happening in a place that combines attributes from, and shares challenges with, education systems in both 'highly developed' and 'less developed' countries, somewhere with a significant urban population as well as large populations in rural areas. A place, in other words, like ... China.
MOOCs -- massively open online courses of the sort that can simultaneously enroll thousands, even tens of thousands, of learners simultaneously -- have been a hot topic of discussion for a few years now in both the worlds of education and 'international development' (and, for what it's worth, the subject of numerous related posts here on the World Bank's EduTech blog). Recent news that edX, one of the prominent MOOC platforms, is to start offering courses aimed at high school students suggests that the potential usefulness and impact of things like MOOCs may soon extend beyond the realm of higher education, out of which MOOCs originally emerged and where most related activity has occurred to date.
There is much (potentially) to be excited about here. Few would argue against having greater access to more learning opportunities, especially when those opportunities are offered for 'free', where there is latent unmet demand, and where the opportunities themselves are well constructed and offer real value for learners. As with MOOCs at the level of higher education, however, we perhaps shouldn't be too surprised if these new opportunities at the high school level are first seized upon *not* by some of the groups with the greatest learning needs -- for example, students in overcrowded, poorly resourced secondary schools in developing countries, or even students who would like a secondary education, but for a variety of reasons aren't able to receive one -- but rather by those best placed to take advantage of them. This has been largely been the case for initial adopters of MOOCs. (One of the first studies of this aspect of the 'MOOC Phenomenon', which looked at MOOCs from the University of Pennsylvania, found that students tended to be "young, well educated, and employed, with a majority from developed countries.")
As a practical matter, some of the first types of beneficiaries may, for example (and I am just speculating here), be homeschooling families in North America (while not necessarily comparatively 'rich' by local standards, such families need to be affluent enough to be able to afford to have one parent stay at home with the kids, and generally have pretty good Internet connectivity); international schools around the world (which can offer a broader range of courses to students interested in an 'American' education); and the families of 'foreign' students looking to apply to college in the United States (the edX course “COL101x: The Road to Selective College Admissions” looks, at least to my eyes, tailor made for certain segments of the population of learners in places like China, Korea, Hong Kong, etc.). In other words, at least in the near term, a Matthew Effect in Educational Technology may be apparent, where those who are best placed to benefit from the introduction of a new technology tool or innovation are the ones who indeed benefit from it the most.
Longer term, though, it is possible to view this news about movement of a major MOOC platform into the area of secondary education as one further indication that we are getting further along from the 'front end of the e-learning wave' (of which MOOCs are but one part) to something that will eventually have a greater mass impact beyond what is happening now in the 'rich' countries of North America and the OECD.
Learning with new technologies has of course been around for many decades but, broadly speaking, has not (yet) had the 'transformational' impact that has long been promised. "Gradually, then suddenly" is how one of Ernest Hemingway's characters famously describes how he went bankrupt. Might this be how the large scale adoption of educational technologies will eventually happen as well in much of the world?
f so, one credible potential tipping point may be a 'black swan' event that could push all of this stuff into the mainstream, especially in places where it to date has been largely peripheral: some sort of major health-related scare. (For those unfamiliar with the term, which was popularized by Nicholas Taleb, a 'black swan' is a rare event that people don't anticipate but which has profound consequences). One of the first ever posts on the EduTech blog, Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics, looked at some of what had been learned about how teachers and learners use new technologies to adapt when schools were closed in response to outbreaks involving the H1N1 influenza virus: the 'swine flu' that afflicted many in Mexico about six years ago; and an earlier outbreak of 'bird flu' in China. I have recently been fielding many calls as a result of the current outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa asking essentially, 'Can we do anything with technology to help our students while our schools are closed?', and so I thought it might be useful to revisit, and update, that earlier post, in case doing so might be a useful contribution to a number of related discussions are occurring.
Last year on this blog, I asked a few questions (eLearning, Africa and ... China?) as a result of my participation in a related event in Dar Es Salaam where lots of my African colleagues were ‘talking about China’, but where few Chinese (researchers, practitioners, firms, officials) were present. This year's eLearning Africa event in Benin, in contrast, featured for the first time a delegation of researchers from China, a visit organized by the International Research and Training Centre for Rural Education (INRULED), a UNESCO research center headquartered at Beijing Normal University (with additional outposts at Baodin, Nanjing and Gansu). Hopefully this is just the beginning of a positive trend to open up access to knowledge about what is working (and isn’t working) related to ICT use in education in places in rural China that might more resemble certain situations and contexts in many developing countries than those drawn from experiences in, for example, Boston or Singapore (or from Shanghai and Beijing, for that matter). Establishing working level linkages between researchers and practitioners (and affiliated institutions) in China and Africa, can be vital to helping encourage such knowledge exchanges.
Earlier this year, over 1700 participants from over 90 countries attended eLearning Africa (previous blog post here) to share lessons and make contacts at what has evolved into perhaps the continent's premier annual knowledge sharing event related to the use of ICTs in education. Not surprisingly, given that the event took place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania led the way in terms of attendance by its nationals, followed by its East African neighbors, with South Africa and Nigeria not too far behind.
One nationality was largely noticeable through its absence: the Chinese. Why do I mention this? Outside the conference, signs of growing cooperation between Tanzania and China (and India, whose Prime Minister was in Dar the same week on a state visit) were hard to miss, and indeed, the increasing 'presence' of China across Africa is undeniable, and the topic of much reporting, scholarly interest and discussion, including at theWorldBank. Looking around the conference itself, this cooperation wasn't immediately in evidence related to international cooperation around the use of educational technologies. Participating in and listening to many conversations at the event, however, one got a bit of a different story related to potential cooperation going forward between China and a number of African countries on ICT/education issues.
Given their low costs and increasing ubiquity, even in very poor communities, much has been written about the potential for mobile phones to aid in the delivery of 'anytime, anywhere' education. But what might such educational practices look like in practice? The MILLEE project (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) has been examining this issue for the last six years, beginning with low-income communities in the urban slums and villages in India.
In a recent presentation at the World Bank, Matthew Kam, the founder of MILLEE, shared experiences from ten rounds of iterative small pilot field studies in developing and testing mobile phone gaming applications that enable children to acquire language literacy in immersive, game-like environments. One goal of this work is to investigate how to make localized English language learning resources more accessible to underprivileged children, at times and places that are more convenient than schools. (A short video profile of the project is available here; it is not embedded for direct viewing on this blog because it features a 15-second commercial at the beginning.)
The UNESCO King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize is perhaps the highest profile international award given to acknowledge excellence in the use of ICTs in education around the world. Created in 2005 following a donation made by the Kingdom of Bahrain, it is meant "to reward projects and activities of individuals, institutions, other entities or non-governmental organizations for excellent models, best practice, and creative use of information and communication technologies to enhance learning, teaching and overall educational performance".
In its short history, the Prize has has done a good job in drawing attention to important work being done related to the use of technologies in the education sector that is, in many cases, largely unknown outside the borders of the host country.
Amazon, the company behind the Kindle, perhaps the world's most famous e-reader, recently announced an international version of its digital book reading device that will allow users to connect via 3G to download content in over 100 countries. The early success of the Kindle, together with products like the Sony Reader, and the excitement over recently announced products like the Nook and Plastic Logic e-reading devices (Wikipedia has a nice list of these things), portends profound changes to the way we consume and distribute reading materials going forward. The excellent (and highly recommended) Mobile Libraries blog explores what all of this might mean for one of most venerable of all information gathering, curation and dissemination institutions: the library. While Mobile Libraries documents issues related to how e-books and the like may transform the roles of the library in the industrialized countries of Europe, North America and Asia, there is no clear equivalent information resource highlighting what such advances might mean for developing countries. But, in various ways, many people and projects are hard at work exploring such issues.
For some people in other parts of the world, it was the picture of two top Mexican futbol teams playing earlier this week in an empty Estadio Azteca (one of the world's largest capacity stadiums) that made clear the severity of the current swine flu outbreak. While the sporting passions of the 100,000 missing spectators could presumably satisfied by watching the game on TV, it was less clear how to immediately satisfy the learning needs of over seven million students who were sent home after their schools were ordered closed.
Many educational reformers have long held out hope that computers and other information and computer technologies (ICTs) can play crucial and integral roles in bringing about long-needed changes to education systems. Indeed, many see the introduction of ICTs in schools as a sort of Trojan horse, out of which educational reform and innovation can spring once inside the walls of the traditional (conservative) education establishment. While not denying the potentially transformational impact of ICT use to help meet a wide variety of educational objectives, history has shown that bringing about positive disruptive change isn't achieved by simply flooding schools with computers and related ICTs.
As a result of swine flu, many Mexican schools are experiencing quick, disruptive change of a different sort right now. How might technology be relevant in cases like this? Given the status quo, the use of technology in schools isn't enough to bring about systemic change. But: How might ICTs be useful, even transformational, when this status quo is severely disrupted by some other exogenous factor ... like a pandemic disease outbreak?