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connectivity

Mobile Internet buses, vans and classrooms to support teachers & learners in remote communities

Michael Trucano's picture
bandwidth can be a challenge
bandwidth can be a challenge

Over the past 15 years, tremendous strides have been made in providing computing equipment and Internet access to schools around the world. Despite this, however, many teachers and students – especially those in rural communities in middle and low-income countries (and occasionally in OECD countries as well) remain largely un-connected.

In response, and as a (presumably, or at least hopefully) temporary stop-gap measure, scores of countries have piloted and championed the use of ‘mobile internet computing facilities’ of various sorts as a way to provide access for learners in remote communities to digital teaching and learning resources through the use of things like ‘internet buses’. For some students, ‘mobile learning’ takes place not with the aid of a smart phone, but rather through monthly visits of Internet-connected buses filled with computers. From Big Blue in Zimbabwe  to the Google Internet Bus in India to similar sorts of efforts in countries as diverse as Tunisia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Mauritius, the Philippines, Malaysia, the United States, Canada, Mexico and China, technology-rich portable classrooms on wheels of various sorts are in use – and many more are being considered and planned.

Most efforts of these sorts seem to have been conceptualized and implemented in a vacuum, not informed by related experiences in other places. Even where such efforts help meet objectives that are (if we are honest) more related to politics and public relations than they are to learning, what guidance should the people in charge of such efforts consider in order to get the most out of related investments?

And:

Might there be some related lessons and insights drawn from experience in operating mobile computing learning classrooms that can inform ongoing investments in other areas (school transportation, distance learning, school computer labs, rural Internet access)?

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Zero-rating educational content on the Internet

Michael Trucano's picture
are we creating two separate tracks? which one points the way forward, which way backward? and what should it cost to ride?
are we creating two separate tracks?
which one points the way forward, which way backward?
and: what should it cost to ride?

Over the past dozen years or so, I have seen and/or heard dozens (probably hundreds) of education project proposals that have sought in some way to include the use of text messages. Whether to send reminders to teachers about what they are meant to teach on a given topic, provide students with a 'learning fact of the day', disseminate exam results, inform parents of student absences, or make available simple SMS quizzes for language learners, many of these proposals have shared a common approach to financing one type of related expense.

"We'll ask the mobile phone company to give us lots of text messages for free. Since we are an education project, we are sure that they will do this." ("By the way," some of these project proponents subsequently asked me, "do you know anyone at the mobile provider we can talk to make this happen?")

Only in very rare cases does this approach to funding seem to work, however. When I explain this to people, noting that phone companies typically don't give away airtime for free and then ask, 'what makes you think they will do so for text messages?', most folks tend to explore a wider variety of potential financing options. (A few clever people will note that text messages don't really cost mobile providers anything to send; this may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that just because something costs very little, or even nothing at all, doesn't mean that someone is willing to give it away for free.) Most providers (and many third-parties) offer bulk ('high volume') SMS rates that can dramatically lessen the costs incurred when sending out thousands of emails, but in my experience those costs are very rarely waived entirely by mobile providers as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts. (You can always try, though!)

Whether it is the sender or the mobile provider that ends up covering the cost of sending a text message, pretty much all of the education-related project proposals insist that the cost to the beneficiary (a teacher, a student, a parent) should be *zero*.

The cost of receiving text messages in many countries is already zero, of course, and sending SMS is typically quite cheap as well. When it comes to Internet access, however, standard data rates and packages in most of the world can be quite expensive -- prohibitively so for people with low incomes. Paying so that you can receive information via text message on your mobile phone is one thing -- paying to access the Internet using your phone (or other device), can be another matter entirely.

Recognizing this, for a few years there has been a movement to make certain types of educational content available for use by people on mobile networks without incurring any costs related to data transfer. When it comes to education, the Wikipedia Foundation famously pioneered this sort of thing by offering a way for people to receive information from Wikipedia via a free text message. Free text messages: Sounds great, you might say, but there's something that would be even better: free access to educational content directly on the Internet itself – even where such content is already available for ‘free’ on the Internet, users often have to pay their mobile or Internet provider in order to be able to download the content!

Networked devices of various sorts (phones, tablets) are increasingly cheap, and powerful, and in the hands of more and more teachers and students. Improvements in connectivity however -- more bandwidth, greater reliability, lower costs -- are not happening anywhere near as quickly. Wouldn't it be great if people could use these devices to get access to the wealth of educational resources on the Internet (many of which are provided for free) and not have to pay for the bandwidth that would enable this?

As it turns out, this has actually been happening in some places around the world, a development that has been greeted by different people in different ways -- with delight, with debate, and, in some quarters: with disdain.

Not many educational policymakers have entered into related debates, however, perhaps because they are scared away by some of the language and technical focus that characterize discussions around so-called ‘net neutrality’ issues. In fact, in my experience, few education policymakers are even aware of such discussions, nor of why they should care about so-called 'zero-rating', and its potential relevance to, and application in, education.

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Universal Service Funds & connecting schools to the Internet around the world

Michael Trucano's picture
maybe there's another way to support this?
maybe there's another way to support this?

We need to connect our schools to the Internet. While it may not (yet) be viable to do so in many countries, few education policymakers would question this general aspiration.

Of course, questions related to the speed and nature of this connection are being articulated and considered in different ways around the world, with answers determined by a mix of factors, including what is technologically feasible, what is pedagogically useful and, in the end, what is affordable. Calculations around what it may cost to connect schools to the Internet, and to keep them connected, in ways that are useful and relevant to learners and teachers (as well as to administrators and families), differ widely from place to place -- as do approaches on how to pay for these costs.

Over the past two decades, I have spent a lot of time helping to facilitate policy planning sessions with governments around issues related to technology use in education. Whether this work was part of efforts by the World Links program, linked to the use of the ICT in Education Toolkit supported by infoDev and UNESCO, or as part of more mainstream World Bank advisory activities, mechanisms and approaches by which countries can connect their schools to the Internet have always been a major area of discussion.

It may seem like a small thing, but one of the signature successes of many of these planning efforts wasn't the development of a related policy document outlining a vision and approach for how new technologies could and would be used to support a variety of education objectives. That was almost always the stated goal, but, as anyone who has worked in policymaking circles knows well, committing something to paper is no guarantee that what was drafted will ever actually be implemented -- nor that what's implemented will in the end have any beneficial impact 'on-the-ground'. No, in many cases the most important thing that happened in practice was to connect a diverse set of actors from outside the education sector together with the 'usual suspects' from within education ministries. The fact that you had, in the same room and at the same time, education officials sitting together with officials from the telecom authority, and the IT and finance ministries, as well as representatives from civil society and the private sector -- often times we found that this was the first time ever that all of these groups had talked collectively about how they might work in coordination to help meet some of the shared goals that all of them had related to technology use and education.

One mechanism that is integral to initiatives to connect schools in some countries (and thus which features prominently in these sorts of planning discussions), but which is largely unknown in others (and thus doesn't feature at all), is the use of so-called Universal Service Funds to help pay for such efforts.

For those not familiar with the concept or practice:

Broadband for schools?

Michael Trucano's picture
if only this tree were outside my school!
if only this tree were outside my school!

Schools should be connected to the Internet. Most people, I suspect, would agree with that statement (although a few dissenters may contend that such a statement does not go far enough, and that all schools *must* be connected to the Internet.) Indeed: Lots of countries around the world have been, and are, engaged in efforts to connect all of their schools to the Internet -- and for those schools that are already connected, to connect them faster.

The efforts of the United States in this regard that began under the 'e-rate' program in the 1990s have been much studied and emulated around the world, and countries as diverse as Malaysia, Morocco and Turkey have sought in various ways to utilize Universal Service Funds to help connect the un-connected. Korea has perhaps gone the furthest in rolling out very fast connectivity to all of its schools. Armenia will soon (if has not done so already) have completed connecting all of its schools to the Internet; when I last checked (in late 2012), Uruguay had almost done so as well. Given current technology infrastructure and available funds, not all countries are of course yet able to connect all schools, even if they consider this to be a priority. (Even in a country as developed as Uruguay, 70 schools were reported still to be without electricity in early 2012 -- not being connected to the electrical grid can make efforts roll out connectivity to all a little more difficult ....) In countries where almost all schools can be connected via existing means, a lack of supporting government policies and/or incentives for groups to connect the unconnected schools can mean that, even where connections to the Internet are technically feasible, they may not be commercially or practically feasible. Some recent work by the World Bank found that 95% of all schools in Indonesia could theoretically be connected to the Internet now, if the political will could be found and provided certain policies and incentives were put into place. (Connecting the remaining 5% of schools -- no small number, in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia, with over 13,000 (!) islands and 250,000 schools  -- would be much more difficult, as many of the schools in this 5% category are quite remote, and there are as a result often significant, and very costly, infrastructure challenges to overcome.)

OK, if all schools should (or must) be connected to the Internet, what should be the nature of that connection?

Again, most people would probably agree that, in 2013, all schools should have broadband connections to the Internet. This is, in fact, a common theme in many of the national policies related to ICT use in education one encounters around the world, especially in the more 'advanced' (OECD) countries, and increasingly in middle income countries as well. Reasonable people may (and do!) disagree about the extent to which school connectivity should be prioritized compared with other pressing needs in the education sector, but, while there may be a lack of consensus on the relative importance, the general importance of connecting schools, and indeed in doing so at broadband speeds, is a widely held goal in much of the world (even if it is not always practical in the near term). That said:

What exactly does 'broadband' mean when we are talking about connecting schools to the Internet?

It turns out there is no simple answer to this query. Indeed, there are lots of different answers, depending on where you are and the context in which you are posing such a question.