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eGranary

Promising uses of technology in education in poor, rural and isolated communities around the world

Michael Trucano's picture
don’t worry: your solutions -- and possibly your salvation – have finally arrived!
don’t worry: your solution (salvation?)
has finally arrived!

One persistent challenge for educational policymakers and planners related to the potential use of informational and communication technologies (ICTs) in remote, low income communities around the world is that most products, services, usage models, expertise, and research related to ICT use in education come from high-income contexts and environments.

One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and 'made to fit' into what are often much more challenging environments. When they don't work, or where they are too expensive to be replicated at any scale, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant -- and possibly irresponsible.

That said, lessons are being learned as a result of emerging practices, both good and bad, in the use of ICTs in education in low resource, poor, rural and isolated communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of educational technology initiatives in such environments. (It may even turn out that the technological innovations that emerge from such places many have a wider relevance …. but that is a topic for another discussion.)

Products like the BRCK (a connectivity device designed and prototyped in Nairobi, Kenya by many of the people behind Ushahidi to better address user needs in places where electricity and internet connections are, for lack of a better word, ‘problematic’) and MobiStation (a solar-powered 'classroom in a suitcase' which features a projector and lots of off-line educational content developed by UNICEF Uganda) remain notable exceptions to the lamentable reality that, for the most part, ‘solutions’ touted for use in schools in e.g. rural Africa, or in isolated communities in the Andes, are designed elsewhere, with little understanding of the practical day-to-day realities and contexts in which such technologies are to be used. Many people who have lived and worked in such environments are quite familiar with well-meaning but comparatively high cost efforts often informed more by the marketing imperatives embedded in many corporate social responsibility efforts than by notions of cost-effectiveness and sustainability over time or the results of user-centered design exercises.

Stuffing the Internet in a box and shipping it to schools in Africa

Michael Trucano's picture

there are multiple options for moving forwardOver the past decade or so, increasing numbers of groups have been working on answers to variations of the following question:

How can the wealth of educational resources on the Internet be brought to the majority of African schools that are today 'un-connected'?

While the Internet has not wrought the similar types of profound, broad societal changes in Africa that it has in other parts of the world, the connectivity landscape in Africa is in fact changing very quickly in many places (for the better!), with (for example) macro-level announcements about progress with new fibre optic cables coming on what seems like a weekly basis.

(For those who like such things, here's a great map to track technical progress in this area.  For acronym fans, here are links to announcements about some of the major backbone connectivity initiatives in Africa: Glo,  RCIPEASSyTEAMS, Seacom and LION2.) 

Earlier this year the total number of mobile phone subscribers in Africa (over 300 million) passed the total in North America and, while access to the Internet via mobile phones is still low across the continent, it is growing quickly.  In Nigeria, for example, published reports now have mobile phones as the primary access device to the Internet in Africa's most populous country.  There is even increasing talk (and some action) of connecting African educational institutions to the 'cloud' in various ways. 

That said, it also undeniable that improvements in connectivity are not coming fast enough, or at a high enough speed or quality, or cheaply enough, for all citizens and schools, especially outside major population centers -- and won't any time in the near future.

A (digital) library ... in your pocket?

Michael Trucano's picture

are paper-bound books destined to go the way of the card catalogue? (image attribution at bottom of this blog posting)

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.