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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.

10 principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments

Michael Trucano's picture
there must be an I, a C, and a T here somewhere ...
there must be an I, a C, and a T here somewhere ...

There are, broadly speaking, two strands of concurrent thinking that dominate discussions around the use of new technologies in education around the world. At one end of the continuum, talk is dominated by words like 'transformation'. The (excellent) National Education Technology Plan of the United States (Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology), for example, calls for "applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement."

This is, if you will, a largely 'developed' country sort of discourse, where new technologies and approaches are layered upon older approaches and technologies in systems that largely 'work', at least from a global perspective. While the citizens of such countries may talk about a 'crisis' in their education systems (and may indeed have been talking about such a crisis for more than a generation), citizens of many other, much 'less developed' countries would happily switch places.

If you want to see a true crisis in education, come have a look at our schools, they might (and do!) say, or at least the remote ones where a young teacher in an isolated village who has only received a tenth grade education tries to teach 60+ children in a dilapidated, multigrade classroom where books are scarce and many of the students (and even more of their parents) are often functionally illiterate.

Like so many things in life, it all depends on your perspective. One country's education crisis situation may be (for better or for worse) another country's aspiration. While talk in some places may be about how new technologies can help transform education, in other places it is about how such tools can help education systems function at a basic level.

The potential uses of information and communication technologies -- ICTs -- are increasingly part of considerations around education planning in both sorts of places. One challenge for educational policymakers and planners in the remote, low income scenario is that most models (and expertise, and research) related to ICT use come from high-income contexts and environments (typically urban, or at least peri-urban). One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and (sort of) 'made to fit' into more challenging environments. When they don't work, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant (and some folks go so far to state that related discussions are irresponsible as a result).

There is, thankfully, some emerging thinking coalescing around various types of principles and approaches that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of ICT in education initiatives in such environments. As part of my duties at the World Bank, I have been discussing a set of such principles and approaches with a number of groups recently, and thought I'd share them here, in case they might be of wider interest or utility to anyone else. Are they universally applicable or relevant? Probably not. But the hope is that they might be useful to organizations considering using ICTs in the education sector in very challenging environments -- especially where introducing these principles and approaches into planning discussions may cause such groups to challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom about what 'works', and how best to proceed.

ICT and rural education in China

Michael Trucano's picture

answers on how best to proceed may come in all shapes and sizesLast 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.