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Innovative educational technology programs in low- and middle-income countries

Michael Trucano's picture
so many ideas ... are any 'out-of-the-box'?
so many ideas ...
are any 'out-of-the-box'?

Much is made of the need for 'innovation' in education. Bullet points containing words like 'disruption' and 'transformation' increasingly characterize presentations at big education gatherings -- especially in North America, and especially where educational entrepreneurs and 'Silicon Valley-types' are to be found. The popular press is replete with (sometimes breathless) articles about the 'revolutionary' potential of some new technology to impact teaching and learning in ways that are often quite exciting. Indeed: There can be little doubt that the increased diffusion of low(er) cost, (more) powerful, connected IT devices across and within communities offers exciting possibilities and potential to do things differently -- potentially in a good way.

For many people, the use of technology in education constitutes a de facto 'innovation'. Whether or not this belief is actually accurate, or useful, is a legitimate question for discussion. That said, there is no denying that many of the educational innovations celebrated (or at least touted) today are enabled by the use of such technologies in some way.


Around the world, there few more conservative and traditional sectors than those related to public education. In many ways this is totally understandable, and appropriate. Investments in education represent investments in the future -- of our children, of our future citizens and workers and leaders and community members. We don't want to gamble with or experiment with the way we educate our children and try out too many new things, or so goes one line of thinking. The potential downside, or failure, carries with it consequences that are just too great.

And yet: We know that, for millions children around the world, the education they are getting today isn't actually all that great. Some frightening stats from just one page of the latest Global Monitoring Report [pdf], drawing on recent research from RTI:

  • In Nicaragua in 2011, around 60% of second-graders could not identify numbers correctly and more than 90% were unable to answer a subtraction question.
  • In Malawi, 94% of second-graders could not respond correctly to a single question about a story they read in Chichewa, the national language.
  • In Iraq, 25% of third-graders were unable to tell the sound of a letter in Arabic.

And if you think that the situations in certain education systems are bad: Around the world, many children and adolescents -- 124 million, according to the latest figures from UNESCO -- are out of school and not getting any formal education at all.

In many cases then -- too many -- education systems aren't actually working all that well. In others -- like the global 'high performers' that are regularly held up as 'best practice' examples for other countries to emulate (Finland, Shanghai, Korea, Singapore) -- there is the danger that what worked well in the past (or what appears to be working well now) might not work so well in the future. The future is changing -- shouldn't we change the way we prepare for it? The riskiest course of action might well be one where people and institutions don't take risks.

Where business as usual is decidedly not working today,
or where it is feared that business as usual may not work tomorrow ...
what are some examples of business unusual from which
we might draw inspiration -- as well as practical insight?

Many good examples of this sort are regularly cited from experiences in highly developed, industrialized economies of North America, Europe and East Asia. No doubt much can be, and will be, profitably learned from what is happening such places. That said, the challenges facing education systems and families around the world are particularly acute where the needs are greatest: in many low- and middle-income countries, and especially within remote communities and traditionally disadvantaged populations.

Examples of 'innovation in education' from such places might just be more relevant to policymakers in Phnom Penh or Quito than are ones which originate in, say Palo Alto or Cambridge. (And, it is perhaps worth noting, that, if you believe that innovation often arises 'at the edges', where constraints compel people to be inventive in their approaches to solving problems in ways that folks in more resource-rich environments may never consider, it may just be that policymakers in Paris and Canberra may learn something to learn from what's happening in 'developing countries' as well.)

What examples do we have of innovative uses of educational technologies in such places?


The Center for Education Innovations (part of the Results for Development Institute) has collected and published over 130 examples of educational technology initiatives in low- and middle-income countries. If you are looking for a quick tour d'horizon of what's happening in this area, the project database that CEI has assembled is a fantastic resource. Simply stated: It is the best illustrative, consolidated sampling of such programs that I know of. For those of you who just want the highlights, you're in luck: CEI last month released a very useful short paper [pdf] summarizing related key trends and spotlighting interesting projects, drawn from an analysis of this database.

(Another resource for this sort of stuff is the World Bank's EduTech blog -- but, given that you are reading this sentence, one suspects that you probably already check in there from time to time.)

While the CEI database is not comprehensive (one could easily imagine 130+ examples from India alone -- here there are only 29, and there is not one from countries such as Botswana or The Gambia), it is reasonably comprehensive in its variety, if that makes sense. Whether in formal schools or as part of informal learning activities, to help students prepare for specific school subjects or to network peers in support of teaching and learning or to track what is happening (or not happening) when it comes to schooling and learning, the CEI database provides scores of useful pointers to interesting things happening around the world -- including from what some people may consider to be the unlikeliest of wellsprings for new 'innovations in education'. Here one can find inspiration and insight about what is possible as well as practical lessons based on actual experience -- as opposed to prospective pronouncements by politicians or within conference PowerPoint presentations. There are 72 initiatives from Sub-Saharan Africa, with noticeable clusters in countries like Kenya (23 examples) and Nigeria (14).

CEI has identified five "key emerging themes and characteristics across many of the innovative educational technology programs featured [in its database]". They are:

1. Providing increased access to learning materials through provision of technology
examples: Kenya Computer Exchange; New Education Highway Free Learning Centres (Myanmar)

2. Delivering software and learning content for free or at reduced prices
examples: Library for All (Haiti); Kytabu (Kenya); Train Your Brain (South Africa)

3. Offering instructional materials and training for teachers
examples: Nokia Life+ (Nigeria); Technology 4 Education (Pakistan); UNETE (Mexico); Techniques for Effective Teaching Kit (Ghana); SoukTel PeerNet Service

4. Creating a platform around the world for students around the world to interact
examples: FundDza -- Developing Young Wirters Programme (South Africa); Nafham (Egypt); Connecting Classrooms (Liberia); PenPal Schools

5. Delivering lessons on skills for work
examples: Shamba Shape Up (East Africa); W.TEC Girls Technology Camp (Nigeria); Edunova ICT Human Resourcing for Schools (South Africa); Digital Divide Data (Cambodia, Laos)

CEI also highlights three "emerging technology models" which it feels are promising:

1. Serving as school-in-a-box models
examples: Digital Schools in a Box (UNICEF); Bridge International Academies (Kenya)

2. Giving instant student assessment
examples: Eneza Education (MPrep) (Kenya); Efiko (Nigeria); Tangerine

3. Tracking and monitoring for accountability
examples: EduTrac  (Uganda); Visiting Information of Schools Handled with Attendance System (VISHWAS) (India).


Browsing through the programs featured in the CEI database, I am reminded that there are really two general types of 'innovations in education', whether they originate from the 'bottom-up', are imposed from the 'top-down', or somehow sneak in 'from the side'.

The first type is the one most commonly considered: When something is done more efficiently, or cheaply, or faster, or at a wider scale, than has happened before. Innovations in education of these sorts are quite valuable and the most common. Improvement, iteration and expansion can drive progress in all sorts of useful ways, and doing what was done before, just better, is more likely to catch the attention of potential (traditional) funders and partners than more radical or 'out-of-the-box' approaches.

That said, there is another type of innovation in education worth considering: where the use of new technologies can enable something that simply wasn't possible (perhaps wasn't even conceivable) before. Such innovations are much more rare, of course, but it is precisely those sorts of innovations that can be truly transformational, possibly even (to use an overused term), 'revolutionary', for learners around the world.

We'll highlight lessons and experiences from a number of the programs and initiatives featured in the CEI database over the coming months on the EduTech blog -- as well as a bunch of other programs that aren't (yet) included, but certainly merit inclusion. Until then: You may want to spend some time poking around the CEI educational technology programs database yourself and/or clicks on a few of the links to related earlier posts on the EduTech blog below: There's a lot of great stuff going on that deserves greater attention!

You might also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog

including these looks at specific 'innovative' projects:

: The image used at the top of this blog post ("so many ideas ... are any 'out-of-the-box'?") is (c) Nevit Dilmen. It comes via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its reative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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