Much popular attention has been paid to the so-called "$100 laptop" initiative and other programs to provide "1-to-1 educational computing" to students in developing countries. Even at $100 dollars per device, however, such solutions are still much too expensive for most communities around the world. Indeed, the typical scenario for computer use in schools in developing countries, and especially in rural areas, is for multiple children to crowd around one computer while one child controls the mouse, leaving the other children as onlookers.
Some people say that the approach of providing children with a computer (or laptop) is simply not scalable in most developing countries, and that, where the use of ICTs is being considered, we should be looking instead at different 'gadget', the mobile phone, which is becoming increasingly ubiquitous around the world, even in some of the poorest communities.
Phones vs. laptops -- it is a fun debate, but certainly this will not be an either/or choice. At least in the short term, computers will be seen as too expensive for use in many contexts, and while the time of the mobile phone as an educational device may well come, we are certainly not there yet. By the time that prices drop far enough for the 'high end' devices to be much more widely affordable, and that functionality and content increase on the 'low-end' devices to make them more functionally viable, whole new classes of devices may well be available and relevant for use in education settings in developing countries as well (e-readers, tablets, as-yet unnamed devices that will fall somewhere in between all of these categories*). Does this mean we should just wait?
Some people emphatically argue 'no', and are busy trying to adapt/adjust/leverage existing technologies already in widespread use in schools for the contexts and settings (and price points) more relevant to many schools in developing countries. In this context, some creative people asked the following question:
What would happen if you only bought one computer,
hooked it up to a projector,
and then connected up 50 children
using 50 computer mice?
This idea -- half-jokingly dubbed 'One Mouse Per Child' in some quarters, in an obvious nod toward the well-known One Laptop Per Child project -- has been successfully tested in pilot experiments in Chile and India, aided by special educational software developed and tested to take advantage of such multi-user scenarios, with additional, larger-scale pilots expected to follow. It is just one innovative approach among many in a movement to re-imagine how ICTs can be more effectively and equitably be put to use at scale in schools, especially those in poor communities in developing countries.
Miguel Nussbaum, one of the world's leading researchers exploring the use of a variety of highly collaborative "1-to-1" computing solutions in education (from laptops to PDAs to "massive multiple mice"), stopped by the World Bank in May to share results from his varied and fascinating research in these areas and to propose that we should perhaps broaden the way we think about relevant, cost-effective educational technologies for use in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and beyond. Nussbaum subsequently offered a short synopsis of some of his work in this area as part of the online EduTech Debate in June on low-cost ICT devices. (For those of you interested in more information about this particular project, this synopsis is a good place to start.) This is certainly fascinating and very practical work.
Some people argue that, because multiple mouse learning scenarios and tools provide affordable access to (some) educational technologies now, related solutions can rightly be viewed as promoting more equitable access to ICTs. At the same time, however, some critics feel that approaches like the use of multiple mice actually raise strong equity concerns. One commenter during the related online EduTech Debate, for example, felt that this is "about how kids in the developing world should be short changed, sold short, under-resourced, under-estimated, and should be trained to have limited expectations. They need one laptop not one mouse. This is like handing out an extra set of keys then changing the locks. This is a recipe on how to start small and stay there."
The point here isn't to advocate for the primacy of *any* specific technology choice, nor to take sides on such important debates about equity (you are of course free to do so in the comments section below).
Rather, it is merely to highlight the fact that different approaches and tools exist beyond the narrow model of how computers have typically been used in schools in places like North America, Europe and Australia. These different approaches and tools -- like, for example, 'multiple mice' -- potentially offer new opportunities for ICY-enabled learning, in a variety of educational contexts, beyond what are offered by traditional conceptions of what educational technologies can and can not do.
Indeed: If you believe that education isn't (or shouldn't be) a 'one size fits all' endeavor, why should you think that we should only consider 'one size fits all tools' technology tools (whether PC, laptop, phone, tablet or some other device) to help meet the greatly varied education objectives and challenges faced by learners and teachers in highly varied learning environments around the world?
- 'Multiple Mice' is most closely associated with the Microsoft Research group in Bangalore (which pioneered the concept and supported some of the related research work done by Nussbaum and others). The paper that first aroused widespread interest in this approach was probably Multiple Mice for Computers in Education in Developing Countries [link is to PDF]. A quick Google search will yield a number of additional related scholarly papers. Some of this technology has since been made more widely (and freely) available as Mouse Mischief.
- 'Multiple Mice' has antecedents in other projects. Back when infoDev was a grant-making program, for example, it funded a pilot project in northern India that allowed for one computer to be used simultaneously and independently by two children; one using a mouse, the other a keyboard.
- Investigations into the use of 'multiple mice' in low-income rural learning contexts are just one of a variety of research areas that are currently receiving serious attention at the World Bank, where there appears to be an increasing interest in some quarters in exploring the use of a number of different low-cost ICT-enabled approaches to help address a variety of challenges in the education sector. This is not limited to approaches like the potential use of 'multiple mice'. (For what it's worth, this blog has previously looked at other low-cost tools like the Talking Book, e-books, mobile phones, radio, and a variety of low-cost laptop initiatives, most notably the OLPC project.)
We hope to be able to report on some related World Bank-funded pilot initiatives in this area in 2011.
Please note: The image used at the top of this blog post comes courtesy of Miguel Nussbaum and is used with his permission.
Also of potential interest:
- UNESCO has announced a call for nominations for its annual global ICT in education prize. Deadline is 30 September.