The tragedy of our times is that access to quality education is limited. Whether in the US, internationally, education remains a privilege that only select few are entitled to, whereas a majority of this without financial resources are forced to compromise on the quality of education or go without. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty and illiteracy which condemns the poor to stay poor. In the past few years technology has emerged as the single biggest game changer in the field of education. As computing has become cheaper and more powerful, access to technology has increased proportionately. Another trend has been led by those who question traditional education methods and structure. For example many feel that teachers unions lead to a shift in focus away from the child to the pecuniary interests of the teachers. Others argue that the traditional classroom lecture where teachers talk and students listen is no longer effective. These trends have led to some interesting developments. Of these one is the focus of nonprofit organizations on supplying cheap tablets for free in the developing world. Another is the interesting possibility of eliminating school systems and teachers via innovative use of technology.
Organizations like Worldreader , which has wirelessly distributed more than 75,000 African and international e-books to children in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, are contributing to the cause of universal digital access for children. Worldreader is a non-proﬁt organization based in Spain and the US. They have been working on developing partnerships that have resulted in putting e-readers, such as Amazon's Kindle, and e-books into the hands of people throughout the developing world. Worldreader manage such education projects, develops partnerships and assesses the outcome that e-books have on reading habits and literacy levels. They also collect best practices for their work. Worldreader says that they now see children spending up to 50% more time reading than before, with some reading up to 90 books in a single year as a result of their work.
However universal access to technology only goes so far towards achieving universal education. The remaining challenge of making the education process both more cost-effective and intuitive has been tackled by Nicholas Negroponte  (of the One Laptop Per Child fame), Maryanne Wolf  of Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research, and the MIT Media Lab . Negroponte has come up with a hypothesis that may be shocking to many. Negroponte believes that children can learn to read without either a teacher or a traditional classroom environment. He believes that children by their very nature are built to learn. All we need for this learning to take place is to encourage this learning process using technology. Once we have established ways of doing so effectively, we will be able to minimize the cost of learning, maximize impact and increase the number of children who can be educated.
This is not an empty promise. The team has come up with a two year project that has already started, with tablet devices being offered to two villages in Ethiopia. According to ITPortal.com , no instructions on how to use the tablets were included. The tablets are equipped with solar panels, and are pre-installed with a number of educational applications that are built to appeal to a child's natural curiosity. Software logs record how the devices are used. Without any external contact with the researchers, the children fended for themselves. The children got the tablets out of the boxes and switched on the tablets in minutes. The article goes on to report that by the end of the first week, an average of 57 apps were being utilised per day and by the end of week two children were already learning to recite the alphabet. True, the tracking software may raise hackles among privacy advocates, however poverty and education are arguably more important than privacy concerns at this stage.
What do these developments mean in terms of making quality education available to all children, in the US, Africa and elsewhere? One, we need affordable tablets filled with apps that appeal to a child's natural sense of curiosity, delivered to kids around the world. Aid organizations can help make this affordable. Two, we need for this innovative project to be replicated around the world and the outcomes assessed for success. Three we need to build an app developer community around this project as building the right apps is key to success. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, in education, as with any other sector, we need to get comfortable with the idea that the systems and institutions many of us have grown up with may need to be abandoned as we continue the search for maximizing human good through the use of technology.
Photo Credit: Flickr user laihiu