Over the past 15 years, tremendous strides have been made in providing computing equipment and Internet access to schools around the world. Despite this, however, many teachers and students – especially those in rural communities in middle and low-income countries (and occasionally in OECD countries as well) remain largely un-connected.
In response, and as a (presumably, or at least hopefully) temporary stop-gap measure, scores of countries have piloted and championed the use of ‘mobile internet computing facilities’ of various sorts as a way to provide access for learners in remote communities to digital teaching and learning resources through the use of things like ‘internet buses’. For some students, ‘mobile learning’ takes place not with the aid of a smart phone, but rather through monthly visits of Internet-connected buses filled with computers. From Big Blue in Zimbabwe to the Google Internet Bus in India to similar sorts of efforts in countries as diverse as Tunisia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Mauritius, the Philippines, Malaysia, the United States, Canada, Mexico and China, technology-rich portable classrooms on wheels of various sorts are in use – and many more are being considered and planned.
Most efforts of these sorts seem to have been conceptualized and implemented in a vacuum, not informed by related experiences in other places. Even where such efforts help meet objectives that are (if we are honest) more related to politics and public relations than they are to learning, what guidance should the people in charge of such efforts consider in order to get the most out of related investments?
Might there be some related lessons and insights drawn from experience in operating mobile computing learning classrooms that can inform ongoing investments in other areas (school transportation, distance learning, school computer labs, rural Internet access)?
Amazon is promising to deliver goods with drones. Seeing these prospective innovations in airborne delivery, we’ll be forgiven for thinking that bad roads will increasingly be secondary concerns.
But the reality is that “last mile” road access will continue to be a major and costly development challenge for years to come. “Last mile" access refers to road to final destinations, whether communities, crops, markets, schools or clinics. These are typically provincial, city-municipal and barangay (village) roads in the Philippines.
Often the responsibility of local governments, these roads determine the ease and cost by which people and goods can get to final destinations. Communities across the globe face poor road access, depriving them of economic and social opportunities, whether bringing produce to markets, getting kids to school, or mothers to clinics. Billions of dollars continue to be spent on last mile road access, but often with very poor results.
The International Labour Organization estimates that 73.4 million people aged 15-24 do not have a job (43% of global youth), and three times as many young people are underemployed. At the same time, 40% of employers report skills shortage for entry level vacancies, according to McKinsey (Social Initiative 2015). Hence, skill gaps have become an issue to both employers and the unemployed. This trend is exacerbated by technological advancements which are rapidly replacing manual jobs, leaving millions of young people unprepared to participate in the 21st-century knowledge economy.
Three aspects of the skills gap problem need to be addressed in order to find a sustainable solution: urgency, proficiency in technology, and job market readiness. The 2016 World Development Report finds that returns to education are particularly high for ICT-intensive occupations. The wage premium for working in ICT-intensive occupations is around 5% for both men and women in developing countries (WDR 2016). This suggests a tremendous potential of technology education for reducing poverty and boosting prosperity in the developing world.
If everyone had Internet access, then everyone would have a fair shot at financial stability and an education, right?
If only it were so easy.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim led a meeting of some of the top minds in global development to talk about the U.S. State Department’s Global Connect Initiative. The goal: to get 1.5 billion people online by 2020.
We find ourselves in the midst of the greatest information and communications revolution in human history. I’m not the author of this phrase, but I fully agree with it. This particular sentence made me read the entire overview of the World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends.
I have always been wondering what does the Digital Revolution actually mean. Who, but the Co-Director of the report could have answered my question best?! Yes, I had the opportunity to interview Uwe Deichmann last week in Tbilisi. He visited Georgia as part of the ‘road-show’ to present this work of the World Bank Group team to the government, business, academia, students, and other interested audience attending the Business Forum: Innovation and Digital Economy.
The most recent International Women’s Day focused on accelerating gender parity, which makes it a perfect time to highlight the urgent need to boost women’s economic participation worldwide. One way of doing that is by tapping into the power of digital payments and digital financial services.
While countries around the world reap the benefits of an expanding digital environment, development challenges persist, adversely impacting low-income countries from achieving that same rate of growth.
The 2016 World Development Report (PDF) recently highlighted these findings in addition to three factors that contribute to a government’s responsiveness towards these digital changes.
According to the report, public services tend to be more amenable to improvements through digital technologies if the proposed system allows for fluid feedback, a replicable development process, and an outcome that can be easily measured and identified.
Last month, the Government of India launched a nationwide mobile health (mHealth) program designed by BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity. The aim - to train 1 million community health workers and help nearly 10 million new and expecting mothers in India make healthier choices and lead longer, healthier lives.
Mobile Academy is an anytime, anywhere audio training course, delivered via mobile phone, designed to refresh the knowledge and strengthen the communication skills of community health workers. The objective is to enable the nation’s nearly one million health workers to more effectively persuade families to lead healthier lives.
Kilkari (a baby’s gurgle) service delivers free, weekly, time-appropriate audio messages about pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare directly to the mobile phones of mothers and other family members from the second trimester of pregnancy until the child is one year old.
These services were originally designed for use in Bihar in North India, where BBC Media Action, in partnership with the state government works to improve demand for health services, improve social norms and impact health outcomes for mothers and children. Read more.
Mobile Academy and Kilkari leverage the massive penetration of mobile phones to reach the most marginalized, hardest-to-reach communities in India. These are communities where getting pregnant and having babies can be 24 times more life-threatening than giving birth in the United Kingdom!
The statistics are pretty stark. Globally, every five minutes, three women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, while 60 others will be left with debilitating injuries. Of these deaths, India accounts for the greatest number of women dying – over 150 every day. But we know how many of these health risks that pregnant women and their newborns face are preventable.
The organization Refugee Open Ware is on a mission to empower refugees by giving them access to new technologies, such as 3D-printing. “We want to raise awareness about what 3D-printing can do,” explains Loay Malahmeh, a co-founder of the Jordanian company, 3D Mena and a partner in Refugee Open Ware. “How it can not only solve real problems, but also unleash immense, untapped potential.”
Over the past dozen years or so, I have seen and/or heard dozens (probably hundreds) of education project proposals that have sought in some way to include the use of text messages. Whether to send reminders to teachers about what they are meant to teach on a given topic, provide students with a 'learning fact of the day', disseminate exam results, inform parents of student absences, or make available simple SMS quizzes for language learners, many of these proposals have shared a common approach to financing one type of related expense.
"We'll ask the mobile phone company to give us lots of text messages for free. Since we are an education project, we are sure that they will do this." ("By the way," some of these project proponents subsequently asked me, "do you know anyone at the mobile provider we can talk to make this happen?")
Only in very rare cases does this approach to funding seem to work, however. When I explain this to people, noting that phone companies typically don't give away airtime for free and then ask, 'what makes you think they will do so for text messages?', most folks tend to explore a wider variety of potential financing options. (A few clever people will note that text messages don't really costmobile providersanything to send; this may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that just because something costs very little, or even nothing at all, doesn't mean that someone is willing to give it away for free.) Most providers (and many third-parties) offer bulk ('high volume') SMS rates that can dramatically lessen the costs incurred when sending out thousands of emails, but in my experience those costs are very rarely waived entirely by mobile providers as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts. (You can always try, though!)
Whether it is the sender or the mobile provider that ends up covering the cost of sending a text message, pretty much all of the education-related project proposals insist that the cost to the beneficiary (a teacher, a student, a parent) should be *zero*.
The cost of receiving text messages in many countries is already zero, of course, and sending SMS is typically quite cheap as well. When it comes to Internet access, however, standard data rates and packages in most of the world can be quite expensive -- prohibitively so for people with low incomes. Paying so that you can receive information via text message on your mobile phone is one thing -- paying to access the Internet using your phone (or other device), can be another matter entirely.
Recognizing this, for a few years there has been a movement to make certain types of educational content available for use by people on mobile networks without incurring any costs related to data transfer. When it comes to education, the Wikipedia Foundation famously pioneered this sort of thing by offering a way for people to receive information from Wikipedia via a free text message. Free text messages: Sounds great, you might say, but there's something that would be even better: free access to educational content directly on the Internet itself – even where such content is already available for ‘free’ on the Internet, users often have to pay their mobile or Internet provider in order to be able to download the content!
Networked devices of various sorts (phones, tablets) are increasingly cheap, and powerful, and in the hands of more and more teachers and students. Improvements in connectivity however -- more bandwidth, greater reliability, lower costs -- are not happening anywhere near as quickly. Wouldn't it be great if people could use these devices to get access to the wealth of educational resources on the Internet (many of which are provided for free) and not have to pay for the bandwidth that would enable this?
As it turns out, this has actually been happening in some places around the world, a development that has been greeted by different people in different ways -- with delight, with debate, and, in some quarters: with disdain.
Not many educational policymakers have entered into related debates, however, perhaps because they are scared away by some of the language and technical focus that characterize discussions around so-called ‘net neutrality’ issues. In fact, in my experience, few education policymakers are even aware of such discussions, nor of why they should care about so-called 'zero-rating', and its potential relevance to, and application in, education.