At the MaliAppChallenge, the major mobile applications competition organized in Bamako on May 9, 2016, Malian youth showed everyone that they are ready to participate fully in the country’s burgeoning digital revolution.
Despite the palpable and quite understandable tension, the eight finalist teams displayed keen enthusiasm when they presented their prototype applications to a panel composed of officials from Mali and the rest of the Sahel region and several players from the ICT community in Mali. These young people were fully engaged, well aware of what was at stake for the winning teams: smartphones and tablets, incubation opportunities, internships, training… In a nutshell, they would have the tools needed to become digital entrepreneurs and resources that are typically very difficult to mobilize.
These entrepreneurial projects are not only a first step in tackling high youth unemployment in the country. Each of these demonstrations showed that these applications had the potential to be truly transformational in either the agriculture, health, or education sectors. Two of the teams opted to focus on education, with each winning one of the four prizes on offer:
The second prize was awarded for the Univ Kibaru application, which seeks to facilitate communication between universities and students, on matters such as timetable changes and academic scholarship opportunities;
The popular choice award was won by the team that presented the Orient Key application, which focuses on academic and career guidance for students (e.g., directory of academic institutions, guide on courses and subjects taught, a forum for discussion).
First, the admiration. Both the outcomes of the Summit and the immense energy by civil society and other leaders in informing and influencing it, are impressive. Registries of beneficial ownership, fresh agreements on information sharing, new commitments requiring disclosure of property ownership, new signatories to the Open Government Partnership and open contracting Initiatives, the commitment from leaders of corruption affected countries and much else on display this week suggests real innovation, energy and optimism in advancing the anticorruption agenda.
The frustration stems from a concern that, while there is much that is new being agreed, one of the principal and most effective existing assets for checking corruption has barely featured in the discussion so far – and it is an asset which is increasingly imperilled.
It isn’t just people like myself who point to the critical role of an independent media. As I’ve argued in a new working paper, when any serious review of the evidence of what actually works in reducing corruption is undertaken, it is the presence of an independent media that features consistently. In contrast, only a few of the anti-corruption measures that have been supported by development agencies to date have been effective.
Telenor believes in empowering societies. Motivated by the prospect of building something that can make a difference for customers with very limited access to traditional financial services, we ventured to leverage our mobile tele-density strength in developing countries to bring about financial inclusion. Telenor has committed to enabling 50% of its customers to use their mobile phones for financial services by 2020, which means 100 million customers will have access to mobile financial services. We joined the UFA2020 initiative eager to learn from other players on shared challenges, drive strength from a common goal, and scale solutions that have demonstrated success in other markets.
We are about to launch in Myanmar and have obtained a banking license in India. We are already working in Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Hungary, Malaysia, Pakistan, Serbia and Thailand. In each country we have adopted different models of financial services catering to the needs of that market. For example, in Serbia fully owned Telenor Banka is the first fully mobile and online bank, consolidating banking needs in a unified digital interface, making it the fastest growing bank and the highest rated banking app in the region. In Pakistan, Telenor’s subsidiary Tameer Micro Finance Bank offers mobile financial services under the globally recognized brand of Easypaisa, serving over 20 million customers for domestic and international remittances, purchase airtime, pay utility bills, receive government social cash transfers, pay taxes, save and borrow money, buy insurance or make online retail purchases. We are picking up speed in delivering straightforward digital banking services in most of our Asian markets. Last year we established the groundwork for business in five out of six Asian countries, and this year we are focusing on expanding our footprint in these markets. When all businesses are up and running, we will be ready to build scale and to reach our 100 million customers target.
From time to time, everyone encounters sleek products whose form seems to eclipse their function—an image-heavy website that fails to provide basic information, or a shiny gadget with an all-too-brief usable life. Many of us are occasionally guilty of creating such products, but we also shouldn’t underestimate the importance of design, especially when trying to reach a general audience with an initiative or service.
Recognizing its relevance in the global marketplace, the small South American country of Uruguay has placed increasing emphasis on improving the abilities of its schoolchildren to speak English. In trying to achieve this objective, however, it has faced a very acute resource constraint: There just aren't enough qualified teachers of English working in Uruguayan schools.
What to do?
How do you strike a balance between the immediate needs of students *right now* and an education system's requirements to train teachers to help meet such needs over the long term?
The traditional approach to dealing with such a challenge in many places has been to focus primarily on pre-service training, gradually introducing new teachers into classrooms over many years who have prepared to teach the subject through dedicated courses of study at teacher training colleges, together with occasional in-service professional development activities for existing teachers (normally during holiday breaks). In Uruguay, it was recognized that the gap between the abilities and capacities of many teachers to teach English, and student needs to learn English (which became compulsory in 2008) was so huge in many parts of the country that they needed to do things differently than they had done in the past. Instead of having teachers learn English separately, might it be possible to have them learn alongside their students, in their own classrooms?
As it happens, almost a decade ago Uruguay began its ambitious and innovative Plan Ceibal, which (among other things, and as profiled in a number of previousposts on the EduTechblog) made this small South American nation the first country to connect all of its schools to the Internet and provide all primary school children with a free laptop.
Given the technical infrastructure and know-how that was developed under Plan Ceibal, Uruguayan policymakers asked themselves:
Now that all of the schools are connected to the Internet,
and all students have their own laptops,
might it be possible to offer high quality
English language instruction live over the Internet,
connecting to teachers many miles away from the schools?
The answer to this question, it would appear, is 'yes'. Working out of its remote teaching center in Buenos Aires, its global digital learning hub in the neighboring country of Argentina, the British Council is beaming out English lessons to children in hundreds of individual classrooms across Uruguay, complementing and supporting the work of local teachers in these same classrooms. This is not a 1-to-many broadcast of the sort commonly done in many countries through the use of broadcast television, but rather connects individual classrooms in Uruguay with individual teachers sitting in other places. Some of these English teachers are based in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, many others next door in Argentina, and still others much further afield -- including halfway around the world in the Philippines and the UK! Along the way, the capacity of local teachers, who continue to lead English classes on their own other days of the week, is developed, through their interactions with and observations of the remote teachers.
On April 22 and April 29, 2016 representatives from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Sierre Leone, South Africa, and Tanzania came together in a virtual South-South Knowledge exchange hosted by the World Bank in collaboration with the Open Government Partnership to discuss an issue of mounting concern: managing records and information to support open government. These countries – committed to the goal of open government, and a number with new right to information laws and open data initiatives - were motivated by increasing recognition that their commitments to make information open cannot be fully realized until they increase their capacity to manage records and information, especially the growing amount of information in digital form.
Over the past two decades, I've had the good fortune to visit hundreds and hundreds of schools across all six continents to learn about how they are using new technologies -- and hope to use them in the future. (Maybe some day I'll visit the Antarctic school that was connected to the Internet by Chile's pioneering Enlaces program and I'll be able to claim I've done this on *all* continents!)
From Korea to Costa Rica, Sri Lanka to Syria, Lesotho to Laos, Papua New Guinea to Puerto Rico: School visits in over 50 countries have run the gamut, from observing the shared use of quite old graphing calculators and lectures at the blackboard describing how to navigate Microsoft Windows (even though there was a nary a PC to be found in the building) to marvelling at technology-rich classrooms filled students and teachers doing things with hardware and software that I couldn't have dreamed of doing when I was a student myself, many years ago.
I have visited schools in prosperous countries in peacetime and in very poor countries emerging from conflict (and in some cases, still technically at war). I learned firsthand about technology use in schools in Iceland when that country was labelled the world's 'most developed' and in schools in Haiti, the poorest country in the western Hemisphere, after that country suffered its devastating earthquake.
In pretty much all cases and contexts, investments in 'technology' were meant to be deliberately forward-looking (if not always necessarily that 'strategic' or well-planned), to some extent symbols (often explicit ones) of progress and optimism about the future, no matter the education system, from the most 'high performing' to the most dysfunctional.
Because I've had lots of comparative experiences visiting schools in 'other places' around the world, I am sometimes asked to provide an 'international perspective' on what is happening within a set of schools in a given country, part of a larger effort to benchmark what is being done and planned against norms in other countries. It can be a pretty cool gig at times (although the travel can be rather punishing). I am always learning, and the dynamism and determination of students, teachers, principals and education officials whom I observe and chat with quite often leaves me inspired and (re-)energized.
Since I have been doing this for so long, I sometimes help 'train' people (at ministries of education, at NGOs) who are assuming leadership positions in educational technology initiatives on how to develop their own "carpenter's eye" -- the ability to make quick assessments and judgments about what they are seeing in ways those less experienced in the field may struggle to do.
What's a 'carpenter's eye'?
A carpenter can often quickly judge whether an angle is truly 90 degrees, or that a wrong tool was used for a particular job, or make educated guesses about why one material was employed instead of another, or that something is destined to break. Such judgments may not always be accurate, and may be informed by various biases, but they are often qualitatively different than those of people less skilled and experienced with woodworking, who may not notice such things -- and who in fact may not care about them, nor understand why they might be important.
In my personal experience working with new technologies in the education sector, many of these folks have come from 'technical backgrounds' and typically direct their gaze toward, and ask the majority of their questions about, the technology itself. Often times the end goal of such investigations is meant to build an accurate inventory the equipment that is available in a school, rather to trying to learn about how the equipment itself is being used (and not used), why this might be the case, and how people feel about this. Fair enough: We all have different bosses, different ideas about what is important, and different incentives for doing whatever it is we may do. I don't mean to deny the importance of surveying what technologies are currently available in schools. But in my experience, visiting a school to learn about the technology it has and only focusing on that technology (what processor a device has, which operating system it runs, how much memory is available) represents a real lost opportunity to learn about and gain insight into many more things at the same time.
In case it might be of use to anyone else, I have assembled a quick list of some of the things that I often ask about and consider, usually automatically and unconsciously, when I visit a school to learn about how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are being used (and not used) for a variety of purposes. It's by no means comprehensive, and of course every context is different, but I find that these are often the types of things that I ask about and look for (in addition, of course, to the more general educational and demographic stuff that would be common areas of inquiry related to most school visits, and the hyper-specific stuff that might be the reason I am visiting one school in particular).
I have cobbled this list together from a much larger, slightly unruly 'master' list of questions that I maintain, which draws on notes and emails I have shared with people over almost two decades of school visits, working with hundreds of people, many of whom had little prior experience in visiting schools to assess what was happening with technology. Sometimes -- if not often -- sharing these sorts of questions is meant as much to spark discussion and debate within a team about what might be important (and what isn't so important), and how to go about finding this out, as it is to suggest actual questions that should be posed. Every context is different.
Imagine a school that teaches knowledge and provides hands-on training. A place where students express confidence in their skills, and are excited to make a difference in their future jobs. A bastion of confidence and optimism, where 100% of graduating students have jobs lined up before graduation.
Sounds too good to be true? I found this haven at the University of Moratuwa’s Department of Textile and Clothing Technology, supported by the Higher Education for the 21st Century Project (HETC), which is designed to modernize education by its increasing its quality and relevance. 24-year-old Malaka Perera, who is graduating next month, told me how the program has helped him build a foundation for his career. “The program taught me how to deal with people, along with communications and problem solving skills that I used during my internship. As a result, finding a job was quite easy.”
Sri Lankans have enjoyed the benefits of broad education access for decades, which has allowed the country to build human capital to rise and become a middle income country. However, as a country with rising aspirations in an increasingly globalized world and competitive region, the quality and relevance of its education system is key for the country to maintain its edge and reach new heights.
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.