Cataloguing low cost ICT devices used in education

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increasingly countries are looking to buy on cheap street | img attribution at bottomWhen discussing plans for various uses of ICTs in education, one of the questions that we are regularly asked at the World Bank by Ministries of Education is (for better or for worse),

"What are the new low-cost educational technologies?"

Some observers argue that this emphasis on the retail prices of individual educational technology products diverts our attention from more important and fundamental issues.  Let's acknowledge such concerns ... but put them aside for the moment in an attempt to help respond to such a popular question.

For a few years while I was at infoDev, we actually maintained a (rather idiosyncratic) list of 'low cost computing devices for education', with a companion archive of related news stories, to help track the steady procession of related announcements.  (We gave up trying to track press items when the number of related news stories increased to such an extent that we concluded this stuff had reached the 'mainstream'.)  This list served a few purposes: It allowed us to help answer such questions and served to help illustrate that there was a lot happening in this area (it also turned out to be a great way to draw traffic to the infoDev web site -- during most months it was the most visited individual page on the site!).

Back in July infoDev published an updated version of this list as an Updated Quick Guide to Low-Cost ICT Devices for Educational Systems in the Developing World.

One challenge that such lists face is that they are, in a sense, out-of-date as soon as they are published (for example, the latest list doesn't include the EduFrame netbook recently announced by the Commonwealth of Learning). Reading through both documents, however, what strikes me isn't how up-to-date they are (or not).  Rather, I am struck by the fact that perhaps what is often most interesting these days is not what is *on* such lists, but rather what is left *off*.

When the first low-cost devices list was published back in 2005, we noted that

The products listed here come in many form factors: Some look like conventional PCs or laptops, others look more like PDAs or phones, and some are somewhere in between.  The lines are blurring between many categories of device.  We have deliberately excluded from this list devices that most people would call a 'PDA' or a 'phone', even though mobile phones are perhaps the 'low-cost ICT device' in widest use.  We have also not included various examples of 'probeware' (purpose-built data collection devices), even though this category of low-cost 'computing device' is increasingly being found in many educational settings, nor various types of 'e-book readers' (with one exception).

It may seem like semantic quibbling to some, but how categories like this are defined can have very real consequences in some places, especially where dedicated "ICT budgets" have narrow definitions about what are allowable purchases.  To cite just one quick example: In one country, it proved much easier to buy computers for a pilot initiative targeting calculus classes than buying graphing calculators -- even though the calculators met the immediate usage requirements and context much better than computers did, and were of course much cheaper! Academics to whom I mention such things often scoff, but these sorts of implementation challenges on the procurement side are practical realities in many places -- and can greatly impact what is possible, and what is not, in a given school or school system. 

A previous post on the EduTech blog, which looked at uses of USB sticks in education, noted that 

"From an educational technology perspective, what's peripheral, and what's central, is becoming increasingly blurred.  As USB, bluetooth and wi-fi allow us to connect devices together in new and inventive ways, and as devices at the edge proliferate, and become more powerful, the idea of peripherals as simple 'add-ons' to other ICT devices is more and more tenuous.

The use in schools of various things now classified as 'peripheral' in many places -- things like dataloggers or probeware, things like graphing calculators, things like Sugar on a Stick -- should be debated on their merits as tools for learning, and not dismissed simply because of arbitrary budget categorizations.

Whether or not you tend to think of such tools as peripheral or not, in the end it should come down what is really central -- the learner."

For what it's worth, here are some other 'low-cost ICT devices' that we at the World Bank see used in schools in useful ways: MP3 devices of various shapes and sizes (some rather ingenious); radios; DVD players; small handheld purpose-built educational devices (things like the TeacherMate, which I have sitting on my desk right now); handheld interactive response or voting devices; videogaming players and equipment; digital pens; so-called edutainment learning toys; digital cameras; and video cameras. Low-cost tablets in education aren't here yet, but seem inevitable.  And in the future, we expect increasingly to see things that don't fit into any neat categories ... but which are undeniably neat. (One example might be things like Siftables, which many people know from a popular video from the TED conference.)

To the extent that such devices are hackable, some interesting, lower-cost ICT options can open up. Witness, for example, some of the cool things done with remotes from the Nintendo Wii gaming system to create very low-cost interactive whiteboards solutions in South America among school populations for whom traditional interactive whiteboards are simply too expensive (the first time I saw this was a demonstration at a school in Senegal).  As ICTs become more diffused in more schools around the world, we shouldn't be surprised to see low-cost 'adaptations' like this showcased not only at places we traditionally asssociate with ICT innovation, like the MIT Media Lab (where Siftables was born), but also at events like Maker Faire Africa, which celebrates "ingenuity, innovation and invention" in places that traditionally have not been thought by many to be hubs for such 'applied inspiration' in the ICT sector.

A full list of 'low cost ICT devices used in education in developing countries' is increasingly long and varied, and challenges the traditional conceptions in many places of the 'school computer lab', with its rows of computers, as the place where educational technology finds its most useful home inside schools.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("increasingly countries are looking to buy on cheap street") of Cheap Street in Bath (UK) comes via the Geograph Britain and Ireland project; it is copyrighted by Derek Harper and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.  


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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