In search of the ideal educational technology device for developing countries

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you have some important choices to make
on which path to choose ...

In two weeks I'll visit BETT, the London-based event which is sometimes referred to as the 'world's biggest educational technology trade show'. While I don't know if it is in fact the 'biggest' (ISTE's annual event is huge as well), nor how one calculates magnitude in such cases, there is no doubt that it is indeed really, really, really, big.

I attend BETT most years for a number of reasons. Doing so provides me with a chance to see all of the new cool gadgets and applications in one place. It is pretty easy to schedule meetings packed into a few days with lots of groups and people who are also at BETT; 'back home' it would take months to coordinate such meetings.

Conveniently, BETT takes place immediately after the Education World Forum, where scores of education ministers gather together each year to share experiences about challenges and successes related to education in their countries. This 'convenience' is actually no coincidence: Many ministerial delegations, especially those from middle and low income countries, stay on to tour the exhibition halls at BETT, to see the 'latest and greatest' and be (presumably in some cases) wined and dined by various vendors hoping to build relationships and do some business. While I skip the 'hospitality' stuff (not really my scene), I typically find it very educational to attach myself to, and rotate between, a few ministerial delegations each year as they tour the BETT exhibition spaces. Doing so offers me some exposure and insight into what such groups are interested (and not interested) in, and provides me with a 'fly-on-the-wall' view into the various sales pitches that are made to these sorts of government officials by companies eager to ring in the new year with some big contracts – as well as how such officials respond to such marketing.


Just as I find the questions that educational officials ask of vendors when they tour the BETT exhibition spaces to be revealing in many ways, I am often intrigued by the related questions that many of these companies then pose to me.

As a result of my work at the World Bank helping to advise on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world, I am, for example, asked from time to time by companies sets of questions that can be summarized as follows:

What would be the 'ideal' educational technology device for use in schools,
and by teachers and students, in developing countries?

In 2014 the presumed form factor for this device appears to be a tablet – in past years it was assumed to be a laptop, and before that, a PC. (Who knows what it will be five years from now – perhaps something ‘wearable’? Or will the device that everyone continues to say isn't suited for use in the education – the mobile phone – end up winning?)

One the reasons that I maintain the EduTech blog is to share information publicly that in the past would perhaps have been circulated to and among small groups of people. I concede that not many people may actually care how I answer such a question (most of those sorts of folks who have found their way to this blog post here have presumably already clicked over to something more interesting: the latest gossip from the Premier League or Bollywood, for example, or perhaps an email from their spouse). For those that might care, here are:

Some quick thoughts on
the ‘ideal’ educational technology device for developing countries

My initial response when asked this sort of question about the 'ideal' device for use in education in middle and low income countries is usually that this is the wrong question to ask. Or, maybe not the wrong question, but certainly not one of the first questions you should be asking if you are interested in helping to address many of the challenges faced by learners, teachers and education systems around the world.

If one were to identify one ‘worst practice’ in the educational technology field, it perhaps would be, based on lots and lots of easily identifiable past disasters, to lead with a technology ‘solution’ to ‘solve’ a problem that you don’t really understand, especially in an environment or context you don’t really understand. (A previous EduTech blog post labelled this as: Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen.) As challenging as the development of new technology devices is, the greater challenge in education is almost always on the ‘human’ side. Education, and the educational or learning process, is in large part about people, and about people helping and connecting with other people.

That said, as both skilled and expert carpenters will tell you (teachers and students will too!), your tools are important.


The organizations asking me this sort of technology-centric question (and the people who may wish to fund them) often concede that, indeed, all of this ‘other stuff’ is really important. But, because their job is to sell, design and/or make new devices, I find that they are often not terribly interested in comments like “the best technology is often the one you already have, know how to use and can afford”. We understand all of this, they might – and do! – say (although whether or not they actually do understand is perhaps another question ....). And then they ask:

Leaving aside for now the
‘stuff related to human capacity development and educational content’,
what are the top five challenges related to the use of ICTs
in education in developing countries that we,
as the designers and makers of devices, should consider?

While I am not sure if these are indeed the ‘top’ five, here is a list of some of the most acute and important related challenges that I mention when asked this question:

 1. affordablity
 2. accessibility
 3. connectivity
 4. electricity
 5. usability

In a little more detail:

1. Affordability

Perhaps the most obvious challenge relates to cost. It is no coincidence that significant buzz and excitement is generated by gadgets destined for use in learning that are advertised as ‘low cost’ – and the lower the cost, the better! That said, it is worth noting that buying a ‘low cost’ device doesn’t guarantee that whatever is being done with such a device is, in fact, ‘low cost’ (nor, in fact, that whatever is being done has any educational value, but that's another issue). Indeed, buying lots of ‘cheap’ devices can sometimes prove very expensive!  Nevertheless: If people can’t afford the devices in the first place, nothing is going to happen.

2. Accessibility

One thing that high prices can do is ensure that the devices remain inaccessible to the people who could make good use of them – even when people buy them. The phenomenon of new computers remaining unpacked in boxes because they are too valuable to risk damaging has long been a cliché among those who work in this area. In my experience, however, it remains widespread in many places, as does its corollary – the locked computer lab. Your ideal device is not only one you can afford, then, but also one that you have access to when you need it to help support learning! For device makers happen to make the initial sale, surely one of the best advertisements for your next device is the fact that people are using your current and past devices? 

3. Connectivity

Increasingly, it is not only the functionality of devices, and the content on them, that provide value to students and teachers. These devices also, and importantly, derive value from the connections – between people, to content and applications in other places – that they enable. Connectivity has of course been a key component of the value of ICT devices sold into the education market since the dawn of the World Wide Web. As more and more people and places and institutions and content are connected to the Internet and mobile networks, and thus to each other, network effects become increasingly important. A connected device used in places where there is no or limited/unreliable connectivity loses a lot of its potential utility. While schools in some countries are equipped with more broadband capacity than entire countries in Africa in the not too distant past, many communities remain largely unconnected. Many others are chronically underconnected. While important efforts are being made in this regard, connectivity remains a really big issue.


These first three challenges are all very real and undeniably important – but things are, thankfully, improving in all of these regards. Improvements are perhaps not happening as quickly as many may like, of course, and, more importantly, not as quickly as might be needed, but things are improving. Progress related to the other two challenges I have listed here is, in my estimation, being made less quickly.


4. Electricity

For a while now, in many places around the world the so-called ‘digital divide’ has been as much about access to reliable power as it is about access to ICT. While progress is being made in this area, in some instances, as more widespread access to affordable reliable power comes online, one result is that there is a greater demand for such power (and so the cycle continues ...). Companies targeting markets where affordable reliable electricity is a very real issue would do well as a default way of thinking to design devices with this reality in mind. One of the (many) reasons that mobile phones have spread so rapidly around the world is that, at least until the smartphone era, they have been able to function for quite a long time on a single charge. Because typical phones, especially low end phones, do not require a lot of power, homegrown charging solutions have been viable to help keep them (more or less) working.  As ‘smart’ devices proliferate, drawing more and more power, hyperlocal means to keep them charged may become increasingly strained.  (As more and more content and applications move to the ‘cloud’, the power demands on larger-scale infrastructure increase in new ways as well.)

It is also important to note that such homegrown solutions have developed in response to clear, specific needs and demands in communities. In most places in the world that I visit, including some of the remotest – and I have visited a lot of such places! – you can somehow find a way to charge your phone. (You can also often find a way to buy a Coke, even if there is no access to potable water, but that is another discussion.) It may be because someone has an extra battery.  It may be because there is a solar charger available, and that will suit your device’s requirements. It may be because some entrepreneur has hooked up a car battery or portable generator and charges a few rupees or kuai or francs to help keep your device, well, charged.

It is also, I think, because many users have quickly found such devices to be so useful that they have created demand for services to keep them charged. The contrast with laptops and computers used in many schools in poor communities is perhaps instructive. While it is true that such gadgets have considerably larger electricity demands, it is in my experience also the case that many of the people with responsibility for such devices have not gone out of their way to seek solutions that might provide sufficient power, because they haven’t been convinced of the utility in doing so. Better to spend time, attention and scarce funds – and scarce power! – on things that are considered to have more immediate value, they say!

5. Usability

One challenge that I see discussed much less than the other four listed here relates to usability. This is, in many cases, a much more difficult nut to crack. Over the past few years, there has been a flood of low cost technology into many schools in poor communities around the world. The low cost nature of such technology is often a good thing, of course. That said, a lot of gadgets of this sort are little more than junk. Some of this is because the devices themselves are of low quality. Some of them, however, are ‘junk’ because they are incredibly difficult to use because of their poor user interfaces. Still other, more expensive, better designed, higher end gadgets are difficult to use because they were designed for other use cases or usage scenarios, by other groups of people, in other circumstances, for different purposes. It perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising that devices designed in places like Mountain View (or Tampere or Tokyo, Cambridge or Suwon) aren’t always as usable for folks in, for example, rural, low income Asian or African communities as they are in communities where the designers themselves live.

Now, it is true that much progress has been made in this regard over the past decade, as momentum around things like design thinking builds and especially as so-called developing markets are seen as potential areas of revenue growth for the companies which design and make these devices. That said, whenever I hear stories about things like (e.g.) disproportionate numbers of e-reader devices introduced into a community breaking because people had been told to keep them very clean that numerous folks, as a result, decided to regularly wash them in a local stream, I am reminded that many of the designers of devices being used today by learners in developing countries don’t have a good handle on the way such devices may be used in practice in such places. No doubt, as markets grow, many of the device designers in the ‘Global North’ will increasingly take such contexts, and users, into consideration, and this will presumably result in some real progress. However, I don’t wonder if many of the real usability challenges won’t be overcome by people living and working in such environments themselves, or at least who come from such places (and whose families may still live there), who are themselves users of the devices they help design, and the applications that run on them.


Ok, so those are some quick thoughts in responses to questions related to the development of the ‘ideal educational technology device for developing countries’. I am not sure if they are of interest or use to the types of folks who ask me related questions. Whether they are or not, I would offer the opinion that the views and ‘insights’ of folks like me may in the end be of limited value. If you really want good answers to these sorts of questions, you should ask the people themselves to whom you hope to sell such devices.

Better yet: Work with them (observe them, talk with them, hire them, fund them) as part of your design process.
You may also be interested in:
 [-] Educational technology and innovation at the edges
 [-] Education & Technology in Africa: Creating Takers ... or Makers?

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("you have some important choices to make on which path to choose ...") comes from Wikipedian Tolukra via Wikimedia Commons. It was made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.


Michael Trucano

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

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