Low-cost ICT devices in education: An update

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it takes increasingly fewer pennies to buy these things (but the cost is still too high in many places)Back in 2005 when I was with infoDev, we started maintaining a list containing A short inventory of known projects related to 'low cost ICT user devices for the developing world', with special attention to the education sector' . While the One Laptop Per Child Project was dominating much of the discussion around this topic in many circles, it was clear that there were lots of other interesting initiatives sprouting up that might be worth tracking (scores of them, in fact), but there was no consolidated list of them anywhere.  Many people found the list we cobbled together to be useful and it started to circulate quite widely via email, so we thought it might be a good idea to publish it on the web. So we did. For a good while it was (after the home page) by far the most downloaded item from the infoDev site, and we regularly saw versions of the list (usually without attribution) appearing in reports from consulting firms and in conference presentations.

The list was never meant to be comprehensive, but rather representative of the varied developments that were occuring in this area.  As we said at the time:

The projects and products included in this idiosyncratic list run the gamut from small research projects at universities to field-based experiments run by NGOs to commercial products from small start-ups and large multinationals.  Products are in various stages of development; while most are still in the prototyping and/or beta-testing stages, some are already in the market (and some, it should be noted, have been discontinued). 

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).

A lot has changed since we first put this list together: From a fringe novelty idea, low-cost 'netbooks' have become a retail category all their own, and we appear to be on the verge of a similar growth in low-cost 'e-readers'.  The iPhone has demonstrated the potential for educational applications on smartphones, and the spread of the Android operating system (and the inevitable downward pressure that innovation exerts throughout the IT sphere) portends a proliferation of low-cost smartphones in the not-too-distant future.  Cheap MP3 players are able to draw on the increasingly large number of educational podcasts, and low-cost devices like the Talking Book are demonstrating how audio content can be utilized in inventive ways. The catalog of educational software available for things like the Nintendo DS points to the potential for portable game devices to be used in education, and game-like devices purpose-built for education markets (e.g. the Teachermate) are appearing.  At the same time, embedded chips, USB ports and wireless networking capabilities are appearing in all sorts of objects (scientific equipment, toys) in ways that may them relevant to teachers and students.

It should be no surprise that, five years on, the list is beginning to show its age, and infoDev is now updating it.  (There are no plans to resume the popular database of related news articles.) Given the explosion in low-cost ICTs devices in the past few years, it will be interesting to see how this update process works. Firm believers in the wisdom of the crowds, infoDev has decided to crowdsource the creation of the new list, and they are inviting contributions from far and wide.  Please do feel free to send in your suggestions.

(Observant tech-savvy readers may note that this survey is actually built using Google docs, and that it is possible to embed it on your organization's web site -- or indeed your own personal site or blog.  The OLPCnews.com site has done this; other groups are welcome to do this as well.)


On a related note: The latest monthly online Educational Technology Debate from infoDev and UNESCO has just kicked off.  This month's question is "What is “Sustainability” in ICT for Education?"  As always, wide participation is welcome.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post comes from PD Photo.org and has been released into the public domain by its author and copyright holder, Jon Sullivan. It was obtained via Wikimedia Commons.


Michael Trucano

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

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