I had a couple of chats with different people recently on the theme of ICT and Education, and I thought I should write this blog to clarify my views. First of all, I’m not an expert in education, and I’ve never participated in a project related to education. That said, I’ve been in the domain of ICT for development since many years, and education is a domain in which I’m particularly interested.
I’d like to hear your views on this, but I feel that there are two broad categories of approaches:
- Those exploring how new ICT capabilities, and more specifically, new hardware, could help address challenges in the education sector, and,
- Those exploring how to use existing ICT infrastructure and devices to improve the quality of education
I’ve had trouble finding concrete evidence of impacts related to the first approach. Investigating how low-cost laptops, tablets, and smartphones can help in education is surely interesting. Running a pilot and observing the results has merit. But can you scale-up and achieve a global impact? For that to work, the underlying new technologies need to scale. Thus a reason the world needs to follow the investment and returns of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative carefully. A problem with these “new technology” projects is not only the cost of the hardware, though it requires investment of millions of dollars by poor countries. The problem is distribution, maintenance, training of rural teachers, content etc. I’m not going to develop this further as this is not the point of this blog post. However, I think that global impact and scalability can be achieved on a short-to-medium timeframe by more effectively leveraging existing infrastructure and hardware. So I’m going to develop here my ideas on the existing ICT elements in different contexts, and how they can help in education.
Let’s start by categorizing problems and solutions. It is relatively traditional to consider 4 areas in which ICT can help in education:
- Support of education systems: Facilitating contact and exchange of information between the central education system and students.
- Support of rural teachers: Giving these key people the resources they need to succeed.
- Provision of education to kids that don’t have access to schools: This covers different situations such as post conflict/post disaster education where there is no school/teacher available, access to education by e.g. young girls that are prevented to go to schools, etc.
- Support outside school hours: Giving kids resources they can use to complete homework, study independently, etc.
I’m particularly interested in the second and third categories. There are amazing initiatives in the fourth one too, particularly in South Africa with e.g. Doctor Math and Yoza project, formerly M4lit (mobile Novel reading and writing), and also lots of student projects around the first category. But there is still very little work in the second and third categories.
Let’s start with the context, as well as the ICT elements in this context. My own experience in a dozen of countries in sub-saharan Africa (east, west and southern) tells me that there is a major difference urban and suburban areas versus rural areas:
- In urban and suburban areas, there are a relatively large number of options:
- Mobile phones
- Data capable mobile networks: At least GPRS and now relatively often 2.5G or 3g
- Internet cafés
- In rural areas: the options are far more limited:
- Mobile phones
- very rarely Data capable mobile networks
- Very very rarely internet due to connectivity issues
- Very rarely TV due to electricity issues
It is essential to consider here radio and TV. While they are not new technologies, both have been used for decades to deliver courses and education. These are elements that extend the traditional classroom concept, with one professor delivering courses to many kids.
Taken individually, TV and radio have issues related to content: how to develop or have access to content, and then broadcast it ? But the Web can bridge this issue by providing access to content that has been authored from all over the world. It is very easy today to broadcast on a TV channel a video that is on the Web. It is also very easy to broadcast on a radio an audio file that is on the Web. It is obvious that TV and radio are potential access points for Web content, without anything else on the radio or TV station than a computer and Internet connection.
While I’m a big fan of mobile phones, I’d like to hear from you example of where mobile has been a real platform for course delivery. Again, by analogy with traditional classroom, mobile is the personalized channel between a kid and the professor. So a platform for quiz, exam, assignments, but not really for course delivery.
There is a good fit between the Web, TV, radio and mobile to deliver education in urban and semi-urban area. I’m not aware today of a complete integrated platform that would allow someone to listen to a radio or TV broadcasted course (or on the Web at an internet cafe), and then fill the assignments through either a mobile or Web (in Internet café) platform. But nothing is really innovative or hard to build. There are surely some content that fits better on a radio rather than TV and vice-versa. The mobile platform could surely use SMS for short quiz, or mobile Web if data connection is available, or voice technology. This can then be supported further through the setup of a helpline (knowledge service through phone) like it exists in agriculture (see e.g. lifelines in India) where kids and students could ask questions or request further supports. I’m convinced that such an integrated platform should be tested live and evaluated, and then could be easily replicated.
Now, it is clear that such a platform is not applicable in rural areas. I recently went through a couple of countries in West Africa (see our report on the Web Alliance for Regreening in Africa Roadshow), and we visited few community radio stations. However, none of them have any Internet connection. Very few have a computer. So it is just impossible to connect the two suggested above.
So what are the options? Here again, the only possible solution to connect radio and the Web is through voice technologies. It is possible to build a library of broadcast that radios could access through a voice interface. All the radio we visited had a way to broadcast the output of a mobile phone. It is therefore possible to design an interface where a radio will (be) call(ed) and then broadcast the training course through a mobile connection. In the same way, it would be possible for rural teacher to access content and courses in the same way by using the speaker or plugging speaker on his/her mobile phone, the teacher could search for specific content and then broadcast it in the classroom. Like mentioned above, this could also be supported and enhanced through a specific helpline and through voice-based assignments attached to specific courses. The design and authoring of such courses as well as assignments and support could be done from all over the World through the Web, and accessible, without the deployment of any hardware, to teachers, radio and kids in rural areas having only access to classical radio receiver and simplest mobile phones.
In our Voices project as well as in the W4RA project we are exploring the exact same concept but for agriculture information. It would be very interesting to see how this is applicable in Education.
Obviously, the road is quite long. Testing the concept, then defining best practices for building appropriate content (courses and assignment), demonstrating the viability and sustainability of the approach, and then building capacities in the local developer communities to ensure that people in country have all the knowledge to operate and enrich the platform. But I’m convinced that a better use of the existing infrastructure and devices already deployed is the only way to have a global impact at affordable costs. As of today, the only technology that would offer the appropriate interaction level is, IMHO, voice technologies. Coupled with community radios, I’m convinced that this would have a tremendous effect. I really hope the Web Foundation will develop further this idea in the future, and that we will be involved in such project.