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Promising Uses of Technology in Education in Poor, Rural and Isolated Communities Around the World

(by Michael Trucano, Senior ICT and Education Specialist, World Bank)

© Flick/World Bank Photo Collection

Michael Trucano is the World Bank's Senior Education & Technology Policy Specialist and Global Lead for Innovation in Education. 

One persistent challenge for educational policymakers and planners related to the potential use of informational and communication technologies (ICTs) in remote, low income communities around the world is that most products, services, usage models, expertise, and research related to ICT use in education come from high-income contexts and environments.

One consequence is that technology-enabled 'solutions' are imported and 'made to fit' into what are often much more challenging environments. When they don't work, or where they are too expensive to be replicated at any scale, this is taken as 'evidence' that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant -- and possibly irresponsible.

That said, lessons are being learned as a result of emerging practices, both good and bad, in the use of ICTs in education in low resource, poor, rural and isolated communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of educational technology initiatives in such environments. (It may even turn out that the technological innovations that emerge from such places many have a wider relevance …. but that is a topic for another discussion.)

Products like the BRCK (a connectivity device designed and prototyped in Nairobi, Kenya by many of the people behind Ushahidi to better address user needs in places where electricity and internet connections are, for lack of a better word, ‘problematic’) and MobiStation (a solar-powered 'classroom in a suitcase' which features a projector and lots of off-line educational content developed by UNICEF Uganda) remain notable exceptions to the lamentable reality that, for the most part, ‘solutions’ touted for use in schools in e.g. rural Africa, or in isolated communities in the Andes, are designed elsewhere, with little understanding of the practical day-to-day realities and contexts in which such technologies are to be used. Many people who have lived and worked in such environments are quite familiar with well-meaning but comparatively high cost efforts often informed more by the marketing imperatives embedded in many corporate social responsibility efforts than by notions of cost-effectiveness and sustainability over time or the results of user-centered design exercises.

Some principles or approaches to consider when planning to introduce ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments might include:

1. The best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford (in most cases, this is increasingly the mobile phone)
2. Start down and out, and then move up and in (if you want to eventually work in difficult places at scale, *start* working there first, don't just go where things are most likely to work)
3. Treat teachers like the problem … and they will be
4. It’s the content, not the container (don't focus on devices, but rather on what actions these devices enable – and make sure not to be diverted by various related myths and misconceptions)
5. If you are pointed in the wrong direction, technology may help you get there more quickly
6. Anticipate, and mitigate, Matthew Effects (people who are already privileged in many ways are more likely to benefit first, and most, from new technologies)
7. To succeed in doing something difficult, you may first need to fail (and learn from this failure)
8. Put sustainability first
9. We know a lot about worst practices -- we should make sure we don't repeat them
10. ____ (there are many more such principles to consider, of course, so #10 is left blank as an acknowledgement of this fact – and that we still have much to learn)

While many groups have been and are engaged in efforts to invent, identify and/or develop the ideal educational technology device for developing countries (the tablet currently seems to be a particularly popular form factor, supplanting the laptop in the popular consciousness), and as challenging as the development of new technology devices can be, the greater challenge in education is almost always on the ‘human’ side.  Education, and the educational or learning process, is after all a human endeavor, and it is on the ‘messy human stuff’ (as one very smart technology guy in Silicon Valley once put it to me; to adopt his language, I think he was confusing a bug with a feature) that many efforts fail.

The ‘digital divide’, which was once primarily thought of in terms of access to technology, and increasingly as a function of access to reliable power (indeed, the digital divide in much of the world closely aligns with the ‘electricity divide’), is now understood as well to be about the skills and abilities of people to benefit from access to technology (the so-called ‘second digital divide').

The World Bank's EduTech blog exists in part to help investigate and document emerging applications of educational technologies in middle and low income countries, and to share these with audiences who, for whatever reason, may not otherwise come across them in the course of their daily lives but who might nonetheless find them interesting or relevant to their own circumstances in some way. Some related practices and initiatives which are notable in various ways include:

Using ‘old’ technologies (like radio and television) in new ways
While most of the attention, and pretty much all of the hype, around the use of technologies in education focuses on the latest shiny gadgets, in many places ‘old’ technologies like radio and television are still in widespread use – although often with slight twists. Under Interactive Radio Instruction, radio broadcasts are used to prompt specific actions by teachers and students in the classroom. The use of Interactive Educational Television in places like the Amazon helps remote schools with situations where you have many students but no teachersSame Language Subtitling of Bollywood movies help promote the acquisition of reading skills to millions of ‘low literate’ people in India.

Sharing one device with lots of people
While much press attention is paid to projects that promise things like ‘one educational tablet for every student’, it is not only in the case of communal technologies like radio and television where the benefits of using one device can reach many learners at once. As part of some projects, classrooms of up to 50 students can each ‘operate’ a single computer independently, as long as they each have their own mouse. Such efforts are enabled where technologies are available to help transform simple projectors into low-cost versions of digital whiteboards. The Hole in the Wall project in India demonstrates how placing shared computing facilities outdoors in slum communities can bring about lots of interesting benefits to children outside of formal schooling.

Caching on-line content for offline use
In places where Internet connectivity is sporadic, unreliable or intermittent, innovative approaches to caching and distributing digital content can enable off-line access to vast numbers of online resources in ways that can simulate on-line environments. The emergence of low cost e-readers is enabling groups to distribute vast amount of books in digital formats to students who read them on small, purpose-built reading devices.

Promoting literacy and learning, and supporting teachers, with mobile phones
In remote communities where teachers may face daunting challenges related to isolation of peers and a lack of resources (including textbooks and other teaching materials), mobile phones are helping support teachers in small but meaningful ways by providing access to education content (as in Tanzania) and regular prompts and tips on how to utilize this content (as in Papua New Guinea). In Pakistan, students are sent short quizzes via SMS to their mobile phones to help them (and their families) gauge how well they are understanding topics being discussed in class.

Using low cost video to support peer learning and support
The increased availability of very low cost video cameras (including those in mobile phones) can provide opportunities for reflection and peer support for teachers who may have received little (if any) training on pedagogical approaches to delivering their curricula. In Indonesia, for example, teachers take short videos of their peers and then jointly review and discuss pedagogical approaches and particularly difficult topics to teach in informal, low stakes ways as part of their professional development.

Developing content and tools locally
In places where learners do not speak one of the major international languages for which lots of educational content already exist in digital formats, the capacity to produce such content locally -- in local languages, in line with local curricula -- is often constrained by the fact that there simply is not sufficient indigenous know-how to create and distribute educational content easily in digital formats. Efforts in Afghanistan show that there are approaches that can work in such environments, especially where they utilize the technologies with which people are already familiar (e.g. low end mobile phones) in ways that simple to use and very user-friendly.

These sorts of practices and projects are just the tip of the iceberg, of course. In and of themselves, certainly none of them provides a silver bullet solution to address all the challenges confronting educators and learners in remote, low income, low resource communities. That said, and as the short list above hopefully suggests, there are a lot of encouraging developments around the world – sometimes (depending on one’s perspective) pioneered by the most unlikely people doing the most unlikely things in the most unlikely places (although quite a few of them, it should be said, are seeking to do things with a very likely device: the mobile phone).

While monitoring and sharing what people are doing can be quite useful, such basic information is even more valuable when its accompanied by efforts to evaluate what results such efforts are (or purport to be) having. While the people and groups pioneering educational technology initiatives targeting populations and communities all over the world have until recently had to rely as much on instinct and ‘learning by doing’ than on an established knowledgebase informed by rigorously collected evidence, impact evaluations from Latin America to Africa to Asia are slowly emerging to help lessen the characterization that many efforts are, if we are honest about it, largely faith-based initiatives. (Along the way, researchers, policymakers and practitioners are asking some important questions about the practical relevance of such impact studies for those who make related decisions, and for those who carry them out, beyond the narrow, sometimes rather insular academic audiences who publish in and read the scholarly journals).

We clearly do not have all the answers about how to do this stuff. But hopefully we are at least getting better at asking the right questions.


Contact info: Michael Trucano, mtrucano[at] 

Note: A version of this post previously ran on the World Bank’s Education blog,’.

The opinions expressed in the articles included in this newsletter are those of the authors and editors, and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of UNESCO, nor of any particular Division or Office.