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A mobile phone shop in the Computer Village neighbourhood of Lagos, Nigeria, where many of the country's mobile phones are sold. Phones may be a better way to deliver online education in low-resource areas. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)
A mobile phone shop in the Computer Village neighbourhood of Lagos, Nigeria, where many of the country's mobile phones are sold. Phones may be a better way to deliver online education in low-resource areas. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)

Mike Trucano

MOOCs don't benefit developing countries. Phones do Add to ...

There are, broadly speaking, two strands of concurrent thinking that dominate discussions around the use of new technologies in education around the world.

At one end of the continuum, talk is dominated by words like ‘transformation.’ This is, if you will, a largely ‘developed’ country sort of discourse, where new technologies and approaches are layered upon older approaches and technologies in systems that largely work, at least from a global perspective. While the citizens of such countries may talk about a ‘crisis’ in their education systems (and may indeed have been talking about such a crisis for more than a generation), citizens of many other, much ‘less developed’ countries would happily switch places.

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If you want to see a true crisis in education, come have a look at our schools, they might (and do!) say, or at least the remote ones where a young teacher in an isolated village who has only received a 10th grade education tries to teach 60+ children in a dilapitated, multigrade classroom where books are scarce and many of the students (and even more of their parents) are often functionally illiterate.

A promise of education for all

Before you jump on the MOOC bandwagon, some questions

Canada needs an online education strategy

Move along, little is new about what MOOCs have to offer

While talk in some places may be about how new technologies can help transform education, in other places it is about how such tools can help education systems function at a basic level. One challenge for informed debate is that most models related to ICT use come from high-income contexts and environments. When they don’t work, this is taken as ‘evidence’ that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant.

Yet there is some emerging thinking coalescing around various types of approaches that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of ICT in education initiatives in low-resource environments and in guiding the debate on technology in education.

The best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford

Parachuting in the ‘latest and greatest’ device or gadget may have strong political appeal, and fatten the bottom lines of certain firms, and may possibly even be effective in some cases, but it may be useful to ask, How can we innovate using what we already have? In poor, rural, isolated communities, the technologies already at hand are almost always mobile phones and radios. It might be that using such technologies in complementary ways (an interactive radio program, for example, supported by SMS-based outreach to and between teachers) might achieve many of the objectives that a single, ‘new’ technology can.

Put sustainability first

Often times, the first goal of an educational technology project is to show that it ‘works.’ Only once this is demonstrated does attention turn to issues of sustainability. Sustainability should be a first order concern – especially in remote, low resource communities. Plan for equipment to break, plan for outside expertise to withdraw, plan for novelty to wear off – what will happen then?

Treat teachers like the problem … and they will be

Over the years, I have talked with lots of people who see teachers (and teachers’ unions) as a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘solved.’ A well known study done by researchers at the MIT Poverty Action Lab a number of years ago looked at a program in Udapur, India in which “teachers were instructed to have their picture taken each day with students and were paid only when the cameras recorded them present.”

Another option might be to explore how ICTs can be used to support teachers with positive incentives, helping them save time in lesson preparation by providing additional learning resources via television, or to help improve their mastery of the subjects which they teach through interactive radio instruction.

Anticipate, and mitigate, Matthew Effects

A Matthew Effect in Educational Technology is frequently observed: Those who are most able to benefit from the introduction of ICTs (e.g. children with educated parents and good teachers, who live in prosperous communities, etc.) are indeed the ones who benefit the most. Just because investments in educational technology use are justified by rhetoric claiming that such use will benefit ‘the poor’ doesn’t mean that this will actually happen. In fact, the opposite may well occur.

To succeed in doing something difficult, you may first need to fail (and learn from this failure)

Trying to help isolated, poor communities improve their schools and the education that they offer to their children is a nontrivial endeavor. Unfortunately, such places may be no stranger to ‘failed’ projects of various sorts, and the reasons for such failures may be varied and complex. The history of the use of technology in education also features lots of ‘failures.’ A key ingredient for success is often an ability, and willingness, to recognize and learn from failure – and then change course as needed.

Mike Trucano is the World Bank’s senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist. A version of this blog first appeared on the World Bank’s EduTech Blog.

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