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Affordable Technologies for Supporting Learning and Collaboration in Africa

Claire Sibthorpe

There is ongoing innovation in terms of technology and its cost. This has included, for instance, the introduction of lower cost computers (e.g. netbooks and OLPC), the explosion in access to mobile phones and the emergence of devices such as iPads and e-readers. There are also a growing number of projects which seek to use some of these mobile devices to support learning and collaboration. However, many of the existing projects are pilots and implemented on a small scale which raises issues in terms of scalability and sustainability.

In this context, we are interested in exploring the following questions:

  • Where and how are mobile devices or other affordable technologies being used for access to learning materials and collaboration? What lessons can we learn from these experiences?
  • What are the key challenges for the use of these technologies in education in Africa? What are the critical success factors for their effective use?
  • What recommendations should be made to policy makers, regulators, donors and other stakeholders if technology is to be used to support learning and collaboration in an equitable, sustainable and scalable manner?

The next several posts will look at some of these questions and we hope that they will trigger discussion on some of the issues they raise. We invite responses questions as well as the sharing of both successes and failures.

This conversation is part of the eTranform Africa initiative.

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16 Responses to “Affordable Technologies for Supporting Learning and Collaboration in Africa”

  1. martoem

    The dilemma which arises in providing educational technology stems from a lack of financial resources and a limited distributive capacity. In addition, many African countries have not been able to employ teachers, and provide resources to keep up with this demand. This brings about compromised quality of education. Further, many African governments face the predicament of educational expansion that corresponds with economic development. Despite the setbacks, access to education is a strong focus of most governments.
    Kenya as has put in place an ICT policy that aims to improve the livelihoods of Kenyans by ensuring the availability of accessible, efficient, reliable and affordable ICT services. The national policy addresses several sections, among them includes; Information technology, Broadcasting, Telecommunications and Postal services. However, it is the section on information technology that sets out the objectives and strategies pertaining to ICT and education. The relevant objective in this section states that government will encourage
    “…the use of ICT in schools, colleges, universities and other educational institutions in the country so as to improve the quality of teaching and learning.”
    ICT can play a significant role in equalizing opportunities for marginalized groups and communities. But the paradox is that for those groups that are unable to cross the technology divide, ICT is yet another means to further marginalize them. Education has a major role to play in resolving this problem. Thus, unless ICT becomes part of both the delivery and content of education, the disadvantage will deepen and development will suffer. But the failure to use ICT is itself a result of the digital and knowledge divides that exist, and their causes are deeply embedded in the complex historical and socio-cultural context of the country. Fortunately, with the Vision 2030 goals, the Kenyan government has begun to implement strategies that will address these paradoxes.

    • 1. We need visions , yes.
      2. We need strategy to reach the visions
      3 We need implementations of the strategy
      Deep historical context is corruption when the implementations are started. how to stop corruption that stops changes to create wellfare and economical growth?
      All ICT can be carried out today even using mobiles. Thats not a problem.

  2. Hi
    All arguments have been used even in Sweden when ICT was not supported in schools. One of failures is common from Sweden too when we believed that we need to use special teachers for eLearning. Our school is uses only eLearning. Every teacher can build up the cource , be the tutor and maintaine the cource. When the attitude is changed the changes happen. We are working in several african countries usin only eLearning to train teachers in how learning happens and in subjects. No problem! There is always a place for learning, mobile, internet, memory pens, skype. Use all tools to reach teachers. Specially women are devoted to learn and committed to learning goals. They love learning

  3. A critical component of e-learning is obviously the e-learning resources that can replace printed textbooks. This has two sets of benefits:

    1) Open Education Resources (e-learning materials under certain Creative Commons licenses) have nearly no cost to distribute once computers and networks are in place. The cost of printed textbooks is much greater than the cost of netbook computers such as the OLPC XO, even with the additional costs for electricity, Internet, teacher training, and so on, particularly when you consider the economic benefits of providing renewable electricity and substantial bandwidth to even the poorest and most remote village.

    2) We have the opportunity to integrate software capabilities into every subject, allowing students to accomplish much more than they can with paper and pencil.

    Improving education while lowering costs should be a no-brainer for any educator or even any politician. ^_^

    Of course, we have to work by stages. Countries such as Bangladesh and South Korea that have gone or are going to go digital begin by creating static PDFs of existing textbooks. Next, we have to develop the techniques for embedding videos and computer models into the subject matter, and finding the most effective ways to ask students to program their own solutions to the questions in the field. Then we have to find out how much children can learn at even earlier ages with computer assistance, and rework curricula to match.

    Of course, we have to break through some old ideas in order to do this. One of them is the idea that computers in education should be evaluated using the same standards and tests devised for paper and pencil education. The children will be able to advise us on how to proceed, if we are willing to listen to them.

  4. Andrew J Dupree

    I'm glad this discussion is happening. Personally, I am very curious about the use (or potential use) of smartphones as computing platforms in Africa. What kind of usage are we seeing thusfar? Do edutech leaders believe smartphones have the potential to serve as more successful computing platforms than say OLPC? Why is the penetration of smartphones so low as compared to normal phones, even with the introduction of new low-cost smartphones? What could be done to change this?

    I would love it if some of these questions were discussed! After all, you cannot discuss affordable technologies for collaboration and learning without talking about the current most successful computing platform in the developing world – the mobile phone.

    • Andrew, good points about smartphones. We will have several posts on mobiles in this debate, so be sure to follow the full conversation.As to smartphones themselves, I still don't think they will have that great a penetration in the primary education space, though they could have some limited penetration into secondary schools. Still, their relative expense will keep them in just the elite's hands – and most likely mainly parents and some high schoolers even then.

  5. Hello ,

    For universal usage or be successful in ANY nationwide layout of ICT in Education project the following conditions must be satisfied..

    1. The equipments to read the digital contents must be already existing or widely available.

    2. Delivery of contents should be easy and available to all whether to the most remote or urban without costly broadband layout. .

    3. Teachers , not students (as in OLPC), should be empowered first or the project will face challenges.

    4. Availibity of qualified support staff when things go wrong including in remote areas.

    Now , smartphones, OLPCs(using Open source) and many projects cannot satisfy these conditions.
    Hence you will see a dearth of success in any such projects implemened.

    Smartphones are very small and hardly suitable for education except for simple contents and access is really expensive. The most common ones are basic phones not smart phones.Even if EVERYONE in the country has a smart phone (which will never happen)…just what kind of stuff can you learn from a small device? If you say Tablet PC , yes there is a good chance as many people are buying it and in time there would be available a lot of such in the hands of users. But then , it is still a rich man's tool. So trying to reach the poor man with a rich man's tools WILL NOT work too.

    OLPC not making the headway it should have been as most people in the country do not own Open source PCs but rather Windows or Apple. If free Linux based projects are implemented, that means you need to get the people (the users) to buy new machines just for the sponsors to save a few dollars in OS. In the end it would cost a lot more using Open source than say Windows operating system because millions upon millions of such computers ARE already in the public's hands.

    Further more being free gives professionals very little incentives to go beyond initial euphoria of implementing a project for say schools. It will die naturally pretty fast. The number of available contents in Linux based system is really tiny compared to those in Windows or Apple.

    Broadband approach to reach out to the rural areas. Expensive and takes a long long time. Now even if coverage is avaiable to all in the country (if one has the money), will it work ? Having coverage is one thing, being able to afford the high month charges is quite another. That is why even today no country can implement ANY city wide(not to say nationwide) ICT project where coverage is available What happens when the whole country logs in at exactly 8am.? The server…..

    All the above cannot satisfy the four conditions above plus many others too much to elaborate here.

    Solution? Yes, that is why we have studied for many years the whys dos and donts of ICT in Education and we are on the verge of implementing in two of the largest countries in Africa and Asia. One major international tablet PC manufacturer is putting our solution pre installed in their tablet PC and supply to the whole State.

    We provide solutions to enable successful reach to all including areas without electricity or Internet access. We provide the lowest costs to empower teachers to the next level(not to be holywood animators though :>) and able to do that for the entire country) Contents will not be a problem anymore and neither will be the hardware as we can implement our solutions without the need for broadband, using Windows platform even though Open source can still read some of our contents. In fact cost of implementation can be so negligible comparatively..

    So anyone out there still scratching their heads how to overcome the perenniel problems of closing the digital divides (as Unesco EFA project is still scratching) , connect with us and we can talk . Perhaps you can make enough to retire for life. :>) from just one project -who knows.

    Any hardware manufacturers out there, come let us talk on how to find solutions.. real solutions.

    One sale you sell to the whole country. By the way, if we get students to use less paper… it is really sustainably green too. Try finding any other way the ordinary students can be green… it is not easy.

    The solution is out there … one just need to use their brains a bit.

    Alan http://www.paperlesshomework.com

    • Yes.
      We can count all indicators as goals 1-4. Good.
      at the same time we can use the tools that exist. we have delivered content using ordinary mobiles. in africa village phones share knowledge already. why wait ?
      school buildings have not the the same standard in africa as in finland . but they exist and are used. teachers have not same standard but they exist.

  6. Actually, the economics and technology favor OLPC XOs. Mobile phone screens are better than nothing, but do not have enough space, nor do their keypads allow touch typing. It is not a matter of "saving a few dollars on the OS" alone, but of saving all of the costs of printed textbooks, and having a uniform suite of educational software. There is nothing comparable to Sugar on either phones or commercial OSs.

    Textbook costs are incurred for purchase, storage, distribution, and disposal. In the US, one textbook can cost as much as an XO. In most countries that have decent textbooks at all, they cost much more than the yearly share of the cost of an XO (currently about $50). The XO-3 is expected to cost much less, although we won't have real prices for some time. If current predictions work out, the annual cost will be about $20 per child for the XO, plus the cost of electricity and Internet connections. In return you get not only the digital replacements for the textbooks, but all the rest of the information on the Internet, plus the ability to connect with the rest of the children in the program.

  7. Marja-riitta Ritanoro wrote
    > yes mokurai. start to work. then you know and can develope.
    > the costs of doing nothing is most expensive for wellfare.

    I'm sorry, Marja-ritta, I cannot tell from your message whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with me. Perhaps something got lost in translation? Which other languages do you speak or write? I can manage somewhat in French, German, Spanish, and Russian. At any rate, please consider

    where I have set down some of what I have worked out over the last several years, and will continue to do so. Also the draft on the Sugar Labs server for Replacing Textbooks.

    which has been in progress for some time, but has to go on hiatus from time to time as I solve problems and deal with other issues.

    I will be interested to hear about your activities, also.

    Only do what only you can do.–Computer Scientist Edsger Dijkstra

    • Hello mokurai,

      Just remember this. Currently there are milliond upons millions (hundreds) already having those machines and it would cost nothing in hardware to use and replace books, papers, pencils, etc etc as you mentioned. But if the platform is in Linux, these millions upon millions of peole have to fork out 150 to 200 dollars ( US50 ? long way to go).

      We talk about nationwide not about a few chaps in a project having say a few XOs…. :>O

      That is why we are not concentrating on Linux ..although we do have online contents that run on any browser … try it out. It is free. It runs on IPAD , Linux etc . http://www.paperlesshomework.com . We ONLY charge for our offline version.

      We have Singapore Maths .. world famous , and it is selling pretyy well. Visitors on Linux based machines visiting our site .. only 1.5 % .. really not worth our time to go into it.

      See the Maths?


  8. Yes, there are more than a billion computers running Windows. The cost per person to give them Linux? $0. Yes, that's right. Nothing. They can make a partition and install it on the hard drives they have. The cost to download and install Sugar on Linux? Again, $0.

    It is not necessary for children who have computers to pay for an OLPC XO. It is not even necessary for a school system to buy them an OLPC XO. They can just download Linux and Sugar to run on their existing computers.

    Even x86 Macs can run Sugar on a Stick using a $10 USB thumb drive.

    And on the other side, we have more than 2 million users all around the world.

    As for 1.5% of visitors to your site running Linux, see the book The Innovator's Dilemma. We are creating a new market segment that you have no data on.

    See the Maths?


    • Hello, I hope I do not offend you really :>)

      Yes as you said, there are a billion Windows machine having Windows and it costs nothing to put in Linux. My dear friend this is where you are like many techie guys knowing the way but forgot the users majority of them do not! The word is USE PRACTICAL TECH NOT HIGH TECH.

      Can you imagine to get those windows users now to meddle with their OS working fine and do a dual boot????? It is crazy man. Practially most users would not even dare to touch any config files 🙂

      Few sane people will go to the trouble to do that themselves not even I a techie guy just to use some limited free software !. Now if these guys are to ask techie guys to do it for them , how much would it cost? free? Dream on.

      It takes up the resources too. Moreover you are talking about chldren's computers can you imagine parents will allow their Windows machine to isntall Linux? What happens if some data got lost? Sorry mate,…. wrong argument. It cost even more that route if something goes wrong.

      The saying goes… "if there is nothing wrong with the it, dont try to fix it." especially the users of these CHILDREN SOFTWARE are children.

      Cheers guys… be practical man. That is why most projects looks good on paper…in the end they failed.

      Netbook producers tried to sell their Linux based systems…. hardly any take up compared to Windows..Ask yourself why. These are pure facts.

      Nothing in this world iis really free. You want good products? Pay for it or no one is going to support it.

      Then billions of dollars of efforts and hardware go down the drain because no one want to continue to do CSR forever.These people need to find a job (when times are bad)… to make a living.

      So really, we know there are many Linux diehards…. but the reality is that Windows is too dominant to overlook. Like I said, implementing a Linux based project will face lots of challenges to get users even though the OS is free (for the organisers but the users by the millions have to pay in other ways).

      I think the next best OS to replace Windows will be Android… but still long way to go. Linux is going to oblivion when Android takes over as more and more richie guys start having it. Poor guys ..wait for another decade.

      • > Hello, I hope I do not offend you really

        Not in the least. Your ignorance is nothing to do with me. 😉

        Read about Plan CEIBAL, please. It handles configurations, installations, repairs, and the rest of the service you rightly point out a need for, and supplies schools with school servers where students can back up their XOs.

        "Please check your facts before posting nonsense to the Internet"–Beable van Polasm, alt.religion.kibology

        • LOL posting nonsense and ignorance :>) That is a good one when I talk facts and see the facts.

          Ceibal, I dont think a second country will follow this route as it costs soooo much for the littel extra benefits when using existing Windows based machines can do more beyond education. :>)


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