Educational technology will continue to be implemented incrementally in many parts of the developing world. More rapid uptake and success are unlikely to occur unless five items are addressed – power, Internet connectivity and bandwidth, quality teacher training, respect and better pay for teachers, and the sustainability of implementations.
1. Electrical Power
It is a fact: you need power to run technological devices and until power is widely available, reliable, and affordable for many in Africa and elsewhere, educational technology uptake will be slow. About 70% of those living in sub-Saharan Africa do not have easy access to electrical power. Even if people could not afford to purchase various electronic gadgets, access to power as noted above, would improve their lives because they would be able to read after dark and would be healthier as they would not be exposed to fumes caused by burning fossil fuels and plant matter.
While conducting an extensive workshop for an international organization at the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) in Kenya, we discussed how we could minimize the cost of delivering distance educational materials. One suggestion that was well-received was to reduce the size of the print, therefore less ink and paper would be used. On the surface the suggestion was brilliant until I closed the window blinds, and said, let’s take a print module with an 8 or 10-point font and see how easy it would be to read via a kerosene lamp and a candle. Material containing small-point fonts and serifs were difficult or impossible to read under low light conditions. Thus, one may save ink and paper by using these fonts, but the materials would be unreadable 12 hours each day when it is dark in many tropical countries.
Sometimes recommendations made from afar sound ideal, until implemented in a particular environment. When funding agencies indicate that they are willing to support educational technology initiatives, they should also consider how power will be provided to these devices; solar power and batteries being one option. Since China has made major investments in Africa and Southeast Asia, perhaps along with its extensive mining and road building projects it will add power-generation to its list of initiatives.
On June 30, 2013, in Cape Town, President Obama announced Power Africa – an initiative to double the number of people who will be able to access electricity on that continent. Initially, the project will focus on increasing electrical capacity in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania. That is a good start, but what about the rest of Africa?
2. Internet Connectivity
The potential to increase Internet connectivity has risen substantially during the last four years due to the laying and planned installation of marine telecommunication cables. However, countries that are land-locked such as Chad and those that seem to show limited business demand for Internet services, such as Eritrea and Sierra Leone, are likely to experience difficulty increasing Internet access and bandwidth in the near future.
The challenge for all countries in the developing world is delivering the last “mile” of connectivity to homes for a reasonable cost. In addition, the bandwidth must be capable of carrying compressed videos so that citizens can have access to the wide variety of educational materials available in a video format and be able to exchange reasonable quality photographs and video clips. Increased Internet accessibility and increased bandwidth are unlikely to occur without commitment by governments and the involvement of private enterprise such as the mobile phone operators. In time perhaps, broadband access to the Internet will be considered a basic human right.
3. Training and Professional Development
Electrical power, Internet bandwidth, and electrical devices may all be present, but teachers need to know how to use them effectively. Teachers who have been brought up in a world with limited technology can find it difficult to use technology to engage and support learning. Whatever training and professional development opportunities that are provided to teachers must be long enough for them to grasp the concepts behind teaching with technology, to have hands-on experience using the technology, and to revise or develop one lesson that they can use when they return to their classroom or online environment.
Sessions should be held to help teachers locate, adapt, and translate open educational resources (OERs) for their learners. Based on my experience in countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, translating materials into the local language and having interpreters present may require additional resources and/or reduce the amount of content that can be given in a specified time. But at the end of the training session, a greater number of participants have increased knowledge and are better able to apply what they have learned. Teachers need quality pre-service training, but they also need on-going training and support from mentors.
Government bodies or funding agencies often talk about the need to foster a quality learning environment, but then provide funding for a large number of people to receive minimal training within a short period of time. Their focus seems to be on quantity not quality. Perhaps, when funds are limited, a more effective approach would be to give solid training to a few and have each commit to provide training to three others and so forth – a pyramid approach.
One of the initial failings of much publicized large-scale technological interventions such as the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Project was the lack of training and support provided to teachers. (Though OLPC may have failed in some ways, the initiative spurred the development of affordable, mini computers for education and the discussion of the criteria to judge the success of educational technology implementation projects.)
However, it must be recognized that in many developing countries there is a shortage of qualified teachers; thus, efforts are placed on quantity not quality. Perhaps massive open online courses (MOOCs) are the answer, but not in the form that is prevalent today as current MOOCs tend to appeal to people who are already well-educated and have access to adequate Internet bandwidth to view well-crafted videos. For those in developing countries, MOOCs may need to be more localized, more practical, and require less bandwidth than those offered elsewhere.
The videos may need to be shorter or consist of several self-contained but inter-related segments. The MOOCs may also need to be part of a blended learning environment that fosters the development of local learning communities so that learners can obtain the face-to-face contact that is part of their rich-cultural heritage.
4. Value Teachers
Teachers should be valued more, yet in many places they are not. Being paid a proper living wage relative to others in an area is part of it, but the other is respect for the profession. People cannot focus on teaching if they must hold several part-time jobs in order to support themselves and their families. Teachers should be looked upon as cornerstones of the society as upon them rests the responsibility of educating the next generation.
Thus, the best minds need to be attracted to teaching. People who genuinely care about helping others need to be attracted to teaching. Yet, some teachers I meet in emerging nations think of teaching as something to do rather than something they want to do. They think of filling heads with content rather that engaging students to solve problems and encouraging them to view the world from different perspectives.
Today, one needs teachers who are willing to try new methods and technology, and willing to fail as they strive to improve themselves. Trying, failing, and succeeding is what learning is all about.
The outcome of any educational technology project in the developing world must have at least two aspects. First, how does the technology or instructional method improve learning and second, how will the technology or method be sustained once initial funding has ended? I personally know a few educational professionals who get excited by the latest trends – currently, the use of tablets or MOOCs.
When I ask them about sustainability, they raise their eyebrows and wonder why I am not focused on the potential merits of a new device or method. Why am I not exciting by the possibilities? I am. But experience has demonstrated over and over that glitzy technology is initially very appealing and accompanied by exaggerated claims of being a “dragon slayer” or a solution to all that ails the educational system; but if it cannot be supported and maintained, it becomes a sophisticated paper weight.
New instructional methods that cannot be sustained frustrate those who spent considerable time to learn them only to find that they can’t maintain them. Resources and time are lost. Developing countries do not have resources to lose or time to waste.
Yes, the implementation of educational technology could facilitate and support effective teaching and learning, but there are many challenges involved in implementing technology in developing countries (see Recurring Issues Encountered by Distance Educators in Developing and Emerging Nations and Developing and Deploying OERs in sub-Saharan Africa: Building on the Present).
We can talk as much as we want about various educational technologies and their potential, but until the above issues are addressed in a significant manner, educational progress will be slow in some parts of the world.
Clayton R. Wright, International Education Consultant, Canada