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Balancing Content, Technology, and People for Quality Basic Education

Richard Rowe

It is hard to imagine a tenable future in a world that denies its children an education. Thus to make a viable future possible we must ensure a Quality Basic Education for all – especially for our younger ones. Since our traditional ways have failed to even approach that goal, we must try some new ways. This will require a three-legged stool that:

  1. provides a global network of quality, free and open k-12 courseware,
  2. enables teachers everywhere to use innovative approaches to learning and
  3. employs suitable and effective information and communications technologies.

These three legs must be balanced and closely linked to achieve a quality and universal basic education.

The growing impact of free and open educational resources


Content is king. Yet today high quality k-12 courseware that is aligned with educational standards, as distinct from interesting bits and pieces of content, is rare. Over the next few years, spurred by the Internet and Creative Commons licensing, high quality, free and open courseware will become increasingly available to schools in the developing world. Such resources are readily adaptable to local conditions and are inexpensive to produce and distribute. The evaluative feedback that authors receive from users enables these resources to be improved continuously.

Intellectual property. We can expect educators increasingly to use the Creative Commons, “for attribution, non-commercial” license for the basic educational resources they develop. Most are not in it for the money. Thus it will be difficult for commercially produced educational materials employing digital rights management systems to compete with open source content. As a result for-profit publishers of basic educational resources will perforce modify their business models.

Global Library Network. To facilitate the availability of free high quality content, the Open Learning Exchange is developing a federated network of national libraries comprising free and open k-12 content, including online interactive, offline interactive and paper-based materials. Emphasis is being given to contextualized and printable courseware packages complete with lesson plan, textbook and work book that teachers can download and use “as is” in their classrooms.

The potential educational roles for eBooks and other ICT devices in the developing world.

Technology is powerful. And it can be seductive. Some have assumed that quality content and well-prepared teachers, to the extent they are needed, will somehow follow the introduction of laptops in classrooms. However learning is not automatically enhanced by the distribution of cool technologies. Although they can have important roles in improving education, it is naive to believe that by themselves technologies will change education.

eBooks have a limited role. eBooks can deliver information. However more interactive tools are far more effective in helping learners develop the skills they need to manage information, physical objects and interpersonal relationships. Tools that support the key learning principles of immediate positive and negative feedback, mental and physical manipulation, standards-based practice, curiosity and creativity provide learners with the crucial experiences of agency and competence. Interactive content can be highly effective not only for developing the basic skills of reading, writing, speaking languages and performing basic arithmetic calculations but also for stimulating a positive framework about learning that lasts a lifetime.

We’re not quite there yet. Today’s eBooks, such as Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader are essentially one-way delivery systems. Low cost cell phones have many interactive features and they are rapidly becoming ubiquitous throughout the world. But so far they lack effective learning materials. PDA’s, while more expensive, are even better suited for learning basic educational skills. Laptops are dropping in price but are still too expensive. And in those places where laptops have been employed extensively, such as the state of Maine, their results have not lived up to initial hopes.

Key Device Requirements for Basic Learning

Content for cell phones and PDA’s. We should focus on developing high quality courseware for cell phones and low-cost PDA’s, especially for the earlier levels of learning. They are widely available and inexpensive compared with other devices. Other tools specifically designed learning skills are continually under development. The TeacherMate, developed by Innovations for Learning is one such example; designed like a handheld game console it meets the basic learning requirements for early elementary levels, including its moderately low cost.

The Total Cost. Even as hardware costs decline, however, the costs for technical support, and maintenance will continue to be significant. All things considered, scaling ICT devices for all students remains outside the current financial capacity of most developing countries. The situation is only compounded by a serious shortfall in both high quality content and well-prepared teachers. While it is tempting to use technology to create a few centers of educational excellence, that does not satisfy the vital need to reach every child.

Paper-based content. It follows that, for now, strategies for achieving universal Quality Basic Education must not focus primarily upon ICT’s in the classroom, as attractive as that approach may be. It will be years before ICTs in the hands of every teacher, let alone every child will be affordable. Technologies can, however, be used now to provide teachers and students high quality paper-based lesson plans, textbooks and workbooks at low cost. The Siyavula Project of the Shuttleworth Foundation in South Africa has created an impressive such system for the development, localization and distribution of its printable free and open k-12 courseware. Such an approach is scalable.

An Important Demonstration

Notwithstanding the obvious problems involved we have much to learn about how best to employ ICT’s in schools. The Open Learning Exchange of Nepal (OLE Nepal) provides an excellent model for exploring the introduction of ICT’s in a developing country. The OLE Nepal team is now in its second stage of a carefully designed program involving student-owned laptops. Four thousand students in six widely dispersed rural districts of Nepal are using student-owned XO laptops with interactive content developed in Nepal.


OLE Nepal is documenting their process of creating interactive content, done in collaboration with the Nepal’s national Curriculum Development Center, and their extensive preparation of teachers and villagers. Both formative and summative assessments are providing evidence of the strengths and weaknesses of their approach. Initial indications are that students, teachers and villagers, including those in neighboring villages, are enthusiastic about the laptops and are asking for more content. We have yet to see how this approach can be scaled to the millions of students in Nepal.


I envision a world where virtually everyone has access to a quality basic education that is aligned with their capabilities and interests. That was a distant dream a decade ago. Today high quality, free and open digital and paper-based learning resources are spreading rapidly throughout the world. A plethora of ICT innovations for learning is becoming available and affordable. Teachers, principals and education leaders are improving their skills.

Our biggest challenge is to align and balance the three key components of change – content, technology and people. When that is done, the UN’s Second Millennium Development Goal and Quality Basic Education for all will become much more than a dream. While achieving that goal will still be an enormous and complex challenge, we will then be on a path that will make it possible.

33 Responses to “Balancing Content, Technology, and People for Quality Basic Education”

  1. An excellent first post to this debate!

    Just to mix things up a bit, I thought I'd pick up on Richard's point about 'eBooks' to eniven teh debate ehre. I certainly take his point that more interactive tools are more effective, and that eBooks are essentially one-way transmission devices. But, if the price gets low enough, won't one-way transmission devices like eBooks be a step up from the current situation in many places?

    • Mike, I agree and should have said a bit more about the beneifts of eBooks. At the right price point and with access to electrical power (not there yet) they can be a great substitute for paper books. This can be especially helpful once the basic skills of learning are more or less in place. I think the hybrid solution make a lot of sense. At the beginning elementary grades employ a simple, low cost but interactive tool like the
      TeacherMate. Bring in eBooks once reading has been established and then a tool for writing and exploring the Cloud can be added soon after. The inherent advantages of interactive learning devices are great provided effective content is available and they can be scaled. However whatever we do must be scalable. We cannot accept cool little pilots that leave the vast majority behind.

      • While I love me some technology, I feel a personal unease with children leaning to read via eBooks. I feel they should tsart with paper books, all for reasons I understand are more romantic than real, but still valid none the less. Books make you realize the value of knowledge, where eBooks have yet to convey this.

        But eBooks are the key to get greater knowledge. There is no way we can replicate physical libraries with the speed and ease of electronic ones, but how might we achieve this when paper book publishers are so afraid of electronic media?

  2. As currently implemented in many education settings in rural parts of developing countries, PCs are (unfortunately) essentially one-way transmission devices that are also used for keyboarding and mouse practice. Single purpose devices like eBooks might mean that this can be done at a lower cost, and with less technical support requirements. Of course, mobile phones may offer even bettwr utility in this regard (especially where they support basic interactive functionality like you see on things like the Teachermate mentioned in the post above). But the major selling point of comptuers and phones for many people in a general sense — their *connectivity* — is exactly what makes them unwanted in many educational settings, as connecting to others is seen by many teachers (again unfortunately) as a type of *distraction*.

    • Mike, I am surprised about your comment that "connectivity" is considered a negative by many teachers. It is true that I have seen teachers, at the univeristy level as well as in the lower grades, require their studnets to shut their laptops during their lectures. (They may simply seem to be taking notes.) But un-connected laptops can be nearly as diversionary as connected ones. My general impression is that teachers in the developing world,as well as students, highly value connectivity. Rwanda, for example has promised to bring broadband to every one of its schools by 2011. Most schools don't have connectivity not because they don't want it but because it is not available.

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  3. For this reason, and because the concept of an eBook is a simple-to-grasp one, many ministries of education are terribly interested in eBooks, which they feel will help them to cut costs while not upsetting the status quo. I am not saying that this is a good thing, mind you (I'll leave it for others to chime in on that topic), just that this is a line of thinking that one hears quite a bit.

    • Interesting, Mike. While you may well be right, I haven't heard that preference for eBooks as a way to maintain the status quo. . I am much more concerned about those places that are trying to bring laptops and connectivity to everyone without having thought through how they will trian their teachers to make these things useful, where the content will come from and how to pay for it when they try to scale to everyone.

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  4. One more comment, Mike. You mentioned keyboards. Let's keep in mind the critical importance of learning to write well. While not so important in the earliest grades, communicating with others is a critical component of a quality basic education. In today's technology that means sooner than later students need to graduate from paper and pencil to a connected keyboard. Which makes me think that we should be thinking about diffierent kinds of technologies for different stages of learning.

    • Stylus would be nice, but I don't think the technology is there yet. Its certainly not going to give the same feedback as pencil & paper (visual clues, texture, etc). But I don't think we need to worry about children not being able to write. There is still so much written communication needed in the offline world.

    • Absolutely, a critical point. On a related (and perhaps somewhat tangential) note: I do wonder about the cognitive effect of early stage attention to keyboarding, at the expense of writing by hand. Learning to write by hand is difficult. Might this difficulty may be important in some way to the develop of certain skills associated with literacy? (I am admittedly way out of my area of competence here, and I suspect it shows!) When learning Chinese (for example), the manual repetition required to learn each character is considered fundamental to the understanding of the meaning of each character and to learning the language. (Or at least so said my Chinese teachers; whether this is actually backed up by findings from cognitive nueroscience I have no idea.) Does a quick move to keyboard short circuit some of this understanding and learning? (Of course, as handwriting recognition and input devices continue to improve, this queation may be of decreasing importance … if it is even of any importance today).

  5. It would be nice to think of a unified and high-quality content broadcasting rather than interactive for the developing countries. Though cell phone is available and provides connectivity there are many pitfalls using cellphone in classroom (school) environment. Economically also it is not viable to teach individual student with centralized content and individual devices (whether cell or laptop)… the connectivity charges will make it nonviable.

    Think of uplifting the classroom rather than individual kid. Single device for a classroom of 20-40 students is more realizable than thinking of individuals.

  6. Just a quick point of clarification (in case it matters — it may well not):

    Because of the limits on the number of characters in each comment, I had to break my comment above into multiple comments, which may have confused things a little. My reference to 'a critical point' was aactually a response to Richard's comment, and not the comment from Wayan that appears immediately before my comment in the thread. (Wayan's point was a good one as well, of course.)

    Wayan, is there any way to lengthen the number of characters allowed per comment?

  7. I very much agree with Richard comments, a good use of effective technology – content – People can surely improve the quality of education. However in many developing countries there is a serious danger that new technologies and Open education courseware strengthen and benefit learning and teaching for few privileged (learners and teachers) living within appropriate environment and having access conditions? Rethink, emphasizing and implementing low costs scalability models is crucial for equity in BE. OLEs are taking a good direction on this.

  8. There are several trade-offs involved here:
    ** One is the trade-off between filtered and unlimited access to the resources of the Web, educational and otherwise. I tend towards the unlimited end of the scale but fully acknowledge the need for some degree of filtering, especially for younger children.
    ** The second trade-off is one of cost, scale and scope. Paper textbooks and good for cost, OK for scale but poor for scope; E-Books are OK for cost, OK for scale and OK for scope; PCs are poor for cost, OK for scale but great for scope.

    • Tim, I think we may be approaching the time when eBooks will compete with paper on cost. We are not there yet but it is a matter of itme. A lot depends upon one's goals. If scaling quickly to all school-aged children is a priority then we cannot simply wait for the technology to reach the price point that virtually everyone can have access to it. Thus paper and pencil are important transition technologies for many for the next several years.

      The challenge is more than simply cost, however. We have a lot to learn about how to bring teachers to the point that they are effective with technology and there are huge gaps in content that is effrective. As I indicated earlier, we must invest heavily in the development of content and people in order to scale education to all children.

      • Thanks for this wise and balanced view. In the discussion, which I just joined, I see a back and forth movement between proposals that imply empowering children directly (e.g. like the XO) and those directed at empowering teachers. If one thing fifty years of "educational technology" has taught us, it is that trying to bypass the teachers doesn't work and doesn't make sense in the long run for educational quality.

        So, assuming advanced technologies will in the immediate future be on the margins in the poorest countries–reaching those currently unreached and providing pockets of excellence–how do we get the best value for money? What kinds of programmatic and technological innovations will provide teachers with the tools and motivation to improve the quality of education?

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  9. alex raises some good questions. How, in the immediate future, can technology improve the quality of education in the developing countries?

    For one, we need to look beyond the classroom. Let me give you one example. In the 60's I was the director of the Test Development and Research Office of the West Africanh Examinations Council. My job was to introduce major improvements in the examinations system. When I arrived the primary school leaving exams as well as the School Certs were collected from around the country in the capital city (Bathhurst, Freetown, Accra, Lagos) and then shipped to the UK where they were read and scored in Londaon and Cambridge. Then shipped back to the respective capitals and trucked to the schools. The process took a full year. As a result students were in limbo for a year, waiting for their results. We introduced an IBM 360 computer, some scanners and began using multiple choice exams. As a result we cut the lapse time to one month with much greater relability in the results. And saved a lot of money in the process. That use of information technology had an immediate and dramatic impact upon education. Each country is different but we should invest more time and resources tihinking out of the "student with laptop" box, or even the "teacher with laptop" box, as attractive as that notion is.

    Let's take another example. A few weeks ago in Kigali Rwanda, we met with the head of the Rwanda English Action Project (REAP). Their task is enable the majority of teachers in Rwanda who do not speak or read English how to use English to teach their students, as has been mandated by their government. We suggested that the TeacherMate, developed for Chicago schools by Innovations for Learning, could be adapted for use by teachers to learn English. That low-cost device has been highly effective in Chicago for ESL classes and Innovations for Learning has developed web-based software for creating new content for the TeacherMate. This could have a powerful effect upon the quality of teaching in Rwanda at a fraction of the cost of providing students with laptops. The ESL content could, a the same time, incorporate some pedagogical guideliness and practices that would enable them to be more effective teachers.

    These are just two examples that come immediately to mind. With a little bit of effort and some brainstorming in-country, many creative uses of ICT can be developed that will have a high return on their investment.

    • Manish Upadhyay

      I am working on a technology based English language program in India. We have evolved the solution from pure online to a blended learning to a current model where in the solution empowers the trainers and the learners substantially. For the trainer we have created ILT (Instructor Led Traning) Software which presents the concepts and scenarios in a completely multimedia way. Cue cards for each screen so that the trainer has a verbatim screenwise reference, trainer manual that prepares him/her before the class. For the learners a courseware for the class interaction and self paced learning software for post class practice. We have delivered the solution to 50,000 learners, the course duration is typically 100 hrs and the per learner cost is in the range of 30-50 USD per learner.

      Can you please give me more details about the Teacher Mate product – this looks very interesting!!

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