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We Need a Three-legged Stool of Content, Technology and People

Richard Rowe

I am finding the “debate” quite interesting. Here are a few responses to some of the comments that have been submitted so far:

First I am struck by the degree of consensus. But I am not sure what it means: Maybe we just have a wise bunch here or maybe we’re not hearing from other perspectives that powerfully influence education decisions in the developing world.

Second, with regard to eBooks, in our discussion we have not emphasized sufficiently the importance of reinforcing a sense of “agency” in students. Paper-based books are at the low end of the “agency” scale. Simply replacing them with electronic versions is not a leap forward for learning. We all grew up with paper books and most of us love them.

However a key to learning is the process of creation and problem solving including physical manipulation and reshaping of objects. The digital world enables a level of agency and interactivity with words and numbers that can greatly enhance learning. Thus we should not settle for eBooks as they now are. They are too fixed and passive. At the very least we need to be able to include our own and other unpublished content into them and enable us to share with others our comments and suggestions.

Third, I am intrigued by the suggestion that handwriting is a skill that we should preserve. This is a new thought for me and I am not sure how I feel about it. As a lefty, I have found the keyboard to be more user-friendly that the right-handed desks in my schools. I want to think more about this suggestion. Clearly people need to sign their name, fill out a form and write a thank you card. However my guess is that, once the price is right, most cursive writing will involve keyboards and highly accurate voice-to-text software.

Reframing the Discussion

But maybe we should step back, and take a moment to rethink the frame of our discussion. We have tended to circle around today’s version of a specific technology: eBooks, This is the assignment our teacher (Wayan) gave us.

But what would happen if we changed the frame for a moment and ask a different question:

What kinds of systems are needed in the developing world to facilitate learning – at what different levels of learning, for what different skills and knowledge?

Let’s take a “systems” perspective and see where that takes us to achieve a Quality and Universal Basic Education (QUBE).

A Three-legged Stool:

We see immediately that technology, of all kinds, is only one part of the dynamic that leads to QUBE. In simplest terms, a three-legged stool of content, technology and people is required to achieve our goal. But we must differentiate their functions:


Content is dependent upon both skill and subject levels. For the early grades learning systems are needed for acquiring basic knowledge skills such as reading, speaking, arithmetic, problem solving, interpersonal relations. Learning to speak and learning to write require quite different systems. These content variables may, but need not, be included in the same technology.

As I have indicated before, the most crucial need in developing countries is for courseware: a lesson plan, textbook, workbook suite that teachers can, with a minimum of change, use in their classrooms with assurance that most of their students will pass their test. The k-12 Siyavula content in English and Afrikaans, developed by Shuttleworth Foundation in South Africa, is a good example of such content. Since it is free and open on the Internet it can easily be adapted for use in other countries.


I have listed in my opening post the fourteen key device requirements for basic learning. Check them out. I am not aware of any existing technologies that meet all of these requirements. And it is not necessary for one tool to have all. The earliest grades do not necessarily require a keyboard although the later grades do (IMHO). If you have no access to electricity that limits the kinds of technologies you can use. In those cases paper and pencil technology with highly effective content can be excellent. That is what most of us grew up with quite well.

Electricity, but no Internet connection, gives you more options. It seems prudent to assume that for the foreseeable future most students in the developing world will not have dependable Internet connectivity.  So every educational initiative in developing countries that seek to employ technologies to improve their schools should also plan to provide paper and pencil resources for those without access to more advanced technologies.

We also need to give greater attention to technologies that teachers and school administrators can use to increase their effectiveness. We need to explore the substantial benefits that information and communications technologies can bring to education outside the classroom –their use in testing and record keeping and as tools for following students when they move from one place to another.

Here’s one simple example: Lawrence Massachusetts has the largest concentration of Dominicans in the U.S. Their students travel back and forth between the Dominican Republic a lot. Yet schools in neither country have a way to keep track of their students’ progress when they are in the other country. Everyone would benefit form a simple student tracking system both countries could use. The educational return on investment outside the classroom can be great.


The evidence is clear that QUBE cannot be achieved by simply providing cool technology, such as laptops, without parallel and intensive investments in the development of appropriate content and the preparation of the people involved to use that technology well. In contrast to baseball fields, if you build it they will not necessarily come.

However it is not sufficient to simply hire more teachers. They need to become familiar and skilled with using whatever technologies they have. Beyond teachers we need to give attention to school principals, district superintendents and subject matter specialists all need to be comfortable and skilled with whatever technologies are involved in the learning process.


Providing a strong three-legged educational stool requires money. Such funding is a major limiting factor for achieving QUBE in the developing world. The education budgets of most developing countries are grossly insufficient to meet the most basic needs for QUBE. Teachers are often paid intermittently if at all. Few if any books are available for students. Despite the flowery rhetoric one hears about its importance, education is consistently given short shrift in the budget. It is relatively easy to create small jewels of quality learning that one can showcase.

However scaling innovations so that every child, indeed, every person, has access to a quality basic education is much more difficult. Too often we resign ourselves to reaching a limited percentage of people. The rest seem too hard to reach. A large part of the reason for under-investment in education the widespread doubt that more money will make a difference – that things cannot change. Thus for QUBE to be achieved in developing countries at least three things must happen

Working closely with government as a catalyst, giving their leaders credit whenever possible, we must:

  1. Demonstrate highly effective and scalable learning systems that include free and open content supported by a combination of affordable new and old technologies,
  2. Provide clear and convincing evidence of their cost/effectiveness, instead of relying upon faith-based assertions, and
  3. Persuade the stakeholders that QUBE can be achieved economically and quickly.

This last step is the most challenging. It in involves changing the expectations of students, teachers, administrators, politicians, businesses and the public at large and persuading them that the long-term return to them personally as to their whole nation that such investments generate are better than just about any other investment they can make.

These kinds of changes can only be accomplished from the inside of each country. It takes a strong, influential and independent board of directors led by a talented 24×7 social entrepreneur who is irrationally committed to QUBE. Such a three-legged campaign implemented with vigorous persistence and courage, can be successful.

12 Responses to “We Need a Three-legged Stool of Content, Technology and People”

  1. My “three-legged stool” tends to be People, Process & Technology. It seems to me that Content is actually a by-product of these three elements (the Process there being Instructional Design). Either way, I essentially agree: we need to take more of a “systems approach.” And I guess I should be heartened to know that there are so many of us “systems” folks out there working in the ICT4E space 🙂

  2. An element that you could highlight to further the metaphor is glue. What is the glue that will bring these pieces together: Buy-in from local communities.

    As you mentioned before, creating educational materials that are locally sensitive are a great goal, but without the buy in from local groups it will be difficult for them created, edited, implemented, used, and revised.

    This has to be done at a local level, adapting to each individual environment. It would require implementation and design experts working hand in hand with local stakeholders. This is another place where resources could be applied, for taking this on is an immense task.

    • Todd, I agree with your point. One thing that makes the task easier, however, is the presence in most developing countries, like it or now, of examinations systems at the primary school and secondary school leavings that determine your educational future. These exams loom large for students and parents as well as teachers. So, any content that improves performance on those standard measures tends to override the more local cultural differences.

      Notwithstanding all of that, however, the more customized courseware can be for different settings and individuals, the better.

  3. An element that you could highlight to further the metaphor is glue. What is the glue that will bring these pieces together: Buy-in from local communities.

    As you mentioned before, creating educational materials that are locally sensitive are a great goal, but without the buy in from local groups it will be difficult for them created, edited, implemented, used, and revised.

    This has to be done at a local level, adapting to each individual environment. It would require implementation and design experts working hand in hand with local stakeholders. This is another place where resources could be applied, for taking this on is an immense task.

  4. Manish Upadhyay

    I can't agree more. I would like to add couple of more dimensions to Content, Technology and People, especially to deal with systems needed in developing countries like India. I don't know if QUBE can be achieved just by grants and big loans, instead are there models where Affordable (A)QUBE based models should be looked at? i.e. in this model there is enough motivation for learners to buy education services at a really affordable rates. This will do away with Govt./ multilateral bodies based push to a customer pull based system. This will make the process more efficient and open to less abuse. Taking an example from poorest of regions in India, shampoo sales in a small sachet accounts for more than a third of the biggest shampoo companies revenues – so why can't this be replicated in the education domain?

    The Govt. / multilateral bodies should instead focus on creating friendly policies/ support mechanisms to help new innovative education companies to come out with cost effective educational models/ products.

    • Manish,

      I agree totally with adding Affordable to QUBE. AQUBE. However privately funded education inherently favors the relatively well to do as distinct from the poor. And, as you know, there are millions of the latter in India as well as many other countries around the world. OLE is founded on the principal that every child, no matter where or how poor, has an inherent right to a quality basic education. That cannot be accomplished by the private sector.

      NGO's like OLE can be catalysts to "demonstrate, document and persuade" government to scale those AQUBE systems that are appropriate for their country. But scaling of a quality basic education to all children, and all adults for that matter, requires a public commitment and public funds. It is quite understandable that many have given up trying to make that happen. But the alternative is that tens of millions of children are deprived of this basic right. We must not let that happen.

  5. Manish,

    One more point. In the U.S. there has been a lot of support for educational vouchers. The idea is that parents and students can take their tax dollars and spend them on the school of their choice, public or private. The voucher rarely covers the full cost of the schools they choose and they end up paying the difference out of their pocket — the "market system." While such a system is quite popular among the upper and some of the middle classes in the U.S., where it has been tried it has had the effect of draining public funds from the poorer neighborhoods. Those families unable to pay a share of the costs end up sending their children to impoverished schools and with other children in the same circumstances.

    Charter schools, on the other hand, have been more effective. These schools are fully funded by their governments but "chartered" outside of the regular public education system. Typically charter school children are chosen by lot. This provides a degree of competition without the downside of deselecting the most impoverished children.

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  7. Manish Upadhyay

    Thanks Richard for sharing your perspective on AQUBE. I like the idea of vouchers and Charter schools. The only issue with developing countries like India is the mass corruption practices involved in the govt. funded schemes. For every dollar spent by the govt. exchequer only 0.3 dollar actually reaches the target. I sometimes wonder that private companies with social bent can do wonders if 0.7 dollars are given as startup loans to them. In India govt. is a miserable failure when it comes to execution.

    I would even dare to say that 90% of NGOs are not created for “social” reasons and their intentions are not benevolent! That leaves us only with private companies as the sole warrior for this cause.

  8. Nothing that comes online is free.There can never be free open online content. The cost of downloading some of the purportedly free resources is most times crazy .
    This modern day slavery and new fangled lie by Open and Free Content 'social entrepreneurs" who take the short cut via Internet Service Providers 's and laugh all the way to the bank by pay per click and hefty downloading costs is derailing the very goals of QUBE.

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  10. Yesterday I had a long talk with a enthusiastic volunteer who wanted to develop a digital library for needy students. It was a surprise to him that I did not consider Internet connectivity to be of high importance.Drawing on this post, I told him the first thing he should focus on is quality, curated content. This is the most important component of a digital library. Better if that content is local to the school (offline) vs. cloud-based content hosted far away. That would increase access reliability and reduce (Internet) costs. Best if that local content is OER so the school isn't paying reoccurring fees for it. This was a bit of a shock to the volunteer and totally changed the outlook he had for the project from one that was equipment focused to one that was content (and learning) focused.


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