public diplomacy

EdTech for the Third World: Tech Tools

by Mercedes Bell

Access to quality education offers students in the Third World a chance to improve their lives, careers, and health, and can even give them the resources they need to improve their communities with economic growth and political stability. But without the tools to reach quality education, Third World students can’t enjoy these benefits.

In our organization’s first installment of this series, we discussed barriers to access in education, and the potential that lies in giving students and communities access to online and mobile resources. Even with growing worldwide connectivity, students need access and tools to get to them. Online learning centers, computers, tablets, and mobile devices can get them connected to life-changing and community-boosting educational resources.

(Note: You can find the third article in this series on distance learning here.)

Tech-Equipped Learning Centers

Third World schools and communities can find great support in tech-equipped learning centers that provide full scale solutions for learning from laptops to teacher technology training. These centers serve not just students, but the entire community in learning technology, and learning through technology.

Programs like the Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership (DCGEP) improve Third World schools with technology resources, as well as video programming and teacher training for implementing the program. These learning centers typically result in an increase in student learning as well as improved teacher effectiveness. But it’s not just students that benefit: the DCGEP program reports that the learning centers also increase community access to information overall as they function as informational hubs in the community.

Similarly, the Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) creates community technology and learning centers in Africa, bringing tech labs to developing communities along with extensive programs and support. In YTF’s Owerri Digital Village, the foundation offers after-school programs that focus on developing technology skills and fostering interest in STEM fields. The village extends to educating the community with initiatives like RLabs, which gives students access to tech tools and education in ethics, sexual health, and personal responsibility. The students are also able to use social media to share personal stories and take advantage of health counseling.

The World Computer Exchange (WCE) provides not just computers and technology, but the support to make them useful in the developing communities they serve. Along with computers, WCE delivers educational content and curriculum on agriculture, health entrepreneurship, and even water and energy. The program also ensures that teachers will know how to use the technology and content by providing staff and teacher training, as well as ongoing tech team support.

Spread of Computers

Computers provide students with the best that educational technology has to offer. Laptops and PCs enabled with Internet connections, content, and software can give students the power to explore self learning. With an Internet connected computer, students are able to access every educational resource available online, from open courseware projects to educational tutorials. They can also be used to run educational software, making them the ideal learning tools for students in developing countries.

One Laptop Per Child is the most famous Third World computer program for students, and they’ve worked to create and donate affordable, rugged laptops to Third World students. Each child is able to enjoy their own computer as an exploration and learning tool, and sometimes, even a source of light for the home. The laptops connect to one another, and are able to share a single point of Internet access together. Power is supplied through a variety of sources, including solar and human power, and each laptop comes pre-loaded with learning software. More than 2 million laptops have been distributed to children worldwide through this program.

Computer access that offers 1:1 tools for students is ideal, but even shared resources can be successful. Small islands in the Caribbean have found success in using moveable laptop carts that can be moved from one classroom to another. Instead of a stationary computer lab, the schools are able to integrate the laptops into classroom learning while making the most out of the resources they have.

Expanded Access to Tablets and E-Readers

Textbooks are typically in short supply in the Third World. A Brookings Institute study indicates that 3/4 of schools in southern African countries do not have a basic textbook for math or reading. Even those that do have textbooks may have outdated resources, as books are updated regularly, but Third World countries can’t afford the new books. They may not even be at the correct learning level, or relevant to the curriculum. With tablets and e-readers, schools are able to provide students with easily updatable devices that hold multiple books at once. The initial investment cost is higher than a single book, but thanks to donation initiatives and open resources, tablets and e-readers are a surprisingly capable learning resource for Third World students.

The Worldreader program shares Kindle e-readers and digital books with the developing world. As of February 2013, this organization has delivered nearly half a million e-books to sub-Saharan Africa. Each Kindle can hold up to 1,500 e-books, offers a long battery life, and takes advantage of digital subscription services, as well as open book projects like the Open Textbook Initiative. The Worldreader program also provides for the development and digitization of local books, and many of the books in the Worldreader program are from African authors. Students who participated in Worldreader’s Ghana pilot study showed a marked improvement on their English test scores.

The founders behind One Laptop Per Child have branched out to a new device: the tablet. Although OLPC has been successful, the program stopped short of teaching students how to use the devices. Now, through One Tablet Per Child, founder Nicholas Negroponte expects to see kids teaching themselves. As tablets are intuitively easy to use, children can quickly figure out how to interact with it. The low cost, solar powered tablet is designed to spread literacy and learning, and is delivered to children with no instructions, but pre-installed with educational apps and learning tools to be discovered. Children in the initial phase have responded as expected and show encouraging use. An average of 57 apps are utilized each day, and some children have already learned to recite the alphabet.

Mobile Phones Setting the Example in the Tech World

Initiatives like OLPC and Worldreader are doing a great job to spread technology and learning with feature rich ed tech tools, but there’s only so much these organizations can do at once. A strong alternative to computer and tablet devices is the ubiquitous cell phone. The International Telecommunications Union reports that many developing communities already have widespread cell phone connection and use, with 87% global saturation of mobile subscriptions. And, most of the world is able to access 2G or greater, with access for 90% of the world’s population. Clearly, mobile learning is a resource that is ripe for utilization.

Worldreader isn’t just providing tablets to Third World students; they’re turning e-books into resources that can be read on nearly any mobile device, even low end feature phones like the ones prevalent in the developing world. Partnered with app developer biNu, books and stories offered through Worldreader Mobile can be displayed on any device running Java, Android, or Blackberry in any language and even feature a translate tool. The books use minimal data, so readers save on bandwidth charges. Readers can choose from thousands of books, including public domain classics, short stories, and life-saving information on HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other health issues.

While most programs target students directly, UNESCO has started a project that educates Pakistani teachers through mobile phones. In addition to conventional training, the teachers will be sent up to 750 mobile messages on morality, health, language, and teacher training. Organizers believe that this unconventional training is faster and more attractive than other methods and hope that the project can be replicated globally.

Even without the use of a cellular or Internet connection, mobile devices can be powerful teaching tools. Fireside Pictures created a resource dubbed The Learning Village built simply on iPods, solar chargers, and pre-loaded videos that were sent to Haiti. The team created five videos in native Haitian language with information including shapes, colors, and the alphabet. These videos were loaded onto shared iPods and delivered to children. Before their use, students were given a pre-exam to measure their knowledge and shown how to use the iPods to watch the learning videos. One month later, the test was administered again, and the students showed an average score increase of 44% without any formal teacher present. The students even created their own informal discussion groups to talk about what they’d learned on the iPods, indicating that this learning resource proved to be small but powerful.

What You Can Do

Initiatives spreading ed tech tools to the Third World are making a difference, but with assistance, they can do even more. Financial contributions, donations of used electronics, and even your time and talent are welcomed. Here’s how you can help:

  • Send your old devices to developing nations.Don’t let your old cell phone or e-reader rot away in a drawer when a student could use it to read classics, learn mathematics, or understand how HIV is spread. Put your old electronics to good use by donating them to organizations that can get them in the hands of students in developing countries. In addition to donating your personal devices, you can organize a drive to encourage your community to collect unused tech devices for Third World students. Youth for Technology accepts nearly any kind of technology device, including desktop computers, laptops, printers, fax machines, and digital cameras. World Computer Exchange also accepts computers, laptops, and tech gear, as well as gas generators, software, and parts. You can send your working Apple handheld device to Fireside International. They accept iPods, iPads, and iPhones for video learning.
  • Give creatively.Even if you’re short on cash or devices, you can support these organizations with your time and resources. Youth for Technology accepts volunteers in a variety of capacities, including work as mentors, trainers, and business consultants. OLPC can always use interns, translators, and tech experts to provide support and develop software for laptops. World Computer Exchange offers volunteers opportunities to work on the ground or refurbish computers. Do you know an author or publisher? Encourage them to contribute e-books to Worldreader so that they can be shared with budding readers in Africa.

Teachers and quality education are in short supply in the Third World. That’s why it’s important to maximize the resources that are available to young learners in these communities. The Third World just doesn’t have enough teachers to go around, but with ed tech tools, we can give teachers and students the resources they need to make the most of what they have.

A version of this article appeared on OnlineUniversities.com.

About Take Five

Take Five seeks to invigorate the Public Diplomacy discussion with contributions from a wide range of authors, from experienced Public Diplomacy figures to scholars and young professionals newly venturing into the field. We are venue for fresh ideas about the way that America conducts its diplomatic relations abroad and about the impact of current policies. Social Media, Digital Diplomacy, and other aspects of Global Communication are also a central focus.

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