Selected publications (.pdf)

"Education Change, Leadership and the Knowledge Society" 
Global e-Schools Initiative (GeSCI)  

Survey of ICT in education in the Caribbean
Volume 1: Regional trends & analysis
Volume 2: Country reports
infoDev 

Using technology to train teachers:
Appropriate uses of ICT for
teacher professional developmen
t
 
infoDev (Mary Burns, co-author)

Project evaluation:
Uganda rural school-based telecenters

World Bank Institute
(Sara Nadel, co-author)

The Educational Object Economy:
Alternatives in authoring &
aggregation of educational software 

Interactive Learning Environments
(Purchase or subscription req'd) 

Development of multimedia resources 
UNESCO (Cesar Nunes, co-author)

Real Access/Real Impact
Teresa Peters & bridges.org
(hosted for reference; RIP TMP) 

ON TOPIC:

Learning, technology & development

 

Thursday
Feb192009

I've got your low-cost device right here...

According to Wikipedia, 73 million people in China access the Web using mobile phones. (I've seen figures as high as 170 million, but that would equal the total number of Internet users in China as of 2007. Seems doubtful.) 73 million is about 30 percent of China's 253 million Internet users. A just-released study by Vital Wave Consulting states manufacturers of low-cost computing devices--sub-notebooks, ultraportables, whatever--are targeting the emerging middle classes in countries such as India, China and Indonesia. There are few devices specifically designed for the majority populations of these countries--rural, poor, off-the-grid, and generally faced with choices that make access to information a luxury. 

Why is this? What about the 2 billion or so people at the bottom of the pyramid, don't they comprise a massive market for low-cost computing and Internet access?

I think, perhaps, not. 

According to Richard Fuchs of IDRC, mobile Internet access (or using a mobile phone to access the Internet) is growing faster in developing countries than desktop Internet access. (I met a guy installing 3G in Bengal in 2003. I worked on a project using GPRS in Haryana State that same year. We were "mobile Web" before we knew what it meant.) 

Putting the next nail in the coffin of consumer-oriented low-cost computing in poor countries, according to Simon Batchelor of Gamos Consulting, the introduction of 1 mobile phone into a village in Africa increases productivity 10x, while the second phone increases productivity <1x. Villagers share information. (Both of these nuggets of information have been shared with me directly, I can't find them on the Web.) 

Thus, given the growth of the mobile Web in developing countries, combined with the tendency for the information and communications provided by "first-access" devices to be shared among poor users, well-managed design, manufacturing and distribution of low-cost, low-power computers by commercial entities is not going to target the poorest of the poor, or even the generally poor. Those 2 billion poor people, as a market, can be cut down to maybe 20 million early adopters, because they'll make crucial information available to others in their villages. And even those village-based pioneers of Internet usage are going to--based on cost, based on their living circumstances--opt for mobile-Web devices not tiny laptops. 

Hell, I can update my facebook page using a free application specifically designed for my mobile phone. Which would suggest that the device that's going to crack open the Web make life-critical communications available to the world's rural poor is going to be an iClone.


Tuesday
Feb172009

Child soldiers and learning, 2

An article on former child soldiers in Sierra Leone in the Comparative Education Review (vol 52, no 4) attempts to assess the importance of education to the reintegration of former child soldiers. Child soldiers, as defined by UNICEF, include all boys and girls under age 18 who become part of [national or "irregular"] armed forces whether they are involved as combatants or they serve as cooks, porters, human shields, sexual slaves, messengers, spies or other capacities. 

The article provides a poignant, if partial, view of the aspirations and challenges that former child soldiers face. But in focusing on child soldiers' experiences in schools that are already failing most kids in Sierra Leone, the article fails to move the discussion beyond the obvious or the intuitive.

(Last week I noted that Narun, a former child soldier from Cambodia, had grown up to become a man of many skills, with a relatively secure place in life. At the time that I knew him, in 1998, however, he was unwilling to entertain the idea of a future--he was still in a kind of thrall, despite his success, to his experience of conflict. Narun's did not finish secondary school, his job skills were self-taught in order to respond to what he perceived as immediate opportunity. The connection, as I see it, is that Narun's story is at least non-obvious, it and others like it might provide more nuanced information about success factors in the lives of former child soldiers.)

There about 250,000 child soldiers in 50 countries worldwide (my country _might_ be considered one of these, as 17-year-olds are still allowed to enlist in the US armed forces). Child soldiers face obstacles that range from ostracism to drug use to physical disabilities and PTSD--along with fact that many of them were abducted/conscripted before they mastered literacy, numeracy and other skills. 

The lead author of the article, Theresa Betancourt, has written extensively about children in conflict-ridden and post-conflict societies. In this article, she and her co-authors make a number of worthwhile points: 

  • Many child soldiers are more interested in starting families and earning incomes than in education
  • Child soldiers who are re-enrolled can be very self-conscious about being older than other students
  • "Fast-track" and other separate programs for conflict-affected children can be effective
  • Peer networks and other social networks help former child soldiers function effectively in society
  • Education--basic, vocational and even secondary education--has a role to play

Betancourt et al also provide relevant educational information...

"The statements made by our interviewees and the importance they placed on educational opportunities can only be evaluated in the context of the Sierra Leonean school system."
 

But the closer the authors get to the reality of Sierra Leonean school system, the more apparent it becomes that the problems that child soldiers face are the same as those faced by most of the kids in the country and in many poor countries: 

  • Former child soldiers can't afford to pay school fees and related costs
  • Schools don't shelter them from wind, rain, or other elements
  • Schools don't have benches or books for them to use
  • Their teachers, who are paid only infrequently, often don't show up to teach

These are problems that are familiar to anyone who has visited schools in least-developed or post-conflict countries; they affect the quality of education of all students. As a result, in Sierra Leone, as the authors acknowledge, primary completion hovers at around 65 percent, junior secondary enrolment is only 17 percent of primary enrolment, and senior secondary enrolment is only 8 percent of junior secondary enrolment.

This is a school system that is not working. For anyone. 

Moreoever, with per-capita GDP at US $700, the economy of Sierra Leone isn't working either. (No surprise there.) 

The assurances that young respondents give in interviews, that they view education as vital to their success in life, simply don't match up to the reality of the situation. The schools are lousy, learning--even if the curriculum is designed to be relevant to kids' real lives--is barely measurable and probably not valuable. And at least for the few students who complete junior-secondary school, the probability that their educational achievement will translate into jobs is extremely low. 

The article by Betancourt et al also begs several questions regarding the differences between child soldiers and adult soldiers: levels of drug use, length time as soldiers, rates and severity of PTSD, income levels, incarceration rates and so on. And these  data need to be placed in the context of Sierra Leonean society as a whole.

Please don't get me wrong. Child soldiering is a curse we place on ourselves, and former child soldiers and the societies they are re-entering both deserve the utmost in efforts to smooth reintegration and support these victims as they mature. But these are tasks for specialists, for NGOs, for an imagined Sierra Leonean Veteran's Administration, for a functioning MOE. Fixing broken schools requires another, equally fundamental, and equally contextualized, effort.

Development education -- and economic development in general -- has to be approached holistically. Funding special programs for former child soldiers, in schools where teachers aren't getting paid or aren't showing up, when there are no books, when there is no learning, and where no jobs are awarded to degree holders, will distort school environments unless and until more comprehensive reform efforts are funded. 

Monday
Feb162009

Mobile phones and math learning in North Carolina

The NY Times reports on research supported by Qualcomm showing that kids using smart phones as part of their math learning posted improved test scores in algebra. 

The article also features some points in rebuttal: 

Texting, ringing, vibrating,” said Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of TEa the nation’s second largest teachers’ union. “Cellphones so far haven’t been an educational tool. They’ve been a distraction.”

 

And

Bill Rust, an education and technology analyst at the Gartner Group... said that computers and their larger screens offer a range of teaching opportunities, in addition to helping students to write papers and do research online. “I’d like to see if they can improve writing skills with a cellphone,” he said.

 

But how are the kids using their smart phones? They're recording themselves solving problems and posting the videos to a private social networking site. It's self-reflective, it's focused on the process, not on the solution per se, it's smack-dab in the middle of best-practice math education. (And it's not, at least not necessarily, taking place during class time.) 

Got a problem with that?

 

Saturday
Feb142009

School-to-school (and parent-to-parent) networking

Here's a short report on an OLPC implementation that is _entirely_ designed and implemented by two schools working together--one in KwaZulu Natal and one in San Rafael, California. Is school-to-school the way to revive the sinking OLPC project? Possibly, not, as OLPC has just  ended its support for small (sub-1,000 laptop) donations.

Saturday
Feb142009

More on the Internet & learning in a few Yemeni schools

When I reported that few Yemeni students were collaborating with students outside their schools, my colleague Mrs. Reem Bsaiso at World Links Arab Region replied, essentially, What's the problem with that? If their teachers are guiding collaboration with other students in the same school, the desired technique has been adopted.

A few days later, when I complained to another friend about the all-to-intuitive conclusions of an article on the importance of education to former child soldiers in Sierra Leone,  she said, Oh, it's social science. 

It's taken me some time to figure out why these two statements bug me. Especially since, they're each true on at least one level. 

With the Yemeni students, the problem is that a huge proportion of project "inputs" have focused on the Internet: Getting computers and connections in schools, getting teachers to understand how to use computers and the Internet, getting students to understand etc, maintaining and paying for Internet connections, organizing tele-collaborative projects, and so on. Now, from some perspectives, these inputs notwithstanding, the project is in fact managing to change some teachers' thinking and the kinds of activities that these teachers' kids do in school. Bravo!



From the point of view of the teacher... Well, let's just pretend that I'm a teacher in Say'un, out in rural Wadi Hadrhamout, so my school's Internet connection exists only in theory, or when there's electricity, or when the principal pays the (exhorbitant) phone bill that covers our lousy dial-up connection. And the training that I'm getting--and which is keeping me from taking care of my kids, or managing with my scooter-repair business, or tutoring seniors privately as they prepare for their national exam--emphasizes computer skills and particularly use of the Internet by me and by my students. 

Given that my school Internet connection is lousy, and the Internet is obviously essential, I might not _actually_ finish my training. It's interesting and all, but I don't see how the Internet enable all this in my school. I've got things to do.

And as it happens, a large percentage of teachers don't complete their training. But if these teachers who do finish then guide their kids in collaborative-learning activities,  skipping the Internet research, the vetting of information, the crafting of Powerpoint slides--at least from the important perspective of the student, we are making progress? School is marginally engaging, I'm learning at the same time that I'm socializing, I'm sorting out how to speak in groups and work with others. And leadership, I've got leadership down. It really is OK. 

From alternative but relevant points of view, however, this scenario is not so good. 

Foundation-type donors might be concerned with their Theories of Change. And observing that few teachers complete their training, and that few students ever communicate with someone outside their schools, these donors might conclude that  there's only limited impact. Money might be better spent elsewhere.

Policy makers (Ministers of Parliament, congresswomen and men, for example) might determine that teachers and students aren't very excited about the Internet. There's no point going to visit the telecommunications company, or ministry, to get a reduced rate for schools' Internet connections, if students aren't going to go nuts about it when they go home and talk to their parents.

The administrators at the Ministry of Education might be concerned with the high cost-per-teacher-trained. Perhaps it's US $45 without infrastructure costs, and US $95 with capital and operating costs when those computers and the Internet are included. And of course, once the schools are on their own, they'll cancel their Internet accounts because they have no funds. Perhaps this entire exercise might be made more efficient if we just skipped the technology.

And this is where we arrive back at Ms Bsaiso's original question--Isn't it OK if the teachers are adopting the techniques of collaborative learning even if they aren't using technology to practice those techniques? On arriving there, we also bump into my other friend's dismissal of education research as social science. I've got a couple of points still to make about this, coming up... but in general my understanding of the situation is, well, no.