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

 

Sunday
Feb222009

The end of aid, again?

NY Times magazine profiles the economist Dambisa Moyo, a native of Zambia by way of Harvard and Oxford. Her upcoming book, "Dead Aid," calls (apparently) for an end to overseas development assistance, such as that provided by USAID, DfID, the World Bank, and so on, within five years. Ms. Moyo argues that China, which has received small amounts of aid over the past 40 years, has far outstripped African countries during that period based on hard work, and lots of it.

Think about it this way — China has 1.3 billion people, only 300 million of whom live like us, if you will, with Western living standards. There are a billion Chinese who are living in substandard conditions. Do you know anybody who feels sorry for China? Nobody.


Foreign aid, on the other hand, fosters a do-nothing culture that de-emphasizes entrepreneurialism and self-reliance while encouraging corruption on the part of political leaders and bureaucrats. 

Who could argue with her premises?

(I was driving south in Rwanda once, along the eastern shore of Lake Kivu heading down to the border of Congo. The road was semi-bad, we were traveling about 20 km/hr. In one town, kids lined the street and chanted from their French primers, "Donnez-moi un biscuit, donnez-moi un biscuit." The driver, Felix, stopped our vehicle and said to the children, "You have learned a bad lesson.")


William Easterly of course has pushed similar thinking for the past decade or so, citing evidence that only direct foreign investment--not aid--has been linked to improvements in per-capita GDP. And as I've written elsewhere, governments in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia are less than willing to accept World Bank funding--at least, this was the case in summer of 2008--preferring to look for ways to access the Bank's specialists' expertise and that of Bank consultants rather than assuming debt and the strings attached to it.

Does the convergence of these events and opinions signal that we might be reaching an inflection point in our relationship to overseas assistance?

Sure, yeah, maybe. In the U.S., microfinance (don't think large-scale, such as FINCA and Grameen, think micro-donor-driven kiva.org) is still wildly popular, in part because it's more in line with Americans' self-images and bootstrap ethic. But Easterly, IIRC, also demonstrates that micro-finance doesn't lead to economic development. Individuals benefit, but there's no dissemination of the entrepreneurial spirit and, of much greater importance, no significant increase in the money supply. The micro-entrepreneurs make out (although less clearly and less often than is touted by Grameen), but it's at the expense of other, less-well-capitalized or less-well-run local businesses and individuals.

So, per Easterly and per Moyo, the goal is DFI, direct foreign investment. But it's difficult to imagine that a competition among kleptocratic governments in African and Asian countries and multi-national corporations in rich ones, plus China, is the most effective way to generate real benefits for rural and urban poor. The phrase "Race to the bottom" doesn't adequately encapsulate the environmental, cultural and economic costs of this free-for-all.

(I've seen the tailings that flow out of the Freeport-McMoRan coppermines in Timika, West Papua, still. I've been told that the majority Indonesia shareholder in that mine is a single anonymous individual (nee Suharto). The copper, gold and revenues have unimpeded transit out of Papua. Sure, perhaps there's a trickle-over effect when mine-derived capital is reinvested in an Indonesian mobile-phone company, but the local costs clearly exceed the local benefits.)

The answer, I'm sure, isn't telling poor-country governments to "brace up" for an end of aid and a return to private-sector primacy. Nor is it unloading millions in unwanted aid from above. More from Ms Moyo:

‘‘Dead Aid,’’ as your book is called, is particularly hard on rock stars. Have you met Bono? 
I have, yes, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last year. It was at a party to raise money for Africans, and there were no Africans in the room, except for me.

I contend that the answer lies in a much more nuanced mix of aid and investment, with both types of in-flow subject to greater oversight, much more participation in decision-making by the grassroots, and with measures that balance social spending--on, say, schools and hospitals--with support for small and micro-businesses with large-scale DFI. World Bank personnel, as far as I can tell, have some idea of the problem and of solutions of this style; it's doubtful that they have the skills or mechanisms to pull together such an admixture. 

Admittedly, it's tougher than telling Bono to get stuffed.

Friday
Feb202009

OLPC support for small-scale projects goes ad hoc

As I mentioned earlier, the One Laptop Per Child Foundation is cutting off it's short-lived support for 100- to 1,000-computer projects in schools (otherwise known as pilots). It appears that the reason for this change is either OLPC people are way too busy to fulfill small orders or those small orders never lead to anything bigger (h/t to Wayan at OLPC News): 

"This is a program we would love to support if we had time to do everything — it has produced some lovely stories, and on rare occasions starts a process that leads to larger, lasting commitments."--SJ


Educators and others interested in small-scale purchases of OLPC's Children's Machine XO are advised to: 

  • Buy one or two on eBay
  • Submit a proposal to the
  • Contributors Program, was started to support developers
  • Post a request to the XO Exchange Registry,
  • which re-cycles machines from the Contributors Program

Or as SJ says further on in the post, load the open-source Sugar operating system on a bunch of other low-cost machines. (Like, an Intel Classmate?)

The name of the cancelled program supporting small-scale projects? "Change the World." Or, I guess, don't bother. 

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?