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Technology: a Catalyst for Education in Developing Countries?

Obtaining a quality education is the foundation to improving people’s lives, and as such, inclusive and quality education for all is listed as one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In recent years, significant progress has been made towards increasing access to education and increasing enrolment rates in schools, particularly for women and girls. But bolder efforts need to be made before education is available to all children, regardless of gender, income, order of birth or nationality. While children in the developed world have access to the very best in education opportunities, including lavish campus amenities, access to a broad range of public and private schools, access to a private tutor or Grad Coach, overseas “cultural immersion’ opportunities and thousands of dollars’ worth of technological devices for personal use in class, not everyone is quite so lucky.

A deplorable 57 million children remain out of school – with more than half of those children living in sub-Saharan Africa – and 103 million youth worldwide still lack basic literacy skills, with more than 60 percent of those children girls. The problem is intensified in developing countries, where few children graduate from primary school and even fewer from secondary school. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 6 percent of eligible students have access to higher education and in Ghana in particular only 50 percent of children graduate from grade 5.

The reasons for this are varied. There is a widespread lack of educated, qualified teachers; a lack of adequate classrooms or schools; tuition fees and school supplies are too expensive for many families; wherever there are schools the distance and cost required to get there each day are prohibitive for students; sending children to school to be educated takes away from their ability to earn money; and employment prospects upon graduation are rarely good enough to justify the investment in education. Children living in conflict zones find it too dangerous to travel to school – if their schools remain open, that is. Many get taken over to be used as hospitals or battlefields. One in 4 of the world’s out-of-school children live in crises-affected countries. Disease, gender inequalities and culture also play their part in preventing much of the developing world from accessing a quality education.

But there is one instrument that has been hailed the solution to the developing world’s woes: technology. Increasingly, tech is coming to be seen as an all-powerful development tool, capable of achieving global targets in education. As children around the world become more and more familiar with the internet, mobile phones and computers, the impact upon education is becoming more and evident. In a series of studies that explored how young people use information and communication technologies in Zambia, South Africa and Vietnam, UNICEF found that 40 percent of rural Vietnamese children now use the internet for educational purposes, with 34% sending school-related text messages. But certain technologies and platforms are helping in even bigger and better ways than this.

Major tech companies include Apple and Dell are constantly experimenting with new technologies in order to increase children’s access to education in the developing world. Dell, for example, has developed a Youth Learning program designed to give disadvantaged youth better opportunities via technology, directly impacting more than 561,000 young people to date. Of those who have taken part in the program, 50 percent have used technology for the first time as a result of the program, confirming the program has the power to reach youth who may not otherwise get access to such technologies, experiences and skills. Initially launched in India, the program now operates in 15 countries across the world.

Then you have MobiStation: a solar-powered “classroom in a suitcase”. This multimedia tool is supporting education both inside and outside of schools, featuring off-line educational content that can be used by teachers who otherwise have no resources. Equipped with a solar-powered laptop, a projector and an audio system, MobiStation can be used to project school books, teaching videos and other digital materials in any environment. What a wonderful solution to the problem of resources in countries that cannot afford otherwise them. If these machines could be replicated on a wider scale, funded by individuals or corporate sponsors, just think how many more children could be educated in the developing world.

Ever heard of MOOCS? ‘Massive open online courses’ are favoured by the world’s largest international organizations including the United Nations as a means of providing free, online, accessible education to anyone wishing to study. They provide an affordable and flexible way to learn new skills and deliver quality educational experiences at scale, helping 11 million students around the world learn new skills and achieve payable competence to date. Then in Nairobi, a durably built, brick-sized connectivity device known as BRCK is being used to provide connectivity where electricity and internet connections are unavailable or unreliable. In Kenya, the education ministry is funding a major digital literacy campaign, spending over US$173.5 million on tablets for primary school pupils who previously had none. In industrialized or developed countries iPads are a tool used regularly in the classroom, but in developing countries lower cost Android tablets or e-book readers are being increasingly viewed the solution to the lack of textbooks available in classrooms. In Indonesia, teachers are using low-cost video cameras to record their peers in order to jointly review and discuss pedagogical approaches. This is changing professional development in ways never before possible, causing monumental changes in countries where teachers are rarely qualified or have not received sufficient training on pedagogical approaches to teaching.

The opportunities technology can offer the developing world are innumerable, and those opportunities are constantly evolving as technology does. If we can learn how to sufficiently harness all available technologies and scale them out to all developing countries, we may witness a miracle and see education available to all children before 2020.

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