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12 Design Influences for ICT Solutions to Better Support Children

In both the developing and developed world there has been increasing debate about the role of teachers in the 21st century, particularly in the context of widening access to internet enabled smartphones, laptops, tablets and the wealth of online learning materials and approaches that these new devices support.
The “How Can ICTs Support Better Development Impacts for Children?” session of the London Technology Salon gathered over 30 decision makers and thought leaders to join lead discussants David Hollow (Director of Jigsaw Consult) and Linda Raftree (Senior Advisor, Innovation, Transparency and Strategic Change at Plan International) to explore questions such as:

  • Will new technologies transform child education and learning in developing countries – or merely represent expensive content delivery systems which remain out of reach for the majority of students?
  • Should the objective of ICT-assisted learning be about replacing traditional teachers, or about supplementing and augmenting the traditional classroom experience?
  • How can we exploit and mobilize the enabling aspects of ICT whilst ensuring that this innovative learning environment is both inclusive of students with disabilities and effectively safeguards children from newfound and emerging vulnerabilities associated with exposure to new technologies?

Certainly it is clear that innovative learning technologies and devices have the capacity to change how and what is taught in classrooms across the developing world – and yet it is hard to imagine that even the most ground breaking ICT-related approaches can make much of an impact without motivated and dedicated students supported by high quality and committed teachers. Above all, technology should always be viewed as a “means” to achieved defined benefits and learning outcomes – not as an end itself. Below is a summary of the morning’s discussion:

1. Lack of a robust evidence base in the field of ICT-assisted learning initiatives

One key challenge is the absence of a strong evidence base surrounding the impact of ICT on learning outcomes for children in developing countries. Part of the problem is the chicken and egg scenario that new or innovative approaches will by definition have a limited available evidence base until they are scaled up and implemented more widely – and yet arguments for up scaling will often be assessed on the basis of how much evidence is already available.

2. The limitations of “one per child” style initiatives

On the other hand there is a growing evidence base which calls into question the value of simply inserting technology into classrooms via large scale, supplier-led, mass rollouts of mobile devices, tablets or laptop/desktop computers. USAID are currently running a study on the impact of tablets in classrooms which has so far failed to demonstrate any significant impact.

3. The power of gizmos versus the value of textbooks?

In 2008-09 the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative in Ethiopia put in a bid for $2 billion from the World Bank in order to provide all primary school children with laptops. Given this sum represented over 210% of the entire Ethiopian education budget concerns were raised whether there might be better uses for investing such a significant sum.

For example, the Ethiopian primary school system works from a set of six textbooks, although most students frequently lack access to even one of these textbooks. Providing copies of all six textbooks to every Ethiopian primary student would only cost 4% of the $2 billion proposed under the OLPC initiative.

4. Developing a supportive learning ecosystem

A recent initiative in rural South Africa has focused on providing tablets and training – not just to children – but teachers, parents and community members. The logic here is that success involves creating a supportive learning ecosystem for children by educating and empowering a broader group of community stakeholders. In the last 12 months since the start of this project students in participating communities have seen a notable increase in the standard of their academic test scores.

5. Technology in isolation is not a solution

While it is unlikely that just putting PCs in classrooms will deliver benefits in isolation – there is generally agreement that, for children who are already motivated and mentally prepared to learn, access to ICT can be a powerfully enabler.

6. The majority of learning takes place outside the classroom

In a context where many developing world students attend formal education intermittently (sometimes with multiple year gaps) the focus should arguably be on providing them with learning resources that they will continue to access outside school (a concept which reignites the laptops versus textbooks debate!).

Other alternative approaches concentrate on the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) principle – where students have technology that they can continue accessing outside the classroom (whilst benefiting from free WiFi networks at school when available). It should also be noted that a 2010 evaluation of the Nokia Mobile Mathematics project in South Africa revealed that 82% of learners were accessing the platform outside school hours (and therefore probably outside the confines of the classroom).

7. The myth of looming universal smartphone penetration

Whilst predictions from some optimistic sources suggest that the majority of the populations in many developing countries will have access to smartphones by 2016 – this unlikely to be the case (e.g. by current projections the UK will still only have reached a 75% level of smartphone penetration by 2016). The chances are that with a $100 budget, most users in developing countries will not spend $70 on a smartphone and a further $30 on internet access – they will spend $10 on a basic Nokia handset with a longer battery life (keeping the remaining $90 to target other pressing non-technological concerns)!

8. A holistic approach to development infrastructure

There is often a tendency to consider ICT4D as a separate area or discipline – when in reality it represents an enabler for all development sectors. This can frequently lead to misleading or artificial choices between, for example, water, sanitation, electricity or ICT. In reality what it needed is a more holistic approach to the benefits of integrated infrastructures and their combined capacity to generate both social and economic value.

9. Monitoring and evaluation concerns

Greater harmonisation and standardisation of monitoring and evaluation standards and approaches across different donor initiatives would improve the interoperability of data and evidence generated by these projects. However, the sharing of information and best practice across the board may be difficult to encourage in a fiercely competitive funding environment.

There are also concerns that many monitoring and evaluation approaches concentrate on specific indicators or measures (such as number of computers in a classroom) rather than particular outcomes/benefits in relation to child development and education (such as student self-esteem or quality teaching). The underlying objective of leveraging ICT in the context of learning and education should be to prepare and equip students to pursue further avenues of formal, non-formal and informal learning and expanding their skill sets to enhance future employability.

10. Does ICT have a role in relation to the problem you are trying to solve?

In the sphere of education programmes it is important to determine the problem you are trying to solve before then considering the potential role of ICT. It is crucial to consider which channels people already use – and which channels they already trust. For example, in rural areas, the existing communications potential of radio and TV broadcasts needs to be balanced against the likely impact of newer and more expensive technologies such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. It also essential to foster a sense of community ownership in connection with any new ICT-related initiatives to maximise the likelihood of achieving sustainable and long term benefits.

11. No silver bullet – once basic access to ICT has been achieved newfound challenges emerge

In Ghana it was reported that children at one learning centre were competing to see who could accumulate the largest number of friends on Facebook. This example clearly demonstrates the need to balance technological opportunity with corresponding steps to mitigate the risks of exposing vulnerable sections of society to the online world. In addition, as access to ICT becomes more widely available considerations surrounding e-accessibility loom progressively larger in the inclusion equation (in terms of the provision of audio description software and visual support interfaces for disabled students).

It should also be noted that the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) Broadband Commission has released research in 2013 which suggests that ICT training can increase the skills, confidence and self-esteem of disabled learners.

12. Beyond education

The ‘indirect’ use of ICTs can be really important in benefiting children including transparency, accountability, posting of exam scores online, admin of schools, mobile payment for teachers, as a motivator for participation, reporting incidents of violence and many more. There’s not a lot you can actually do with text messages in education, for example. But text is great for connecting kids to F2F opportunities.

Finally there are many other ways that ICTs are used to support children and child well-being. Digital birth registration, infant/maternal health, child and youth participation and voice/agency work, communication for development work, accountability and transparency, youth livelihoods. However a key issue in any use of ICT around children is protection.

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