Technology Salon

San Francisco

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

Listening and Patience Leads to More People Learning Online and with Mobile Education

mobile education

Practitioners, entrepreneurs, tech employees, and foundation representatives gathered at the Asia Foundation in San Francisco for a Tech Salon to explore the question of: How Can Silicon Valley Help Improve Online Learning in Emerging Economies?

The Salon featured discussion leads Amy Ahearn of +Acumen, Jason Bigman of Philanthropy University, and Elizabeth Kountze of Tostan, and was moderated by Glenn Fajardo of TechSoup.

In a lively discussion, participants explored nuances around partnerships, scale, design, local content, and constraints. The central theme was the importance of listening to students and educators at local levels to inform the design of programs.

Online and mobile technology is often considered a great panacea of scale. In education, as we seek to reach the Sustainable Development Goal #4 of Quality Education for All, an accessible, cost-effective tool that can reach millions is considered a game-changer. The premise: If technology allows educators to reach millions of students, the impact of a solid curriculum can be greatly amplified.

But in some cases, especially in countries that were formerly under colonial rule, scaling too fast – without understanding local problems and local contexts – can backfire. Discussion leads also explored the challenge of “scalable customizability,” with Bigman describing examples at Philanthropy University, such as creating structured activities in unstructured spaces.

In terms of design, the discussion focused on how to engage program participants in design and in defining metrics for success. Kountze shared that Tostan’s results in basic education required a three-year human rights-based education program, in which the first year is taught entirely orally, in locally languages, with an emphasis on dialogue.

Participants explored the dichotomy between what we seek to do and what we can do. We’ll say that we want human-centered design and co-creation, but what makes this not-so-easy in practice? Inclusive and participatory design processes take time and resources, but there is an impatience for “results” and “efficiency” in the short run.

For human-centered design to work, participants agreed, donors must be patient, and practitioners must push back on unrealistic time-frames.

Ahearn made an important point about the false distinction between “Silicon Valley” and international development practitioners, as these lines are blurred and many find them switching from one role to the next throughout their careers. Value-creating partnerships depend on mutual understanding and a shared vision, respect, and a clear commitment to the greatest return for all stakeholders.

Participants agreed that social norms and inequalities, particularly those keeping women and girls from accessing education and becoming decisionmakers, play a major role. Improving learning results will require solutions designed to overcome these barriers.

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