Computer lab in rural Bangladesh

Information and Communication Technology for Development

Today’s mobile phones, even those basic brick-like “non-smart” ones, have more computing power than the Apollo 11 computer that put a man on the moon in 1969. There’s 7 billion of these devices out there, and more than two-thirds happen to be in the hands of someone in a developing country. All of this has been made possible through innovation in communications technology, the proliferation of telecom networks and devices, and competition in the technology sector. Today, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is not just a means for communication and information gathering, but is seen as a tool for development. Access to a cell phone or a computer connected to the internet has the potential power to leapfrog entire populations over several stages of development. The low cost of technology means that it can be cheaper to provide a tablet to every child in a school in a rural community in Africa, than it is to provide clean drinking water.

africaguyCell phones have revolutionized access to information and communication throughout much of the developing world. As I write this piece, I find myself in a rural community in The Gambia, on my laptop that is connected to the internet via a 4G cell phone network. Studies have linked higher rates of mobile phone access to increased economic growth, and mobile technologies are beginning to positively impact human development.Farmers gain greater access to market data; rural households gain access to credit and banking services;  and health workers can use mobile phones to expand their offered services.



One Laptop Per Child in Afghanistan

However, the impact of ICT has been ambiguous in the education sector. Various attempts at putting laptops and tablets in the hands of children in the developing world have failed to achieve the desired education outcomes, putting into question the efficacy and appropriateness of ICT in education. The prime example is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. 25 million of these laptops, with the price tag of $200 each (twice that of the originally promised price), have now made their way to the hands of children across the world and have failed to accomplish anything really. An evaluation of the laptop program by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) found that children who got this computers did not demonstrate any improvements in maths or reading, nor were they more motivated to do their homework or to read. The Peruvian government has thus spent $225 million on 850,000 OLPCs for seemingly no return to educational outcome.

Much of the argument both for and against the use of technology for development, stems from the clash between the proponents of appropriate technology, and those of the business solution to poverty. E.F. Schumacher, in his 1973 book titled, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, helped popularize the term appropriate technology critiquing the “bigger is better” mentality of mass manufacturing in industrialism and advocating for the use of environmentally sound, small-scale, and locally controlled technologies. This is the mantra behind a lot of infrastructure projects, that seek to deliver custom-tailored solution to individual communities, not worrying about scalability. On the other side of this debate, is Paul Polak, world renowned social entrepreneur and founder of organizations such as IDE and D-Rev. In his 2010, Dr. Polak declared appropriate technology “dead”.2 Instead, Polak proposed “designing for the other 90%” by creating market-driven and low-cost solutions for the vast majority of the world’s population who have little or no access to products and services.

Children using the computers

Lab in rural Mexico set up by Engineers Without Borders – Austin

Applying appropriate technology principles to deliver ICT solutions for schoolchildren would mean individualizing the technology for a particular population, tribe, or even community. Understanding the needs, resources and constraints of a particular community, and delivering a solution that makes economic, equitable and cultural sense in that context, is a time-consuming, expensive endeavor. Scaling up such a program will entail an iterative process, far exceeding the budgets of governments and the international donor community. On the flip side, a large-scale, market driven approach will lead to programs such as the One Laptop Per Child – delivering fairly affordable, uniform technology en mass across regions and entire countries. While the low price tag may seem lucrative for governments, and the cookie-cutter solution in-line with most development bank agendas, such programs have rarely made any profound impact, and are not socially and culturally sensitive.

So why hasn’t technology helped to bridge the digital divide for schoolchildren around the world – this infinite source of knowledge falling short of its expectations? The answer lies not in the technology, but in the implementation of it.

ICT projects should be guided by appropriate technology principles, while harnessing the power of the market in devising an economic, equitable and sustainable solution for communities, and then entire populations. Computer education should not be treated as a separate topic, with a certain class time allocated to “learning” technology. Instead, ICT should be utilized in all subjects taught to children. Introducing ICT into an education program should not entail adding another chapter in the curriculum, but revising the entire curriculum. ICT is not an end to itself, but a means to an end. This integration of ICT into the existing curriculum will ensure that both the teachers and the students take ownership of this new technology, and start viewing it as a tool for enhancing their educational experience.

Delivering a laptop to a child is not the solution, but the first step in engaging the child to utilize the bounty of dynamic  resources that ICT has to offer. Teachers have to be trained such that they can effectively promote computer and internet use in the class, and beyond the class. Without training or resources to help them teach the practical application of technology, teachers are left helpless in their attempt to make full use of ICT. Instead of vowing to deliver a laptop for every child, the governments of Peru and Uruguay must revise their education agenda, incorporating ICT in each topic, grade and educational goal.

While the development of new, innovative technology is important, the focus must not only be on the use, but also on the user of the technology. ICT programs must understand the educational goals of communities and individuals, and design flexible solutions that best addresses them. For example, if a nationwide ICT for education program is launched in Panama, it must be sensitive to the fact that there are several indigenous languages spoken within the country. While the technology may be uniform, the content must be customized. Understanding the target audience, its capacity and training needs, is crucial to the success of such a program.

Computer lab in rural Bangladesh

Computer lab in rural Bangladesh

I believe that there can be technology that can be applied globally, given that the approach is contextualized. Human-centered design has barely been applied in developing technology to meet the ICT needs of developing countries. Aside from the few attempts such as the OLPC, most computers or other IT infrastructure found in developing countries were designed for use in the US or other developed nations. Worse still, such computers are often donated after several years of use and abuse. Laudable in their efforts to design computer units for the developing world, is Aleutia, whose computers have already been implemented in 64 developing countries. Information and Communication Technology in Development needs further evaluations. Before a program is rolled out, it must be tested, and after the project is rolled out, the development community must measure the impact of these projects, accept and learn from failures. Design thinking principles that have been the benchmark for much of social entrepreneurial work, and should also be part of designing sustainable,

The field of Information and Communication Technology has evolved rapidly in recent years, and its potential to promote social good, particularly in the education sector is higher than it ever was. While ICT’s impact on educational outcome has been questioned, there is no doubt about the potential impact it can have. Governments and the international development community must learn from previous failures and use design thinking principles in the implementation of future projects. Technology has the power to transform education for much of the developing world, and ICT should be top on the development agenda.

[1] UNDP. Mobile Technologies & Empowerment: Enhancing human development through participation and innovation [2] “The Death of Appropriate Technology I : If you can’t sell it don’t do it.”

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