Devices in the Third World: The Importance of Context

By Erin E. P. Morris

I have recently been accused of having an entirely too grandiose vision of the digital shift occurring in education and the worldwide implications of this shift. Of course I think it is grandiose, but that grandiosity is not my vision, but rather the actual changes occurring. Is it possible to underestimate the ramifications of even small changes in today’s ever more interconnected world of increasing size, capability and exponential change? I personally don’t think it is. And when you look at the specific end results of the digital shift, even less so.

When I talk about the changes of the digital shift the effects on education here in the United States and more significantly- abroad the first thing it is important to understand is that we are talking about so much more than a device. If all this were about a device then yes, vision casting a fundamentally changed future would probably be an unrealistic exaggeration. But this is not about a device. It is about knowledge and the acquisition of that knowledge, and how both are transforming dramatically. Knowledge by definition is “the acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles”, basically: information, and as these seismic changes are happening to the availability and accessibility of information how is it hard to assume we can do anything but change the manner of its acquisition?

Enough of the grandiose thinking and scheming. Now for some more specific thoughts and reflections. Recently I was having coffee with a friend in technology who is involved in aid work in West Africa. I was sharing with him about some of my longer-term visions about making education more universally accessible in remote regions, particularly in this case:  sub-Saharan Africa.  My friend reminded me again of the vital importance of understanding the context and realities of education and the system at large in these countries, and remembering that it is the foundation any new programs or initiatives have to be built upon. I took this reminder as less of a chastisement on my grandiose vision and more as a reminder that as we all consider the implications of the digital shift we also need to remember at all times context.

So beginning that day I began to consider more finitely the immediate challenges that would need to be addressed in a tablet based education initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa. (Though many of these would remain the same for a remote reindeer village in Kamchatka, Russia, or with the Karin people in the jungles of Burma.)

There were five challenges which immediately came to mind:

  1.  Power (21% of the population have no access to electricity)
  2. Lack of Internet (70% of the population does not have access to the internet.)
  3. Security
  4. Ease of use
  5. Ratio of device to students (brought on by a complete lack of financial resource.)

 A young caucasian male holding an iPad surrounded by young African children.

These are not things I am not saying we should be attempting to solve this year, but are things to think about when considering the world-wide implications of this digital shift. About two weeks after this conversation with my friend, a news article was released about a new initiative between Apple and the government of Zimbabwe…

It is an interesting article, as they tackle the first concern on the list, but again this initiative doesn’t look (based on one brief article) like it is tackling the more comprehensive concerns, and therefore I remain unfortunately skeptical, at least for this one. In the last paragraph of the article it mentions a former initiative that failed for some of the very real concerns above, but doesn’t talk about how they will be addressed in this new move.

There is never going to be a perfect background for a device deployment, and this is even more true in remote third world countries. But that doesn’t mean people should stop trying, they just need to remember the importance of context. Because doesn’t it seem that half-baked and unsupported technology initiatives usually not only fail, but also negatively affect the benefits and reach of good initiatives? Just a thought.



2 thoughts on “Devices in the Third World: The Importance of Context

  1. I would say problem number one here in the villages of Tanzania would be crime. It is common place for a student to steal his fellow student’s pen if left on his desk during break. So how would you keep track of these more valuable items. So often people lose cell phones to neighbors that are actually thieves. The local government cannot control crime at this point so it just gets worse and worse. I would think that even if 1,000 devices were sent here. If not sent through an outside organization, most would end up on the hands of government leaders in the capital city or dock workers, etc.. Few would make it to their final destination of the “Bush”. Those that do make it would then be stolen by teachers and criminals.
    Problem number two would be lack of teachers. They already do not have enough teachers in the classroom, and those that are there are often poor at their jobs. The majority of students finish elementary school without the ability to add more than simple numbers or to multiply well. Fractions are deemed impossible to most. How would sending such an item help them learn? Who would teach them how to use the machines? They can barely keep their hands off of cars when they come to the village. They tend to take metal objects to scratch cars and things to see what will happen. How would you keep computers?
    Problem number three would be power. Somehow everyone one finds a way to take their cell phone to a local shop where they pay to charge them. But often their batteries are swapped on them. They also have a problem of power surges which destroy equipment very easily.
    Internet is somewhat available via cell phone companies but few would know how to access that and more often than not the signal would not be good enough to help.
    It is more important for these people to have clean drinking water, trained teachers, just government officials, better health care, etc…
    If a child would be taught well in the basics of elementary school, he could pass on to High School. If he would be fortunate enough to find a High school where there are enough teachers who actually teach, he could go one in his studies and then be able to access computers.

    Posted by Chapakazi in Tanzania | November 16, 2011, 8:15 am
    • Thank you very much for your thoughtful response. I think that throughout the third world there would be a number of similar responses, variations on a theme to speak of, and that is again the importance of context. These are questions that need to be brought up whenever one of these flashy press releases come out. Perhaps the more we ask of these grand gesture the more they will feel demanded upon to make more thoughtful, and appropriate investments and donations. At least we can hope for this…

      Posted by Erin | November 21, 2011, 2:59 pm

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