It's been nine months since the United Nations committed to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals "to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all." It's a 15 year window of opportunity to achieve these goals, but how do governments, corporations, nonprofits, and individuals like you and me accelerate impact in each of these areas?
For my team, our core focus is SDG 4: ensuring access to quality education for all.
I recently had a call with an organization that was planning to launch a massive competition around global access to education, inviting technological solutions to this challenge.
They were calling me to see if I could help them to define the scope of this competition given Library For All’s experience in this space. It was a great opportunity for me to take a step back and consider again the question that defines our impact - if you are looking for a scalable, replicable model to provide access to quality education to every child on the planet, how would you do that?
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were created in the year 2000 as a blueprint for progress towards a world without extreme poverty by 2030.
Last year, when the international community came together to assess progress at the half way point, it became clear that whilst great progress was made, there is still along way to go, particularly in the area of education. The focus of the MDG 2 was on universal primary education - a noble goal in and of itself and one we should certainly aspire to. Most countries made remarkable progress towards this goal - 92% of the world’s primary school age children are now in school (UNICEF, 2015).
Yet what this led to in reality was a narrow focus on enrollment: getting children into school. This led to soaring classroom sizes, a lack of qualified teachers, and a lack of access to basic learning materials like textbooks. This is summed up in UNESCO’s report in 2012, which states that even after four years at school, 250 million children in the developing world are still not learning the basics of how to read and write.
I was delighted to see that the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed to last year focus on addressing this issue. Now that children are in school, how do we ensure that they do receive an education that will really enable them to lead healthy, productive lives, and ultimately lift themselves and their families out of extreme poverty? SDG 4 is to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.
Sustainable Development Goal #4: Access to quality education for all
The legacy of OLPC
If the goal is quality education, then access to materials are at the core of that. And what better way to increase access at scale than through technology?
It is tempting to think that if we could just get a computer into the hands of every child in the developing world, then all these problems could be solved. That was the driving vision behind Negraponte’s idea when One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) was founded in 2005. The goal of OLPC was to build a device that would be cheap and durable enough to work in any developing community. Pre-loaded onto these devices was a special operating system and suite of learning games and educational resources that it was believed would be all children needed to learn.
11 years later, the OLPC project has failed to reach global scale. While their devices have been implemented successfully in places like Rwanda, in other places like Haiti the results have been disastrous. The challenge is that the devices are not integrated into the economy of the communities where they end up. If a part breaks, or technology advances, or the user consumes all of the content on the OLPC, the device itself becomes obsolete. Moreover, the only people making content for the Sugar Operating System that runs on the OLPC device is OLPC themselves. That is a pretty limiting span of knowledge.
Despite these well-documented results, the OLPC experiment has inspired the proliferation of device-based approaches to education development, including Worldreader and Rumie. Whilst they have their merits and arguably are having a deep and transformative impact on particular communities, the reality is that these solutions cannot scale quickly enough to reach the 250 million children who are not learning basic literacy. Time is not on our side if we are to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
A Blueprint for Change
So what’s the way forward? I definitely do not have all the answers, but my ideas are based on two key arguments:
(1) Access to quality devices is crucial, but shipping them from developed to developing communities is not the answer, instead we must find a way to bring the means of production to developing countries
(2) Content is key; therefore, cloud-based solutions founded on open-source operating systems like Android are essential because they make the device a virtual “shopfront” for all kinds of content.
To the first point, I am excited to see companies like Surtab, a tablet device manufacturing company in Haiti, leading the way in developing hi-tech products locally. If there is a problem with the device, customers can return it directly to the store in Port-au-Prince. Surtab is also creating a microfinance program to help customers get access to their devices, which start as low as $75. This is not just happening in Haiti. When I was in Rwanda recently, I heard of the launch of an electronics factory in Kigali that will create tech products for the continent right in the heart of Africa.
The second point is that the devices are just the shopfront for content, and so we cannot be narrowly focused on the device. The real question then is what is going to be available in the shopfront? Too many times I have seen devices pre-loaded with content in the U.S. and shipped to communities. Some of the content on the device may have been eagerly consumed by students for a few months, before being left in a dusty cupboard. For the impact of technology to be sustainable, it’s important that we shift the means of production of content to local content producers, like local publishers, artists and authors, enabling them to publish their content in digital formats. An open operating-system like Android is essential, so that the barriers to creating applications and content locally are low. Also, the shopfront needs to be cloud-based; assuming no connectivity but with the potential to update over the Internet if a connection becomes available. This is our approach at Library For All, and today, we’re reaching children in Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Cambodia, and most recently, Mongolia.
Students from a school in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia reading books from Library For All's digital library on their tablets. This program occurred in partnership with The Asia Foundation.
In conclusion, technology will play a very important role in the future of inclusive and quality education. But well-intentioned efforts at distributing devices will have limited sustainable impact. Rather, we need to shift to establishing an ecosystem that gives communities back their agency in the process of developing technology that meets their needs. There is no reason that an ecosystem of technological innovation cannot have its locus in developing countries; in fact, it’s already happening! Our mission is that Library For All can play a small part in helping to establish this ecosystem, encouraging local production of devices and content. We can play a role in establishing the storefront, but the shopkeeper should be local communities themselves.