Education in the Developing World: “There’s an app for that”

Photo by Johan Larsson via Flickr.

The hottest gadgets of 2012 are tablets: the slate-style touch screen “computers” like the iPad, Nexus 7, or Kindle Fire. The lighter, faster, cheaper way to read the New York Times or check email. The multipurpose device that is, at any moment, a creative tool, an internet browser, a digital book, a word processor, a music creation machine, a video game console, a small movie theater.

This tablet craze is not just with early adopters. The Pew Internet Research Center, a D.C.-based think tank, reported last month that tablet market share is drastically increasing: 25 percent of adults in the United States now own a tablet, whereas desktop and laptop computer ownership has plateaued to around 75 percent. According to analytics company Nielsen, 50 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 12 want an iPad this holiday season. A March 2012 survey by the Pearson Foundation (associated with the well-known textbook publisher), found that about 20 percent of high school seniors and college students own tablets. The demand is strong for a new computing device.

Infographic: Kids are involved in technology more than ever.

Recently, schools have been eager to add tablets to the classroom, too.

Just last fiscal quarter, Apple sold one million iPads to cutting-edge high schools and universities in America. Apple CEO Tim Cook said on a conference call to investors, “the adoption of the iPad in education is something I’ve never seen in any technology.” These devices can replace textbooks, computers, and paper, and even increase student focus, motivation and understanding by making content more interactive, intuitive, and exciting.

In February, a pilot program at Auburn School in Maine gave iPads to half of their 266 kindergarten students. “The objective has to be learning, not just getting the technology out there…We wanted to make sure we could objectively examine the contribution of the iPads.” said Mike Muir, who helped direct the program. While the results of the program showed that iPads only slightly increased learning, the conclusion of the study was that “iPads increased the kindergartners’ literacy scores.” Perhaps tablets are more effective at a later age, or with a more established, vetted curriculum.

Despite the relative infancy of this device in the classroom, schools all around America are involved with this exciting way to make class better. One such school, Orlando Science, a charter high school in Florida, has recently implemented a 1-to-1 program—that means over a thousand students each get their own iPad. Michael Singleton, a social studies teacher at the school, thinks tablets “will one day be the same as a book bag or a ruler or a pencil.” Over 1.5 million students in the U.S. currently use them in over 600 school districts. According to an early 2012 PBS LearningMedia survey, 81 percent of teachers agree that tablets “enrich classroom education.”

This new technology will “act as a catalyst for ushering a new, technologically driven educational order that…will be comparable to that of Gutenberg’s printing press in its long-term social impact,” says Kishore Swaminathan, chief scientist at Accenture. He explains that tablets could bring a new approach to teaching, whether students live in a rich country like the U.S. or the developing world. “Countries of every type—emerging, industrial, young, old—need a massive overhaul of their education systems…in the coming decade, the field of education is where IT will make its single biggest social and economic contribution.”

The most exciting possibilities of this new technology are in empowering students in the third world.

An introduction to the One Laptop Per Child project.

 

What if every student and teacher in the developing world could have their own computer? That’s the goal of the non-profit One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a successful project that has distributed over 2.4 million of their $100 bright-green waterproof, ruggedized XO-1 laptops to children in countries like Peru, Mongolia, Nigeria, and Iraq since 2006. Since wall power is often inconsistent in these countries, users can charge them with a special hand crank or solar cell array. Internet is even more hard to find, so the laptops communicate with each other on an interconnected mesh network (they have WiFi too). Their swivel-able displays have a traditional backlight that makes them easy to read in low light, as well as an outdoor mode, which turns it into a e-ink-like screen found on eBook readers like the Kindle. But the XO-1′s biggest feature is not a built-in specification: the fascinated grin of the child that’s using it. While handing out a laptop to every student in the world is a daunting—if not impossible—task, OLPC has already brightened the future of millions of students worldwide.

The next generation One Laptop Per Child device, XO-3 tablet, with its innovative solar charging cover.

The organization has now moved to making a cheaper tablet device with a touchscreen and an even more powerful processor, called the XO-3. As these devices get cheaper, they have the capability to “dramatically change educational opportunities for children in the poorest parts of the world” says Matt Keller, the vice president of global advocacy for OLPC. He continues, “Too many kids never get a chance to fill their potential because they never get a chance to go to school.” A tablet can help kids “leapfrog the failed educational infrastructure around them.”

But the XO-3, while as cost-effective as possible, still costs too much; in the developing world, every cent matters.

Last week, the Indian government held a press conference about their groundbreaking new tablet called Aakash 2. Produced by a company called Datawind, “the world’s cheapest tablet” is sold to the Indian government for the equivalent of $41 USD. Available to students at a subsidized $21 USD, the portable, connectable computer especially transforms the outdated education approached in rural communities. The government wants to eventually supply one to each of its 220 million schoolchildren, to help develop India’s economy and next generation of entrepreneurs. Tech pundit Christopher Mims believes the Aakash tablet will eventually become ubiquitous enough to “blindside PC makers, educate billions and transform computing as we know it.”

The Aakash 2 won’t win any awards for being fast, sleek or powerful, but at a subsidized cost of around $20 USD, it is the world’s most affordable tablet to date.

In the future, we can only look forward to better, even cheaper tablets that reach more kids in more places. Perhaps in a couple decades, kids in Uruguay will have as much access to technology as the kids in America. Every student in Sierra Leone will be empowered. A worldwide initiative will spark change in our education to create a new era of learning, changing the lives of kids in countries around the world. As more kids learn with technology at a younger age, they will grow up with the intuition of a digital age. They will have access to more information, interactive learning tools, and the ability to invest in their education and communicate with the world.

If you want to help pioneer this technology, take action through One Laptop per Child. Whether it’s translating the software, volunteering your design experience, or just donating to the cause, a student across the world will someday receive equal access to a computing device and the internet.

Michael Holachek is a freelance web designer, aspiring electrical engineer, and Taiwanese culture enthusiast. He likes to play jazz on the alto sax, take pictures with a Minolta Autocord film camera, and of course, write columns about hacking, electronics, and computer science. More on his website: http://michael.holachek.com.

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