Substance and Style: Information Content for Education

Jay Chen is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Science at NYU Abu Dhabi and affiliated with the Center for Technology and Economic Development. Read below about Jay’s take on ICT for Education and his research in the field.

In high-income countries, the continuous availability and comprehensive content of local libraries and the Internet are extremely useful resources for education. In contrast, many people in the developing world lack access to these resources as quality textbooks are expensive or outdated and Internet access tends to be expensive, unreliable and largely confined to urban areas. Many schools, especially in rural areas, face problems of poor infrastructure, inadequate material input and lack of qualified teachers. Undoubtedly, people working in the ICTD space agree that: ICT can offer major opportunities for people in developing regions to improve their quality of life. Where “experts” disagree comes immediately after: what technology and how will it be used? Specific to the education problem, the philosophy behind the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project appears to be simply airdropping tablets into developing regions. OLPC is only the most well-known of many low-cost hardware projects/vendors with this kind of philosophy.

Here, at CTED, we tend to believe that while ICTs are important, they are simply a tool to help scale the existing resources already on the ground. Appropriately designed systems have the potential to be beneficial, but simply throwing more resources haphazardly at the problem can do more harm than good. With regards to computer hardware in particular, in many developing regions there is already plenty of computer hardware. Recycling e-waste from old computer hardware exported from the West has been viewed as a cottage industry in South Asia and Africa for years. In a recent trip to Kenya, I encountered the same unfortunate phenomenon first hand: schools equipped with complete state of the art computer labs, gathering dust or loaded with only Microsoft Office and no Internet. Following this, the question that became obvious to me was: Instead of solely investing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into hardware (yes, there is that much money going into modernizing school computer systems in Africa and South Asia), why not also invest a just tiny bit into or teaching people to use the technology, or the software, or the content?

Since then, I have been working on the software and content problems for some time. Along with some of my colleagues, we have developed a system called a Contextual Information Portal (CIP) that provides offline searchable and browseable portals composed of slices of the Internet about specific topics. Constructing this set of Internet pages involves first crawling the web for pages that are deemed useful, indexing and re-ranking them locally, storing the information on large storage media (e.g. hard disks, DVDs or USB-sticks), and finally shipping the self-contained web cache to its destination. The topics are generated from course syllabi for topics that are deemed to be insufficiently covered by existing information resources. Depending on the situation, a CIP may be integrated with the existing infrastructure to bootstrap the local cache or as a standalone portal within a kiosk service. As a standalone portal a CIP provides an interactive search and browsing interface enabling a web-like experience for the topics covered. CIP is an ideal tool for schools in developing regions, which lack access to the Internet and to relevant information that can be used to enhance lesson plans and educational material.

In September 2010, we piloted our CIPs at 5 secondary schools in peri-urban Kenya. Each school was within 75km of Nairobi, Kenya. The schools themselves had varying quantities and quality of hardware resources. None of the schools had Internet access, but power was generally stable. The primary purpose of this pilot was to assess the technical innovation and explore any potential issues with our intervention. This deployment was executed in conjunction with a local partner, Strathmore University, who were already conducting weekly outreach programs to teach computer studies to the students. To support this effort, we introduced CIPs that contained computer studies content (based off a teaching syllabus from Strathmore) in this pilot. The hardware cost of our pilot was around $100 per school for the CIP and a simple network, which is up to two orders of magnitude less than the cost of an entire computer lab. The setup time for the software was only around an hour.

In general, we found that at two schools the portal was not adopted due to conflicts with the principal and an extremely unmotivated teacher. However, at the schools where CIPs were used, we received extremely positive feedback from all stakeholders including the students, teachers, and outreach students. From our surveys we found several technical issues with our CIPs that we have since corrected. The main problems were mainly related to usability (in terms of installation, maintenance, and actual use) and user interface. From both our feedback and logs we found that uptake was also limited by the outreach program; that is, students were not using the CIPs directly, and may have been used more by the teachers due to lack of access to the computer lab or other factors. The technical issues have since been corrected, and we are preparing for a much larger scale formal evaluation. We are actively pursuing the continuing development and distribution of CIPs in Kenya and potentially in Ghana where the Ministry of Education recently committed to installing 60,000 computers in schools.

To conclude, we do not think that CIPs are a cure-all, but we do believe that CIPs are a low cost complement to existing or future computing infrastructure and initiatives in the classroom. In any future deployments we plan on keeping at the forefront of our minds the critical human resource requirements that we observed in our pilots. Apparently, we don’t know what to call it yet, but we invite other researchers and practitioners of all stripes explore this ICTD space with us because it is big, challenging, and a real problem.

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About CTED

CTED, as part of the New York University Abu Dhabi Research Grant, is a multidisciplinary research lab that focuses on combining economic principles, technological advances, and human-centric design to create innovative solutions for the problems experienced in emerging regions.
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