Education is the only permanent social change
I've felt for a long time that education is the most important vehicle for social change. I mean, really how else does anything actually get done? You've got to have some kick ass teachers along the way, or you're gonna be a vegetable. And vegetabledom happens to entire societies. Watch out.
So I'm a little depressed that I don't get to work directly in the education sector anymore — I used to have a great time working on educational evaluation projects, and for a time I was a mentor. Now I'm a full time geek staring at an LCD, and I don't so much ever get the thrill of seeing kids make the grand connections. (read: manipulating young minds, bwah ha ha.)
Anyway, just watched a great TED video from Dave Eggers. Give it 20 minutes and tell me if you don't want to sign up to be a volunteer. It's a hilarious talk anyway, even if you hate kids.
I am obsessed with cell phones right now. Mostly I bloody hate them. I haven't had one for six months, but work made me get one last week. So since they made me get one I am lobbying to get into some cell-phone-type research, partly to figure out my personal issues with cellular voice communication, most mostly because, clearly, undoubtedly, they are the most important technology in the world: they are the network of the developing world. As a BBC article put it a couple weeks ago: ""it's time that we recognised that for the majority of the world's population, and for the foreseeable future, the cell phone is the computer, and it will be the portal to the internet, and the communications tool, and the schoolbook, and the vaccination record, and the family album ..."
"It's time that we recognised that for the majority of the world's population, and for the foreseeable future, the cell phone is the computer.The Invisible Computer Revolution
My question is: where the hell are the tools for people who use cellphones in this way? (In particular, where are the banking tools and educational tools?) In the first world we've got $600 iphones that can read your freaking mind. But a simple flashcard application for learning a few of the 62 languages spoken in Kenya? It's not quite as sexy.
So this is the part that I am really obsessing over, as a developer. It just seems to me that there is huge opportunity to really do some huge good by, essentially, hacking on SMS. Or, sure, wait a few years and use cell phones as a proper thin client. (But im more interested in the ultra ultra thin approach, something that would work with one of the classic Nokias, which are used everywhere in Africa . Design for maximum constraints, right?)
In the last few years I wrote a couple of posts on cellphones, one about "the powerful effect that even a slight improvement in communication can bring" (wrt africa) and another about badass Iqbal Quadir. Oh and a technical/usability one about developing +designing reliable, readable sites for really, really small screens.
Anyway, new content. Here's a fantastic video from Jan Chipchase at TED, a hero of cellphone ethnography. My favorite line: ""if you want a big idea you need to embrace everyone on the planet.... With another three billion people connected, they want to be part of the conversation. Our [rich people] relevance is about being able to listen."
Static link: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/190
Chipchase is a GENIUS blogger; pithy observations on behavior/expectations/norms from all over the world:
please. read. subscribe. its almost certainly my favorite blog.
The Linux Desktop in 2007
Linux and open source computing is going to have a great 2007. In spite of a few hiccups in some communities, and the astonishing lack of penetration into the mainstream brain, it is obvious that we are seeing more and more people getting it.
Just check out IBM's Linux praise page if you want an overview. And governments are getting it too, in Korea, Venuzela, and India. And then there is Chicago.
When you think of Windows server, you think of rebooting the server, of always having to apply security patches. You think of viruses ... Linux and Solaris prove to be a lot less headaches than any other platform. Amy Niersbach, Chicago geek-honcho
Of course, it is a bunch of elitist BS to pretend that the only reason people don't "get" desktop Linux is because they are just ignorant — Linux is hard. Switching is hard-ish.
These governments are not doing something that is totally obvious — they are, but contrast, pioneers, and they are taking no small risk in putting Linux desktops in front of their municipal employees. I mean, really, I just can't see my Dad using ifconfig to fiddle with his network settings. Only recently has Linux distributions emerged that I would consider suggesting to my family, much less my family's coworkers.
(By contrast, of course, Linux as a server platform has had success for so long, and open source software is clearly dominant on the server.)
Ever since the Ubuntu Linux campaign began a couple years ago, we have all seen how much it makes sense (in terms of attracting an audience) to focus on getting things to Just Work on a personal computer. Ubuntu has ridden the hype skyrocket right past Debian and Suse etc ... well, because they have a millionaire at the wheel ... but also because they have taken on the closed-source OS's head-on with regard to usability. They put a lot of time into making a Linux distribution that would recognize your iPod (and monitor and printer and keyboard ...) the first time you plugged it in. They even have a branch devoted to a kid-friendly version, edubuntu. And they have done a lot of steady work to make a more useable experience generally (even if they aren't rewriting the Gnome desktop). I think their whole approach deserves applause, despite all the remaining gotchas of linux. (Certainly there is not a Linux desktop the tops the Mac OS usability experience, in my opinion.)
Related reading on usability:
Check out the recent preview of the KDE desktop, which has been designed by a wonderfully talented, small team.
And then there is the fascinating approach to the UI taken by the $100 Laptop folks.
On Teachers Moving from Web 0.5 to Web 3.0
David Warlick posts insightfully about the uses of technology in education. Right now he seems like a pretty stressed out guy.
I'm not an educator (though I do work in education via nonprofit evaluation). And I don't get quite as excited as he does when discussing the latest crop of communication technologies.
But in one of his most recent posts on his blog 2 Cents, I am right there with him pulling out my hair. The story is kind of funny actually, in a sick way (kind of like the way it's funny when Cheney shoots a 78-year-old man).
The story is like this: Warlick presented to a large group of teachers here in North Carolina recently and polled them informally about the technologies they used.
"How many were blogging, I saw only three hands. How many read blogs? Perhaps 20. How many had listened to a podcast? Maybe ten. How many had podcasted? Zero! How many used flickr? Zero! How many knew about social bookmarks? Zero! Delicious (del.icio.us)? Zero!"
This is all really not that surprising to me. I know that two years of hype about blogging has done little to clarify its value as an fun, educational tool. And these are a particular type of hype-prone ("Web 2.0") technologies.
And yet, really, these things are exciting and useful. Teachers would love these things. They aren't just hype. I only wish teachers knew more about these great, fun technologies that kids would love. For sure, I have seen great integrations of podcasting (AKA: grassroots audio) and blogging (AKA: networked writing) into the classroom — and I have seen how serious critical thinking skills are engendered in the use of these technologies.
So I think these teachers' technological literacy is unfortunate, but I don't think it's a tragedy, as David might say at this point. I think we are just at an early stage, and we (progressive type/educational bloggers) are impatient to show off the great strides the internet has made in recent years. Or at least, that's the polite way of putting it.
But when I read the following I was a little more disturbed:
"I asked how many of them had used Gopher. About three-forths of the hands went up. This surprised me. I asked about Telnet. Again, a vast majority of the hands when up."
That's right. Gopher and Telnet are not only still on people's radar, but teachers are apparently much more familiar with these medieval implements than blogs. Why is this so difficult to catch on to? It's just writing on the internet. Where are the barriers to understanding and use coming from? I know that technological literacy and the digital divide are real complex issues, but dammit, I don't get it. Why did people stop paying attention when it got interesting? Blogging is so much more engaging and Telnet was ... just such a drag!
As David writes: "These are educators who, in the early 1990s, were on the edge. They were paying attention, recognizing an emerging revolution in information, and latching on. What happened between then and now? Why have they missed the new revolution?"
I hope that online communication will become much more mainstream this year. But for now I think that white-hot hype + cold, ivory-tower perspective of technologists has done a lot to keep powerful new communication tools out of the mainstream, locked in some elite computer lab. For now I resolve again to remember that I'm part of an extreme minority of addled programmers and gizmo fetishists. I want to do what I can to remind people that simple, free, worldwide publishing and distribution is now a reality. And for now I just hope that educators aren't teaching kids that dial-up BBS's define the world of technology.
Brief Clip from a Great WorldChanging.com Post
WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: LinuxChix Africa "LinuxChix Africa manages to shatter two stereotypes at the same time: the idea that women aren't interested in free/open source software development; and the idea that women in Africa are bound to traditional cultural roles. Founded in late 2004 by Anna Badimo, a computer science graduate student in South Africa, and Dorcas Muthoni of the Kenya Education Network, LinuxChix Africa seeks to build Linux skills among African women, as well as to support more generally the use of free/open source applications and systems across Africa. Like most Linux and F/OSS communities, much of their work entails professional software development and public advocacy of open source, but LinuxChix Africa adds a unique twist: they focus their outreach on encouraging young women to pursue careers in computing."
Web Design: Learning to Problem Solve with Mezzoblue's CSS Crib Sheet
Learning to use CSS can make you insane if you don't have a good instructor. And who does?
Some of the best advice I've ever gotten about web communication relates to debugging your code: you have to learn to problem solve efficiently.
Enter Mezzoblue's CSS Crib Sheet, may it's url never expire.
You will no doubt come across many quirky layout issues when building a site with CSS. You'll end up banging your head against a wall time and again. This is an attempt to make the design process easier, and provide a quick reference to check when you run into trouble.
I also recommend the attendant conversation, which has whole shmear of mostly excellent advice (I don't recommend removing your DOCTYPE permanently, as one contributor recommends. Everything else is golden advice on this page.)
Beautiful Packaging, Ugly Statistics
Recently in my commutes to work I've been using these incredible flash-based, interactive representations of development statistics. (Don't worry, I ride the bus.) These modules, created by a Swedish group called Gapminder, are attractively designed and highly educational. I have long been a great fan of sharp design in the interest of development. These are as great a communication tool as I have ever seen.
From the Gapminder website:
"Gapminder is a non-profit venture for development and provision of free software that visualize human development. ... It all started in 1998 from an idea to enhance the understanding of world health. We developed prototype software showing time series of health statistics as moving graphics and varying life conditions as 360¬? photo panoramas from homes, schools and health facilities. From the prototype emerged the Dollar Street project with Save the Children Fund in Sweden and the World Health Chart project with WHO. Within the later project Gapminder developed the free software Trendalyzer that turns boring time series of development statistics into attractive moving graphics. "
Digital Libraries for Education
The Digital Library for Earth Systems Education is a good example of the potential for using the web as a community repository of educational resources.
Unlike some of the other educational websites I've seen (which typically distribute prepackaged course materials), the DLESE has a strong emphasis on community input.
Having been around since 2001, it has a pretty extensive selection of resources, most of them related to the natural sciences (from the Mars rover to tsunamis).
I have seen some discussion recently about the value of this type of resource in areas like New Orleans, where entire libraries have been lost. It's not difficult to extend this logic to the context of Liberia or Pakistan, though we have a little way to go before this type of resource is widely multilingual and accessible to teachers worldwide.
Have a visit: Digital Library for Earth System Education
The Wireless Internet Opportunity For Developing Countries
While poking around on stuff related to the WSIS in Tunis, I found this excellent document about wireless internet in Africa, which was used at the first meeting of the WSIS in 2003. I only wish that there was an updated copy somewhere ...
"The most intriguing application [of wireless technology] in developing nations is the deployment of low-cost broadband Internet infrastructure and last-mile distribution.
The rationale for such interest is simple in theory: The digital divide cannot be resolved any time soon because of the prohibitive cost of deploying conventional wired infrastructure in developing countries. Wireless Internet, however, has the potential to solve this bottleneck, as the collection of articles and case studies in this volume demonstrates. ...
So, why should this topic become central to the World Summit on Information Society initiative? First, wireless Internet may be a very effective and inexpensive connectivity tool, but it does not carry any magic in itself. It can only be successfully deployed as demand for connectivity and bandwidth emerges in support of relevant applications for the populations served. These may be supporting e-government, e-education, e-health, e-business or e-agriculture applications. But those are not easily implemented in the developing world. They do suggest that wireless Internet can indeed be sustainably and in some cases profitably deployed in support of economic and social development objectives in developing countries.
The greatest aspect of this document is that it represents how often the most successful cases of adoption is grassroots and local — this type of development does not work well when it is imposed by some NGO or corporation.
You can read the entire document at infodev, an organization created to "promote better understanding, and effective use, of information and communication technologies (ICT) as tools of poverty reduction and broad-based, sustainable development."
ICT in Education
The Scottish government has an excellent collection of resources regarding the use of Information Communication Technology in classrooms. They have multi-part articles grouped by subject (Biology, Drama, Physics), and examples of how, for example, you can show students living cells using microscope and digital camera, or how to use the internet to teach French. Most of it is not Scotland-specific, though they do feature Scottish schools.
My major criticism of the site is that it doesn't explore low-cost options (such as using open source software). Correspondingly, this site won't be as useful in less-developed countries. That said, it is a great example of free, user-friendly tutorials for "best practices" education. Here's the site: www.ltscotland.org.uk - Secondary
Cellphones in Africa
Today's New York Times carries a front-page article about the growth of the cell phone industry in Africa.
The article is as well-written a summary of the communications crisis in Africa as I have ever read — though it is an undeniably, perhaps inexplicably, upbeat assessment of the curent growth trend in cell phone use.
The article begins by describing the difficulties faced by a rural farmer in Johnanesburg:
On this dry mountaintop, 36-year-old Bekowe Skhakhane does even the simplest tasks the hard way.
Fetching water from the river takes four hours a day. To cook, she gathers sticks and musters a fire. Light comes from candles.
But when Ms. Skhakhane wants to talk to her husband, who works in a steel factory 250 miles away in Johannesburg, she does what many in more developed regions do: she takes out her mobile phone.
Author Shanon LaFranierie did a great job of putting this together, I think, but again the upbeat assessment tends to make the issue more of a spectacle than an outrage. Which it is. Take, for example, the fact that the woman described in the lead actually has the money for only five minutes of calls per month — a pretty slim communication system indeed.
There is also the fact that while Africa now has the highest percentage of cell phone users relative to land lines, that doesn't mean much when only one in 30 people has a land line. And the fact that less than 60% of Africa can get any cellphone signal at all is rather sobering.
And yet, there is an undeniable fact of real growth — economic, social, educational — that is occuring because of the powerful effect that even a slight improvement in communication can bring. At least when the context is dire poverty, the impact of just a few cellphones can be dramatically disproportinate.
Andy Carvin, a guru of the Digital Divide Network also has some interesting thoughts about this article on his blog.
Andy writes that:
No doubt, mobile phones will be near the top of the list [of development technologies] — but that list also includes $100 laptops, wind-up electricity generators, low-cost community radio transmitters, and the timeless ham radio. So let's not make policy decisions under the assumption that mobile phones are the only tool necessary for bridging the digital divide.
The entire article is online for a little while in this section of the paper: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/25/international/africa
Measuring ICT Literacy
Educational Testing Services — they're the folks that make the SAT and GRE — has a new test for ICT literacy. Despite a humorously useless Flash intro, the test appears to be fully baked. The sample questions on the ETS website look at the ways a test-taker would represent and evaluate information in an online context.
Test taking is boring. It's a boring subject. But you can't direct change in any environment without having some feedback. So this investment in ICT literacy evaluation is good to see.
Give them a visit: ETS ICT Literacy Assessment Tests Information and Communication Technology Proficiency and Computer Skills
Exporting Technology, Exporting Ideas
Summary: There is a new, exciting model for programs exporting technology to the developing world. But the real issue is about education, not just setting up a rural network.
Here's the scene: A decade after the technology-sector collapse in the highly industrialized world, a humbled tech industry has begun to take interest in exporting basic technologies to extremely poor countries.
Here's an example: Geekcorps, founded by techie Ethan Zuckerman with his cash-out-quick money from now-defunct Tripod.com (remember them?), is sending folks to Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America to live out a kind of Peace Corps for nerds.
It's ... exactly like that, actually, so much so that the Peace Corp reportedly has plans to create a nerd project sounding very similar to Geekcorps. Likewise, Carnegie Mellon University is starting a Technology Peace Corps, and so is the UN, which has a three-year-old ICT (Information Communication Technology) Task Force.
Contemporary communications technology is central to the process of international development because it is effective — and damn efficient. Communication systems can organize political movements, prevent humanitarian disasters, strengthen communities, streamline markets and enrich education. In fact, they will do these things.
Here's the point: These new groups are doing good work. Technology can work for people. It can work wonders for really poor people. Communications technology, in particular, has the potential to connect and empower places that you have never heard of, perhaps in poor parts of your district, perhaps in Africa or Asia. Just like it connected you.
But perhaps that's a problem. Do we want the Ugandan internet to look just like the US internet? Are we capabale of taking a critical approach to the way that we are teaching people to use the internet? Will the internet of 2030 connect communities or consumers? Will it empower or merely reinforce existing power?
Information technology is a virtually limitless resource. A single telephone (or perhaps a bicycle-operated VOIP system, if you prefer) is a surprisingly powerful vehicle for community development. Installing a single, inexpensive server can support the communication needs of an entire village, just as digging a well can support a village.
But ICT (Information Communication Technology) is not just a commodity, it is also a system. It requires a market, consumers and investors. Which means, I think, that there is a lot more than just altruistic service-giving, training and infrastructure development going on here.
The effort to grow ICT in the developing world is not just a "new model of volunteerism," as the Peace Corps describes it. Because the power of technology is social. Tech training is an intervention in society akin to grassroots organizing. In this way, teaching technology is a political movement, a movement primarily toward open expression of ideas, in whatever form they may come.
Or it can be, at least.
We (the ICT development community) recognize that we have to train people, not just build phone booths. This has long been seen as the difficult side of exporting technology, but I think it's important that we value the process of teaching that is at the core of this process.
And teaching has its attendant concerns. Teaching can be progressive, or teaching can recreate the ways of thinking that have led to our current crisis of poverty. Those who are involved in the transfer of technical knowledge for the sake of human development need to think about their method of creating this change, their pedagogy.
Education, not technology per se, is the only sustainable path out of inequality, and we would do well to be appreciative of the fact that we are teachers.
Ivory Tower Blogs
Here's a neat article on scholarly blogs from 2003 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's outdated but excellent, framing the issue in real-world concerns of "academic posturing" vs. "realtime idea exchanges."
Here's what I mean:
"In their skeptical moments, academic bloggers worry that the medium smells faddish, ephemeral. But they also make a strong case for blogging's virtues, the foremost of which is freedom of tone. Blog entries can range from three-word bursts of sarcasm to carefully honed 5,000-word treatises. The sweet spot lies somewhere in between, where scholars tackle serious questions in a loose-limbed, vernacular mode."Read the article.
Learning internet-think in Uzbekistan
The Digital Divide Network has a wonderful, thoughtful article on the use of the internet and computers in Uzbekistan, where students and teachers face both poverty and technological illiteracy.
A recurring question in international technology development is the relevance and local meaning of the technology — what if I have never used a computer? Does getting one really do anything without education behind it? More accurately, I think: How useful is my new laptop if it is the only source of light in my home? (That's a real example, I'm afraid.)
Technology is a tool and a process. The use of technology requires learning a skillset. This article provides an incisive look at just how hard this education can be in the real world.
Still struggling to free itself from a Soviet educational model, Uzbekistan's school system is on the verge of disintegration. Teacher salaries in the regions can average $20 a month. Few schools have working heat to warm them through the cold months, and electricity outages during the winter are the rule rather than the exception. Textbooks are often out-of-date or unavailable. The Soviet system — which did install equipment in many schools long ago — saw computers as an end to themselves. Students were taught basic programming in "informatics" classes. Given their primitive state, the concept of using the computers for lessons other than those specifically about computers was never offered nor supported. For most of the day, computers remained untouched — gathering dust in a locked classroom, or occasionally displayed to visiting delegations as evidence of progress. This attitude towards computers remains to this day.
DDN Articles - Literacy, Technology & Expression in Uzbekistan
Is Open Source Software Ready?
Yes, it is.
Open source software is free. It is supported by communities of developers, not corporations. And it is ready.
Sure, sometimes, it doesn't work. Development can stop abruptly on a project, and support can be limited — because it's free.
But often, open source software is better than the overloaded, buggy programs put out by the big guys (Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, etc.).
With a little bit of online research, there is often an open-source alternative to expensive programs that are needed for programs in rural/poor/developing areas.
What open source gives you (besides a free or cheap program) is a connection with software develpers that are, typically, committed to a cause that appears to be very much in line with the general philosophies underlying ICT and development work.
Power to the people.
Here's a bit from recent BBC article describing the use of open source software in Manchester schools, and the government research that supports its use. (Hard not to like thousands of Pounds in savings, right?)
I say, if it's good enough for Manchester, it's good enough for the world. Now if only there were open source programs comparable to Intel's Teach to the Future Program, which claims to have trained 2 million teachers. Too bad they're all trained in super-expensive proprietary software.
Software licenses cost Parrs Wood [elementary school] about 30,000 pounds each year, less than half the cost if no OSS [open source software] were deployed, according to figures in the recent Becta [UK education research group] report.
Only recently has the school become satisfied that OSS is now sufficiently well developed to meet classroom and office needs and provides a viable alternative to licensed software.
With governors' support and encouragement, the school is adopting OSS more completely over the next three years, including the eventual replacement of Windows by an OSS desktop, which will be a significant change.
Read the entire article: BBC NEWS | Education | How schools can get free software