We have seen an explosion in free, high-quality open-license educational materials and teaching tools through the Internet and Open Educational Resource (OER) initiative. These resources allow students to learn in a self-paced manner, sometimes with automated feedback and progress tracking, allowing those with limited access to teachers to start or continue their education. Yet, as we’ve seen with massive open online courses (MOOCs), those individuals who already have an education tend to be the ones most able and interested to leverage these wonderful resources.

The question remains: how can we share this wealth of OER digital materials with those in greatest need? The people with the fewest learning resources are the same people with limited or no electricity (let alone a computer), little or no Internet penetration, and often afflicted by conflict; even in the best situations, schooling can be inconsistent due to inclement weather and varying degrees of teacher training and engagement. This gap in access to these digital resources–the “digital divide”–must be bridged; otherwise, in the age of global economy, those who already have few educational resources will fall farther behind their digitally-capable peers. 

The vision of the Foundation of Learning Equality (FLE), a non-profit organization founded at UC San Diego, is to bridge this “digital divide” through the use of an installable, offline-capable web server called KA Lite. KA Lite is essentially a locally installable version of Khan Academy, a website that offers open-license learning materials (videos and self-grading exercises) for over 5000 topics, personal progress-tracking, and tools for “coaches” to monitor your progress and help when you get stuck. The KA Lite server can be installed on virtually any hardware platform (PC, Linux, Mac, even Android tablets and phones).  Once downloaded and installed alongside the video resources, the entire system can be accessed offline on the computer it was installed on, or from a web browser on another computer if both are connected to the same local network. If connected to an Internet connection–even a slow, low-bandwidth one–the server is capable to synchronize user’s learning data to a central database, which allows assessment of learning to be done remotely, and allows users to log in to servers at different locations and have their learning data available.

KA Lite itself is open-source and freely available, so installation on an existing computer is possible (even if it’s very old) and free.  For communities without hardware, the recommended setup is costs about $100 for a server (Raspberry Pi–a cheap, low-power computer about the size of a credit card and a USB-based “WiPi” dongle, which can generate a local Wi-Fi network), and $40 each for Android tablets (which students use to connect to the Wi-Fi network and access the KA Lite server through the web browser).  This Raspberry Pi-based system is powerful enough to support up to 20 tablets simultaneously, allowing a classroom of 20 or 40 (if students are paired) to access the videos and exercises simultaneously. This server setup is efficient enough that it can be run off of a cell phone battery (~$25); if the cell phone battery is connected to a solar panel (~$50), the server can run all day long and well into the night.

While a graduate student, I worked as the software development lead at the FLE. KA Lite is an open-source project, and during that time we saw over 1000 installations in over 85 countries, almost all stewarded by third-party organization who found the software, installed it on a computer, and brought that system to an offline location. During that time, I also led the software development of new features required for a deployment into the Idaho prison system, which we worked on in collaboration with the Idaho Department of Correction as part of “KA in Idaho” program. I was also involved in deployments to elementary schools in India and a customized deployment (in conjunction with Stanford Medicine) at the first private medical school in Rwanda.  Mostly, however, the software is downloaded and installed independently of the FLE’s efforts to create and maintain the software; sometimes users even report back their success in using it!

The FLE continue their work through improving KA Lite and building a community around the platform, but I also believe clear challenges remain. Distribution of hardware–even the relatively cheap Raspberry Pi system–is costly and time-consuming.  I wonder if other platforms–such as the use of feature phones (e.g. flip phones) and text messages, as used for the pervasive M-Pesa mobile banking or used in Rwanda for alerting medical outbreaks and emergencies–could have a much broader penetration than the KA Lite platform. There are also efforts to expand Internet coverage that may reach the same set of users targeted by the FLE.  Even more basic, I wonder whether distribution of electronic tools makes sense, or whether failures in developing the basic connection between education, local means for living, and local culture make these ideas about a “digital divide” irrelevant.

My hunch is that focusing on feature phones may be the best way to go.  They are cheaper, less power-hungry, and more broadly available–people have already seen a utility for them.  Companies such as Econet Wireless (via its “EcoSchool”) have taken this approach, aiming to extend their user base and do good in the regions that they operate.  Development platforms such as Souktel may also enable the development of powerful learning apps on feature phones.  But really, I’m not sure–I’ve moved from my role at the FLE, got my Ph.D, and am open and looking for a next project.  I’m open to discussion and ideas–who else out there has ideas on where to go next with it?  Drop me a line if you’ve got ideas–think of me as a willing and capable partner in the quest to impact education outcomes through technology.

Comments 1

  1. Here are some more thoughts on using technology in education and international development:

    “Kentaro Toyama calls himself “a recovering technoholic”—someone who once was “addicted to a technological way of solving problems.” Five years in India changed him. After getting his PhD in computer science and working on machine vision technologies at Microsoft, Toyama moved to Bangalore in 2004 to help lead the company’s new research center there. He and his colleagues launched dozens of projects that sought to use computers and Internet connectivity to improve education and reduce poverty. But early successes in pilot projects often couldn’t be replicated; in some schools, computers made things worse. In a book being released this spring, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Toyama argues that technologists undermine efforts at social progress by promoting “packaged interventions” at the expense of more difficult reforms. Toyama, who is now an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, spoke to MIT Technology Review’s deputy editor, Brian Bergstein. […]”

    Toyama: “The tricky thing about this is you can be very scientific about these things and still come up with the wrong conclusion. Multiple times in my lab, we’d run trials where you compare a control situation with a treatment situation. The treatment situation gets some kind of technology. If you measure some positive benefit in the technology case, your conclusion is that technology helped. But it was always the people that we worked with, the partners that we chose and the people on the ground who interacted with the people that we wanted to support. All of those human factors were required for the technology itself to have an impact; whether the technology helped or not was really up to people.”

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