From donkeys to databases

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McGill Reporter
September 26, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 02
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 35: 2002-2003 > September 26, 2002 > From donkeys to databases

From donkeys to databases

Photo Sir John Daniel
PHOTO: Claudio Calligaris

When we hear the words technology and education, most North Americans tend to think computers, the Internet, high-tech graphing calculators and the like. When Sir John Daniel, assistant director general for education at UNESCO, talks about technology, he thinks of different applications: washing machines, donkeys, and a hole in the wall.

Daniel spoke to a nearly packed audience -- most of whom appeared to be professors -- in the Otto Maass building on September 23, delivering a lecture entitled "Technology is the Answer: What was the Question?"

The question, he quickly went on to say, was how do we improve education by increasing accessibility and quality, while reducing cost. It's a question growing in importance every day. Over 110 million children world-wide never see the inside of a classroom in their lives, and a similar number drop out of primary schooling.

Those are huge numbers, and Daniel was adamant that although economies of scale certainly help in education delivery, a bottom-up approach tailored to the requirements of students is what makes a system work well.

"The key principle is to start with the learners' needs, not the teachers' needs," said Daniel.

How does one do this through technology application? Daniel cited what he called the four B's. The first two B's are to be avoided: bias, especially vendor bias, that tells schools that they need a technology solution that their company just happens to be selling. Working hand in hand with bias is bullshit, which distorts both the capabilities of the technology, and the nature of the problem.

The other two B's are breadth and balance. Daniel urged his audience to think broadly about what we think of as technology. These are questions Daniel has been dealing with throughout his career -- from the Open University in the U.K. where he was vice-chancellor, to Quebec, where he helped establish the Télé-université. His work in UNESCO involves dealing with greater difficulties -- that require correspondingly imaginative solutions.

"How do you get kids to school in a mountainous area of South America so that they're not too tired to learn when they arrive for class? The solution is to get them donkeys. The problem is, it's hard to get donkeys under UN procurement guidelines -- they don't have the same sorts of performance specifications. The solution was to hire them as consultants, which was possible under UN guidelines -- and they had an advantage over human consultants in that they did not file reports," he said to laughter.

Getting caught up in information technology in the form of computers, the latest obsession of North American educators, can blind us to the types of technology actually needed in developing countries. Computers are useless in areas without reliable electricity. In Afghanistan, for instance, distance education programs are now being set up for radios, which are fairly widespread in that country.

More pointedly, Daniel cited an article by a woman working in Tanzania who surveyed her female students as to the kind of technology they needed to help their learning.

"They said they needed washers and vacuums so they could speed up their housework and spend more time on their studies," said Daniel.

Education consists of two main components, said Daniel —the interactive and the independent. Interactive is anything where a student gets direct feedback to their questions or presentations. Independent learning is fairly self-explanatory -- a student reading or researching by themselves.

The question is what works best for whom, and when. Daniel cited a surprising study by Sugata Mitra, who put a touch-screen computer in a poor shanty-town alley. It was quickly discovered by local children, who dubbed it the "Hole in the Wall."

Remarkably, the children were able to teach themselves how to use almost all of the functions of the computer within a month -- with no outside guidance whatsoever. More remarkable still, they were able to do relatively complex tasks like navigating the Internet and downloading games without knowing any English, the language of the interface. The level of person to person interaction -- always the most expensive part of delivering instruction —was almost eliminated, but the children gained a level of computer literacy nonetheless.

"Technology can provide answers [but] do not be led astray by the bias and bullshit we hear from the promoters of technology," he said. "Instead think broadly about the use of technology, and seek balance in the way you apply it."

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