The school-dropout figure, from Asia alone, stands at nearly 15 million - a remarkable stat in itself. Fortunately, education technology has started to penetrate these so-called "poorer" communities over the past few years. In this post, we will analyze some of the chief trends in the use of technology for study purposes in the developing countries:
- The Facebook bubble - Among the major social networking sites, only Facebook can be said to have a truly global presence. Even in the not-so-advanced communities, most school and college-goers have personal FB accounts, while academic institutions (the leading ones, at least) have customized Facebook pages. The website has started to facilitate seamless virtual interaction between learners and teachers, and has given exposure to many new study courses.
- Growing popularity of distance learning courses - The concept of full-time video classes and flipped classrooms has yet to take roots in Southeast Asian and African countries. Distance learning, however, is something that many students from these parts of the world are opting for. In the more remote areas, there is a serious lack of proper infrastructure for classroom education (buildings, class supplies, etc.) - and distance learning emerges as a viable alternative.
- Understanding the value of mobile gadgets in education - Given the rapid pace of technological development across the globe, it is rather surprising that developing nations, more often than not, do not get the latest tools and gizmos at the same time as the more advanced countries (the much-delayed release of iPhone 5 in India would be a case in point). Even so, mobile educational apps for kids are increasingly becoming a part of preschoolers’ academic pursuits. Senior students have started to rely on handheld gadgets for note-taking, study-scheduling, and accessing the web on the go.
- Availability of low-cost tablets - In most countries where the economic situation is not the best, tablets enjoy greater popularity than smartphones and feature phones - at least among students. This occurs chiefly because of the strategy of several companies to design low-cost, user-friendly tablets (with basic features only) for these markets. Just like laptops, competitively priced tablets are likely to become integral parts of student education in the not-too-distant future.
- Dearth of qualified teachers - Probably the biggest single problem in the path of proliferation of education in developing countries. The literacy rates are shockingly low in countries like Ethiopia, Congo, Afghanistan, and even the relatively more developed Bangladesh (a shade under 60%). What’s more - even the teachers who have the necessary degrees have precious little idea about the concept of education technology, let alone being able to use it. To tackle the immense illiteracy problem, around 1.8 million instructors are required, only for the primary schools in the developing countries. They have to be provided the requisite computer training and made familiar with other technological aides too.
- Not in a position to compete with students from the Western World - Although online education and iPad apps for kids are slowly getting accepted in the academic sector of poorer countries - students over here are still not in a position to compete with their Western counterparts, in terms of career opportunities. The problem is particularly serious in the more heavily-populated countries, like India and China. Competition is fierce, education and job-opportunities are far from adequate, and many students (and their parents) prefer going abroad to pursue higher studies. Just like in a vicious cycle, this drain of resources keeps developing countries in the mire.
- Computer education in primary schools - This is an encouraging trend. Even five/six years back, authorities deemed that PCs and laptops were only required for senior-school and college students - and grants were provided accordingly. The problem was, these students were not used to work on computers, and there were hardly any teachers to guide them either. At present, computer education is being made a part of the study curriculum of little kids. Developing an early familiarity with technology would stand kids from the developing countries in good stead.
- Sub-optimal use of technology - So, do students from the OECD countries that have computer and web access use these learning resources optimally? Research reports suggest that such is not at all the case. In many communities, the average daily time-span of computer usage by a student is less than one hour (since most of them are still stuck with outdated textbook learning methods). On smartphones and tablets, there remains the tendency of downloading inane games and wallpapers, instead of the many free Android or iPhone learning apps for kids that are available.
- Children with special needs are being brought into the fold - Technology has started to help physically challenged students in a big way, in quite a few of the third-world countries. The focus has shifted to bringing these kids with special needs at par with others. Once again, those from the more remote locations still do not have access to such high-end information and communication technology (ICT), though. Also, in spite of the best efforts of the governments, the expenses for such educational tools for children with special needs remain high.
- The great language divide - For students from developing countries who are relatively savvy with the World Wide Web, accessing e-copies of internationally acclaimed study texts and references is not much of a problem. Difficulties, however, crop up when the necessary digital study material is not available in translated versions. Children from, say, Thailand (Thai) or India (Hindi), might be able to refer to online learning resources - but correctly translated texts and journals might simply not be available. This, in turn, forces many students to settle for mediocre physical books in local languages.
The gender gap in education, and consequently, familiarity to education technology, is remarkably high in the developing world as well. While computer agencies and mobile application development companies are becoming more frequent, very few of them bother to actually showcase the value of these gadgets and apps for academic purposes. The present learning trends in these countries are upward - but judging by current trends, students from here do not seem likely to be able to catch up with those from the West within the next half decade. Disturbing, yet true!
Ross Smythe is the chief concept developer at Teknowledge Mobile Studio. He regularly writes on the web, specifically on various aspects related to education technology.