Confronting info poverty with educational technology in Senegal

I first visited Senegal in 2006 – when I arrived, I was struck by the sharp contrasts of a developing nation.

YOUNG SENEGALESE welcome US President Barack Obama to a school in Senegal in 2013 (photo credit: REUTERS)
YOUNG SENEGALESE welcome US President Barack Obama to a school in Senegal in 2013
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Until we figure out how to affordably harness technology to educate the world’s poor, it is doubtful they will have the long-term ability to economically benefit from globalization and from the diversity of information available through the Internet. Information poverty adds a very real and important dimension to our concept of what it means to be poor in our connected world, a world that is in desperate need of more informed thinkers and problem solvers.
I first visited Senegal in 2006 – when I arrived, I was struck by the sharp contrasts of a developing nation: people crowded onto horse-drawn carts, shepherds guiding cows across busy streets... all texting and talking on their cell phones. But when I visited schools, I noticed the complete opposite phenomenon. My background is in digital literacy and telecom, and what I observed sparked what has become a 10-year project to bring sustainable, 21st-century learning to schools without electricity.
Harnessing technology to benefit education in developing nations is critically important. This is proven by the billions of dollars spent by foreign aid agencies, corporate donors, foundations, banks and others on educational technology programs. However, the vast majority of programs have failed because the technology used was originally designed for modern classrooms with first-world infrastructure.
Most schools in developing nations are not electrified and nearly all suffer from ongoing power cuts. Educational equipment and software has been too complicated to use and too expensive to power and maintain, and there is no sustainable infrastructure with which to hire and train teachers to facilitate technology use. A myriad of public-private partnerships have failed to connect Senegalese children to the information and knowledge that is a fundamental human right in our globalized world.
In the rare Senegalese schools that had computer labs, I observed that the computers were rarely used and typically in disrepair.
Most schools in sub-Saharan Africa are isolated from the kinds of learning taken for granted in developed countries. Without books or equipment, biology students cannot perceive the movement of cells, or dissect a frog. Chemistry experiments can only be imagined by drawing them on a blackboard, and teachers painstakingly recreate maps with chalk. I asked myself, “What is the future of this nation’s economy if their children are educated as if they live in the 19th century?”
Over a 10-year period of observing all kinds of school Information Communication Technology (ICT)programs – using computers, laptops, tablets and mobile phones – I have yet to find one that works affordably and effectively at scale. Why was technology failing to achieve its educational potential in a nation whose population is so eager to use their phones to connect with each other and the world? I came to the conclusion that the best learning technologies for Senegal and the developing world had yet to be created, and that teachers and students must help figure out what technologies will work best in their own classrooms. Since my first trip to Senegal in 2006, I have been working in close collaboration with local schools to develop a new educational technology solution that truly works. Here are the four main criteria I’ve learned: Solar: Solar power is the only way to recharge educational technology in most schools, and figuring out how to keep solar affordable is key to enabling scale.
Practical: Educational technology needs to be easy to use as a mobile phone. It has been too time-consuming and complicated asking teachers to understand the Windows operating system in order to teach a classroom lesson.
Simplify equipment: Many efforts to implement educational technology programs at massive scale have failed because too much equipment and maintenance were required to keep the program going.
Time and energy became more focused on the equipment than on the learning – which was why the equipment was there in the first place.
Enable massive impact at low cost: Minimal equipment must be used so that the annual cost to impact large numbers of students is very low. Most digital learning solutions have used a lot of equipment, and have lacked the resources necessary to provide quality learning content, ongoing training and maintenance.
Senegal is a beacon of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. With a secular government and a particularly tolerant, mostly Islamic population, it’s critical that the world supports Senegal’s efforts to educate children in ways that can sustainably benefit from globalization. And just as in every other sector of development, this means that we must figure out how technology plays a role. My approach is to solve the digital learning challenge at the classroom level, and scale up rapidly from there – because every school in Senegal and the developing world can and must become a 21st-century school.
The writer is founder and director of CyberSmart Africa, a social enterprise that has designed The CyberSmart Digital Learning Platform based on lessons learned in Senegalese schools.