In it, Mr. Behar concludes that “After 5 years [of developing a digital learning resource library and supporting schools who made use of it], when we took stock at a fundamental level, we realized that the whole thing was at best a qualified failure.”
Having read it with great interest, and being involved with activities in the derided ICT4D field, I thought of sharing my own thoughts on this thougtful and provoking piece.
Mr. Bhehar outlines a number of reasons for the failure of the DLR project:
• Poor infrastructure – power, PCs and almost non-existing Internet connectivity (hold the thought on the last one – we’ll get to it).
• School culture – or the lack thereof, in relation to the use of computers as educational tools.
• ICT not being able to replace teachers, or more accurately teaching quality
• Expected addition of discovery learning and fulfillment of curiosity though additional means not met.
I believe much of what Mr. Behar has to say is important, indeed fundamental to the discussion on the role and possible contribution of ICT to any developmental effort. As strongly though, I believe that we need to contextualize and qualify the discussion on this project and by extension ICT4D in general.
Proper disclosure – we have and are involved with a number of ICT4x (Place education, health, governance, etc.) initiatives. Also, I have been working on educational issues in rural areas for a few years prior to joining AirJaldi. Ah… and I’m a perpetual optimist and believer in motivation as an important driver of success.
Yes – honesty is to be lauded, in particular when one has spent time and money to prove A and has found at best an “a”.
Yes – ICT4x is NOT a panacea. Nor was the paper, the ballpen, TV, video, OLPC….. and on it goes
Yes – infrastructure in rural areas is crippling. We work in similar areas and share similar experience (sans the non-availability of internet – this after all is OUR job…;^) )
Yes – Education is about people, about quality of teaching, about dedication, passion, and above all a belief in the central role of teaching as an art of leadership by example and infusion of the thirst for knowledge.
No – this does not prove that ICT4ED cannot be successfully implemented in rural areas
No – this does not mean that technical challenges cannot be overcome at a reasonable cost
No – this should not mean that ICT has no role to play in education.
In my opinion, what Mr. Behar describes is as much a success as it is a failure. The confessed failure of the project is a failure of expectations. It is a success, though, in its ability to define the limitations of ICT4x, in this case education. It is also a success as it could help us practitioners to formulate our objectives and carry out our activities in a more realistic and informed manner.
What are the main points I take from this article? A few pointers that also resonate strongly with our own experience in AirJaldi:
1. Enhance, not replace – no technology, no system can replace the leader of the enterprise. A combine harvester is not a farmer, a sales portal is not a businessman, and a teaching aid is not a teacher (nor can a remote teacher replace a school teacher, but this particular debate merits a separate discussion). Having placed the teacher squarely and rightfully in the center of the picture, equipping him or her with equipment and technology can increase their productivity. Hey – if they enjoy playing with computers and that will help to improve their attendance, should we object? With some help and encouragement, even the most fanatic social surfer can be cajoled to using the computer as a teaching tool, and if he/she gets the headmistress to unlock the storage room and get the PC out, well... One more output for the checklist!
2. It’s the infrastructure, Stuart… - Yes, it is wanting and lacking in many a rural and semi-rural (and semi-urban) areas of India. On the other hand, the solution space is constantly evolving and, while surely not solved, the possibilities of successfully operating an IT-enabled rural classroom are today much better than when we first started our own work in this space (2005 and even earlier, but that’s another story).
3. I pay, therefore I care – free lunches tend to be consumed with little thought for cost or taste. If one pays for a service, at least something, we can safely expect higher involvement as well as opinions and choices of tastes and usage. Pricing is also a great indicator of demand – is the service seen as useful to the clients? How can I improve my offering? We at AirJaldi have learnt, and are learning some great (if not always pleasant) lessons in this regard, ones that help us develop and evolve.
4. Time frame – five years, is it long or short? I once read an excerpt from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a friend, in which he wrote something like “I am enclosing in this envelope a few apple seeds; please plant them in your yard. You or I may not live to enjoy their fruits, but our children or their friends will”. Education is a long term endeavor. In my humble opinion, one of the most fundamental failures of the field of International Development is its inability to develop project life-cycles that are longer than very few years. An educational initiative should be attempted, in my view, when one is willing to give oneself at least 10 years to learn, improve and yes, ultimately succeed. We are in our fifth year or so (but who's counting when we're having fun?), and it is now that we begin to feel that enough mistakes have been made and enough false starts abandoned to allow us to pursue our work with a much better chance of success.
5. And, ah… connectivity! Needless to say, we believe this is a fundamental aspect of any such project. Without it, one is revving the PCs in the classrooms but never taking them out for a ride in this exciting cloud out there. Mr. Behar was right in suggesting that connectivity has much to contribute on issues of school management and administration. I believe that these are but the initial benefits. In order to get to the golden seams we will need to work at it for a while longer or, even better, let the kids help us work the gold seams together.
6. And, umm, finally, I doubt that the learned educators from Finland or Canada would consider* giving up connectivity at their schools for even a day. In a similar manner, I read with amusement the musings of the self-crowned "ICT4D jester ", who commented on the article in his blog , and who confesses to being a part time Luddite. Does one need to point out that we can enjoy his, and the Fino-Canadian educators' musing precisely BECAUSE we and they KNOW how use ICT, CAN access the net, and can learn more about the successes and failures of ICT4D and other endeavors?
So – back to the drawing table, back to the field – Let’s go forth and connect! Apples anyone?