Leapfrogging less developed nations

I previously posted about wireless technologies in less developed nations. Kofi Annan supported this view nearly 4 years ago! One cool indigenous Wi-Fi innovation, is the Cambodian motoman. Here, motorcycle drivers equipped with with Wi-Fi contraptions, drive past schools and health centers to download and retrieve email.

"As they pass each school and one health centre, they transmit the messages they have downloaded and retrieve any outgoing mail queued in the school or health centre computer, also equipped with a similar book-sized transmission box. They then go on to the next school. At the end of the day they return to the hub to transmit all the collected e-mail to the Internet for any point on the globe."

Less developed nations are indeed making strides to leapfrog old technologies. This leapfrog effect can be seen in education, health care, information, energy, economies, and more. Thomas Friedman wrote how globalization has essentially created a ‘flat’ world. The globalized processes Friedman refers to have really made possible the leapfrog effect.

The question remains, how will these nations tap into digital possibilities and genuinely leapfrog industrialized nations?

ICT and sustainable development

Wired magazine ran an interesting story in their April 2007 edition about an entrepreneur in the Ivory Coast who bought a cell phone, rigged up a ‘telephone booth’ and earned $200 the first month charging community members 80 cents per minute. The same man bought a PlayStation and charged 10-20 cents to play a game earning him $20 in the first three days!

I mention this story because with ICT in international development, there is much promise and a lot of the best solutions are indeed indigenous (Thanks John). A main role for ICT4D planners and policy makers is localizing technology to the needs of the community. This is evident from my experiences in Cambodia where outside experts were not in touch with the needs of the teachers yet some teachers simply found applicable ways to use the skills that were outside of the scope of the training.

ICT has promise in the less developed world. However experts from more developed countries have the onus to not just plop ICTs into a nations without thinking about localization and sustainability. After all, development is not about giving fish, it is about teaching others to fish for themselves!

Embracing technology in less developed nations

The mission of the One Laptop per Child initiative begins:

"Most of the nearly two–billion children in the developing world are inadequately educated, or receive no education at all. One in three does not complete the fifth grade.

The individual and societal consequences of this chronic global crisis are profound. Children are consigned to poverty and isolation—just like their parents—never knowing what the light of learning could mean in their lives. At the same time, their governments struggle to compete in a rapidly evolving, global information economy, hobbled by a vast and increasingly urban underclass that cannot support itself, much less contribute to the commonweal, because it lacks the tools to do so."

I have been talking with collegues lately about the future of education and technologies that will fuel change. The question is usually how will advances in technology such the Nokia N800, a Wi-Fi Internet tablet which includes VoIP support and WiMax which enables long range wireless broadband access change society in less developed nations? Will these tools along with initiatives like the One Laptop per Child change education in less developed nations?

I read a lot of work by naysayers who claim that less developed nations simply do not have the capacity to embrace such technologies. I agree if we restrict our discussion to a physically tangible ICT environment…but wireless technologies change the game. For starters, simply look at how many developing nations now have more cell phones than landline telephones. When I was recently in Cambodia I had cell phone access everywhere! Even in rural areas 6 hours away from any major town I always had good reception and never had a dropped call. There is promise if planners and policymakers think outside of the box.

Networked Readiness Index

The Networked Readiness Index measures how prepared countries are to tap into the power of ICTs by focusing on the readiness of the environment and stakeholders as well as measuring the usage of stakeholders. You can read parts of the 2006-2007 Global Information Technology Report here.

The top ten nations are:

  1. Denmark
  2. Sweden
  3. Singapore
  4. Finland
  5. Switzerland
  6. Netherlands
  7. United States
  8. Iceland
  9. United Kingdom
  10. Norway

The bottom ten nations are (position 113-122):

  • Cameroon
  • Paraguay
  • Mozambique
  • Lesotho
  • Zimbabwe
  • Bangladesh
  • Ethiopia
  • Angola
  • Burundi
  • Chad

Take note that the U.S. is seventh while European nations dominate the top ten. Eight out of 10 of the bottom entries actually lost positions and fell in their rankings while six of the top ten entries gained ground and improved their NRI.

The nations that gained 10 or more position are Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Croatia, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Guyana. The nations that lost 10 or more positions are Cyprus, Pakistan, Jordan, Botswana, South Africa, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Uganda, Cameroon, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

Since nations in Europe are dominating this list with regard to the NRI, some nations in South America are making great strides upward, and some African nations are falling further behind, what does this mean for educational development?

I give you this background data because I am often asked about the future of ICT4D and the ability of less developed nations to really embrace ICTs. In general the pressing issues for the near future of ICT4D as I see it are:

  • Professional development and technology leadership issues in South America (showing the most promise for Web 2.0 advances);
  • Infrastructural development issues in Africa; and
  • A balance of infrastructure, professional development, and technology leadership issues in Asia and the Middle East.

International Perspectives

Have you ever thought about technology issues facing less developed nations? Well…that is my perspective for this week. To begin my guest blogging week, I would like to share some of my experiences working in Cambodia on an ICT in education project.

First off, let me say I address the issue of technology leadership from an ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) perspective. My focus is how less developed nations can address social, political, and educational issues through ICTs. An awesome source for grey literature on ICT4D can be found via the Washington Post. The grey literature is a great source for current and relevant pieces on this topic. If you are interested in reading only one piece, you can download ICT4D – Connecting People for a Better World as a good resource.

I could ramble on endlessly about how great my experience in Cambodia was or how amazing the Khmer people were to me. I did keep a blog about my time in Cambodia that included many cool pics but was unable to make entries regularly due to issues of time and technology. But today I would like to focus on challenges of actually implementing an ICT in education project in a less developed nation.

Imagine an expert training you how to ride a motorcycle by using a stationary bicycle. The stationary bike is great, but you do not know how to balance or turn the motorcycle; you do not know how the motorcycle will help you get to work faster when you cannot even start the contraption; once you figure out how to start the beast, you have no idea how to troubleshoot or repair when issues arise; the motorcycle given to you is old, breaks often, and it is difficult to find replacement parts; the only repair guide you have is in another language; and your trainer had little experience riding a motorcycle in your neighborhood and is thus uncertain of traffic rules and road conditions. This analogy aptly describes my experiences:

1) Experts were brought in without knowing the job demands of the teachers. Additionally, the training was focused on skills acquisition versus skills utilization. The skills were not localized to the needs of the teachers.

2) The computers donated to the country were used units. The Ministry had to literally piece together parts to build Frankenstein units.

3) There is no software support for languages such as Khmer. Thus, using drop-down menus to help figure out software was not possible.

4) The keyboards had Roman keys whereas the Khmer language uses Pallava script. Thus, teachers had learn to type using a Roman script QWERTY keyboard with a paper cutout of a Khmer keyboard taped beside the actual keyboard.

5) Donated computers are often old and slow. It was difficult to find replacement parts and find software that worked well together given hardware limitations.

6) The training was not ongoing. The lack of opportunities to practice, seek help, correct misunderstanding, and apply learnings hindered the adoption of ICTs.

Don’t get me wrong…this project did some amazing things like training every teacher trainer in the country, making ICT in education a national issue, creating a national ICT in education policy, providing colleges with over 800 computers, and generally raising the ICT awareness in the country as a whole. However, I see there is still a lot of work yet to do.