In the Developing World, Connectivity is Essential for Digital Learning

This article is a response to a recent one on Al Fanar Media entitled MIT Meeting Asks: Can Digital Learning Include the Developing World?

As digital learning increases its important outreach into the developing world, it’s tempting for some experts to suggest that access to the Internet can be sidestepped by, for instance, sending multimedia-based CD-ROMs to those who don’t have Internet access.

While it is true that digital learning is possible without the Internet, it is nowhere near optimal when we dismiss the added value of the Internet to what digital learning means.

One of the particular suggestions made is a case in point. The author discusses a project whose work involves “preloading” devices with educational resources, where the real work is the curation of skilled librarians, working with educators to make the content locally relevant.

No. There is just so much wrong with this picture, and much of it relates to freedom.

Content is Not Value-Neutral

Content that is given to a learner is given to them by someone. That someone has values, has an agenda (it may be benevolent, and it may even be a local giver, but it’s still the agenda of the giver not the receiver). It is always important to ask who chooses the content, for what purpose, and in what ways this content privileges certain people, ideas, and ideologies over others.

Those who suggest that connectivity is not necessary for digital learning are basically claiming that learners need not necessarily have choice in what and how they learn. That is a huge infringement upon their agency.

Of course one can have freedom to find what is of interest offline. The Internet isn’t completely necessary for learning. But if we are going to talk about digital learning, then we need to realize that good digital learning isn’t learning that tells you what you need to know. Good digital learning is learning that allows you to pursue your own interests at your own pace, taking your own path, asking your own questions, not ones others thought you deserved to ask. “Preloaded” just doesn’t cut it. There is no comparison between the kind of learning you can get from a CD-ROM and the way you can learn from the Internet if you have connectivity and digital literacies to browse and search well and evaluate the credibility of what you find. Granted, Google search is algorithm-based and not value-neutral either (but hey, there are alternatives. I..uh… Googled it and found these). But it still gives you more freedom than a CD-ROM or textbook. But even Internet content is not neutral. It exists in the dominant world languages which may not be the native language of those in the developing world (Arabic is the 4th most commonly used language on the Internet, by the way, following English, Chinese and Spanish – which is a great accomplishment given literacy rates in the Arab world) and current automatic translation tools are both laughably and sadly sub-optimal. Which brings me to the next point.

Freedom to Produce One’s Own Content

One of the most important developments of the Internet in the past 15 years or so is the ability and freedom of individuals to create their own content. And these are not just frivolous things like status updates and pet videos. You only need to compare the Wikipedia entries for the October 1973 war in English and Arabic. Same facts, same event, completely different perspectives. Because, you know, Wikipedia isn’t neutral either, and so the pro-Israeli authors dominated the English version, and the Arabs (probably Egyptians) dominated the Arabic version and voila: Two versions of history. One of which will be read by most of the world. Another one that will be mostly read by its own writers. But still. It’s an accomplishment to even have the opportunity to present a different view point.

Freedom to Interact with Others

Someone recently wrote that “social media is about content”. I tweeted back that I disagreed. Social media (for me) is primarily about the “social” aspect that affords connection and relationship-building. This is one of the greatest advances of the Internet. Not only the ability of anyone with connectivity and skill to produce their own content, but also our ability to communicate with others from all over the world if we want to. This feature has been available since the early days of the Internet (think “Internet Relay Chat” and early versions of discussion forums) but is much more powerful with social media and the way they notify users, especially with the advent of mobile technologies which are more ubiquitous and more accessible to those of us in developing countries. There are low-bandwidth and high-bandwidth opportunities for this. While at eLearning Africa, I learned of ways in which countries with limited electricity and Internet access managed to get work done offline, then save the online time for the interactivity, using low-bandwidth mobile apps like WhatsApp.

Freedom to Choose What and How We Learn

Going back to librarians, I’d like to use an analogy. There is a difference between having access to a public library and having access to textbooks at school. Textbooks at school were written by someone for a particular purpose. Prepackaged, selective, organized for a particular outcome. They don’t consider each individual student’s interests and needs. A public library, on the other hand, allows people to choose whatever is of interest to them at the time. Sure, someone has curated the content in that library. But there is much more choice than what is available in school textbooks. I realize that the project mentioned earlier tries to provide such a library “preloaded” on devices. However, given the vastness of the Internet, any attempt to make a “customized” library out of it, while ignoring other content on the Internet, is value-laden and restricts the freedom of learners substantially.

Where Do We Go From Here?

All of this leads to this: if I were an investor trying to support lifelong learning in the developing world, if I really wanted to empower them, then I would not invest in content. Here are three things I would invest in:

  1. Improving Internet infrastructure in as many locations as possible.
  2. Where Internet infrastructure is too difficult to improve, provide public areas where people can go to get Internet for some part of the day, like Internet cafes or buses. Although not all people would be able to use these and they are not optimal, it’s better than no Internet at all.
  3. Support the development of digital skills and literacies in order to empower people to autonomously learn using the Internet and recognize the power they hold in their hands if they know how to use it well, which also includes the capacity to create content in their own language from their own cultural perspective.

* Maha Bali is associate professor of practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, where she also teaches educational game design. She is also the co-founder of VirtuallyConnecting.org. She blogs at http://blog.mahabali.me and Chronicle of Higher Education’s Prof Hacker blog. She tweets at @bali_maha.


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