Analysis & Opinions - Business Daily

Riding New Technological Waves

| December 6, 2007

In a critique of the XO laptop (widely known as the $100 laptop), a senior computer industry official once said the effort was like seeking to replace modern cars with faster 'horses'.

The XO laptop uses flash memory and does not have a hard drive. It is admittedly slower than other laptops. While the speed and price of the horse matters, what is important is getting African children to learn how to rise and use 'horses' of all types to meet their educational needs.

The real test will be on the extent to which African leaders, entrepreneurs and development agencies can harness the power of emerging educational technologies and modernise the continent's educational systems.

More specifically, they should start to invest in developing the content needed for the technologies. Africa's early entry into content development will help to put the technologies to effective use.

A delay will either render the technologies irrelevant or will condemn Africa to dependence on ill-adapted educational material. In addition, such initiatives will offer new opportunities for emerging African software enterprises and institutions to work with partners in other parts of the world. It will create new business and learning avenues for the continent. The content can come from a wide range of sources.

For example, the California-based Lauren Springs School is adapting its personalised distance environmental education curriculum to the XO laptop for developing countries.

Institutions such as the United Nations Environment Programme are also positioning themselves to play leadership roles in using emerging educational technologies in their respective fields.

Such educational content can also help to rejuvenate and preserve African culture. For example, an animation of Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron, could be a greater source of inspiration for teaching science, technology, and engineering and math.

Incumbent industry leaders and educational bureaucracies are working to hold back the diffusion of alternative technologies. But their efforts would be better served through supportive roles. A stream of new educational technologies is expected to enter the marketplace.

Amazon's Kindle digital reader, for example, may appear on the surface to be yet another fancy 'gadget'. But its educational value is profound. A digital reader that can hold up to 200 books could effectively replace the need for students to visit libraries.

Moreover, the technology can serve as a new platform enabling authors to get from their manuscripts into the digital reader without having to go through the traditional publishing process. In fact, the long process of book publishing has been a major barrier to the modernisation of educational curricula in Africa.

But as expected, instead of embracing such technologies, many education ministries will be working with publishers to retain the status quo.  They can avoid this by learning from the telecommunications industry. Only a decade ago, telephone receivers defined the office as the locus of communication.

Life revolved around the telephone set and receptionists wielded enormous power.  Today, teachers hold the same influence partly because human voice, books, chalk and blackboard combined to make the school the central locus of learning.

But emerging educational technologies and advances in brain science are redefining education.  The student of the future will be a self-learner armed with a wide range of educational technologies. The 'classroom' will become as open as the modern office is today.

Emerging educational technologies such as the XO, Intel's Classmate and Kindle are prototypes of a new dawn in educational reform.

The urgent task is for Africa to find a way to lead by developing appropriate content. It is only by doing so that the continent can hope to ride the technological wave.

Prof. Juma teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and is a member of the board of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Foundation.

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For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Riding New Technological Waves.” Business Daily, December 6, 2007.