Artificial Intelligence in Education: Your Weekend Long Reads

Continuing the focus on artificial intelligence (AI), this weekend looks at it in education. In general, there are many fanciful AI in Ed possibilities proposed to help people teach and learn, some of which are genuinely exciting and others that just look much like today.

One encouraging consensus from the readings below is that, while there is concern that AI and robots will ultimately take over certain human jobs, teachers are safe. The role relies too much on the skills that AI is not good at, such as creativity and emotional intelligence.

An Argument for AI in Education

A 2016 report (two-page summary) from Pearson and University College London’s Knowledge Lab offers a very readable and coherent argument for AI in education. It describes what is possible today, for example one-on-one digital tutoring to every student, and what is potentially possible in the future, such as lifelong learning companions powered by AI that can accompany and support individual learners throughout their studies – in and beyond school. Or, one day, there could be new forms of assessment that measure learning while it is taking place, shaping the learning experience in real time. It also proposes three actions to help us get from here to there.

AI and People, Not AI Instead of People

There is an argument that rather than focusing solely on building more intelligent AI to take humans out of the loop, we should focus just as much on intelligence amplification/augmentation. This is the use of technology – including AI – to provide people with information that helps them make better decisions and learn more effectively. So, for instance, rather than automating the grading of student essays, some researchers are focusing on how they can provide intelligent feedback to students that helps them better assess their own writing.

The “Human Touch” as Value Proposition

At Online Educa Berlin last month, I heard Dr. Tarek R. Besold, lecturer in Data Science at City, University of London, talk about AI in Ed (my rough notes are here). He built on the idea that we need to think more carefully about what AI does well and what humans do well.

For example, AI can provide intelligent tutoring, but only on well-defined, narrow domains for which we have lots of data. Learning analytics can analyse learner behaviour and teacher activities … so as to identify individual needs and preferences to inform human intervention. Humans, while inefficient at searching, sorting and mining data, for example, are good at understanding, empathy and relationships.

In fact, of all the sectors McKinsey & Company examined in a report on where machines could replace humans, the technical feasibility of automation is lowest in education, at least for now. Why? Because the essence of teaching is deep expertise and complex interactions with other people, things that AI are not yet good at. Besold proposed the “human touch” as our value proposition.

Figuring out how humans and AI can bring out the best in each other to improve education, now that is an exciting proposal. Actually creating this teacher-machine symbiosis in the classroom will be a major challenge, though, given the perception of job loss from technology.

The Future of AI Will Be Female

Emotional intelligence is increasingly in demand in the workplace, and will only be more so in the future when AI will have replaced predicable, repetitive jobs. This means that cultivating emotional intelligence and social skills should be critical components of education today. But there’s a fascinating angle here: in general, women score much higher than men in emotional intelligence. Thus, Quartz claims, women are far better prepared for an AI future.

Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND by Ericsson

Artificial Intelligence: Your Weekend Long Reads

Artificial intelligence (AI) was one of the hottest topics of 2017. A Gartner “mega trend,” their research director, Mike J. Walker, proposed that “AI technologies will be the most disruptive class of technologies over the next 10 years due to radical computational power, near-endless amounts of data and unprecedented advances in deep neural networks.”

But as much as it is trendy and bursting with promise, it is also controversial, overhyped and misunderstood. In fact, it has yet to enjoy a widely accepted definition.

AI underpins many of Gartner’s emerging technologies on its 2017 hype cycle. However, smart robots, deep learning and machine learning were all cresting the Peak of Inflated Expectations. Of course, after that comes the Trough of Disillusionment. Collectively they will take two to ten years to reach the Plateau of Productivity.

AI is both a long game and already in our lives. Your Amazon or Netflix recommendations are partly AI-based. So is speech recognition and translation,  such as in Google Home and Google Translate. But, as you know from using these services, they are far from perfect. Closer to ICT4D, within monitoring and evaluation we know the opportunities and limitations of AI.

In 2018 we can expect to hear a lot more about AI, along with promises and disappointments. Almost anyone who’s software has an algorithm will claim they’re harnessing AI. There will suddenly be more adaptive, intelligent platforms in edtech, and more talk of smart robots and AI hollowing out the global job market.

While there will be some truth to the AI claims and powerful new platforms, we need to learn to read between the lines. The potential of AI is exciting and will be realised over the coming years and decades, but in varying degrees and unevenly spread. For now, a balanced view is needed to discern between what is hype or on the long horizon, and what can we use today for greater social impact. Only in this way can we fully get to grips with the technological, social and ethical impact of AI. Below are a few articles to get our interest piqued in 2018.

The Next Fifteen Years

To get the big picture, an excellent place to start is the Stanford University report Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030. A panel of experts focussed the AI lens on eight domains they considered most salient: transportation; service robots; healthcare; education; low-resource communities; public safety and security; employment and workplace; and entertainment. In each of these domains, the report both reflects on progress in the past fifteen years and anticipates developments in the coming fifteen years.

AI for Good

Last year the ITU hosted the AI for Good Global Summit, which brought together a host of international NGOs, UN bodies, academia and the private sector to consider the opportunities and limitations of AI for good. The conference report offers a summary of the key takeaways and applications cited in the event. A number of webcasts are also available.

AI Moves into the Cloud

While most ICT4D tech outfits simply don’t have access to the computing power and expertise to fully utilise AI, this is starting to change. In 2017, AI floated into the cloud. Amazon, Google and Microsoft have introduced large-scale cloud-based AI. This includes open-source AI software as well as AI services for turning speech in audio files into time-stamped text, translating between various languages and tracking people, activities, and objects in video. I’m looking forward to seeing these tools used in ICT4D soon.

Growing Up with Alexa

Considering the interaction between her four-year-old niece and Amazon Echo’s Alexa, a reporter asked the following question: What will it do to kids to have digital butlers they can boss around? What is the impact of growing up with Alexa? Will it make kids better adjusted and educated — or the opposite? This piece offers interesting questions on the social impact of AI on children.

The Ethical Dimension

The World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology of UNESCO (COMEST) last year released a report on the ethical issues surrounding the use of contemporary robotic technologies — underpinned by AI — in society (there is a 2-minute video summary). The bottom line: some decisions always require meaningful human control.

Amidst the growing role of robots in our world there are new responsibilities for humans to ensure that people and machines can live in productive co-existence. As AI impacts our world in greater ways, the ethical dimension will equally become more important, bringing philosophers, technologists and policy-makers around the same table. Being in the ICT4D space, our role as technologists and development agents will be critical here.

Image: © CC-BY-SA by Silver Blue

Fake News – Weekend Long Reads

We live in an era, according to the Economist, that is post-truth. Especially in politics, this time sees “a reliance on assertions that ‘feel true’ but have no basis in fact.” In 2016, post-truth was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.

Untruths have always been with us, but the internet is the medium that changed everything. The scale with which “alternative facts“, untruths and blatant lies can be created and spread — by people and algorithms — can, for the first time ever, threaten democracy and social cohesion at a global scale.

For those of us who have, for a long time, believed in the power of the internet to break down barriers between people and cultures, foster dialogue, have a sharpening effect on truth through increased transparency and access to information, post-truth’s most dangerous weapon, “fake news“, is a bitter pill to swallow. While fake news has been around since the late 19th century, it is now a headline phenomenon, the Collins’ Word of the Year for 2017. What happened to the grand internet dream of the democratisation of knowledge?

All of us have a duty to engage with these complex issues, to understand them, take a position, and reclaim the dream. Most importantly, we need to constantly question whether the digital tools we built, and continue to build, are part of the problem.

The Birth of a Word

It is useful to go back only a year and a half to remind ourselves how fake news became a household word. WIRED’s article traces the the birth — and, it claims — the death of it. How did it die? It quickly became so diluted in meaning, so claimed by those shouting the loudest, that it has become meaningless in many ways.

Fake News, or Information Disorder?

In an attempt to bring structure to the discussions, the Council of Europe produced a report on what it calls information disorder. The authors refrain from using the term fake news, for two reasons. First, they believe it is “woefully inadequate” to describe a very complex issue, and, secondly, it has been appropriated by politicians to slam any news or organisation they find disagreeable, thus becoming a mechanism for repression — what the New York Times calls “a cudgel for strongmen”.

The authors introduce a new conceptual framework for examining information disorder, identifying three different types:

  • Mis-information is when false information is shared, but no harm is meant. (According to Open University research, misinformation is rife among refugee populations.)
  • Dis-information is when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm.
  • Mal-information is when genuine information is shared to cause harm, often by moving information designed to stay private into the public sphere.

The report concludes with excellent recommendations for technology companies, as well as a range of other stakeholders. If the report is too long for you, be sure just to read the recommendations.

Fight It With Software

Tom Wheeler at the Brookings Institute offers a history of information sharing, control and news curation. He laments that today the “algorithms that decide our news feed are programmed to prioritize user attention over truth to optimize for engagement, which means optimizing for outrage, anger and awe.” But, he proposes: “it was software algorithms that put us in this situation, and it is software algorithms that can get us out of it.”

The idea is “public interest algorithms” that interface with social network platforms to, at an aggregate level, track information sources, spread and influence. Such software could help public interest groups monitor social media in the same way they do for broadcast media.

Fight It With Education

While I believe in the idea of software as the solution, the Wheeler article seems to miss a key point: information spread is a dance between algorithms and people. Every like, share and comment by you and me feeds the beast. Without us, the algorithm starves.

We need to change the way we behave online; media and information literacy are crucial to this. There are many excellent resources for teens, adults and teachers to help us all be more circumspect online. I like the Five Key Questions That Can Change the World (from 2005!)

Want To Understand It Better? Fake Some

Finally, long before fake news become popular, in 2008, Professor T. Mills Kelly got his students at George Mason University to create fake Wikipedia pages to teach them the fallibility of the internet. At Google’s Newsgeist unconference last month, a similar exercise involved the strategising of a fake news campaign aimed at discrediting a certain US politician. Both instances force us to get into the minds of fakesters and how to use the internet to spread the badness. While creating fake Wikipedia pages doesn’t help the internet information pollution problem, the heart of the exercises are useful — perhaps they should be part of media literacy curricula?

Thanks to Guy Berger for suggesting some of these articles.

Image: © CC-BY-NC .jeff.

Online Educa Berlin 2017 – rough notes

I recently attended my first Online Educa Berlin conference and found it to be very interesting. With over 2,000 attendees there are enough sessions for you to really dive into whatever is your particular edtech passion. There are also a large number of exhibitors. The focus of the event is largely US and European, but for me this was a breath of fresh air after almost always attending developing country events.

I presented the key findings from the forthcoming landscape review Digital Inclusion for Low-skilled and Low-literate People.

Below are my rough notes from the event, with key takeaways in highlight.

Learning and Working Alongside AI in Everyday Life

Donald Clark, Plan B Learning, UK

  • Recommended book: Janesville: An American Story.
  • 47% of jobs will be automated in next 20 years — claimed by Frey and Osborne, 2013. He says it’s not true.
  • Top 10 market cap companies in the world: 8 of 10 use AI or tech.
  • AI is already in our lives. We have all watched a Netflix show or bought a book on Amazon because of a software-based recommendation.
  • AI in learning:
    • One of the biggest uses of AI in ed is to check for plagiarism. We can do more.
    • Coursera uses AI for online assessmenta (face recognition).
    • Check out: Wildfire (automated learning content creation), PhotoMath (Scan a maths problem for an
      instant result plus working out), Cogbooks (advanced adaptive learning platform).
    • Opportunity: AI can analyse and assess data without bias (unlike humans).
  • AI affects what we should teach, how we teach it, why we teach it. We need to rethink the education offering in the age of AI.

Tarek R. Besold, City, University of London, UK

Key message: AI is useful, but not everything is AI and AI is not good at all things. We need to think more carefully about what AI does well, what humans do well, and how we can work together.

  • Not all tech is AI, e.g. VR is not AI.
  • Intelligent tutoring only works well on well-defined, narrow domains for which we have lots of data.
  • Learning analytics is best used to track learner and teacher activities so as to identify individual needs and preferences to inform human intervention.
  • He pushes back against the popular call for all young people to learning coding. He says they don’t need to all learn programming, but rather logical thinking, procedural thinking, reasoning.
  • AI will not create equal access to education because of inequality in ICT infrastructure.
  • AI is good at taking over the “declarative knowledge” part of teaching, which can give human teachers/educators more time to focus on skills and the social aspects.
  • See the “human touch” as a value proposition beyond AI.
  • In automation, AI can take over mechanistic and repetitive tasks, giving human workers time to focus on decision-making, creative tasks.
  • Impact of AI on labour market: We need a societal decision: less workers or shorter working week for everyone (we can push back at tech companies)?
  • Must read for the AI-savvy decision maker: Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030 (Stanford University report).

I asked: If AI should augment teaching and learning, with both humans and AI having strengths, how do we move AI into education (that could perceive it as a threat)?

  • Donald: Practical level: introduce spaced learning, adaptive learning, content creation to demonstrate the benefit.
  • Tarek: Political level: take the market approach out of education. Ensure humans will not lose jobs because of technology, shift societal perspectives on putting humans first.

Exhibitor: 360AI provides Artificial Intelligence building blocks delivered as APIs, aimed at accelerating the development of innovative teaching and learning products. 


  • Rethinking Learning Management Systems as Next Generation Digital Learning Environments (NGDLE) — see this article.
    Not an LMS but an LMX (Learning Method Experience).
  • It can be difficult to choose the right standards. Below is what Marieke de Wit, SURFnet B.V. shared:

LTI standard apparently rather poor on documentation right now.

Jeff Merriman, Associate Director of MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology and co-founder of the DXtera Institute:

  • MIT has a growing open-source Educational Infrastructure Service (EIS).
  • No UI, they are “headless”.
  • Integration challenge is huge.
  • How can chatbots interface with a LMS? Use existing software, example Slack, as the LMX. Chatbot integration is then back-ended by, for example, an assessment service.


Chatbots in teaching and learning

Donald Clark, Plan B Learning, UK

  • Learning bots:
    • Onboarding bots: chiefonboarding
    • Find stuff: Invisible LMS. Engagement not management
    • Learner engagement:
    • Learner support: Deakin’s campus genie student services / IBM and “Jill Watson”
    • Teach courses: Duolingo bots for language learning
    • Practice dfficult learner’ bot for teachers
    • Well-being: Woebot
  • 7 interface benefits:
    • Natural, easy to use interface
    • Frictionless interface
    • Less cognitive overload
    • In line with current online interfaces
    • Suitable for younger audiences
    • Less formal but still structured
    • Presentation separate from AI drivers


Emerging Technology to Develop Learner Engagement and Increase Impact on Language Learning Outcomes

Geoff Stead, Cambridge Assessment English, UK

  • Cambridge English Beta
    • “Curious about how to shape our future products? Cambridge English Beta is the place to find out about our latest digital developments and get early access to trial versions of our English language learning products.”
  • Quiz Your English live challenge
    • Free game
    • 2.5m games played
    • 70k players
    • Top players play over 7k games per month
    • 70% of installed users drop off in first week
    • Features:
      • Social clues, people challenging you
      • Leaderboard
      • Next steps
  • The Digital Teacher
    • Resources to help you build your confidence and develop the skills you need to take your next step in digital language teaching.
  • Cambridge English MOOCs
    • 6 Moocs, run 14 times
    • 132,000 active students
    • Partner with FutureLearn (UNESCO is also a partner)
    • Successes:
      • Lots of use of video clips of real teachers, real learners and real lessons
      • Tasks to accompany each video
      • Community of learners

Chris Cavey, British Council

  • British Council MOOCs
    • 13 MOOCs run 50 times
    • Again, using video for teaching
    • Lots of tasks: what do think of? Tell us about your day?
    • Facebook Live sessions. Lots of discussion and interaction during MOOC. At end, send students to FB group. For BC their FB group has 200,000 users. Throughout, lots of social media interaction and sharing.
    • MOOCs do not assess language skills, they help prepare users for traditional assessments. It is a spring board and platform for peer sharing and learning.  MOOCs can measure time on task, engagement level, etc.


UNV e-Campus

  • Moodle-based.
  • Mandatory training (ethics, volunteering, etc.) as well as supplementary courses, e.g. language learning, life skills, business development (courses are bought by UNV for the users).
  • Engagement: Communities-of-practice, remote coaching, online chat events, webinars.


Myths And Facts About the Future of Schooling

Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility in Helsinki, Finland

He compared …

Unsuccessful education policies (Global Education Reform Movement) – England, USA, Australia, Chile:

  • Competition
  • Standardisation
  • De-professionalisation (anyone can become a teacher, as long as you love children)
  • Test-based accountability
  • Market-based privatization

Successful education policies (Global Education Reform Movement) – Japan, Canada, Estonia, Finland:

  • Co-operation
  • Encourage risk-taking and creativity
  • Professionalism
  • Trust-based responsibility
  • Equitable public education for all

Next predicted indicator group:

  • Health and well-being of children, not only equity and excellence


Longevity, Learning, Technology

Abigail Trafford, author and leader in the movement to fight ageism, USA:

  • Not years at the end, but healthy decades in the middle.
  • 50s and 60s: second adolescence. What do I want to do?
  • We need infrastructure to help older people for their next career, e.g. training, learnerships, internships.
  • Wide open opportunity for new curriculum development and part-time learning and work.
  • Over 1/3 of US is over 50.
  • Brain is plastic, it keeps learning.
  • Older people are better at analysis and strategy; younger better at quick learning and short term memory.
  • A long way to go to mainstream education and learning across the lifespan.
  • Old think: 9-5 work until retirement.
  • New think: 24/7 production and services.
  • We all need to expose and fight ageism.

Six Digital Inclusion Takeaways – Your Weekend Long Reads

UNESCO, in partnership with Pearson, has released ten case studies of digital solutions that are inclusive for people with low skills and low literacy, helping them to participate in the knowledge society in innovative ways. Of interest to UNESCO and Pearson is how through technology use, users’ skills are developed and, ultimately, their livelihoods are improved.

The case studies, authored by Dr Nathan Castillo and myself, span sectors such as health, agriculture, the environment and civic participation. Each case study reveals how the inclusive digital solutions were designed with users, the skills needed to effectively use the solutions, the reach and result of usage and, most importantly, key lessons learned and recommendations. The case studies are rich in detail and make for stimulating reading.

After releasing all fourteen case studies – the last four coming at UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2018 – UNESCO and Pearson will then develop a set of guidelines for more inclusive digital development. In the meantime, below are six takeaways that will hopefully inform your ICT4D journey to greater inclusion.

Skills Benchmarking is Important

A key argument of the UNESCO-Pearson work is that, while good examples of user-centred design exist, not enough attention is given to users’ digital skills and literacy, present and future. In addition to designing around users’ needs, benchmarking their capabilities means we can see users as learners and create solutions that suit them today, but also help them develop skills that can use a richer feature set tomorrow. More features equals more complex interactions, increased possibility for learning and deeper usage, and potential revenue for solution providers. Understanding user capabilities also means that the right training can be delivered. Benchmarking can happen through specific assessments and also by using international frameworks, such as DigComp2.1: The Digital Competence Framework for Citizens.

Medic Mobile is an integrated mobile system for improving maternal and neonatal health. While it operates in twenty-three countries, the case study focuses on the rural Nepal implementation. The community health workers (CHWs) — trusted members in the local human social network — that use the system on the ground have needed initial and ongoing training.

Medic Mobile routinely runs pre- and post-training skills tests. Post-test results from a training conducted with 500 CHWs revealed the strongest overall gains in the more complex mobile phone operations that CHWs initially struggled with most. There were 40–45 per cent gains in the ability to use SMS functions including retrieving specific SMSs and accessing the phones inbox.

By benchmarking the users pre- and post-training, Medic Mobile is able to track development. It also informs their practise of pairing low-literate with higher-literate CHWs, to provide peer support to each other.

Basic Usage, Rich Data

Even though end users are low skilled and low literate, and interfacing with appropriately simple solutions, doesn’t exclude the opportunity for data collection and complex analysis by solution providers. By tracking farmer usage of each of the Crop Specific Mobile Apps in rural India, the company behind it can identify in which districts farmers need to diversify their crops, where they are diversifying but need guidance, and where new disease outbreaks are likely happening. Such usage data can be sent to the cloud via SMS, if needed, to ensure collection in low-connectivity districts. The farmers thus become rich data sources for interventions triggered at a district- or state-level by government – and in the process create a potential revenue stream for the solution provider holding the analysed data.

Users unwittingly informing digital interventions is not new: through Liking or posting on Facebook, they inform the algorithms for targeted advertising. However, in this case the users are particularly low literate, and such real-time data gathering has not been possible before. Previously, extension workers would be relied upon to gather local information, but the process would be slow.

Another example is Khushi Baby, a digital service in India that supports effective tracking of maternal and child healthcare data by CHWs – often low-literate and with low digital skills. Mothers are also users as they ensure their baby’s wear their medical records in the form of a digital necklace. As data is collected, it is aggregated and analysed for district-level decision-making related to health administration. Low-literate users are active participants in data generation for programmatic and policy interventions — in real time.

Each of the three user groups: mothers, CHWs and district officials, interface with appropriately designed technology: wearable necklaces, mobile data collection apps and web-based dashboards, respectively.

Let the Tech Help With Quality Control for Inclusion of Low-skilled and Low-literate Users

In some of the case studies low-skilled and low-literate users are active participants in mHealth support interventions. How do we know that they are not mistakenly doing harm? The tech helps.

hearScreen™ allows anyone with very limited training and the app and headphone set to conduct hearing tests (in developing countries there is a dearth of trained professionals to ensure that all children receive such tests). By sending false positives to the person administering the test (the screener), and tracking whether he or she records these as legitimate responses from the patient, an individual screener quality index is created. The index acts as a measure for quality control and system reports inform supervisors about screeners that need further training.

The Chipatala cha pa Foni (CCPF) health information service, delivered in Malawi via a call centre and text messages, allows supervisors to monitor the quality of hotline operators. At least ten calls per operator are reviewed and scored and, if needed, an individualised improvement plan is developed.

Content (Testing) is King

In 1996 Bill Gates famously said: Content is king. (How about queen?!) At the time he wouldn’t have been thinking of low-skilled and low-literate users. And yet, for these groups, content is even more important than for others. It needs to be perfect: understandable, accessible, context-specific and, often, actionable. Tone, voice, perspective, message length and medium are all important.

In fact, he should have said, content testing is king. In almost every case study  there is a solid focus on ensuring that the delivered content is appropriate. The 3-2-1 Service by HNI and Viamo, which offers a range of audio and text content in fourteen countries, is based on rigorous and ongoing content testing. For HNI, an “a-ha” moment came when they realised their target audience in Zambia couldn’t read the health SMSs being sent. Illiteracy gave rise to the addition of the audio service.

Low-literate Users Can Also Be Content Creators

For people from the developed world the general picture of digital content creation is the teen producing Youtube videos, the amateur expert updating Wikipedia pages, or the teacher creating openly licensed interactive lessons for her class. But in rural Ghana or media-dark (read: internet- or radio-free) parts of India, the case studies reveal digital content creation in very different forms and by people with very low or no literacy.

In Ghana, the Talking Book audio device allows rural farmers to not only browse and listen to livelihoods content, but to record and share their own content. In India, Mobile Vaani is an audio-based community-media platform for offline populations, accessed and added to with even basic mobile phones for community mobilisation and social campaigns.

I have noted this before, eight years ago, when seeing low-literate teens in South Africa comment on mobile novels from their phones. What is interesting is how the case study users, like the teens, do not fit the traditional content creator persona.

Leverage Infomediaries and Build Local Capacity

Low-skilled and low-literate users, more than others, encounter and use technology with the help of intermediaries, or as ICTWorks calls them, infomediaries. MIRA Channel, which seeks to improve maternal and child mortality rates in rural India, Afghanistan and Uganda, struggled with the limited experience of mothers with using mobile phones. Their target audience just didn’t have the necessary, even if simple, tech skills.

The adolescent children of the mothers, who generally had more experience in using mobile phones, were enlisted to assist in training and support when using MIRA Channel. In fact, as a result a health programme directed at adolescent girls was developed.

Nano Ganesh allows even low-literate farmers to remotely control their irrigation water pumps via mobile phone, saving water and electricity, and reducing soil erosion. The pump devices need to be installed and maintained — rural farmers and local technicians are trained for this purpose. The technicians provide on-the-ground support and earn wages in the process. They, in turn, are supported remotely via Skype and live video from the Nano Ganesh service centre, and via offline training videos. Digital support skills are embedded within the community.

Mobile Vaani has also grown through a model that is firmly community-based. Because the content is hyper-local, a network of local clubs with community reporters ensures that awareness raising, training, support and curation of user-generated content happens by and with the community.

Working through a human network seems to be the only way to genuinely win the trust of the local users, provide ongoing support and ensure communal ownership. Digital solutions serving low-literate and low-skilled populations cannot operate outside of the community. Indeed, you could argue that the success of m-PESA is not the tech, but rather it’s human agent network that registers and manages user activity.

Collectively the case studies hold many more insights, so dive in and start reading the 171 page pack.

Image: © ZMQ/Hilmi Quraishi of MIRA Channel

Tech in Africa – your weekend long reads

The rapid uptake of mobile technology in Africa has, for some time, been the source of much excitement. In less than twenty years the continent “leapfrogged” landline telecommunications to enlist half a billion mobile subscribers. Such a feat of digital acrobatics fuelled the narrative, started by Aristotle 2300 years ago, that out of Africa there is always something new.

But we also know the hard truth: that access and usage is highly uneven, generally skewed to younger, urban males. While mobile and the internet has changed the lives of millions of Africans through access — for the first time — to money services, health and agriculture information, and communication with far-off family, there are still millions of people completely untouched by these modern opportunities.

Figures about tech in Africa belie the inequalities that persist. In fact, we shouldn’t really talk of Africa, like it’s a country, but rather talk of some tech, used by some people, in some parts of some countries in Africa.

But if we must generalise for the sake of expediency, then we know that for a time there will be a tale of two Africas: one as the hub of bottom-up invention, and another as the internet-dark continent. Since so many of us see our work in Africa, it is timely to take stock of both sides of this story, to see how much has been achieved — and with such innovation — and remember how far there is still to go. Tech in Africa affects us all, not only the people living there.

The Big Picture View

A good place to start is the Guardian’s Can the internet reboot Africa?, which offers a big picture view of the many inroads of tech on the continent. “But there are buts. Many of them.” These include lack of electricity — apparently only about a third of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to grid power; prohibitively high mobile data costs; limited mobile access in rural areas; not enough local content and too few skilled software developers. All of these issues take time to address (except cost!) and need to be tackled holistically.

A report this month by the Internet Society paints a picture of the internet economy in Africa, and provides policy advice on how to grow it to its much greater potential.

The Personal Touch

Zooming right in, the Guardian also offers a day in the digital life of Africa, which tells how tech is affecting ten different people across the continent. From a tech-savvy radio DJ in Lagos to a deep rural farmer in Zimbabwe, digital is having a remarkable effect on their lives. It would be fascinating to have ICT4D project leads send in “day in the life” stories of their users.

How Africa’s Tech Generation Is Changing the Continent

Changing focus from users to creators, National Geographic tells the personal stories of successful young tech entrepreneurs in Africa. You may know some of the initiatives featured, such as Kigali’s SafeMoto and Kenya’s FarmDrive, but the article is well worth the read. And being NG, the photo’s are beautiful.

Hubs, Hubs, Hubs

There are 300 tech hubs in 93 cities across 42 countries in Africa. Those are impressive statistics, considering there were almost none a decade ago! Three countries, in fact three cities, stand out as hub concentrations: Cape Town, Nairobi and Lagos. The last is taking the lead as startup capital of Africa, with Google and Facebook both setting up developer centres there. The one I’m most excited about is unique: the recently launched Injini is Africa’s first incubator dedicated to edtech. Right now it is based Cape Town, but plans are afoot to have East and West African centres.

New Kids on the Block

While we love the darling tech stories of Africa, such as mPESA, BRCK and GetSmarter, what about the new products and services? Ventures Africa shares ten African tech for good startups to watch, grouped under three umbrellas: education equality, economic empowerment and access to medical care.

Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND Arne Hoel / World Bank

Refugee education – your weekend long reads

© CC-BY-NC-ND UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Ose

The surge in global refugees has had devastating effects on the education of affected children. Only 61% of refugee children have access to primary education, and only 23% have access to secondary school. Overall, refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children.

Technology has been shown to make a contribution to alleviating this crisis in a range of ways, be it through widening access to learning materials, enabling virtual mentoring of teachers, improving education administration, or better and quicker data collection.

Promising Practices: Case Studies

Launched in March 2017 through a partnership between UNHCR, Pearson and Save the Children, the Promising Practices in Refugee Education Initiative set out to identify, document and promote innovative ways to effectively reach refugee children and young people with quality educational opportunities. The result is a set of 18 case studies, many using tech to provide support somewhere in the education value chain.

Those that don’t use tech, for example Essence of Learning, which uses locally accessible recycling and natural materials only, are refreshing to see. Imagine: no dead batteries, no upgrades, no support needs, no lost passwords! They remind us of the range or resources at hand, of which tech is but one.

Promising Practices: Recommendations

A juicy synthesis report distills the key findings and lessons learned from the case studies. Collectively the experiences have been used to identify ten recommendations aimed at improving refugee education policy and practice. Stand out recommendations are to Improve collaboration and develop innovative partnerships and Adopt user-centred design and empowering approaches.

Mobiles to Support Learners, Support Teachers and Support Systems

The 2017 UNESCO Mobile Learning Week focused on Education in emergencies and crises. The concept note provides an excellent summary of the key challenges and opportunities for mobile tech to play a supportive role. You can now download many of the Symposium presentations aligned to the themes:  support learners, support teachers and support systems.

Do We Really Understand the Problem?

So you believe tech has a role to play in alleviating the education challenges facing refugees. But too often enthusiasm can result in a just-do-it approach that doesn’t necessarily address real needs or lacks co-ordination with others. A good place to start is with UNHCR’s 5 challenges to accessing education for Syrian refugee children. Another excellent resource is the Open University report Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smartphones and Social Media Networks, which offers an insight into the real lives, challenges and needs of refugees en route or in their host countries.

Refugees and Mobiles

Finally, beyond education, the GSMA report The Importance of Mobile for Refugees: A Landscape of New Services and Approaches offers a quick scan of the opportunities for refugees, themed by connectivity, digital tools and platforms, family reconnection, education, and livelihoods and mobile money.

Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND UNICEF Ethiopia/2014/Ose

Personalized learning – your weekend long reads

© CC-BY-NC-ND Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

The promise of digitally-enabled personalized learning dates back to the 1960s. As with many early predictions, it took decades before the potential began to be realized. For the first time we are seeing personalized learning being adopted as a strategy by schools and districts, the results of research and lessons emerging, and the actual software maturing enough to be interesting (I use that word intentionally because there are way too many solutions claiming to offer personalized learning, that just don’t cut it).

We should be jumping for joy, right, for the related benefits are at hand: students having control over their own learning; differentiated instruction; real-time feedback for each learner; and teachers having more time to spend on teaching?

But while the benefits sounds ideal for education, personalized learning has its critics. Beyond that, it’s really hard to get right and we’re still not “there”. In 2012, the K-12 Horizon Report put Personal Learning Environments on the four to five year horizon, by 2016 the report described Personalizing Learning as one of the “wicked challenges: those that are complex to even define, much less address”.

The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning

Education Week has recently published a series of articles in a special report Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality. Since our default techie position is one of open arms to this vision, the best article with which to start is The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning, which offers three broad criticisms of the movement.

What Does the Evidence Tell Us?

Concerning the evidence for personalized learning, a 2015 RAND study showed large gains from the practice. But a Brookings Institute blog post describes how more recent research of personalized learning implemented at scale shows modest achievement gains and identifies implementation challenges. The article offers insightful views into what could be the cause of this (including that radical change often has an initial negative effect — but more on that in a future post.)

Let’s Do This Thing

Also from Education Week, lessons from three schools reveal three common challenges around personalized learning implementations: ensuring teachers are trained enough for a new way of teaching; differentiating instruction in a standards-based world; and ensuring students who are now allowed to work at their own pace,  keep the pace. The lessons are useful for those wanting to implement personalized learning.

Now it’s too personal

The more personalized software knows about you, the better it can work its magic. The balance between having the system collect data about students while protecting their privacy is the grand challenge of our time. While not specifically concerned with personalized learning, the New York Times article about Google in the classroom is an excellent case study of this tension.

What about ICT4D in general?

While these articles focus on education, the principles of personalized learning and, more broadly, personalized usage, are important for all of us. Increasingly the data available can drive targeted user experiences and track user development. What does that mean for the future of mHealth SMS broadcasts, or agricultural extension support? Instead of taking assessments to demonstrate learning levels, what if behaviour change, recorded digitally, marks learning in practice and drives appropriate information and services? We should always be thinking of our target audience not as users, but learners.

Image: © CC-BY-NC-ND Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

Your weekend long reads


For your Friday reading pleasure, the focus this week is on digital skills, or the lack thereof, that represents a major barrier to digital inclusion for billions of people. If you want to create usable and scalable ICT4D solutions, you can no longer ignore this issue. Expect much more on digital skills as we work to bring the next 50% of the world online.

Case studies of inclusive digital solutions for low-skilled and low-literate people
Released as part of the UNESCO-Pearson Initiative for Literacy: Improved Livelihoods in a Digital World, the first five case studies, in a series of 14, explore how inclusive digital solutions can help people with low skills and low literacy use technology in a way that supports skills development and, ultimately, improves their livelihoods. There are some great insights and lessons learned in designing for low-literate users. (UNESCO)
+ Meet the people behind the solutions and what inspired them.

Digital skills for work
The recently released UNESCO Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report tracks progress towards achieving SDG4 on education, including indicator 4.4.1: Percentage of youth/adults with ICT skills. The key messages: it’s really hard to globally track digital skills, and from the existing data the results are bad. Using ITU survey data, we see that most adults in low and middle income countries did not perform even the most basic ICT functions. For example, only 4% of adults in Sudan and Zimbabwe could copy and paste files; only 2% to 4% in Egypt and Jamaica could use basic arithmetic formulas in a spreadsheet. The question is: how relevant is copy and pasting in Sudan? Perhaps there is a need for differentiated skills based on local contexts. (UNESCO)

Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit
There are many excellent initiatives aimed at developing digital skills and literacy. One resource for everyone is the GSMA Toolkit, which is a guide for training people in basic mobile internet skills in India. What is useful is the accompanying ‘How To Guide’, designed to support replication of the Toolkit in different markets — in other words, for training of your users. (GSMA)

Low digital literacy a barrier for India’s poor to enjoy digital financial services
Policies to transform India into a digital economy have resulted in a range of new products aimed at achieving digital financial services (DFS) for all. But, argues IFMR LEAD, a number of barriers remain for India’s poor to enjoy DFS, including low levels of consumer capabilities. A 2016 FII survey found that 49 percent of Indians had low levels of digital literacy. This was even more acute for vulnerable groups: the elderly were 18 percent more likely than the youth to be digitally illiterate, and both women and those with lower levels of education were also less digitally literate than average. (NextBillion)

Designing for the “oral” segment
Clearly work is needed to up skill and develop suitable products for vulnerable groups. But how does one design a user interface for non- or neo-literate users, or those in the “oral” population, who may not be able to read or write, but are highly adept in handling cash and making financial calculations? In an insightful report, MicroSave and My Oral Village share the research, user definitions, design principles and first prototype for a mobile wallet phone app for illiterates. (Microsave)

Your weekend long reads

For your Friday reading/watching pleasure …

Principles for Digital Development
While not new, the principles are slightly updated and have a new website.
The Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) is now the custodian of this living resource.

mHealth design toolkit
While we’re on principles, these ones, even though they are for the health sector, definitely apply to education.
The mHealth Design Toolkit is a collection of insights, tools and key principles to increase adoption and customer uptake of mobile health services by involving end-users in the service development process.

mHealth gender webinar and report: Key principles and tips to reach women
As above, very relevant for education, literacy and the UNESCO-Pearson initiative.
This webinar and report explore some practical things that mobile network operators, service providers and NGOs can do to ensure that their mHealth service includes women as well as men. Topics covered include content, platforms, user testing, pricing and bundling, and marketing and promotion. (GSMA)

Literacy builds life skills as well as language skills
Schoolchildren who read and write at home with their parents may build not only their academic literacy skills, but also other important life and learning skills, a recent study found. (New York Times)

A quick introduction to block chain technology
What will be interesting to work out is block chain’s role in education. Storing certification data is one obvious role, where the data is not tied to the issuing institute but shared in a secure, public ledger.