"Reaping Benefits of Technology Revolution"
Op-Ed, Business Daily, (Nairobi)
October 4, 2007
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
It is rare that being a latecomer confers any advantage. But it does in the age of rapid technological innovation. Africa, for example, has benefited from the telecommunications revolution, without having invested in the initial research and development.
The market release of the iconic $100 laptop (XO) later this year promises to do for education what the cell phone did for telecommunications. But like in the telecoms sector, benefits will only go to those countries that are prepared to make major reforms in their educational systems to accommodate the use of new educational technologies.
Teachers’ unions have a history of skepticism toward educational technologies. This is not simply because such technologies tend to shift the focus of learning from the teacher to the learner. But more importantly, most educational systems use the classical mass production model.
Like the cellphone, new educational technologies such as the XO will demand greater flexibility in educational systems.
Existing curricula are like landlines; fixed in place and dependent for their functioning on centralized bureaucracies. Emerging educational technologies as well and learning platforms, such as those offered by Google Earth, will provide unique opportunities for schools to adapt their curricula and pedagogy to local conditions and to extend learning to new fields such as conservation.
The educational technologies can play a key role in ecological literacy. Young people will not only have the opportunity to have access to key conservation information, but they will themselves become important sources of information. But like the telecoms revolution, only those governments that are open to new ideas and prepare themselves will reap early benefits.
The first step is having the capacity to think ahead.
The world is witnessing radical breakthroughs in low-cost mobile broadband. This technology will transform the delivery of major services and help contribute to economic growth.
This technology will be more appropriate for those countries that are not too vested in the use of optical fibre. At the very least investments in cables should be based on an informed understanding of advances in mobile broadband and complementary technologies.
The development of the $100 laptop shows that Africa’s capacity to benefit from emerging education technologies will depend largely on how adaptive and flexible its governance structures are. In addition, much attention will need to be devoted to developing local content to complement available material.
Africa’s rich diversity in music, folklore and other cultural expressions can now be tapped and put to educational purposes. Mythical figures such as Ogun, Nigeria’s Yoruba God of Iron, can now be enlisted to inspire young people to study the engineering sciences.
Forging strategic partnerships between African institutions and technology developers is essential for success.
Furthermore, early engagement will enable African entrepreneurs to start thinking about alternative business models needed for the new technologies. In addition, such partnerships will also help in the early identification of investors in the new enterprises.
Emerging technologies are poised to radically transform education and put the power of knowledge in the hands of learners. But reaping the benefits of such technologies will require more than new funding; it will take considerable political courage to challenge incumbency in national educational systems.
Professor Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology and Globalization Project
For more information on the XO Laptop, visit the website of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) Foundation.
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