Sunday, September 27, 2009

Week 1 - Empowerment via Education, 9/23

This blog will serve as a weekly forum in which to reflect on learning experiences related to the Web-based Technologies in Education (EDUC 391X) course at Stanford University. The guiding theme of these entries, and, indeed, the course, will be “web technologies that help educate and empower the most vulnerable, underprivileged, or marginalized in reaching their full potential and attaining their life-long learning goals” (EDUC 391X Syllabus). I will make the claim that no premium can be placed on providing educational opportunities to such communities. The benefits to the global community are multitude, and the implications for economic, environmental, and social stability are staggering. Furthermore, it could be argued that there exists a moral obligation amongst the educationally privileged to share commensurate opportunities with the less fortunate.

One example of empowerment via education, presented in discussion on 9/23, is the Miracle on the Han River, in which South Korea rose from the crippling effects of colonialism, the Korean War, and a paucity of natural resources to attain the rank of the world's fifteenth largest economy. It was posited that a cultural valuation of education was the impetus for this revival, a claim supported by the fact that “Korea spends about 7.5% of its GDP on Education, which is amongst the highest in the world” [2].

Of course, national economic empowerment is predicated on the empowerment of the individual. One salient exemplar was presented by Stanford Professor Paulo Blikstein during the School of Education Orientation, in which economically disadvantaged students in urban Brazil were provided with opportunities to develop technological solutions to community problems [1]. Years later, despite the fact that no concrete improvements resulted from his proposed solution, one student issued a letter to Blikstein in which he credited the program with providing him the motivation to apply to engineering school, to which he was accepted. This is only one of multiple stories in which the empowerment of an individual contributed to the advancement of a marginalized community.

Although there are numerous ways to provide opportunities for empowerment in underprivileged communities, the focus of this course will be web-based media. There are several advantages to this approach that make it instrumental in achieving the stated goals, not the least of which is the minimal cost of transmitting digital media when network infrastructures are in place. Furthermore, such media have the power of being both engaging and informative, particularly to children, for whom education is so critical. Web-based technologies can also be readily deployed to both formal and informal learning environments.

Despite these advantages, it is important to recognize the limitations of web-based technologies with respect to education. Although network infrastructures are becoming increasingly widespread, there are still numerous communities that do not have access to web-based resources. Furthermore, it is not enough to assume that web-based technologies are sufficient to educationally empower students, as some of the most important aspects of interpersonal education (empathy, intuitive assessment, rapid adjustments, role modeling, etc.) are difficult to replicate. It is likely that a combination of technological and interpersonal methods is still the most effective way to educate, as exhibited during the discussion on 9/23, in which course descriptions were augmented by refreshing multi-media exemplars. I can say from experience that my understanding of the course objectives was heightened by these media, while interest in the course objectives was instilled by personal interaction with the instructor.

Although the barriers to deploying empowering web-based technologies are substantial, ranging from distance, language, bureaucracy, and instructor training (as seen in programs such as One Laptop Per Child), we can be heartened by the optimistic conclusion that any marginal expansion in educational opportunities is a measure of success. Even so, success may be difficult to come by, as illustrated by Professor Kim's admonition that we must be prepared to fail seventy times for every achievement. In such times, a commitment to the moral obligation of sharing educational opportunities must be a sufficient motivation.

[1] Blikstein, Paulo. The City That We Want,
[2] Singh, Abhishek. Miracle of the Han River,

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