Monday, October 5, 2009

Week 2 - Forging Pathways to Education, 9/30

December 10 of this year marks the sixty-first anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet still a majority of its provisions lack in universality. Education, the subject of concern to this forum, is addressed explicitly in article 26, section 1:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Comparative analysis demonstrates that this right is discriminately distributed across the human domain, largely with respect to economic power. Furthermore, this gap continues to widen with the continual expansion of technical support for education in privileged domains. Although such advancements would not likely translate directly into underprivileged educational settings, they still provide insight into various considerations that are essential for developing solutions for the marginalized world. The following case studies, as presented in the most recent EDUC 391X discussion, exhibit this truth:

  • weblogs & webinars: The world of professional conferences and journals often leads to mismatches. Talks may be poorly or randomly attended, and paper submissions may be inappropriate in terms of scope and/or philosophy. Blogs and Webinars are effective for creating fora where like-minded presenters and audiences may interact. The challenge of effective collaboration of time and space may apply to underprivileged regions, where extreme distances and poor travel options may conspire to inhibit the spread of ideas and information. In such cases, building a "blog-like" infrastructure, either over the web (where such technology is available) or through more limited means (i.e. a "mobinar" over cell phones), would expedite the dissemination of and interaction with information among interested audiences.
  • GLORIAD: The need for increased network bandwidth continues to grow with the advancement of information-sharing fora. High-definition telemedical training, real-time high energy physics collaboration, and advanced atmospheric modeling are made possible by GLORIAD, a persistent, secure, high-speed network linking major hubs across the Northern Hemisphere. The success of such a network in the privileged professional space suggests that marginalized communities could likewise benefit from rapid, secure information exchange. Again, this principle may be applied to regions where network infrastructure is non-existent, examples of which include the rural Mexico "literacy hub" (where a single literate community member is compensated for reading the daily periodical to illiterate townspeople), and the rural Indian "text message hub" (where a single individual serves as a communications link to 1000 community members, through which announcements and marketing messages may be distributed).

The challenge of applying such principles to underserved regions underscores the need for contextualization. An innovative technology alone is insufficient! Appreciation for the technical limitations, cultural nuances, and regional needs are essential for developing a feasible, sustainable, and effective educational framework:

  • Feasibility: Sadly, due to lack of network infrastructure, advanced internet applications are currently infeasible for much of the developing world. However, as Professor Kim suggests, mobile technology is a gateway to developing regions, many of which support ample cellular networks.
  • Sustainability: Sustainability must be addressed along equally critical technical, economic, and cultural dimensions. A lack of support in any such dimension would likely spell doom for the project. For instance, adoption of a educational tool is highly dependent on the support of parents, who may be otherwise (and justifiably) motivated by exigent needs such as subsistence farming.
  • Effectiveness: The likelihood of effectiveness is increased with an understanding and appreciation of the target culture. An effective educational tool should not seek to impose a novel cultural value system on the target audience, but should adapt technology to advance the target culture. Effectiveness is also increased by targeting the margins within the population, both high and low achievers (per Professor Kim). Finally, effectiveness is only achieved if the educational technology intrinsically motivates the learner to pursue personal and collective idealism rather than dispensing indiscriminate knowledge, which may not be relevant in the applied context.

Feasibility, sustainability, and effectiveness can be incorporated into technological design by way of ABCD, the mnemonically devised set of principles presented by Professor Kim. These are Audience (a determination of the subjects and their prior knowledge), Behavior (a description of actionable behaviors that the solution will engender), Condition (the conditions of the learning environment), and Degree (the expected quantity of behavioral change). One example of a project designed under these considerations is Pocket School, which promotes literacy via mobile technology in underserved regions, where children have little to no access to written language. For instance, understanding the audience and their learning conditions informed the decision to employ mobile units as the mechanism for learning, as well as the explorations into creative battery charging techniques, including manual, pedal, and solar power. Such projects demonstrate the universal desire for learning and advancement, and hints at the numerous underserved populations in need of educational support. The Nokia Research Lab estimates that approximately 250 million phones go unused each year, indicating that technical units are available to serve these needy populations. The gap must be filled by mobile applications that are culturally sensitive and individually and collectively empowering.

In closing, it is prudent to be reminded of a natural pitfall when serving marginalized populations, which is the encroachment on value systems and personal freedom. This is summarized eloquently by author John Holt, in his Escape From Childhood:

No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than [the right of a person to follow their own interests]. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests you and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.

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