Yet while the technology may be abundant, many of these e-learning initiatives seem to fall short of their promises.
Take OLPC. After seven years and several prototypes, it has yet to hit the $100 mark, or get laptops into the hands of every child in even a single country- though Uruguay has come close. By 2010, nearly 400,000 laptops had been distributed to students in the country’s government schools, making it one of the only fully “completed deployments” OLPC has achieved. Many also question its ease-of-use, ongoing cost for connectivity and support, and whether teachers know how to use it and incorporate it into their teaching.
Similarly, the Aakash tablet was announced with a big splash, followed by a big flop. The tablets are still being made in China because it’s cheaper, and very few have reportedly made it into India’s universities. The Indian government has now agreed to help subsidise the costs.
So why is technology not having the disruptive effect promised by some?
“The history of technology in education is long and unsuccessful in dramatically changing education,” claims Wayan Vota, a technology expert with 17 years experience applying information and communication technologies (ICT) for development."It’s there, but I’m not seeing the base way in which we learn changing,”
Vota sees two problems. First, it’s expensive to make and pilot new technology. Second, there is too much emphasis on the technology.
“You can give a child a laptop, a tablet, a kindle- whatever. You could also give them an iPad or an Xbox360, and you’d probably see similar levels of excitement and engagement,” says Vota. “But the real challenge is translating these gadgets into learning.”
Calestous Juma, Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard University and a founding board member of One Laptop per Child, agrees.
“Changing a learning culture takes a long time of interactive adaptation between technology and educational practices, including pedagogy,” he says.
eLimu hopes to work around both these issues by gambling on a rising need for digital content that can be used across any piece of technology, instead of trying to get expensive technology into the hands of every child. The key, says Mukherjee, is making local content that students can relate to.
“Contextualising educational content is very important,” says Mukherjee “Content from abroad is not culturally relevant or relatable. We need to create content locally.”
Its apps- which include animations, songs, videos, games, music and quizzes, - are specifically designed to supplement Kenya’s national curriculum, which make them easy for teachers to adopt. They also use relevant culturally relevant themes. For example, if a maths lesson is about Pythagoras’ theorem it may incorporate the KICC building- a famous building in downtown Nairobi – as an example. Or, an app may help the child count and subtract using madaazi, a local snack that they are familiar with.
“I love the idea of using the device as a conveyance of content” says Wayan Vota. “But making relevant educational, grade-specific content will still be a challenge.”
So too will the cost. Although eLimu’s physical tablets are no-name-brands from China, they are still quite expensive. With content included, they currently sell for around 16,000 KES ($180) a pop, although at scale the organisation hopes to sell them for 10,000 KES.
Mukherjee admits that even at this price, a ‘one device per child’ goal may be a bit too lofty.
“I could see it being half a dollar per month per child, for four hours per week access. That’s feasible,” she says.
But of course, the start-up’s success will not just be judged on price, but the quality of the education it delivers.
At Amaf primary school, all 34 students have access to the eLimu tablets for a least a half an hour per day- in addition to the after school group sessions. After just four months of using the tablets, student science test scores improved from an average of 58% to 73% compared to last year, according to Headmaster Outa.
Outa says that the tablets have “allowed students to go beyond teachers, and learn on their own.”
Whether they will also be able to go beyond all previous efforts at delivering education using technology, only time will tell.