28 March 2007

CAL '07/ Building Educational Capacity through Mobile and Handheld Technology: Context and Anti-Colonialism

Tuesday I had lunch with, and attended sessions conducted by, researchers from DEEP: The Digital Education Enhancement Project at England's Open University. DEEP is geared toward building capacity and access to information re: education in the "global south" - principally sub-Saharan Africa (see full report downloads). But the vision of utilizing the mobile phone - perhaps simply to support teaching by allowing fast connections between rural teachers and their support structures, and mobile-connected handheld devices (either PocketPCs or mobile phones with pre-loaded memory cards) to provide direct learning support, touches on a much larger issue.

To me, the dominant issue in education for those with "disabilities" and for those who are not white-developed world-Protestants, is to shift the focus from a colonial strategy - "make "them" like "us"' - to a context-based approach that allows people to use what is native to their life situation to build the best possible access to information: "Remapping the Education Technology Landscape," Tom Power of the Open University said, "using new models, new dialogues, new research questions, and new toolkits."

Because, one thing that links a dyslexic student in the US with poor students in any underfunded developed world school and students in technology-deprived developing nations, is the fact that "imposed technology" rarely works. Standard computers make life harder in many ways for the dyslexic student, and cannot be maintained among the other two groups. All need technology which is inexpensive, adaptable, and sustainable. For the dyslexic student this might mean keyboarding via mobile phone because of keypad simplicity and effective word prediction, or it might mean handhelds with built in screen readers, or it might mean education via podcast. For those in under-resourced environments it may mean data delivery and primary communication via text-message and the mobile web. Whichever, whatever, the idea is to take what is available and naturally adaptable and to use it, not to build computer labs (which truly make no sense in any school - computers should be integrated into every classroom) in schools with minimal electrical capacity and no tech staff.

There is also the key point of jumping onto the free and ubiquitous. "As many people have gained access to the telephone in the first five years of the 21st Century as in the entirety of the 20th Century," the presenters from OU said, noting that almost all of that gain has been in the developed world. Similarly, the once clumsy and hard to access audio book cassette has been replaced by the instantly downloadable digital text or digital audio book for those with dyslexia. But educators would rather impose the desktop computer on the developing world and the task-specific Daisy Book Reader on the dyslexic.

And finally, I have always been troubled by the way in which, particularly American educators, go out into the world to spread American educational theory, or the way places like my own Michigan State University bring in international students to "Americanize" them and send them home to "Americanize" their culture. Far better, and far more sustainable, is providing context-based technical support that is based in divergent human needs.

- Ira Socol in Dublin

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