People often ask me for specific examples of how technology is impacting global education. I suspect they are looking for super glossy examples of futuristic classrooms. They hope I’ll describe some design innovation or a revolutionary adaptive algorithmic trick. They expect video games, virtual reality, and robotics. But things often don’t look as shiny as you expect. The most significant impact can be inconspicuous. Consider, for example, Camfed’s pioneering partnership with Worldreader.

 

Camfed is well known. They are an international non-profit that “invests in girls and women in the poorest rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, where girls face acute disadvantage, and where their education has transformative potential.”  They are currently working in “119 of the poorest rural districts across five African countries.” They create thoughtful partnerships with local communities, breaking down “the barriers to girls’ education by providing and catalyzing the different resources required for girls to go to school, succeed and lead change.” Their work has been recognized by the OECD for being among the best at taking development innovation to scale.

Worldreader is also an international non-profit. Founded in 2010 by former Microsoft and Amazon executive David Risher, and former Marketing Director at Barcelona’s ESADE Business School Colin McElwee, Worldreader uses eReaders and other mobile technologies to distribute books to places where they are scarce. They have already reached over 2.2 million readers, and plan to extend that reach to 15 million readers by 2018. Recognizing that information technologies have the potential to deliver content in ways that were previously impossible, they “work with device manufacturers, local and international publishers, governments, education officials, and local communities to bring books to all.”

Just consider what it would take to build first rate libraries all over the world, to guarantee that civilization’s archive is universally accessible. Then, realize that Worldreader has essentially provided the kinds of resources that philanthropists used to reserve only for elite Universities to some of the most impoverished parts of the world. Without plastering wealthy benefactors’ names on the facades of aesthetic wonders designed by famous architects, Worldreader has used the Kindle, the smartphone, and the simple flip-phones to provide the fundamental benefit of a sophisticated library to millions of readers.

You may think I’m being hyperbolic. After all, haven’t we seen these kinds of efforts before? Think: One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which promised to bring the power of the internet and the personal computer to the developing world. Everyone was excited about the potential of OLPC’s sharply designed, yet remarkably inexpensive hardware. But years later, we’ve yet to see the kind of large-scale impact that was expected. Why? Because dropping technology from the sky is tantamount to missionary work from the Church of Technophilia.

Distribution without community buy-in just attempts to impose unfamiliar structures on people who never imagined they needed techno-deities with initials like CPU and HTTP.  We already learned that this approach doesn’t work when well-meaning individuals and organizations tried to deliver industrial agricultural technologies to under developed communities in the mid-Twentieth Century. Where tech was introduced in a way that belittled, rather than empowering local cultural practices, rusty and underutilized tractors still sprinkle the landscape