Implementing ICT in Developing Countries: Library for All, OLPC

Library for All
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As you know, I am an advocate for clever use of seemingly outdated or under-performing technology in education. The reasons include lower price, wider availability and easier access. And we often find the most innovative approaches in this field targeted at developing countries. Library for All is one of them.

I got contacted by Taynella Evans, one of the co-founders, a couple of weeks ago around the time of they launched their Kickstarter campaign. Their goal was to reach $100k by Saturday, July 13, and I was really happy to see that they surpassed that goal already.

Library for All is a non-profit that aims to provide access to ebooks and other digital content to students in low bandwidth communities. Currently, 260 million children worldwide don’t have access to enough physical books in local libraries. Often, those books are outdated or in a very bad condition, rendering them essentially useless for learning.

On the other hand, many developing countries  have a pretty decent mobile phone coverage, an infrastructure that Library for All is planning to piggyback on with their device agnostic platform. Library for All partnered with governments, charities, and NGOs that will do the groundwork of setting up devices and access to the library. The online library will use books and digital resources from established publishers, as well as OER that can be accessed via feature phones, ereaders, and tablet devices.

Library for All aims to reach five million students in five years, and collaborated with the Stern School at New York University to do research  that will help the team  better understand the impact of the project and how to adjust the product for maximum impact.

Offering digital content instead of used books also solves  other related problems like the cost of collecting, sorting and shipping physical books. Also, the content on Library for All’s platform is curated, which solves the problem of receiving books that either are above or below the student’s grade, in a language the student does not understand, or simply culturally inappropriate.

If you take a look at the demo video of the product, you might wonder why such projects are only aimed at developing countries. This seems to be a great library and education platform, period. And because it is device agnostic, you can also run it on the latest tablet device.

If you want to learn more about the project, visit the official website. There are also three days left to join the Kickstarter campaign and help the team to reach the stretch goal of $120K, which would enable the team to add more features.

OLPC: A cautionary tale

While I really think that Library for All is on to something, we also need to keep in mind that one of the leading projects in this space looks more and more like a train wreck in the making. OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) was one of the first darlings of the edtech press with its mission to bring low cost tablets to the most remote locations on the globe. Unfortunately, the team never really proved that the approach of throwing technology at children and letting them figure it out actually works.

Yes, there have been incredible stories of children hacking Android systems, but all in all, OLPC has lost a lot of its credibility and luster over the years. And the loss of key staff at OLPC is also kind of a bad sign for the future of this project.

So, what is up next? Apparently, OLPC is planning to sell their XOTablet at Walmart stores across the US, followed by Europe and South America. And while this might bring in some cash I am not sure if such a relatively small company can handle being a consumer facing hardware manufacturer while still following its mission of providing devices for children in developing countries. I would assume that the priority eventually shifts to provide the devices to retail chains first.

Remembering the 10 Principles of ICT

As an additional read, I would like to point you to the blog of Michael Trucano at the World Bank. He wrote a very detailed piece on “10 principles or approaches to consider when planning to introduce ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments,” which touches on a lot of the issues mentioned above and more.

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