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An ICT4E Lesson Learned: Offline Content is Key

By Lindsay Poirier on February 24, 2012


I recently made one of the biggest ICT4D mistakes in the book. Pay close attention, and see if you can pick it out.

When I was in Arusha, Tanzania last month, I was working with a primary school that recently set up a learning lab with 13 donated computers. The technology was not being used because the teachers were not sure how it could be leveraged for education. The computers were simply collecting dust.

The semester before the trip I wanted to develop something that would allow the school to use the computers effectively. I began searching for online educational content relevant to the Tanzanian curriculum and found all sorts of learning materials, games, and software downloads. Once I had collected a good chunk of quality content, I created a website and placed links to each of my findings alongside the specific curriculum objective that they addressed.

Did you catch it? My big mistake, I mean…

The school wasn’t connected to the Internet yet. How could I possibly have overlooked something like that?

To make a long story short, even though I was told the school would be connected when I arrived, there were some bureaucratic problems that slowed the process of getting Internet access there. About three weeks into my trip, the Internet was finally hooked up, but the wait had cut into the majority of the time that I had allocated for teacher training.

Do not rely on the Internet. Offline content is key.

While Internet access is spreading rapidly throughout developing countries, it is important that ICT4D projects do not place all of their trust in its availability. There are still countless communities throughout world without access, and many of these communities have several obstacles preventing them from obtaining access. Even when rural communities have the infrastructure to connect, Internet subscriptions in these areas can constitute a large percentage of per capita income. Individuals simply cannot afford Internet access.

It’s important to note that access is not the only issue. Let’s imagine for a second that the school I was working with did have Internet when I arrived. This still would have been problematic since bandwidth in most developing countries remains limited – definitely not conducive to streaming online educational games and videos.

Relying on Internet content also makes projects less transferable. If I found that my idea was successful, and I wanted to scale it out to other schools, I would likely run into the same Internet issues elsewhere. In using the cloud as a solution, remember that weather is always local. Having offline content is much more reliable and practical.

The good news is that there is tons of content that can be downloaded from the Internet in order to accumulate offline content. Wikipedia allows you to download entire libraries of information, and I found plenty of open source educational games that proved to be very helpful to the instructors at the school.

So how did I fix my project?

By the end of my trip, the entire focus had shifted from allocating online material on the website to installing offline content on the computers. This proved to be a much more reliable means of technology use in the school.

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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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6 Comments to “An ICT4E Lesson Learned: Offline Content is Key”

  1. John Hawker says:

    Thanks for this.

    Sat-Ed understands this problem so well we developed an easy way for a Education Ministry to do this for every school. Even when schools have access to internet, the bandwidth is often expensive in developing countries, so we took the view, why not use satellite to Mutlicast and push forward to the school all the predictive internet media rich content that’s needed?

    Place it in a sat-ed internet media server, and set it up so that when a student types in a web address that’s media rich, it pop’s up at super fast speed?

    And it worked!

    And the cost of Satellite Multicast?

    As soon as you say “Satellite” people think “EXPENSIVE” But renting just a few mghz of capacity isn’t expensive for a nations capacity, multicasting allows you to full every schools Sat-Ed server at the same time, and delete remotely, and that bandwidth is less than $5000 maybe for the whole system.

    Over a month it can transfer gig’s of data as it works 24×7.

    Per school it may be a few dollars on the capacity cost! That’s less than any internet delivery cost.

    And students, as they work across a 100 mbps LAN in the school get a quality of service, in a school like in the story above, that’s better than high speed internet in the west. Without internet, a better than internet service, at a cost to government that’s cheaper, and when the government connects to the internet, makes the internet even better.

    As the cloud evolves, think of this, it will on occasions fail.

    “Just as they bridged the Digital Divide, they moved it up into the cloud, out of reach”

  2. Amy says:

    Great Article! Can I ask – what do the numbers in the graph represent, please?

  3. lindsaypoirier says:

    Thank you! The graph represents Internet users in the respective regions.

  4. Wayan Vota says:

    I’ve always been a fan of offline content and was part of an early attempt at taking the Wikipedia offline. A long-term effort is http://www.widernet.org/egranary/ though its costs are prohibitive for schools. A smaller but free content option is http://schools-wikipedia.org/

  5. Anonymous says:

    not sure this post has much to do with ict for e or d or anything else: relying on bandwidth anywhere for the success of an educational project is just poor and irresponsible planning.

  6. Amos Cruz says:

    As an “ICT Capacity builder” Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa, I ran into similar challenges. It was difficult to justify certain costs and I allowed my own “vision” (ego?) to drown out logic and reasoning. Cost of ownership was hard enough as it was (electricity, maintenance, supplies). Introducing connectivity for the sake of educational purposes makes assumptions over appropriate use and cost-efficiencies relative to existing tools/resources for achieving education goals.

    For my purposes, I had a server feeding lesson content on a local intranet so students could access only content relevant to the express purpose and economic reality of the computers owned by the school. I eventually set up a system to share a GPRS modem that fed “connectivity” into the network of 20 computers (yikes) along with a management system (using PapercutNG).

    An interesting thought exercise in both planning and evaluating these setups is laying out assumptions/factors influencing specific functions of the facilities. In hindsight, I made a lot of assumptions that discounted the ongoing costs of ownership and created an unsustainable system, pulling resources away from other educational needs. On the bright side, I left a counterpart who continued using the system after my departure, highlighting a different, but relevant point: Content, off-line or on, still require someone to facilitate the experience….or do you???