ICTs in Education and the Bottom Of Pyramid

By Ruchita Rathi

Education is the fundamental human right and there is a widespread consensus that it is the single most important investment that can lead to a greater social and financial mobility for an individual. Yet, globally there are a staggering 61 million primary-aged children out of school[1] . Progress in reducing this number has stalled for the first time since 2002 because of decreasing aids, according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Education for All Global Monitoring Report [2]

In this situation, the most obvious solution would be to introduce ICTs to create new learning environments to bridge the existing gap and address the aid issue. And indeed, there have been a spate of state sponsored, private, and public-private sponsored initiatives in the EdTech sector where ICTs have been used to address the problem of engaging students outside traditional classroom methods with little consideration to the most basic issues of accessibility, lack of robust policy framework, and user experience [3] .

Several successful attempts have been made to address the issue of accessibility and engagement. One such attempt in the United States is Khan Academy that reinvented education. The brainchild of Salman Khan, this online platform became popular by delivering content via mainstream consumption channels like Youtube. Khan Academy used the most basic tools to make education accessible to millions at a fraction of cost. It disrupted the traditional model of ICTs in Education by doing the pilot implementation on web - an implementation that instantly viral.

There are lessons that can be drawn from Khan Academy’s implementation for many online MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) and can be applied to ICTs in EdTech for developing nations. Shikkhok.com is an example of a successful MOOC for Bangladesh and India. Shikkhokh started with a basic goal of providing quality education at low cost for students in rural Bangladesh and India. It delivers the course content in local language (thus reducing one of the accessibility issues). Shikkhok.com has spent only $15, but yet reached 20,000+ students, at a cost of only US $0.00075/student (about 6 Bangladeshi paisa per student)[4].

Shikhokh’s success story have started to register the effect MOOC phenomenon with policy makers. And Shikhokh has proven that MOOCs can be harnessed to disrupt existing EdTech solutions for developing nations. MOOC’s viral nature has the power to reach millions of people at a given time.I think MOOCs have the potential to transform the “bottom of pyramid” in education for developing nations. However, before using MOOCs as swiss army knife, we need to evaluate key issues like infrastructure readiness, relevance of course content for the local job market, and usage of local language for instruction.  

[1] http://www.globaleducationfirst.org/images/Education_First_Infographic_section-2.jpg[2] http://www.uis.unesco.org/Education/Documents/fs-25-out-of-school-children-en.pdf[3] Mishra, Sanjaya. "The E-Learning Bandwagon: Politics, Policies and Pedagogy." National Seminar on" Choice and Use of ICTs in ODL: Impacts, Strategies and Future Prospects" organized by GRADE, Dr. BR Ambedkar Open University, Hyderabad on. 2007.[4] http://www.quora.com/Survey-Questions/What-is-one-accomplishment-you-are-most-proud-of/answer/Ragib-Hasan


  1. Thank you Ruchita for posting this! Shikkhok.com sounds like it has great potential. I wonder though, do they have a high course completion rate? “Reaching a student” could mean that only one video was watched or lesson was completed. A big challenge in online learning is how to maintain user engagement outside of a traditional classroom setting. People get excited to watch one or two lessons, but their engagement then tapers off and they don’t receive the full benefit of the course. I would imagine the problem is compounded in a developing country where children are left to their own devices or have to take on the role of breadwinners.

    1. Ditto the concerns of Tim- this is part of the findings of MOOCs, and you can see the same trend happening to our ICTD online course (60+ virtual students registered, but I suspect only a very special few, like Gustavo below :), are actually following us. I myself have signed up a MOOCs and (sheepish grin) have yet to fully participate or complete a single one.

    2. A very valid point Tim. I tried searching for some quantitative data on MOOC's success but could not find anything on this subject. San, may be you might have some pointers to the relevant resources?

    3. On retention rates: "In total, roughly 5 percent of students who signed up for a Coursera MOOC earned a credential signifying official completion of the course." See http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/retention-and-intention-massive-open-online-courses-depth-0. Also see, for more in-depth academic discussion, http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED541571.pdf

  2. Interesting post!
    It got me thinking about the requirement of the target population having Internet access. It would be interesting to explore available data to quantify such population.

    Also, taking into account that -as you point out- infrastructure can be an issue, what would you think of a mixed approach using television or radio for "broadcastable" contents and internet for interaction?

    Thank you!

  3. Thanks Gustavo.
    Regarding your question on infrastructure, for developing economies, I feel its important to consider the consumption trends of target population. In several cases, ICT solutions that leverage existing technologies have proved to be equally effective.

  4. Hi Ruchita, very interesting post, I have learnt new things thanks to you :)

    I totally agree with you, ICT and MOOCs can be very useful for children (and everyone that want to learn) in developing countries. The cost and the scale of such tools will definitely change the face of education.

    Nevertheless, to my mind ICT, MOOC and online learning can't do everything. Professors are indispensable, especially to put theory in practice. Theory can be learn and understood online. Know how and practical knowledge just can't. For that you need a professor or someone (in a company for example) to show you how to do.

  5. Great post Ruchita! I agree with Timothy and San about the quality of online educational services, but I also think it has a lot of potential, especially if schools do not exist or targeted investments into teacher and student absenteeism (which is a bit problem) cannot be made. There is this online teaching initiative that one of my students wrote her (GPP115) final paper about last semester, it's called School in a Cloud, and I would be very interested to hear what you think of it! It's basically putting a class in front of a computer and letting a (high-quality) teacher teach over Skype. Here is the founder on TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud.html

  6. Hi Ruchita,

    I echo Gustavo's concern - the students who have the least access to conventional education probably also have the least access to computers and the internet. It reminds me of the topic Antonin wrote on. While MOOCs have fantastic potential, perhaps many contexts would benefit more from older, more conventional technologies. Your early statement that educational gains are petering out due to reduced aid also brings to mind that giving people access to computers and the internet to access MOOCs may be held up by reduced aid. It seems possible that both conventional education efforts and MOOCs will require an increase in aid to reach those who are most in need.

  7. Thanks for posting this, Ruchita! To be very frank, I think it is great that these technologies are getting introduced in the developing economies because in a country like India, where there are high barriers to access and a really wide digital divide, knowledge and awareness of such things itself takes a while to permeate through. I agree that student retention could be a challenge.

  8. Interesting post Ruchita, thank you!

    I appreciate the concerns you point out on this post, and I would love to add even more challenges that could be faced. Assuming that the facilities are there to handle these classes we would still have to make sure there is electricity, internet access, tight security, skilled individuals and most importantly (in my opinion) no resistance from educators. If the educators in the country feel threatened by this innovation they are very likely to do all they can to prevent it's success, and yet I believe these innovations are needed.
    Lets say the problem at hand is that a school has a science teacher, and lacking a math teacher so they use Khan academy for some math topics. Creating a mixed methods strategy where the educator monitors students while watching the video in a classroom set-up would ensure that the videos are watched to completion. I believe MOOCs have a place especially in countries where the cultures are receptive to this technology. I am curious to see how this plays out. Asante Africa is also exploring this idea in East Africa with the help of the MasterCard Foundation.

  9. @Antonin- what you said is exactly what a lot of studies are showing, that the professor's presence, advising and mentoring are the indispensable parts of learning that cannot be replicated in big courses like MOOCs (maybe in smaller online classes, I don't know). Makes me think that maybe a new business model can be adapted from the software industry: Give the software (educational content) for free, but charge for support and service (professor support/services?) . Might be a possible avenue to explore for our eLearning project!