ICTD in Education – The EcoSchools and EcoZero Model

By Chalenge Masekera

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The value of quality education to society can never be underestimated and as long as less developed communities continue receive education that is not at par with their peers, their communities will suffer stunted development. A lot of ICTD in education initiatives have cropped up but a lot implemented solutions that required having computers in a lab. This has often proved expensive to start, run and maintain. The current trends are seeing a shift from this e-learning model that utilizes labs to m-learning (mobile-learning) models without restrictions of location.
To this end Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe’s largest telecommunications provider is aiming to provide a holistic approach to m-learning. They have launched two products that should align with these objectives.

Because of a lack of books in the developing communities, enhanced learning becomes restricted to only those occasions when the students have access to computers in the lab. Even in cases where Internet has been provided, a lot of students cannot access quality textbooks, as their schools cannot afford the pricey subscriptions to online catalogs or libraries such as JSTOR.

The first initiative is the EcoSchool, which Econet defines as an educational service providing digital education, easily accessible tablets and smart devices with affordable data packages. The initiative is currently on pilot and offered to only select tertiary students. For just $5 per month, students will be receive a low cost ‘EcoSchool Tablet’ as well as access to select eTextbooks in the ‘ EcoSchool eBooks library’. This initiative promises to enable students to access a variety of rich content resources without the limitation of library facilities.

Though students may have devices to access the Internet, broadband accesspackages in developing countries are often too pricey for the communities they intend to serve.The second initiative that complements EcoSchools is the EcoZero initiative that provides free access to over 50 scholarly websites to all of its mobile Internet users. Under EcoZero the websites that can be accessed for free are classified under 12 categories that intend to cover all aspects of learning. The categories include Zimbabwean local university websites, Early Education websites, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Language learning, Programming websites among others. Examples of websites that are accessible include Coursera.org, Codecademy, Wikihow, and even UC Berkeley’s Webcast.berkeley. According to Econet this promotion is meant to provide access to quality international educational material so users can learn for free, anywhere and anytime.

Despite the great prospect for students in Zimbabwe to access resources from international institutions, local alternative development theorists have already raised concerns on how EcoSchools intends to incorporate local teaching methods and materials in the platform. Writing for TechZim website, technology commentator Limbikani Kabweza raised this concern stating that, “We are curious to see how they solved the problem of educational material that is relevant for the local curriculum and syllabi.”

Whilst primarily being an information and communication and technology in development (ICTD) initiative, once launched EcoSchools should be commercial viable allowing the company make profit and keep the initiative sustainable for the foreseeable future. Speaking at the launch, the CEO of Econet outlined a vision that would see the program rolled out to other African countries such as Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria where Econet operates once successfully implemented in Zimbabwe.

The combination of EcoSchools and EcoZero, if successfully implemented and costs remain low as promised these initiatives promise to bring the next generation education in developing countries.

Econet services represent agood case study of local companies recognizing development needs and creating business opportunities from them. Econet also has other locally tailored initiatives in its Services portfolio that are meant at social development including the award winning ‘Energize the Chain Vaccine Project in Zimbabwe’ initiative which utilizes excess power from telecoms base stations to power refrigerators that store vaccines in communities without electricity.

No comments:

Post a Comment