Using technology for inclusive education

Jente Rosseel, Chief Technology Officer

22 May 2017

A core value of our organisation, is to make education inclusive and accessible to all. A part of inclusive education, is access to the same quality level of education no matter the background. We believe that everyone should have equal opportunities, to learn the skills they need to become the person they want to be.

Due to its scalable and transformative nature, digitalisation is generally accepted as one of the best opportunities to improve inclusiveness in education. ICT allows us to collect data, which can be analysed and used to devise valuable insights. It can be used to automate time consuming teaching approaches, and it can be used to personalise and adapt learning to the individual student needs.

However, the scalability of digital technology is still capped by some limitations. Digital technology needs a source of power, and often access to internet, to work. Furthermore, it needs an interface that allows us humans to interact with it. These interfaces come in the form of devices, which drastically increase the cost. When we apply this to the East African rural educational setting, we often find classes have 40, 60 or even 90 students.

Digital technology has the potential to bridge gaps in education.

Photograph from Unsplash

If we want to provide all of them with their own device as interface to technology, we end up with an unfeasible cost to do so. Furthermore, these schools don’t have a stable power supply and a limited yet very expensive internet connection. We thus need physical buffers that overcome these limitations.

We don’t necessarily need to provide all of the students with an interface access to technology. Technology can also be introduced on teacher level. One computer, accompanied by a projector, can already have transformative power (if introduced and integrated properly!). What is interesting for us as a social enterprise, is to look at ways we can take the limited infrastructure to the next level. What if we could devise a way, so that 90 people have simultaneous access to the power technology; Using only one device, asynchronously (even when there is no electricity available) and with limited cost?

“We don’t necessarily need to provide all of the students with an interface access to technology.”

As CTO of Elewa, solving that question in a sustainable manner is my main responsibility. We’ve been working on this problem for the last two years, and found ways to actually overcome this gap. The technique we use to solve this question, is what we call off-/online blending. It mainly means that everything which is possible on the digital side of our platform, must have an offline real-world counterpart.

Some of these components have easy answers. For example, all our digital content is mirrored in textbooks. Others, not so much. In order to provide assessment for learning on the scale of up to 90 students, we needed to develop new technology that allows students to fill in assessments on paper.

At times with electrical availability, teachers or administrative staff then need to pull that data into the online world. Where it can be automatically analysed for insights. All of this has to happen in a cost-effective manner. Preferably running on very cheap hardware.

Rapid and accurate asessments with common tools such as webcams

Photograph via WikiMedia Commons

Through research and hours of struggle, we were able to design a prototype that enables us to do this. Using multiple choice questions as a basis for the assessment, and a 20$ webcam to pull the data into the virtual world. Through this innovation, we are able to introduce assessment for learning in an affordable way. Even for the poorest schools. A teacher can now know what a class of 90 students struggles with, as finely grained as on topic and concept level.

There are many more other ways we work on inclusiveness, which will be addressed in later post. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on inclusive education, and how technology can be used to close the digital divide.

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