Category Archives: Accessibility

Reflections on IGF 2019 in Berlin


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High Level Session on Internet Governance at IGF 2019

I have been quite critical of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) process in the past, arguing that it was created essentially as a talking shop and a palliative to civil society following the original WSIS meetings in 2003 and 2005 (for details see my Reclaiming ICT4D, OUP, 2017), and that it has subsequently achieved rather little of substance.  I still retain the view that there are far too many “global” ICT4D gatherings that overlap and duplicate each other, without making a substantial positive difference to the lives of the poorest and most marginalised.  Likewise, I have been hugely critical of the creation and work of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (HLPDC), despite having several good friends who have been involved in trying to manage this process (see the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D’s response to the original call for contributions).  I retain the view that it is poorly conceived, duplicates other initiatives, and will again have little positive impact on the lives of the poorest and most marginalised.

So, it was with much interest that I arrived at the IGF in Berlin on 25th November in response to three invitations: to participate in a session on ICTs for people with disabilities, to support colleagues involved in the EQUALS initiative intended to increase gender digital equality, and also to participate in a side event on Many Worlds.  Many Nets.  Many Visions, for which I had contributed a short piece on our TEQtogether initiative designed to change men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology.  To this end, it is salient to note the largely elderly white male dominance on the key opening plenary panel on the future of Internet governance shown in the picture above – more on that later!  I had many interesting discussions during the week, but want here to share five main reflections and challenges in the hope that they will provoke dialogue and discussion.

IGF (plus?)…

Water stationms

Water Station at IGF 2019

It was rumoured that the German government had put aside some €10 million to cover the costs of this year’s IGF.  Whilst that may well be an exaggeration we were certainly hosted in great luxury, and it would be churlish not to thank the German government for their generous hospitality.  In compliance with increasing concerns over plastic and climate change, there was even a very impressive water station in the exhibition area!  They had also done much to encourage the participation of many quite young people, and to get the gender balance better than at some similar digital technology events in the past.  The IGF 2019 outputs are already available and make interesting reading.

UN SG speaking in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

UN SG speaking in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

However, I was struck by the relative absence of people from China, India and Russia, as well as from many of the poorer countries of the world who were unable to afford the travel costs or who had difficulties in obtaining visas.  This absence set me thinking of the wider global geopolitical interests involved in the IGF process.  At a time when the ITU is unfortunately being increasingly criticised by North American and European countries for being too heavily in the pocket of Chinese organisations and companies (recent criticism of China’s efforts to influence global standards on facial recognition is but one small example), free-market capitalist governments have turned ever more to the IGF as the main forum for their engagement on Internet issues.

Angela Merkel in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

Angela Merkel in IGF 2019 Opening Ceremony

The theme of this year’s IGF One World.  One Net.  One Vision. says it all (and hence why I was so eager to be involved in the innovative and creative Many Worlds. Many Nets.  Many Visions initiative).  The IGF is about maintaining a unitary free open Internet in the face of perceived attempts by countries such as China and Russia to fragment the Internet.  It is no coincidence that next year’s IGF is in another European country, Poland, and that the last two IGFs have been in France and Switzerland.  The messages of the UN Secretary General and the German Chancellor (shown in the images above) were equally forceful about the kind of Internet that they want to see.

Moreover, this hidden war over the future of the Internet is also being played out through the HLPDC process which has suggested that there are three possible architectures for digital cooperation.  The presence of such high-level participants at this year’s IGF very much conveyed the impression that the IGF Plus option is the one that they prefer as the main forum for policy making over the Internet in the future.  This is scarcely surprising: all but two (one Chinese and one Russian) of the 20 members of the HLPDC Panel and Co-chairs are from free-market capitalist-inclined countries; 8 of the 20 are from the USA and Europe.

The sale of .org by ISOC to Ethos Capital

Another major issue that raised its head during this year’s IGF was the very controversial sale by the Internet Society (ISOC) of its non-profit Public Internet Registry (PIR) which had previously managed the top-level domain .org to a for-profit company, Ethos Capital, for the sum of $1.135 bn.

Key elements of the controversy that were widely mentioned during the IGF, and are well summarised by The Registry, include:

  • ISOC’s decision under a new CEO to shift its financial structure from benefitting from the variable profits derived from .org to creating a foundation from which it would then use the interest to fund the activities of its various chapters (the new Internet Society Foundation was created in February 2019);
  • The lifting of the cap announced in May 2019 by ICANN on prices of .org domain names, which would enable the owner of the .org registry to impose unlimited price rises for the 10 million .org domain name owners; and
  • The observation that the former CEO of ICANN had personally registered the domain name used by Ethos Capital only the day after the cap had been lifted (it appears that he and a small number of his close affililates linked to ICANN are the only people involved in Ethos Capital) .

The lack of transparency over this entire process, and the potential for significant profits to be gained by certain individuals from these changes have given rise to huge concerns, especially among civil society organisations that use .org domain names.  As a recent article in The Register concludes, “The deal developed by former ICANN CEO Chehade is worth billions of dollars. With that much money at stake, and with a longstanding non-profit registry turned into a for-profit with unlimited ability to raise prices, the internet community has started demanding answers to who knew what and when”.

Inclusion, accessibility and people with disabilities…

Absence of people in IGF 2019 Main Hall for High Level Session on Inclusion

Absence of people in IGF 2019 Main Hall for High Level Session on Inclusion

It was good to see a considerable number of sessions devoted to inclusion, accessibility and people with disabilities at this year’s IGF.  However, it was sad to see how relatively poorly attended so many of these sessions were.  The exodus from the Main Hall between the High Level Session on the Future of Internet Governance and the High Level Session on Inclusion, for example, was very noticeable.  The content of most of these sessions on disabilities and inclusion was generally interesting, and it is just such a shame that the wider digital community still fails to grasp that digital technologies will increase the marginalisation of those with disabilities unless all such technologies are designed as far as is reasonably possible to be inclusive in the first place.  Assistive technologies can indeed make a very significant difference to the lives of people with disabilities, but such persons should not have to pay more for them to counter the increased marginalisation that they face when many non-inclusive new technologies are introduced.

IGF 2019 Session WS#64 on empowering persons with disabilities

IGF 2019 Session WS#64 on empowering persons with disabilities

I was, though, hugely challenged by my own participation in one of these sessions.  Having been invited by Brian Scarpelli to be the penultimate speaker in a session that he had convened on Internet Accessibility Empowering Persons with Disabilities (WS #64), I just felt that it needed a little livening up by the time it was my turn to speak.  I therefore decided to take a roving microphone, and did my presentation walking around inside the cage of desks around which everyone was seated.  I wanted to engage with the “audience” several of whom did indeed have disabilities, and I tried hard to involve them by, for example, describing myself and the venue for those who were blind.  The audience seemed to welcome this, and I had felt that I had got my messages across reasonably well.  Afterwards, though, someone who is autistic came up to me and in the nicest way berated me for having walked around.  She said that the movement had distressed her, and made it difficult for her to follow what I was saying.  She suggested that in the future I should stay still when doing presentations.

This presented me with a real challenge, since I have been encouraged all my life to deliver presentations as a performance – using my whole body to engage with the audience to try to convince them of my ideas.  So, what should we do when making presentations to an audience of such varied abilities?  Can we cater for them all? Clearly, I don’t want to upset those with one disability.  Should I ask if anyone in an audience minds if I walk around?  But then, someone with autism might well not want to speak out and say that they did actually mind?  Should the preference of one person with a disability over-ride the preferences of the remaining 49 people in a room?  There is no easy answer to these questions, but I would greatly value advice from those more familiar with such challenges than I am.

Exclusion in the midst of diversity: being an elderly, white, grey-haired, European man…

"Many Worlds. Many Nets. Many Visions" gathering held during IGF 2019 at HIIG

“Many Worlds. Many Nets. Many Visions” gathering held during IGF 2019 at HIIG

Far too many international events associated with digital technologies continue to be excessively male dominated, and it was refreshing to see the considerable gender diversity evident at IGF 2019.  Despite this, as noted above, several panels did remain very “male”!  It was therefore very refreshing to participate in the Many Worlds.  Many Nets.  Many Visions side event held at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), and congratulations should once again be given to Matthias Kettemann and Katharina Mosene for putting this exciting and challenging initiative together.

Reflecting on the various gender-related events held during and around IGF 2019, though, has made me very uneasy.  I was particularly struck by the frequency with which presenters advocating plurality and diversity of ideas, behaviours, and self-identification, nevertheless also seemed to castigate, and even demonise one particular group of people as being, in effect, the “enemy”.  That group is the group that others see me as belonging to: elderly/middle-aged, white, grey-haired, European (and let’s add north American and Oceanian as well), men!  Perhaps it was just in the sessions that I attended, but over and over again this group was seen as being oppressive, the main cause of gender digital inequality, and those who are to be fought against.  The language reminded me very much of some of the feminist meetings that I attended back in the 1970s.

I was surprised, though, how sad this made me feel.  Some elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) men have indeed worked over many decades to help change social attitudes and behaviours at the interface between women and technology.  This group is not uniform!  Some have written at length about these issues; some have helped implement programmes to try to make a real difference on the ground.  To be sure, we need to continue to do much more to change men’s attitudes and behaviours;  TEQtogether has been set up to do just this.  What upset me most, though, is that these efforts were rarely recognised by those who were so critical of  this particular “uniform” group.  Too often, all elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) men seemed to be lumped together in a single group by those very people who were calling for recognition of the importance of diversity and multiple identities. There is a sad irony here.  Perhaps it is time for me just to grow old gracefully…

EQUALSIt was therefore amazingly humbling that, almost at the end of the EQUALS in Tech awards, a young woman who I had never met before, came up to me and simply said thank you.  Someone had told her what one elderly, white, grey-haired, European (etc.) man had tried to do over the last 40 years or so…  I wonder if she has any idea of just how much those few words meant to me.

Novelty and learning from the past

Poster about sexual exploitation of children, Ethiopia, 2002

Poster about sexual exploitation of children, Ethiopia, 2002

Finally, the 2019 IGF re-emphasised my concerns over the claims of novelty by people discovering the complexity of the inter-relationships between technology and society.  All too often speakers were claiming things that had actually been said and done twenty or more years ago as being new  ideas of their own.  This was typified by a fascinating session on Sex Work, Drug Use, Harm Reduction, and the Internet (WS 389).  Whilst this is indeed a very important topic, and one that should be addressed in considerably more detail, few of the presenters made any reference to past work on the subject, or appeared to have made much attempt to learn from previous research and practice in the field.  Back in the early 2000s, for example, the Imfundo initiative had spent time identifying how “bar girls” in Ethiopia might have been able to use digital technologies that were novel then to help transform their lives and gain new and better jobs.  I wonder how many people attending Session WS 389 were at all aware of the complex ethical questions and difficulties surrounding the conduct of research and practice on this topic that the Imfundo team had explored all those years ago.  There were important lessons to be learnt, and yet instead the wheel seems to be being reinvented over and over again.

This example was not isolated, and a recurrent feature of the field of ICT for Development is that people so rarely seem to learn from mistakes of the past, and everyone wants to claim novelty for ideas that have already been thoroughly explored elsewhere.  I  must write at length some time about the reasons why this seems to happen so often…


Finally, the artists who created this image of Berlin from tape during IGF 2019 deserve to be congratulated on their amazing work!

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 25th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 25th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 29th November

Artwork of Berlin made in tape, 29th November

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IGF 2019 WS #64 Internet Accessibility Empowering Persons with Disabilities


Visually impaired girl using Braille in Tunisia

Visually impaired girl using Braille in Tunisia

I’m so glad to have been invited to contibute to the session on Internet Accessibility Empowering Persons With Disabilities at this year’s Internet Governance Forum Meeting in Berlin (Wednesday 27th November, 1500-1650 CET in Room IV of the Estrel Congress Center, Sonnenallee 225, 12057 Berlin).

Hopefully, the introductory pieces by all of the speakers will be short, so that we can have a lively discussion.  I am speaking last, so previous speakers will probably have made all of the important points! However, for those unable to attend, this is what I am hoping to say:

I would like to use this opportunity to make four brief points:

First, unless universal inclusion and accessibility are built into all new digital technologies from the original design stage to end user, they will further increase inequality.  The more and more advanced technologies become, the further they benefit those who can afford and are able to use them, rather than the most marginalised and poorest, especially those with disabilities

Second, it is crucial that we change the design approach mindset so that inclusion becomes of paramount importance for the internet and the use of digital technologies.  This can be done in many ways, but I have always been impressed by the power of the market, and the role that procurement can play, especially by governments and large corporations.

Third, we can all get better at what we do!  I continually get cross with myself that I do not always insert alternative text for all of the images I post on my digital platforms, and in the slide decks that I share of my talks.  It is not good enough, but it takes longer to do, and with a tight schedule I usually forget. I need to do better; we all do.

Finally, and to end on a more optimistic note, of course the design of new digital technologies can indeed be used by people with disabilities to transform their lives.  There are always new things being developed – my latest exciting discovery is OptiKey .  However, we need to do much more to help change developers’ attitudes – and indeed those of the wider tech community.  Smart city technology for example should be being used much more to help the blind and visually impaired.  We must all do more – together with those with disabilities, and not just “for them”.

For more about our work on inclusion and disability, see our small site at Disabilities and ICT4D.

 

 

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Digital technologies and accessibility: from rhetoric to reality – at WSIS 2019


Accessibillity 1It was great to be part of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D team working with our colleagues at the Inter-Islamic Network on Information Technology (INIT) to convene and host the first session on Accessibility Day (8th April) at this year’s tenth anniversary WSIS Annual Forum held in Geneva.  The theme was “Digital technologies and accessibility: from rhetoric to reality”, and our session began with three short opening presentations:

Building on these inspiring presentations, participants then turned their attention to discussing what still needs to be done to turn rhetoric into reality with respect to the empowerment of people with disabilities through ICTs.  This was captured in the mind map below (link to a detailed and expandable .pdf file of the mind map):

What must we do to turn rhetoric into reality so that people with disabilities can be empowered through digital technologies

This discussion highlighted the continuing need for work in ten main areas:

  • Holistic approaches
  • Enabling voices of people with disabilities
  • Policies and legislation
  • Partnerships
  • Leadership
  • Differentiation between universal inclusion and assistive technologies
  • Training, awareness and capacity building
  • Building appropriate technologies
  • Finances
  • Delivering commitments

Working together, we can all contribute to the empowerment of people with disabilities (details of some of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D’s activities and resources supporting people with disabilities).

Looking forward to another special set of sessions on accessibillity at next year’s WSIS 2020!  Thanks to Gitanjali and her team for all the great work that they did in delivering this year’s conference!

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Global Disability Summit, London, 23-24 July 2018


It is great to be part of the Global Disability Summit being convened by DFID, The International Disability Alliance and the Government of Kenya at Here East in London, with the Civil Society Forum being held on the 23rd July and the Summit itself on 24th September.   The Summit is intended to “raise global attention on a long-neglected area, mobilise new global and national commitments on disability inclusion and showcase good practice, innovation and evidence from across the world”.  For those unable to participate in person, there is Livestreaming of the event.

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As the Summit programme notes, “The Summit is built around four themes (dignity and respect for all, inclusive education, economic empowerment and technology and innovation) and includes additional crosscutting and strategic spotlight sessions. We are building a movement of change, and we invite you all to be part of the legacy of the Summit and sign the GDS18 Charter for Change: an expression of our collective ambition commitment that unites us all”.

It is excellent to see the UK government highlighting the importance of empowering people with disabilities through this summit, and I hope that global media will give it the prominence that it deserves.  However, its impact will depend very largely on what we all do afterwards.  I very much hope that the rhetoric is indeed turned into reality.

[Note: this is a repost of a piece first published at https://disabilityict4d.wordpress.com/2018/07/23/global-disability-summit-london-23-24-july-2018/%5D

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“Reclaiming ICT4D” – in the beginning


It is always exciting submitting a book manuscript to a publisher, and today is no exception!  I have at last finished with my editing and revisions, and sent the manuscript of Reclaiming ICT4D off to Oxford University Press.  I just hope that they like it as much as I do!  It is by no means perfect, but it is what I have been wanting to write for almost a decade now.

This is how it begins – I hope you like it:

“Chapter 1

A critical reflection on ICTs and ‘Development’

This book is about the ways through which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have become entwined with both the theory and the practice of ‘development’.  Its central argument is that although the design and introduction of such technologies has immense potential to do good, all too often this potential has had negative outcomes for poor and marginalized people, sometime intended but more often than not unintended.  Over the last twenty years, rather than reducing poverty, ICTs have actually increased inequality, and if ‘development’ is seen as being about the relative differences between people and between communities, then it has had an overwhelming negative impact on development.  Despite the evidence to the contrary, I nevertheless retain a deep belief in the potential for ICTs to be used to transform the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalized for the better.  The challenge is that this requires a fundamental change in the ways that all stakeholders think about and implement ICT policies and practices.  This book is intended to convince these stakeholders of the need to change their approaches.

It has its origins in the mid-1970s, when I learnt to program in Fortran, and also had the privilege of undertaking field research in rural India.  The conjuncture of these two experiences laid the foundations for my later career, which over the last twenty years has become increasingly focused on the interface between Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on the one hand, and the idea of ‘development’ on the other.  The book tells personal stories and anecdotes (shown in a separate font).  It draws on large empirical data sets, but also on the personal qualitative accounts of others.  It tries to make the complex theoretical arguments upon which it is based easy to understand.  Above all, it has a practical intent in reversing the inequalities that the transformative impacts of ICTs have led to across the world.

I still remember the enjoyment, but also the frustrations, of using punch cards, with 80 columns, each of which had 12 punch locations, to write my simple programs in Fortran.  The frustration was obvious.  If you made just one tiny mistake in punching a card, the program would not run, and you would have to take your deck of cards away, make the changes, and then submit the revised deck for processing the next day.  However, there was also something exciting about doing this.  We were using machines to generate new knowledge.  They were modern.  They were the future, and we dreamt that they might be able to change the world, to make it a better place.  Furthermore, there was something very pleasing in the purity and accuracy that they required.  It was my fault if I made a mistake; the machine would always be precise and correct.  These self-same comments also apply to the use of ICTs today.  Yes, they can be frustrating, as when one’s immensely powerful laptop or mobile ‘phone crashes, or the tedium of receiving unwanted e-mails extends the working day far into time better spent doing other things, but at the same time the interface between machines and modernity conjures up a belief that we can use them to do great things – such as reducing poverty.

Figure 1.1 Modernity and the machine: Cambridge University Computer Laboratory in the early 1970s.

1.1

Source: University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory (1999)

In 1976 and 1977 I had the immense privilege of undertaking field research in the Singbhum District of what was then South Bihar, now Jharkhand, with an amazing Indian scholar, Sudhir Wanmali, who was undertaking his PhD about the ‘hats’, or periodic markets, where rural trade and exchange occurred in different places on each day of the week (Figure 1.2).  Being ‘in the field’ with him taught me so much: the haze and smell of the woodsmoke in the evenings; the intense colours of rural India; the rice beer served in leaf cups at the edges of the markets towards the end of the day; the palpable tensions caused by the ongoing Naxalite rising (Singh, 1995); the profits made by mainly Muslim traders from the labour of Adivasi, tribal villagers, in the beautiful forests and fields of Singbhum; the creaking oxcarts; and the wonderful names of the towns and villages such as Hat Gamharia, Chakradharpur, Jagannathpur, and Sonua.  Most of all, though, it taught me that ‘development’ had something powerful to do with inequality.  I still vividly recall seeing rich people picnicking in the lush green gardens of the steel town of Jamshedpur nearby, coming in their smart cars from their plush houses, and then a short distance away watching and smelling blind beggars shuffling along the streets in the hope of receiving some pittance to appease their hunger.  The ever so smart, neatly pressed, clothes of the urban elite at the weekends contrasted markedly with the mainly white saris, trimmed with bright colours, that scarcely covered the frail bodies of the old rural women in the villages where we worked during the week.  Any development that would take place here had to be about reducing the inequalities that existed between these two different worlds within the world of South Bihar.  This made me look at my own country, at the rich countries of Europe, and it made me all the more aware of two things: not only that inequality and poverty were also in the midst of our rich societies; but also that the connections between different countries in the world had something to do with the depth of poverty, however defined, in places such as the village of Sonua, or the town of Ranchi in South Bihar.

Figure 1.2: hat, or rural periodic market at Hat Gamharia, in what was then South Bihar, 1977 1.2 Source: Author

            Between the mid-1970s and the mid-2010s my interests in ICTs, on the one hand, and ‘development’ on the other, have increasingly fascinated and preoccupied me.  This book is about that fascination.  It shares stories about how they are connected, how they impinge on and shape each other.  I have been fortunate to have been involved in many initiatives that have sought to involve ICTs in various aspects of ‘development’.  In the first instance, my love of computing and engineering, even though I am a geographer, has always led me to explore the latest technological developments, from electronic typewriters that could store a limited number of words, through the first Apple computers, to the Acorn BBC micro school and home computer launched in 1981, using its Basic BASIC programming language, and now more recently to the use of mobile ‘phones for development.  I was fascinated by the potential for computers to be used in schools and universities, and I learnt much from being involved with the innovative Computers in Teaching initiative Centre for Geography in the 1990s (see Unwin and Maguire, 1990).  During the 2000s, I then had the privilege of leading two challenging international initiatives that built on these experiences.  First, between 2001 and 2004 I led the UK Prime Minister’s Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education initiative, based within the Department for International Development (UK Government Web Archive 2007), which created a partnership of some 40 governments, private sector and civil society organisations committed to using ICTs to enhance the quality and quantity of education in Africa, particularly in Kenya, South Africa and Ghana.  Then in the latter 2000s, I led the World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education initiative with UNESCO, which sought to draw out and extend the experiences gained through the Forum’s Global Education Initiative’s work on creating ICT-based educational partnerships in Jordan, Egypt, Rajasthan and Palestine (Unwin and Wong, 2012).  Meanwhile, between these I created the ICT4D (ICT for Development) Collective, based primarily at Royal Holloway, University of London, which was specifically designed to encourage the highest possible quality of research in support of the poorest and most marginalized.  Typical of the work we encouraged was another partnership-based initiative, this time to develop collaborative research and teaching in European and African universities both on and through the use of ICTs.  More recently, between 2011 and 2015 I had the privilege of being Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, which is the membership organisation of governments and people in the 53 countries of the Commonwealth, enhancing the use of ICTs for development.

Two things have been central to all of these initiatives: first a passionate belief in the practical role of academics and universities in the societies of which they are a part, at all scales from the local to the international; and second, recognition of the need for governments, the private sector and civil society to work collaboratively together in partnerships to help deliver effective development impacts.  The first of these builds fundamentally on the notion of Critical Theory developed by the Frankfurt School (Held, 1980), and particularly the work of Jürgen Habermas (1974, 1978) concerning the notion of knowledge constitutive interests and the complex inter-relationships between theory and practice.  The next section therefore explores why this book explicitly draws on Critical Theory in seeking to understand the complex role and potential of ICTs in and for development.  Section 1.2 thereafter then draws on the account above about rural life in India in the 1970s to explore in further detail some of the many ways in which the term ‘development’ has been, and indeed still is, used in association with technology.”

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If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?


I was very privileged that Adrian Godfrey asked me to say a few words to introduce the session on m-education that the GSMA convened earlier today at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.  It was good to be with a fun group of panelists, and I hope that we gave them some food for thought.

So, this is what I said.  It was designed to be provocative, but its intent was to emphasise that there are many different interests in the use of mobile devices for learning, and that if we are going to take advantage of the enormous potential that they can offer for the poorest and most marginalised then we need to recognise these interests, and work together in carefully crafted partnerships to deliver effective learning opportunities.

“If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
MaasaiLess than two weeks ago, I was in northern Tanzania.  Walking across the dry savannah, I entered the thorned enclosure of a boma, or small village. I was welcomed by the Maasai chief’s son, who engaged me in conversation.  I remembered seeing striking images in the international media around 2007 of Maasai warriors, resplendent in their red, “lion proof” robes, holding mobile ‘phones to their ears, and knowing that I was due to speak a world away, here in Barcelona today, I slowly began to explore the question of mobile telephony.  I should not have done so.  The conversation left me embarrassed and humbled.

As my friends used their smart-phones to take photos, I asked “Does anyone in the village have a mobile phone?”

“No” he said, in his excellent English.

One of my friends asked “Would a mobile ‘phone not be useful to call your friends in other villages?”

“Why?” he responded, “I can walk two or three hours to see them”.

And I admired his life.

Earlier, he had shown me the small hut where young children were learning the alphabet and counting in English. So I gently sought to explore the benefits of mobile learning: “But if you had a smart-phone, could you not use it to get learning resources for your children?”.

He looked bemused. My question meant little to him.  He had asked for chalk and books.

I changed the subject.

Of course, many Maasai – and indeed poor people in rural areas across Africa – do indeed use mobile ‘phones, for a wide range of purposes.  But this brief conversation re-emphasised many of the challenges of mobile-learning, and highlights the importance of the question: “if m-learning is the answer, what is the question”.

Let me therefore tease out just four of these questions here in my opening comments:

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
How do we increase our data traffic?”  To me, this is one of the most important questions –  all too often asked behind the closed doors of the luxurious offices of mobile operators – that is answered by the term “m-learning”.  It is nothing to do with education or learning. There is far more data capacity in the world than is currently used.  The arrival of the submarine cables across Africa in recent years has transformed connectivity, and much remains unused.  Mobile networks are expanding rapidly, but again there is insufficient demand for their use. Hence, it is crucial for operators to encourage the development of more services if they are to generate the profits that they seek.  Mobile banking has been one such successful service emanating from Africa; now mobile health services, and mobile-learning are seen as important means of moving beyond the simple data requirements of social media apps.

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
“How can we gain external funding from governments and donors so that we can extend our networks?”
The costs of putting networks into low-density rural areas, far from the fibre backbones of most countries, greatly outweigh the likely returns, at least in the short term. It is “uneconomic”.  In many poorer countries of the world, operators have been able to gain lucrative revenue opportunities from those living in the relatively small dense urban areas, and have been able to circumvent requirements to provide universal coverage, that would benefit all citizens. Hence, operators are always seeking to find sources of co-financing that can help them extend their networks into “marginal” areas.  Where they have to pay taxes into Universal Service (or Access) Funds, they naturally want a share back in extending networks.  They need a handle to persuade governments, and indeed donor agencies, to provide resources to enable them to extend their infrastructure. How better than to persuade them that by so doing they will enable all of their citizens to benefit from the opportunities that m-learning has to offer.  “If you will help fund the networks, you can then use them to ensure that every citizen has access to m-learning, alongside m-health and m-gov”.  This makes real sense.  With the drive to deliver the Millennium Development Goals, the thirst by the international donor community to ensure that “their” targets are reached, and the aspirations of “enlightened” governments really to deliver valuable services to their citizens, m-learning really is the answer.

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
“What is the best market opportunity for our company?”
  Education is no longer of value largely for its own sake; it is a commodity to be bought and sold; it has become a vibrant market.  Hence, there are considerable profits to be made by everyone in the education industry.  The company could be an app-developer, eager to find the “killer” education-app.  It could be a publisher, eager to extend its sales.  It could be a teaching company (often known as schools), eager to grow the market for the services offered by its teachers.  Academics in research companies (sometimes still known as universities) are eager to compete to gain prestigious research grants to study, or perhaps more usually to “prove”, the potential of m-learning, and fuel this thriving industry. The explosion of mobile telephony, and the expectation that it will soon become ubiquitous opens up vast new possibilities for companies to extend the reach of their educational “solutions”.  We truly can achieve education for all, if only we can ensure that the poorest people can still afford a cheap smartphone, and that we can have universal network coverage.   And that is the point, it is education for all. Unlike “health”, which is mainly for those who are ill, learning is something that everyone “must” do.  It is institutionalised in our education systems, and now we are all encouraged to partake in lifelong learning.  Education is 24 x 7 x 365 x 80 or so, depending on how long we live – the magic multiplier number is 6,384,000 times the number of people in the world! This is a market indeed.

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
“How can we reach the most marginalised in our societies, and give them the highest possible quality of learning opportunity?”
  I guess this is the question that most people would have expected me to begin with. Of course m-learning provides a wealth of opportunity for the enlightened, the altruists, those who care about reducing the inequalities that digital technologies otherwise enhance, and hopefully some governments and civil society organisations, who are committed to providing quality learning opportunities for the poorest and most marginalised in our societies – those living in isolated rural areas, street children, people with disabilities.  The ubiquity of networks and devices, their mobility – anywhere, anytime – and their simplicity of use, all make mobile devices – be they phones, tablets or laptops, wonderful platforms for learning.

But we still need to work harder to find what works best. We still need high-quality, locally produced content, and above all we still need teachers trained in ways of using these technologies in the best interests of pupils.  Perhaps mobile devices may even one day free us completely from what many people see as being the shackles of an outmoded school system…”

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Filed under 'phones, Accessibility, Africa, Commonwealth, Development, Education, ICT4D

Contributions to GSMA MWC Ministerial discussion on mobile-learning


It was great to be on Monday’s panel on “Why put ‘mobile’ in education?” hosted by Adrian Godfrey during the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress Ministerial Programme in Barcelona.  Mike Trucano set the panel underway by giving an important keynote on “Education, jobs and national productivity – why mobile education matters”, which was as usual full of down-to-earth sensible suggestions.  I suggested that governments should try cloning him, and each then have one clone to help them implement effective ICT and education initiatives.

Rebecca Walton (British Council) then hosted a panel discussion that also included Carolina Jeux (Telefónica), Chris Penrose (AT&T), and Tarek Shawki (American University, Cairo), asking us each a pre-set question to get the ball rolling.  Mine was “What are the three things that policy makers should know about mobile technologies in education, and what are the three things that governments should do?”.  This is actually much tougher than it might appear – keeping the list down to only three things each!

Here was my response:

Three things policy makers should know about mobile technologies in education:

  • The focus should be on the learning and not on the technology
  • Never ignore the content – far too many initiatives focus on putting equipment into schools or into learners’ hands – but often there is insufficient relevant content – and pupils do not always know how to access this themselves
  • It is essential to provide high quality training for teachers in how to use technologies in the classroom – and particularly mobile devices of all kinds. Keep mobile switched on in classrooms (and beyond)!

Top three things governments should do:

  • Approach mobile learning in a holistic and integrated way – bringing together all relevant ministries – ICTs, energy, education…
  • Focus on the most marginalised.  The market will take care of the majority, and it is the responsibility of states to deliver services for their poorest citizens. Hence, governments must implement programmes to support those living in isolated rural areas, and that will enable people with disabilities to gain the benefits of mobile learning
  • Begin by ensuring that the basic infrastructure is in place – electricity and connectivity (preferably mobile broadband) as far as possible making this universal.

I wonder what your three answers to these questions might be?

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Filed under 'phones, Accessibility, Africa, Commonwealth, Development, Education, ICT4D