When the tablets don’t work

One of the conclusions you’ll read about in my book is that the transformative impact of digital technology in teaching and learning is contextual. It is context rather than content that is king when we consider what is a truly transformative intervention.


In rural Ghana, where the cost of distributing printed books restricted availability, an intervention based around the most basic Kindle e-reader was a transformative experience for children as well as homes that had no access to books.


A journey to rural India in the state of Bihar, some 6 hours road trip from Patna, we visited a village where a gas fuelled generator to power a single electric light and charge the most basic mobile phone was a luxury. Yet here we found an example of one of the world’s largest deployments of mobile learning that has been implemented throughout Bihar by BBC Media Action to facilitate awareness and learning about maternal health to a population that is poor, illiterate and “media dark”.


To be honest it’s only when you’re there right in the middle of it that what had been an intellectualisation of a challenge became a reality made of real people in real circumstances, a reality that is normal for a substantial number of our population. It was here that the technosolutionist fantasy of low cost computing and click to fix apps designed in Palo Alto just aren’t going to do the job.


You can find out more in the book, of course, but I wanted to share with you an excerpt from an interview that I made with Sara Chamberlain, Head of Technology for BBC Media Action. I asked Sara why they weren’t using the kind of low cost tablets and smartphones that are now being suggested as solutions for digital access amongst the least affluent communities. She told me that:


What we’ve discovered in Bihar is that people don’t know how to use that technology. We did a very large piece of both quantitative and qualitative research in Bihar before we developed our services to understand people’s mobile usage habits, and what we discovered is that only 9% had ever sent an SMS. The reason that only 9% had ever sent an SMS is because the majority of the phones that they have are used second-hand, very poor quality, sort of brick phones, not even feature phones. Those phones are grey market. They’re copy cat. So Nokya and Simsung, that are coming in over the border and are in foreign languages. They don’t support the local Hindi font, so they might be in English or Chinese or Arabic, but they’re not in Hindi. Essentially people have a very basic piece of technology in their hands that’s in a foreign language, which is really limiting their ability to actually use it for anything other than a voice call.


It’s a really basic, old-school kind of technology. We decided to use that because it could be accessed from the most basic handset, and thus we got around the problem of people not being able to use their phones for anything other than a voice call. Essentially 70% of women in rural Bihar are illiterate anyway, so they can only understand audio information.


You see people inventing these apps in Silicon Valley and in other places and bringing those apps over, saying oh, let’s do a pilot or let’s launch a mobile education service here with these apps, with these videos, with this, that and the other, and then they discover, lo and behold, the target population doesn’t have the handsets to support the app, and couldn’t use the app anyway even if they had the handsets.



gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.