EdTech in the Third World: Distance Learning

by Staff Writers

In this series on ed tech in the third world, we've explored the growth of online and mobile access for third world students, as well as great educational technology tools that connect students to learning. These are excellent advancements for education in developing countries, but there's another important part of third world ed tech that we haven't explored yet: distance learning resources.

Distance learning resources, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), open textbooks, and mobile learning tools, bring first-world education to the third world at a very accessible price: free. With available connections and the tools necessary to use them, distance learning can bring quality education within the reach of every student in the world.

The Growth of Distance Learning

Distance learning is experiencing new excitement and possibilities with the growth of online learning, but many developing communities have been using distance learning for a long time. Students in rural China are likely to be familiar with the China Agricultural Radio and TV School, developed over 20 years to become the world's largest distance learning resource for rural areas using radio, TV, satellite, and audio visual materials. And India launched an educational satellite in 2004 with the exclusive purpose of sharing educational resources with rural students in developing communities. But with the development of thousands of free learning resources, often at the university level, there's so much available now that goes beyond what developing communities are able to provide on their own.

University Learning Resources

Students who may not have access to great schools in their local area can still reach world-class education. Free distance learning courses, including open courseware (OCW) and MOOCs allow students in the far reaches of the world to study materials created by the likes of MIT, Harvard, and Yale. Some even offer certificates for work completed, making these distance education resources excellent career boosters for third-world students.

OCW unlocks knowledge from some of the world's best universities. These schools open their course materials, from lectures to reading materials, online for learners to access for free. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the largest and most widely regarded open course project, with more than 2,000 individual courses available. Johns Hopkins School of Public Health‘s open courseware is particularly useful in the third world, with public health courses in topics that are of special interest to developing communities, including malariology, infant mortality, and water sanitation. Students can use the information they've learned from these open education resources to solve problems in their communities, and even better understand course materials they're taught in local schools.

Similar to OCW, MOOCs are the next generation of online learning. These resources take open courses a step further, allowing students to follow along in an organized group and discuss and interact with professors and other students. Providers including EdX, Udacity, and Coursera work with the world's best universities to publish and administer courses, which typically take place over the course of several weeks. Once students have completed the course, they'll typically receive a certificate of their work.

Students in the developing world have already caught on to the great value in these educational resources, including young female learners in Pakistan. Khadija Niazi of Pakistan uses Udacity to explore her potential as a physicist. The 12-year-old Niazi's MOOC studies have enabled her to propel her life and influence to new heights, as one of the youngest speakers at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. Niazi, as well as her twin brother have earned certificates for their online studies and plan to continue pursuing free online education.

OCW and MOOC providers have already established themselves as excellent learning resources that can serve the entire world, but they're working diligently to expand their reach even further. There's a bright future ahead for open courses, and many providers have set their sights on better reaching learners in the developing world. MIT has a goal to reach a billion minds by 2021, bridging the gap between potential and opportunity for learners around the world. They're working to make OCW more flexible for use in developing communities with tools like mobile phones, and customizing OCW to meet the needs of a variety of cultures and backgrounds. MOOC provider Coursera is currently working to expand into more worldwide languages, especially French, which will allow 96 million French speaking learners in Europe, China, and Africa to take their courses.

Distance Learning Resources

In addition to university course projects, there are a variety of distance learning resources that are working to reach the third world. Websites that offer free lectures or learning videos, share learning resources, and publish open textbooks make education available to everyone in the world.

The Khan Academy boasts over 4,000 different videos covering topics from elementary math to science, history, and the humanities. This project was created by Salman Khan, who started the academy with a mission to create a free virtual school for the world. "I see a world where literally anyone with access to a computer and the internet will be able to go to the Khan Academy," Khan says. He expects that within the next decade, technology and bandwidth will be cheap and advanced enough to educate third world countries for free with Khan Academy learning materials. For students who struggle with online connections, KA Lite offline desktop software is available.

In addition to online schools like Khan Academy, educational lecture collections offer third world students access to the world's greatest thinkers. YouTube EDU shares educational videos, from academic lectures to inspiring speeches. Learners can find primary and secondary school resources, as well as university level learning. And through TED, students can watch speeches from some of the greatest speakers in the world, exploring talks that inform and stir curiosity.

But it's not just video learning that's available to third world students online. There are a variety of textbook projects open to developing communities as well. Textbooks are often out of reach for students in the third world, but free online texts make them available. The University of Georgia's Global Text Project publishes electronic texts for the exclusive use of the developing world, partnering with authors to provide an electronic version of books. Many of them are translated into different languages, including Chinese and Spanish. Other projects that make textbooks available online for free include Wikibooks, The Open Textbook Challenge, and the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources.

Mobile Learning Resources

Mobile learning makes educational resources more accessible, delivering OCW, MOOCs, distance learning, and open textbooks to the hands of learners in the developing world. Online educational resources and open textbooks are useful to third world students, but only if they can reach them. Only 20% of homes in the developing world have a computer with Internet access, but 90% of the world has access to a cellular connection of 2G or greater speeds. Four out of every five worldwide mobile connections are in poor countries, making it possible for students around the world to engage in mobile learning opportunities.

Previously discussed Worldreader, an organization with a push to share e-readers with the developing world, has also collaborated on software that can display ebooks on nearly any cell phone in the world. Partnering with app developer biNu, Worldreader's library of thousands of books has currently reached 4.5 million phones. The organization hopes to reach 10 million by the end of 2013. The books featured in Worldreader Mobile's library include texts of local interest, like Nigerian short stories and life-saving information on malaria and HIV/AIDS.

The Taliban has prevented many Afghan women from attending school, banning schooling for girls during their rule that ended in 2001. So many women missed out on education during this period that Afghanistan's literacy rate among women is only 12.5%. But a mobile learning program, Ustad Mobile (Mobile Teacher) is working to bring literacy to Afghanistan's women. In addition to national curriculum language courses, Ustad Mobile provides learners with lessons in math. Lessons are delivered to Ustad Mobile phones, offering audio-video learning resources to women who were unable to go to school under Taliban rule.

Mobile video startup Vuclip is in a unique position to share educational videos with the developing world. More than 25 million video views are served to consumers worldwide each day by Vuclip, and they've recently added educational videos to the mix as well. These videos are specifically optimized for the mobile experience, and will automatically adjust to the resolution and features available on the user's network and device. This makes it easier for learners on low-end devices with poor connections to utilize the videos. Featuring videos from Khan Academy and MIT Open Courseware, Vuclip's EDU video offerings are very useful for third world learners.

How You Can Help

Distance learning content for the third world takes many forms, and in this developing segment, there are many ways to contribute. Schools can provide distance learning resources, authors can share their works, individuals can donate time and talent, and anyone can provide financial support.

  • Consider offering a MOOC or OCW. Professors and universities can share educational resources and discussion opportunities with students in the third world by creating a MOOC. Often, these courses are created from existing lectures and course materials in partnership with MOOC providers including EdX, Coursera, and Udacity.
  • Create educational content online. If you have a teaching background, or are knowledgeable in a particular subject, add your expertise to existing educational content projects. Contribute to YouTube EDU, and you can share what you know with the world.
  • Volunteer for translation projects. Most of the educational content available online is in English, but many worldwide learners do not understand the language. Contribute to the TED Open Translation Project or Khan Academy to create translated subtitles or dubbed videos, so that learners worldwide can interact with these learning materials. Global Text Project is also in need of translators, and is currently seeking crowdsourced Spanish translation for their books.
  • Give your services in other ways. Khan Academy Lite needs help in many ways, from development to testing, and even seeding torrents for download. Wikibooks needs book contributors of all levels, as well as editors. Published authors can share their works with Worldreader.
  • Offer your financial support. Find a few extra dollars to give from your paycheck, or give in more creative ways. Find out if your company offers donation matching, offer your services for fundraising, host a bake sale for Worldreader, encourage your company to sponsor OCW, or shop with educational organizations. MIT OCW has an store, as well as one on Zazzle. You can pick up Khan Academy gear in their shop as well.

Distance education has the power to change lives in the third world. It holds the potential to spread life-changing, and life-saving, information to learners around the world, even in developing communities. In an interview with MIT professor and passionate open educator Walter Lewin, he shared his vision for distance learning in the developing world:

"My goal is to educate the world. My dream is to reach out to one billion people on a time scale of about 10 years, and that all of the good universities in the United States, in Europe, in Japan, in India, that all of them will reach out to the world and give people an opportunity to, effectively, a free education. That will have a huge impact on the world. You're not talking about teaching a million people, you're not talking about teaching 100 million people, you're talking about a billion. In principle, we can educate a billion people."

With the world's knowledge at their hands, learners in the third world can create better lives for their families, and contribute to their communities. This is what distance learning does, and it's spreading.