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I have been an elementary and secondary school teacher and administrator. Currently, I am a faculty member in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. My M.Ed. and Ph.D. had a focus on the educational and linguistic experiences of children who moved from other countries to Canada.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Education for the Next 4 Billion: Lessons in Resourcefulness, Relationships, and Resilience

This past fall, a team of Haitian, Canadian, and American university faculty members, on-line learning experts, and business people met in Cap-Haitien, Haiti to discuss opportunities for on-line learning. One of the big questions that came out of our meetings was, "What does on-line learning look like for those who don't have easy access to the technology that makes on-line learning accessible?"

The question was motivated by a "collision" of two seemingly polar issues: The desire of universities in Haiti to provide on-line learning opportunities BUT the limited resources of students and faculty to access and support these courses. In other words, we can build it, but will they come?

This raises a much bigger global issue. We have made huge in-roads to provide education for the "first" 4 billion. These are people who live in emerging contexts such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia who have the means to access on-line learning materials through solid Internet connections and low-cost tablets.

But what about the next 4 billion? How do we provide equitable access to quality education to those are in the poorest parts of the world?

Let's take a look at Haiti as a case example. There are certainly people in Haiti who have access to the Internet either through data plans on their phones/tablets or through wired connections. However, these tend to be a wealthy minority. 80% of Haitians live at or below the poverty line ($2/day); 54% live in extreme poverty (less than $1/day) (Source: CIA World Factbook: Haiti). Families in these contexts are challenged to come up with the money to send a child to school (never mind, more than one child) or to pay for their school uniform (yes, every child in Haiti has to have a school uniform).

In this context, how can one be reasonably expected to purchase the tools that make on-line learning possible?

However, our recent trip to Haiti illustrated that this is not the complete story. Instead, we experienced cases of resourcefulness, relationships, and resilience that provide examples of a new way forward for Haiti.

Three examples come quickly to mind:

Andre: As the director of the Center for Women and Children in Cap-Haitien, Andre operates a number of programs that help marginalized people. Laurier has provided 10 laptops to the center and BlackBerry has equipped Andre and his senior staff with phones. The laptops have allowed Andre to provide basic computer training to the women who are in a life skills program. The phones have enabled him to collaborate with his staff and to quickly communicate with supporters in North America.

Doody and Samuel: Two university students, one studying psychology and the other medicine, have used their phones to access social media in developing their English language skills and accessing resources for their university programs. We met these two originally when they completed a Laurier-led English language program while they were in high school. They represent the next era of Haitian social entrepreneurs who understand the power and opportunity of social media.

Caleb: As a young boy, Caleb left his rural community of Pignon to study in Cap-Haitien. These early experiences cemented in his mind a desire to be part of the transformation of his country. 30+ years later, Caleb is a social innovator par excellence! He has built a school and infrastructure in his community to allow others to move beyond the confines of poverty. His school has a computer lab and he is purchasing Haitian-made tablets (read more about Surtabs here: Surtab) to experiment with how they will be used by the students.

So what can we learn from this experience in Haiti? An exploratory trip to Haiti certainly reminds us of the challenges of providing on-line learning for the next 4 billion people ... but also teaches us some valuable lessons on resourcefulness, relationships, and resilience.

As companies like Desire2Learn and universities like Wilfrid Laurier consider "education for all" we need to continue to engage our partners in the poorest parts of the world. Technology can help leapfrog some of the challenges of ensuring that every child receives an education: Modern infrastructure for technology is being built in Haiti (access to 3G and 4G networks are common throughout the country), $100 tablets are being built within the county, data plans are relatively inexpensive ... these structures allow on-line courses for university students to be developed and professional development opportunities for teachers to take place.

Now, we have to figure out how to bridge the gap between the technology infrastructure that exists and the limited means people have to access it. However, Andre, Doody, Samuel, and Caleb remind us that, throughout history and across global contexts, social innovators have never allowed obstacles to deter them from their goals.

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