Still, the state of the world in terms of access to digital technologies can be viewed as half-full or half-empty. Optimists (like me) take solace from the vast numbers of grassroots efforts on behalf of children by educational activists who, against all odds, are dotting the planet with experiments in computer- and Net-based learning. Pessimists find doom and gloom in the odds themselves, which are aggravated by economic forces paradoxically heading in the wrong direction.
The nations with the worst and most expensive telecommunications today are precisely those that will pay the highest price in terms of development. In any given developing country, improving the quality and extent of new telecom infrastructure is perhaps the easiest problem to fix. The economics on the demand side are much harder, in large part because usurious billing schemes are imposed by local régimes, whose leaders look upon telecom as a luxury to be taxed.
Local calls in Africa, for instance, average US$2 per hour; phoning from one country to the next costs $1.25 per minute. But consider that many of these state-owned telcos are in nations that receive much of their income in hard currency - earned from such steep prices, among other things. This shortsighted approach, however, must change in favor of the long-term economic view.
Computers keep getting faster, following Moore's frequently quoted law of doubling processing power every 18 months. Played backward, the law should read: At a constant speed, the cost of computers will be cut in half every year and a half. Manufacturing, of course, does not scale smoothly in reverse. But the potential for very low cost computers is wildly more than we have made of it. Why?
Because inexpensive computing is a crummy business. The margins are too low and the economic model is that of a commodity, a prospect that frightens American business. US companies just do not know how to tackle the low end. And by "low end" I don't mean the much vaunted sub-$1,000 computer - I mean PCs that cost less than $100.
The most troublesome paradox - and the most difficult to change - is that of education itself. Developing countries look longingly at developed nations, with an eye toward copying their education systems. The sad truth, however, is that the Western notion of school stems from an industrial age in which the intellect of children is manufactured like Fords: Instruction is a serial, repetitive process driven by strict norms of curriculum and age.
As my MIT colleagues Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert are fond of pointing out, such schools are an extreme form of age segregation. Six-year olds study with 6-year-olds, until next year, when they study with 7-year-olds. Only schoolchildren with siblings get the real advantages of age integration. Mind you, this isn't just younger children learning from older ones - little brothers and sisters helping their older siblings with computers has become a hallmark of our day. Age integration is a fundamental change we need to consider as part of revisiting the concept of school.
The little red schoolhouse
One-room schools are often believed to be a sad consequence of poverty. But instead of a problem, they may be a solution.
These schools, which may make up as many as half the number of primary schools on the planet, are driven by the principle that young children should learn as close to home as possible. The result is an educational environment that is small, local, personal, and age-integrated and that potentially provides a much richer learning experience than larger schools in urban environments.
My advice to political leaders in developing nations: Adopt an educational strategy that focuses digital technology on primary education, particularly in the poorest and most rural areas. The goal is not to boost national standards or to stem the population flow into urban areas, though these may be by-products. The mission is to learn a lot more about learning itself. In the process we may find new models of education that can be used in all parts of the world - rich and poor, urban and rural.
The catch is access.
Low Earth orbit satellites, or LEOs, are the wave of the future. The first such system, Iridium, will be put into service in September with 66 satellites serving the world as a single telecommunications system. Think of it as a cellular telephone grid - but one where you are stationary and the grid moves. Iridium, conceived in the late '80s, is optimized for voice, not data, but in a few years it will be followed by a next generation of LEOs (Teledesic being the most celebrated) optimized for the Net.
When that happens, suddenly, being rural does not matter. Being in the most remote part of the planet does not matter. In fact, such places are precisely where LEOs will not otherwise be saturated with urban traffic. By contrast, when you physically wire the world, remote places become the most expensive to serve. With LEOs, you have to cover the whole world in order for any single part of it to work - rural and remote access, in a sense, comes for free.
In the next five years, LEOs will thus change the balance of access. With very low cost computers and some boldness in education policy, it will be possible to touch the lives of all children, including those in the poorest and most remote regions of the world. The right step to take now is to use whatever means necessary to reach as many one-room rural schools as possible - to learn today about learning tomorrow. These apparently forgotten schools, paradoxically, may provide the best clues for real change in education.
The ideas above are in large part taken from the real plans of the 2B1 Foundation (www.2b1.org/), in cooperation with the Fundación Omar Dengo in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is one of the few nations to seriously embrace computers in primary education; one-room rural schools make up 40 percent of the country's primary schools, serving nearly a tenth of the K-6 population.
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[Copyright 1998, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 6.09, September 1998.]