Promoting quality education for all.

Expanding Educational Opportunities through Information and Communication Technology (ICT)

by Dr. Joanna Rubinstein, 

by Dr. Joanna Rubinstein, Connect to Learn

As development experts know, the pay-back of educating girls is extraordinary. But based on current trends, by 2015, only 56 percent of countries will have achieved gender parity in lower secondary education. And if trends continue at the current pace, the poorest girls in sub-Saharan Africa will not even achieve universal primary school completion until 2086 (UNESCO, 2014).

The Connect To Learn (CTL) initiative was created in 2010 to address this. A partnership of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Millennium Promise (an NGO), and a world leading telecommunications technology company, Ericsson, the initiative’s goal is to scale up access to quality secondary education, especially for girls, and especially in rural Africa as well as other developing countries. The principle methods: by providing scholarships and access to the Internet for those who have neither money nor connectivity.

Beginning in 2007 in the Millennium Villages in Africa, the partnership with Ericsson has proved to be inspiring. First, it wasn’t entirely about getting girls into schools. Putting up a tower to provide connectivity meant that camel herders were saved hours, even days, of fruitless effort formally spent hunting for functioning watering holes by “calling ahead.” Small family holding farmers could take control of when to sell their crops and when not to sell thanks to their ability to store grain until prices were optimal. They even began mobile banking and some started small businesses. And maternal and child health improved with increased access to clinics and mobile phone equipped Community Health Workers.

But perhaps the most moving application has been the transformation taking place in education. Children in the most remote villages saw their communities magically appear on Google Earth and, for some of them, for the first time, they and their parents knew where they were in the world. But then once it began to transform primary schools, our alliance turned to the challenge of making secondary education possible for the girls from the Millennium Villages – girls who almost never before had access to secondary schools.

Now, four years into the program, with 745 girls on scholarships, nearly 29,000 students in Africa and another 10,000 students in Latin America and Asia benefitting from the CTL program, I am very excited to see how the international dialogue on education is shifting to focus on several of the challenges to education access and effectiveness that Connect To Learn is addressing. There is no better “key” to sustainable development than quality education.

While the Millennium Development Goals have had a profound impact on the reduction of poverty and improved child survival, many of their greatest successes have depended on focused global initiatives and targeted interventions, and the mobilization of additional funding for global health. It is time to replicate these successes in education.

The opportunity comes with the new set of global goals in the post-2015 development agenda. For me, as the newly appointed Director of Connect to Learn, I was very pleased to see that the Open Working Group at the United Nations propose, as part of its goal on education, that all girls and boys should complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.  Better yet, they declared that gender disparities in education must be eliminated, and that learners should acquire knowledge and skills to promote sustainable development, including learning about gender equality and global citizenship. Finally, and perhaps most heartening of all, the new Goal on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls explicitly calls for the enhanced “use of enabling technologies, in particularly ICT (information and communications technology), to promote women’s empowerment.”

These are all the priorities of the CTL program. We are out to make a difference regarding the 250 million young people who are unable to read, write, or do basic math, even though 130 million of them are already enrolled in school (Education For All Global Monitoring Report, 2014). And we want to specifically address the gaps at the secondary level where the enrollment rates, especially for girls, drop off dramatically. For example, in Ghana, while girls’ net enrollment at primary level has reached 84.8 percent, only 44.4 percent are enrolled at the secondary level (UNICEF, 2012).

We know that the 745 girls on Connect To Learn scholarships over these first four years are maintaining a 96.2 percent retention rate. By conducting a collaborative research study with our local academic partners, we have learned a lot about the common barriers to effective integration of ICT in secondary schools, and have identified low-cost solutions to many of those challenges. One crucial need is ongoing professional development of teachers in ICT skills and interactive pedagogy, and the installation of local servers populated with curriculum-aligned digital learning resources that can be accessed even when Internet is not available.

When teachers have the skills and resources to deploy the technology and interactive pedagogy effectively, they can better support students in practical learning projects and exchanges with peers and mentors from nearby cities or faraway countries, helping to prepare them for jobs in an increasingly globalized world.

Next week, we will be launching the CTL program in northern Ghana and will have an opportunity to discuss the Connect To Learn program with the government representatives in Accra. In collaboration with local and national governments, we want to support scaling up access to secondary education for girls in Ghana’s rural areas. The expansion of broadband and mobile telephony in Africa offers new unprecedented opportunities for the teachers and students to access quality 21st century education materials.

As we work with local teachers to develop curriculum-aligned resource libraries for schools, governments can ensure that those libraries are shared widely within their countries to increase access to quality digital learning resources for all students. And one other point: Usually, role models play an important role in our life and career choices. I hope that the governments can help bridge partnerships with institutions of higher education and professional women networks to connect young girls to mentors studying and working in fields of interest to them.

Speaking as CTL’s Director, I am excited to help lead our organization into the post-2015 era. People say that there are no magic bullets in development. I want to respectfully disagree. I believe that secondary education for girls is a magic bullet, and that technology can enable scaling up access to quality education. Working in collaboration with our education team at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Ericsson and our local partners in Africa and other parts of the developing world, we will work to build evidence for how integration of ICT can contribute to higher learning outcomes, and how support for girls’ education leads to higher rates of attendance and retention year-over-year. To stay tuned on our progress, you can visit our website at www.connecttolearn.org, or find us on Facebook or Twitter

Dr. Joanna Rubinstein is the Director at Connect to Learn.

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