Why Offline Content is the Forgotten Key to Success in ICT4Education


I’m motivated by another excellent posting from Inveneo: An ICT4E Lesson Learned: Offline Content is Key."

For seven years now, I’ve been creating curriculum for asynchronous online learning experiences for young people in under-resourced settings. That means that everything my teachers and coordinators expect from ministries and supporting NGOs (electricity, computers, internet connections, paid teachers) cannot be relied upon. Even when we bring trainers from overseas, generators fail, computers grind to a halt, internet connections go dead for weeks at a time, or teachers lapse into an overwhelmed silence at the complexity of it all.

It helps me to remember that none of these things are actually problems. I am an educationist and a technologist in developing world settings. I am not responsible for the infrastructure any more than the students or the teachers are. And if I make my programs dependent on things outside of my control, I pass that dependence down to the teachers and the students. Then they all feel more unfortunate and opportunity-starved when the reality of their situation presents its standard array of inevitable obstacles. If, however, I create curriculum that explicitly addresses these obstacles and specifically coaches students and teachers on how to make the best use of their time in any given circumstance, I pass along self-reliance and a confident, unashamed acceptance of whatever logistical shortcomings arise.

Every year, I create a greater percentage of content and activities that must be conducted offline and even outside of the school grounds. My program impact is rising (on all programs) in lockstep with this transition.

It’s easy, working in technology, to feel compelled to prioritize technology at every step and to assume that maximizing user exposure to technology is a de facto win. I think this is wrong for two reasons. First, as detailed in the Inveneo post, there are multiple logistical obstacles that bedevil tech initiatives: internet is unreliable. Electricity is unreliable. Having the computers working in an easy and virus-free way is unreliable. Having the most tech savvy teacher available to help with implementation is unreliable. Having enough computers for all students is unreliable. We know that our programs will face these obstacles; so we should create programs that are unaffected by their appearance. If we are going to use these obstacles as excuses for our program failure, so are our teachers and our students. We encourage failure and quitting when we make our programs dependent on unreliable circumstances.

I think back to my time in high school. There were two types of teachers. One of those types, when confronted with a VCR and television combination (the height of technology at the time) that she could not understand, would waste 15-40% of our class time struggling to figure out the settings, while we all laughed and delighted at our freedom from work. The other type, when confronted with recalcitrant technology would immediately default to a solid back up plan, without skipping a beat—to our dismay and to the benefit of our minds.

We need to write curriculum for teachers that make it very likely that they will behave in an adaptive and authoritative way. This involves lots of signposting. It involves modeling adaptive behavior. My curricular writing has become increasingly sectioned, branching into activities for different eventualities. It contains bolded and italicized header sentences that usually resemble these three varieties:

1. No electricity activity: While you cannot use your machines, have this class discussion, play this game, go on a field trip of this variety, take photographs with the following theme in mind, etc.

2. Electricity but no internet: Use this time to prepare your content for uploading to the internet. Edit images, edit text, explore layout options etc.

3. Access to computers connected to the internet: hurry up and get your content out there and then look into X, Y, Z specific areas of online content, saving and copying what you can to a desktop folder.

Since we began designating our content primarily according to the level of access to technology that our classes enjoy on any given day, our teachers have reported far higher levels of program satisfaction and their progress has been much more rapid and impressive.

Earlier, I mentioned that there is a second reason that prioritizing use of technology in curricular offerings is flawed. The first set of reasons are entirely logistical; but I think that they point to a second and more fundamental reason, which is that offline education remains a rich, varied, absorbable, and in developing world contexts, a necessary component of tech-dependent initiatives.

We as curriculum designers are given access to learners because we are fluent in technology; but we have to remember our roots as educationists and we have to reconnect to classic, high impact educational mainstays like class discussions, teamwork exercises, role-playing games, field trips, and exploration of the wider community.

Now, even when I design online learning curricula for audiences in wealthy countries that have unfettered access to staggeringly fast internet connections, I redirect the attention of those young people entirely away from their machines more and more regularly. I could write curricula that takes advantage of their unlimited access to peak technology; but I do not. Teachers and learners who are new to this technology benefit from more familiar activities that draw on their strengths and experiences. These breaks help them to return to the technological aspects of their program with new enthusiasm and focus.

My classes in Liberia and rural Madagascar provide me with a very useful reminder: my constituent audiences do not assume that everything can and should be made easier with technology. Many of them are starting from a place of 100% technological illiteracy. As the person responsible for the pace at which they are introduced to technology, I must remember that many people do not learn how to swim when they are tossed into a body of water. I need to select the most accessible and appropriate uses of technology and I must introduce them gradually, while providing a clear rationale for each new step into foreign or mediated environments. This helps to make the impact of the technological components all the more significant.