How can we anticipate different forms of EdTech in an era when our engagements with digital technologies might be increasingly constrained by the effects of climate change, environmental instability, and the precarity of natural resources and man-made infrastructure? As a first step, it is worth paying close attention to communities and contexts where engagements with digital technologies are already substantially constrained by climate, hostile environments and limited resources and infrastructure. In short, what can be gleaned about the possible futures of EdTech in high-income countries from the forms of technology-based education that have developed (and sometimes flourished) in low-income countries, regions and contexts?
While discussions of EdTech in the Global North rarely pay attention to other regions, it is common to take a broader outlook when thinking about environmental sustainability. For example, those working in areas such as biodiversity conservation and ecosystem health are well-used to taking a lead from the knowledge, values and innovations developed within indigenous and local communities that are far more successful in their stewardship of natural resources, and benefit from different and deeper understandings of the issues at play.
Similarly, in terms of technology design and development, approaches such as ‘design justice’ and ‘appropriate technology’ also stress the importance of looking to build on existing ‘subaltern uses’ of technology. Key here is a readiness to learn from the experiences, understandings and ‘situated knowledge’ of those who occupy the same compromised and subjugated standpoints that designers seek to address. As Sasha Costanza-Chock (2020, p.111) contends, those whose needs have long been compromised and marginalised due to resource constraints and a hostile environment are likely to “have a strong information advantage when it comes to anticipating those needs and developing possible solutions”.
Learning lessons from EdTech in low-income contexts
So, where might we start looking, and what sort of lessons might be learnt? Regions such as sub-Saharan Africa certainly provide ample illustration of the issues associated with constrained forms of technology engagement. These range from intermittent and unreliable power supplies, limited access to shared devices, the difficulties of maintaining these devices, and the general fragility of digital technology resources in the face of harsh environmental conditions. Many African contexts are also hampered by the problem of poor (or non-existent) ‘last mile’ internet connectivity – i.e. the final portion of the telecommunications network chain that physically connects the end-user with main trunk-lines.
In the face of these challenges, a number of practical educational responses have emerged across African education communities. For example, there is much use of mobile phone-based learning – with cellular phones seen to greatly reduce the infrastructural requirements for widespread connectivity. This phone-based education makes use of various different modes of ‘m-learning’ – from text messaging, automated voice messaging, interactive voice response provision, and phone-based assessment.
The repeated switches over to remote schooling in low-income countries during the 2020 and 2021 COVID lockdowns also demonstrated the utility of ‘low-tech’ and ‘no-tech’ distance learning provision. Here, the schooling of millions of children was sustained through the use of television, radio, asynchronous audio recordings, and forms of print-based learning (e.g. textbooks, guidebooks, and reading lists) – all augmented by phone calls between teachers, students and families.
It is also interesting to consider how Western actors have attempted to ‘innovate’ new forms of digital education that might fit low-income contexts. One much-hyped resourcing solution at the beginning of the 2010s was Samsung’s ‘Solar Powered Internet school’ – a self-sufficient classroom with solar panels and internet connected computers housed in a shipping container. More recently, a number of pop-up ‘School in a Box’ programs have been launched, providing tablets, projectors, inbuilt charging and display technologies to allow temporary classrooms and learning spaces to be set up in a short period of time.
The past two decades has also seen the design and production of various rugged devices designed for children to use – notably the original OLPC XO netbooks which were designed to be rubber-sealed and powered by wind-up mechanisms. More recently, the Kio tablet has been designed and developed to cope with intermittent power, with 40 devices chargeable through one electric outlet. These devices have ruggedized casings and screens, and lockable to prevent theft.
There are also lessons to be learnt from how digital technology is being used to support learning in refugee camps. This has seen the successful use of preloaded content onto tablets and phones that can be used offline, and therefore only require intermittent connectivity. These efforts are complemented by the use of low-spec microcomputers such as the Raspberry Pi in conjunction with reclaimed keyboards and screens.
Learning lessons from other tech approaches
Of course, discussions about EdTech always benefit from looking beyond ‘educational’ uses of technology. In this sense, there are also a number of general technology-focused movements that provide useful pointers – not least ongoing work in the areas of ‘Alternative Technology’ and ‘Intermediate Technology’, as well as the ‘Ecotechnology’ movement and ICT4D (ICT for Development). All these areas offer valuable understandings and insights into various aspects of ‘appropriate technology’ that have direct relevance to rethinking the use of technology in education.
In terms of appropriate forms of digital technology, interesting trends include the design and production of low-cost and low-energy devices designed to be dust and water-resistant. These can take the form of devices powered by wind-up and hand-cranked generators, as well as solar power. Alongside these, is the enduring tradition of community access points – from internet kiosks through to device libraries and other forms of shared access to devices. Also of interest are the different iterations of local cultures of repair and maintenance that develop in low-income locations with limited access to technology. These include small family-run ‘tech shops’, cell-phone repairers, and even large repair markets – many of which are off-shoots of other local repair cultures relating to auto machines, tyre repair, household appliances, and similar.
Work in the field of ICT4D also points to various forms of digital hardware and infrastructure that support resilient forms of technology use in resource-constrained environments. Alongside the continuation of physical storage mediums such as CD-ROMs, USB sticks and external hard-drives, this includes the development of online services that convert bandwidth intensive content into more accessible low-data content – thereby allowing users without broadband connections to still access online content. Also of interest are various alternate sources of internet connectivity – from cooperative computer networks that run ad hoc wireless networks, through to various ways of ensuring ‘last-mile’ internet connectivity (for example, allowing local internet connections through spare television broadcasting spectrum). Finally, a range of alternate off-grid electricity approaches are being pursued to address issues of power generation – from cheap photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, local micro-grids, and the increased use of lithium batteries to store energy.
Reimagining EdTech for an era of climate crisis
These diverse examples all provide a good foundation for anticipating what forms of EdTech might be suitable for all regions in a climate constrained future – demonstrating that different approaches to digital technology use are possible, viable and in many circumstances necessary. The history of EdTech development in low-income contexts over the past 20 years or so provide strong pointers to the forms of digital technology infrastructure and use that might be considered ‘appropriate’ for resource-constrained and environmentally hostile circumstances.
As such, all the different examples just outlined point to a number of principles that we can take forward into re-imagining educational technology for an era of climate crisis. These include:
- Low-spec and low-cost devices – a willingness to work with ‘good enough’ resources, and an expectation of having to work-around technical limitations and breakdowns;
- Adaptability and improvisation – a willingness to ‘make-do-and-mend’;
- Provisional planning and temporary facilities and sites – imagining the places and spaces of learning to be contingent, and acknowledging the need for flexible planning and scheduling;
- Working off-grid and off-line – the expectation of having to operate in non-connected states (both in terms of data storage and power supplies).
- Designing forms of EdTech that are built to withstand hostile environments, and ensure a longevity of use – devices that are modular, repairable and rugged.
- The formation of communities that can support self-sufficient technology use – this requires the production of devices that are easily repairable and sustained, encouraging and allowing a culture of ‘Do It Yourself’ (or better still ‘Do It Ourselves’).
Of course, we need to be wary of a romantic re-Orientalist ‘othering’ of technology practices in low-income countries – seizing on these low-tech approaches as exotic solutions that can be seamlessly appropriated by those in the Global North. Conversely, there is also a danger of slipping into an unhelpful apocalyptic spiral. In pointing to these examples we are certainly not arguing for an extreme survivalist form of technology – what might be characterised as a ‘prepper’ version of Ed-Tech.
Nevertheless, these are useful starting-points for reflecting on the unsustainable cultural understandings and assumptions that have built up around Global North forms of education technology use over the past 40 years. Indeed, the forms of technology use that have thrived most in low-income contexts provide a sharp contrast to the Global North tendency to approach EdTech in fundamentally unconstrained and profligate ways. This might be seen to include a careless attitude toward upgrading and replacing technology (e.g. the expected three year ‘churn’ of laptop replacement), passive acceptance of the planned obsolescence of consumer electronics, self-centred concerns over being seen as innovative and high-tech (and a corresponding aversion to ‘second-hand’ and ‘low spec’), as well as an entitled default expectation of ‘always on’ connectivity, unlimited storage and stable functioning systems.
In contrast, the examples from low-income contexts outlined in this article remind us that EdTech is perhaps better conceived around the frailties of infrastructure and, as such, is primarily a practical matter of mundane maintenance and repair rather than spectacular innovation and consumption. As Steve Jackson notes in terms of local maintenance and repair cultures in sub-Saharan Africa, the Global North has much to learn from …
“… the distinctively different worlds of design and practice that appear to us when we take erosion, breakdown, and decay (‘broken world thinking’) rather than novelty, growth, and progress as our starting point”.
In this spirit, then, our attention needs to turn to questions of how we might now anticipate different forms of technology design, development and use that offer more robust and sustainable forms of technology use. What might the next phase of EdTech look like – i.e. an EdTech that faces up to the increasing challenging conditions of educating in a resource-constrained and climatically-hostile world?