Designing the Future

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Education without teachers.

I've been reading a book called "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas L. Friedman. For the most part, it talks about the effects of globalization and how, if properly managed, they are a good thing in the mid to long term (in the short term, a lot of people have some rough times, which is why it needs to be properly managed). However, he spends some time talking about the realities of the world, and some of the forces that could prevent the "flattening" of the world, one of which is the huge portion of the world's population that has either never been inside a classroom, or had to leave the classroom to help their family survive.

As Friedman relates in his book, one of the companies that has spent some effort to address situations like this is HP. They went to rural India and spoke to people in villages about what they would like to see in the next few years that would significantly improve their lives. One of the people HP brought was an artist, because many of the villagers were illiterate; seeing their ideas visualized helped the villagers develop their thoughts and encouraged them as well. One of the ideas that came out of these talks was a solar-powered digital photo cart. Apparently, the process of getting quality photos, which are needed for government IDs among other things, was laborious and slow, requiring at least two treks to the closest photo lab, and more if the first batch of photos didn't come out correctly. HPs solar powered carts charged a digital camera and a photo printer, and were light enough to be easily portable.

This story got me thinking. With all the software and low cost hardware out there today, what is stopping the production of a solar powered "classroom in a box"? Lets call it the eBox, because potentially good ideas should start of with really lame names, just in case the idea turns out to be lame too. The purpose of an eBox is not to give its user a high school education. Rather, its intended to give them the basics: reading, writing, 'rithmatic. Ideally, the solar panel would provide enough charge in, say, half a day, to run the eBox for at least two hours. Assuming users are all at least 15 (and the lower that age can be pushed while keeping the eBox effective over the widest range of users, the better), the eBox could start by making sure the person was able to read their native language. At some point, it would begin teaching them to write; I'm pretty sure that webcam or phone-camera type optics would provide a high-enough quality image for optical character recognition, and if the students writing can be recognized by the computer, it should be readable by a literate human as well. Finally, it would teach basic mathematics: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, percentages, decimals, and maybe some geometry and algebra as well. The mathematics portion would have to be very practically oriented.

The eBox would need to be constructed cheaply (with a bulk sale price of between $50 and $250 US per box); the idea would be the company making it would have a small profit margin (or maybe would be a Non-Profit Organization?). It would need to be constructed ruggedly to survive rain, snow, being dropped, hit, and otherwise physically abused, and still be usable in temperature ranging from -5 C to 50 C. Expensive parts should be well protected by easily replaced (and very inexpensive) parts.

But the final goal would be to manufacture these boxes and sell them to developing or impoverished nations (or the charity organizations working there) so the adults who never had the opportunity to go to school and the children who can't afford to go, can still get enough of an education that they can begin to educate themselves. Once a person knows how to read, write, and do basic math, they can read more traditional books (of course, eBooks would be better still) about whatever subject they would like.

As far as I know, throughout history, whenever a population has increased its level of education by even a small amount, the effects were felt for generations. Imagine what the difference between no education and even a 3rd grade equivalent would be for someone in a developing nation. The eBox might not be the fastest way to educate a population, but maybe it could help.