What are the teaching tools available in a typical classroom in the developing world? Many of the headlines would have you believe that tablets are going to be in the hands of every student very soon. With that, the assumption is that every teacher is becoming well-versed in a blended learning pedagogy that makes effective use of technology in the classroom environment. Of course, in most cases, that is very far from the reality. Despite numerous efforts in many countries to introduce and integrate technology in a meaningful way, blackboards and textbooks remain the norm for the vast majority.
Dataflow Learning is hoping to address some of the issues. The Dataflow Learning etextbook platform is getting attention in many parts of the world for many reasons. The one we are most proud of however is the ability for the teacher to become an etextbook author as they supplement textbook content with their own, integrated directly into the digital pages. “For education to be its most effective content needs to be relevant to the students. Content created locally, by the teacher, with the participation of students, could not get much more relevant,” explains David Mulville, Dataflow’s Chairman. “Many textbooks in subjects such as science will ask students to make and record observations on a topic. Those are historically done with pencil and paper. What we’re allowing teachers to do is use digital media (video, images, animation, audio and text) to create their own activities, exercises, tutorials, quizzes and assessments. An example we often use is in the study of pollution. Students can observe this themselves, in their own environment. The teacher can easily author lessons that capture her own student’s experiences. That is powerful.”
Dataflow recognizes that this type of usage will not happen overnight, especially in the many emerging markets that they work in, such as Africa and the Middle East. A common outcome with many technology initiatives in these markets is criticism, bemoaning the fact that adoptions are problematic and results disappointing.
Effective technology projects have many key ingredients, not least of which is training. In developing countries access to PC’s and tablets is often limited, including for teachers, so their familiarity with technology, even as casual users, is not as well developed as in other countries. Professional development programs must focus on the basics before teachers can be trained to manage lessons where technology is a core component. Professional development is crucial, but building solutions based on familiar resources, like textbooks, with digital layouts that mirror the print editions, helps to lower some of the barriers. “Consider Africa”, suggests Angela Ney, Founder of Teachers Media International. “Textbooks are the only curriculum resource that most teachers have ever used in class. So creating a common thread, from print editions to digital editions is logical.” This is something that Dataflow Learning embraces in our etextbook platform, but then goes much further.
In order to be effective etextbooks must offer features that support exploration and discovery, and promote engagement. “In Africa we have seen much ‘innovation’ in the form of ebooks”, says Ben Raletsatsi, CEO and Founder of FutureSustain International in Botswana. “The problem is that often these educational ebooks are developed outside Africa, with only cursory attention to local curriculum, culture and life experiences. There is also the misnomer that adding video and audio, bookmarks and search, makes an ebook interactive when in fact it is basic functionality that doesn’t qualify as interactive. A student can’t explore. Pushing Play and passively watching and listening has value, but alone is not fully engaging for the student.”
Having been involved in leading development of interactive digital curriculum for more than two decades in markets like the U.S. and Europe, Dataflow Learning’s team understands that technology alone is never the answer in education. “All too often we see technology companies launch ebook platforms for education that demonstrate a clear lack of experience in working in classrooms with teachers and students”, says David Mulville. "There are stages you need to go through in order to shepherd the teacher and give them the confidence to explore the technology. An effective process in Africa is different to the process in Saudi Arabia, and different to that of the U.S. You can’t drop a solution designed for the U.S., U.K. or France into Africa, even if you dress it up with some local content.” Dataflow’s etextbook solution starts with familiarity, emphasizes professional development, but encourages growth. Partnering with local content publishers, such as HEBN in Nigeria, teachers become familiar with the technology and then explore navigation and interaction in layouts that they have worked with in the printed form. They begin to explore enhanced content as they develop lesson plans that combine traditional and digital tools and pedagogy. And over time teachers start to supplement with their own content, such as simple quizzes, that can ultimately lead to entire lessons designed fully by the teacher using media that they have chosen themselves. The end result is a unique digital textbook that combines the best in local educational curriculum design with teacher insights that reflect the needs of the students. The fact that local teachers can lead this themselves is empowering, especially as the teaching and learning possibilities are infinite.
Dataflow Learning is a company whose people grew up developing education solutions for markets like the U.S., Europe, Australia and China. That knowledge and experience has proven invaluable as the company continues to help transform education across the MENA region, leveraging a wealth of local talent from their organization in Beirut.
Question: Dataflow has decades of experience in providing education solutions across the Middle East and North Africa, in some very stable, prosperous countries, but also works in places like Libya. What is the motivation there?
Answer: Well, it may sound a little noble, but it really is to help. Many of us at Dataflow have worked for large education publishers and have seen all of the good technology can offer in classrooms across the U.S., Europe, Australia, Japan, and many other places. It's frustrating to then see children in many parts of the world that do not have these opportunities, and really are faced with a very challenging future. We know that in the scale of immediate needs educational technology is far less important than food, shelter, security and love, but any access we are able to help provide may give them inspiration or experience that can lead to a better future.
Question: What have you learned from your work in these countries?
Answer: Patience. We often find ourselves making great progress on a project only to be faced with an obstacle that can derail entire projects in an instant. It's happened, and in some case has taken years to get projects back on track. Belief is very important. If you believe what you are doing offers genuine benefits, and you have patience, even against enormous odds, good things can happen. You have to be incredibly flexible and extremely responsive - when the window opens you move and get things done. Fortunately, no matter where we operate, there are always people who have a genuine interest in educating their children.
Question: You were recently invited as a guest of UNHCR to visit one of the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon to better understand education needs of those hundreds of thousands of children. What did you learn? Is there a solution that you can envision?
Answer: I learnt that there is a lot that needs to be done. There is some great teaching talent being wasted in the refugee camps. We need to make use of that. Unfortunately there is no simple answer however we're developing some ideas and also making it clear that we will do all we can to help.
Question: Dataflow is also developing a presence in East, West and Southern Africa. What is the strategy there?
Answer: One - local partnerships. Dataflow has an enormous wealth of experience in curriculum development, instructional design, and adapted digital e-learning solutions, however in terms of local education knowledge and content, there is no substitute for local expertise. We try to spend as much time as possible asking questions and listening. There is a lot of enthusiasm for e-learning in Africa, but also a litany of disappointing results. We are trying to learn from the mistakes of others as well as following the guidance of our partners. They may not be technology experts themselves however they know first-hand what teachers and students want, how they will respond, what some of the challenges will be. From there we can plan more intelligently. Our partners also understand the local landscape, and have the credentials and relationships to be able to open the right doors.
Question: Is there anything in particular that you think has not been done well in developing countries, in terms of introduction of technology to education?
Answer: There are many things that haven't been done well. Professional development always jumps out. Too often it is assumed that with a little training teachers will understand, embrace, and be effective stewards of e-learning. That is not the reality. And unless you get that right, and develop teachers as competent technology users and advocates, your e-learning program will fail. Having the right content, for the local market is also critical. But that's not just about the composition, it's also very much about how the content is developed in order to engage the student. If students aren't engaged and challenged they're not motivated, so they don't learn. We work with our local education partners to develop a pedagogy that is interactive but also adaptive, in that we support the direct integration of media, tutorial and assessment content by the individual teacher or school, making the content even more relevant for the students.