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EELS for Kenya
Jamais Cascio, 28 Feb 05

eels.jpgWe covered the proposed $100 computer for developing world education awhile back, and one of my conclusions was that (should the plan go forward) a hand-held device was a more promising path than an American-style desktop, and that Linux should be the underlying OS, not some proprietary, locked-down system. Today comes word of a program now underway in Kenya which takes up that challenge, and gets it partially -- but not completely -- right.

The EduVision E-Learning System (EELS) is a low-cost electronic textbook system now being tested at the Mbita Point primary school in western Kenya. Students are issued hand-held devices wirelessly connected to the EELS "BaseStation," which itself has a satellite downlink for regular content updates. Educational materials and student information are stored on the Linux-based BaseStation servers; the hand-held "E-slate" devices use Linux, as well. While the current generation EELS needs to be connected to grid power, EduVision claims that they will be adding a dedicated solar panel system in the near future for remote villages and towns.

EELS does not appear to be an appropriate solution for regions with grinding poverty and war, but relatively stable developing nations looking for greater connection to global information networks -- that is, most of the leapfrog nations -- may be likely candidates.

The rationale behind the EELS concept is that the cost of updating paper textbooks to keep pace with changing knowledge (as well as to replace worn-out books) can be prohibitive in the developing world; as a result, many schools are stuck with out-of-date textbooks in poor condition. EduVision claims, "the price of an eSlate is on par with the yearly textbook costs incurred by the parents of children attending public secondary schools in Kenya. The eSlate, however, can be used again and again, year after year."

The argument that a device like this would give students access to a wider array of books than they'd otherwise find in their schools and libraries is fairly strong one, especially if EduVision manages to work out an agreement with Google regarding access to digitized texts (as suggested in the BBC article). The cost argument -- that the computer ends up costing significantly less over time than regular textbooks -- is on shakier ground, as it would only apply under certain circumstances. Mathematics textbooks will be updated far less frequently than science textbooks, which in turn are likely to be less-frequently updated than history texts. It's unclear from the project's website who would bear the cost of replacement, should an E-slate go missing or be damaged.

EduVision claims that the devices will not often be stolen, as their software is "locked" to specific BaseStations, and the OS is in Flash-ROM. That may reduce the likelihood that the devices would be stolen for use as general purpose computers, but not the chances they'd be stolen for parts (such as the WiFi cards). It also reduces the utility of the E-slates as general-purpose devices; it doesn't matter that the OS is Linux based if the users can't get a look at (and play around with) the code.

The other big drawback to this project is that the locations using the system are tied into one-way broadcasts from EduVision, not connected to the Internet at large. There's a philosophical issue at play -- this system makes students and schools are little more than consumers of educational material. The people testing the devices already note a practical problem with one-way communication: there's no way to get feedback to the makers directly from the users. This one-way system also raises the question of what happens if EduVision goes away -- without the central distribution of updated material, the electronic textbooks are suddenly fragile, power-hungry versions of old paper books.

None of these problems are insurmountable, and most could be resolved within the framework that EduVision has already set out. Opening up the ability to add material to the devices would reduce the threat of both the "schools as consumers" and the "what if they go away?" dilemmas, and two-way satellite transceivers for Internet access are becoming less and less expensive. Since the system is still only in the early stages of testing, the makers may come to these conclusions themselves.

I still think that information access as an expansion of communication is a more likely pathway for the broader introduction of networked devices in the developing world. Nonetheless, EduVision has gone further than most in assembling the pieces needed for useful, developing world-focused educational technologies. If they can take the necessary final steps, they may have a possibility of success.

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Comments

'Mathematics textbooks will be updated far less frequently than science textbooks, which in turn are likely to be less-frequently updated than history texts.'

Does this only apply to pre-college levels? I'm an engineering student at a large American university and have to pay around $4-500 per semester just to get the 'newest editions' that my classes use. All the texts are math and science related, and they seem to come out with a new edition every 3 or 4 years or less.


Posted by: Bolo on 28 Feb 05

Jamais, while I support the concept of leapfrogging, and the efforts you've described, I also advocate Occam's Project Management system - "the simplest solution is usually the best." When it comes to the basics of education - math, literacy, reasoning - it seems to me that a the system descibed would add too much overhead in terms of realized cost, maintenance, learning to use the devices, etc. etc. Physical books have been used to educate millions of people for hundreds of years - the availabilty of a flashy new technology doesn't determine its suitability. Satellite downloads? Wireless base stations? eSlates? Sounds like something for a corporate training session, not Rwandan elementary school students.

How about low cost text books printed on specially formulated paper with better tensile strength and longevity?


Posted by: Rod Edwards on 1 Mar 05

I initially came across this story on a webcast on technology from the BBC. As a long ago math teacher in rural Kenya, I can cetainly attest to the difficulties in obtaining math texts. the suggestion by the EduVision folks to have textsbooks (or digitalized libraries ala Google's digitialization project) made available through satellite radio sounds great. But my greatest concern would be maintanance.

The development history of the African continent is littered with brilliant ideas that for one reason or another could not be maintained after their initial launch.

I am not at all suggesting that people cannot deal with technology. Of necessity, people in African have some pretty significant hacking skills. But, how easily could such devices be hacked with faily simple materials--wire and soldering guns? In rural Kenya one cannot find any Radio Shacks.

For an intriguing study of one technological innovation that has taken off in Southern African see Marianne De Laet and Annemaria Mol, "The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology." Social Studies of Science 30/2 (April 2000). One of their points is that this particular water pump has been so successful because it is fluid. this water pump is capable of being significantly modified in a wide variety of ways--often by the subtraction of parts--and still draws water.

I am not a tech guy, but how far could such a device be changed (subtracted from) and still work? How easily could self-taught hacker with little specialized equiptment make such modifications?

For such a technology to be really useful, I would think the machine itself must be sort of open source, not just the software.


Posted by: ptmalloy on 2 Mar 05



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