Friday, July 26, 2013

Wikipedia Zero – mobile as lifeline to learning

It jars when I hear people say online learning isn’t used. Don’t you use Google, Wikipedia and lots of other online services to learn? I know you do, because the stats are overwhelming. In fact billions use online learning, daily.
Increasingly, this is done through mobiles. Compare the 6 billion mobile subscriptions in the world to the 600 million broadband connections. We’re close to seeing mobile as the most ubiquitous piece of personal technology ever, and it’s the developing world that’s experiencing the fastest growth. Check out this table which shows the countries with the highest mobile access to Wikipedia.
Nevertheless, in the developing world, where mobiles have become massive, internet connectivity is scarce and expensive, tariffs remain a problem. Here the mobile is often the only means of accessing the internet. A mobile is a godsend to someone who is poor, often their only link to erratic employment opportunities, services and money management. Yet access to learning is hampered by cost. Call and data time is precious and used carefully and sparingly.
Zero tariffs
An idea that has been around for some time is now getting real traction – zero tariffs for education on mobiles. Simple, but it opens up knowledge and educational opportunities to billions who do not have easy access to books, libraries, schools and learning. As Eric Schmitd says in his new book The Digital Age (a largely tedious tomb) in the developing world the mobile phone is often the only “lifeline to learning”. I first heard of the Zero tariff some years ago in relation to Dr Maths, in South Africa. Started in 2007, it grew rapidly, and unexpectedly to thousands of users.  Maths tutoring is delivered, largely through MXit. Tutors, from anywhere in the world, help students with questions and homework. It uses text messaging. Interestingly, when they faced the problem of scalability (tutors are the scarce resource) they upgraded the architecture so that content could be created to produce ‘bots’ or automated replies, reducing the load on live tutors. Geoff Stead also points out that it has happened even in the developed world, with free SMS messages for TextForBaby in the US, a mother and child healthcare service. 
Wikipedia Zero
But the big news is Wikipedia Zero, now available to an astonishing 470 million subscribers in Africa, India, Eastern Europe and the Far East. Of the 25 countries that have the highest rate of mobile traffic on Wikipedia, the top eight are in Africa and an astonishing 22 are in the developing world. Wikipedia Zero is also now available in India to 60 million subscribers (through Aircel). Note that in India, mobile penetration in India is over 70 % at 867 million subscribers, compared to only 77 million people with access to the internet (Comscore, June 2013). This move is born of necessity as the context has turned the developed world’s model on its head. Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and many other countries are on board.
Local languages
An interesting side effect is the stimulation of language versions of Wikipedia. To be really useful Wikipedia must be translated into local languages. This statistic says it all;  Hindi Wikipedia, has 22.1 % of page views globally from mobile, compared to 17.3% for ALL other languages. Wikipedia Zero, I suspect, will accelerate translation into many other languages.
Even on a purely commercial basis, I see this as a win-win situation; learners getting free services and telcos increased reputation, reach and market edge. Like Google and Facebook, learners get a valuable service for free, the companies increase their brand capital and deliver adjunct services.
Wikipedia came out of the blue to become a consistent top ten website, showing that there is a massive thirst for online knowledge. What was even more astonishing was that it was crowdsourced, for free. No one saw that coming. Now we have the opportunity to extend free production to free distribution on powerful, portable and personal devices that have become ubiquitous in the developing world. If that doesn’t make your heart leap with hope and optimism, what will.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Good, bad and ugly: 7 critics of social media

I’m of an age (56) where lots of my contemporaries show contempt towards social media. It’s rarely a reasoned argument, simply a sneer accompanied by a ‘I’m too good for that sort of thing’ attitude. Euan Semple made the valid point on Facebook that “Not being attracted to the social web is OK but adopting a sneering tone when you tell me that, frankly, isn’t.” and that it’s not easy dealing with the criticism as the debate as it’s very difficult arguing the case for something your opponent has never used or has no real knowledge of.
1. Know nothing critics
Unfortunately, the most common are those who simply scoff and start with something like “Why would I want to know that someone is having a cup of tea…” Barely a week goes by without me experiencing this type of criticism. They haven’t used social media but assume they’re experts on the subject, pull the ‘ugly’ face and sneer as the rest of us. It’s a sort of superior attitude usually accompanied by simplistic, ill-informed views of how social media is actually created and used. All of those Wikipedia articles you’ve used, they were crowdsourced. Ever watched a YouTube video, someone made that and uploaded it.
2. Know a little critics
A little learning is a dangerous thing and some use one aspect of, say facebook, but have no idea that the tool also includes messaging, apps and other functionality. It’s like someone who thinks a car is only useful for social visits to friends and relatives. NO - you can also use a car to get to work, do work, engage in poltics, visit interesting places, go on holiday and so on. Social media for many people, replaces email, voice calls and txting and the sheer range of social media options means that it has many different functions.
3. Lurkers
First, it’s OK to lurk. Some of you reading this sentence will be lurkers, indeed the evidence suggests that in many social media, and media sharing services with a social dimension, the great majority of users are lurkers, who rarely if ever post or comment. What is odd is when the lurkers turn into critics. They take out a lot, but only give back criticism, sharing is a mystery to them.
4. Hypocrites
Let me give you an example.  Pew surveyed 2,462 middle and high school teachers and found that , when it comes to Wikipedia; 1) Teachers recommend that students do not use it, warning them that its accuracy can’t be trusted, but 2)  Teachers overwhelmingly use it themselves for research and preparation. In fact, they use it “at much higher rates than U.S. adult internet users as a whole (87% vs. 53%), Pew also found that Wikipedia reliance “does not vary across teachers of different subjects, grade levels, or community types,” and only varies ever so slightly by age, with 90% of the youngest teachers using it versus 85% of those 55 and older. This is ugly.
5. Know but don’t engage
Some don’t do social media because they simply don’t want to or don’t have the time. That’s fine. This is good. These critics I like. It’s OK not to engage in social media in the same way that it’s OK not to engage in lots of social events, go to the cinema, theatre, football, cricket or music festivals. It’s not for everyone. These people don’t moan and whinge about social media, it’s just not part of their lives. In fact I rather resent the social media Taliban, who insist on everyone being online and everyone needing to be highly ‘social’.
6. Privacy (weak)
Some don’t like to put their neck out and have their lives out there for others to see. This is good, as long as it doesn’t tip over into criticising others for being more social, taking risks and enjoying the range of social, professional and interesting interactions that social media brings. I’ll come to a theory on this later.
7. Privacy (strong)
A stronger argument is the species of critic who values their privacy and has suspicions about government, big business and other shady institutions knowing what they’re up to. I respect this position and think that for some, it is a valid argument. Julian Assange, for example, never uses Facebook for that reason. Given recent revelations, the US government is clearly not to be trusted on the matter. However, I think it’s exaggerated. What exactly in your life do you think they can use against you?
Characteristics of critics
Here’s an observation, not based on any research that I know of, merely a hypothesis. I have noticed two specific characteristic that distinguishes enthusiastic users of social media, from sceptics and critics; 1) personality type and 2) risk taking.
1) Introversion and extroversion. On the whole, the people I know who are extroverts are enthusiastic users of social media, introverts tend to be non-participants or critics (3 good, 2 bad, 2 ugly). This is not a criticism, merely an observation, and it perhaps reflects a general attitude towards networking and social activity by extroverts and introverts both online and offline. This is reflected in my full acceptance of non-participants and the privacy stance (weak and strong). The downside of extrovert dominance is the tendency for people to present their ideal lives online. There’s a lot of showboating that masquerades as sharing.
2) Risk taking. For me, this is a more interesting issue, as I suspect that much of the criticism of social media comes from an intrinsic fear of taking risks that expresses itself as derision. Nervousness often expresses itself as scepticism and scorn. On the whole, the risk takers I know, in business and life, tend to be users of social media, or at least willing to give it a try. Good risk takers are also able to distinguish between good and bad risks, that’s why I respect those who are wary on the grounds of privacy.
Social media Taliban
After all I’ve said above it may surprise you that I don’t follow the groupthink view that we should strive to get everyone online. I’m a libertarian at heart, and for me going online and using social media is a matter of choice. I have little time for spending huge sums of money on this form of mock inclusion. Make it cheap and compelling and they will come. I can remember when print and TV journalists constantly sneered at social media and the web, now they all have their blogs and Twitter accounts. The numbers speak for themselves.
Neither am I a social constructivist and therefore keen on those who see all learning as social and ‘connectivism’ as a valid ‘theory’ of learning. I spend relatively little time, for example, in MOOCs on forums, and don’t much like the diffuse chat that passes for learning or training sessions where round tables construct flipchart pages blue-tacked to the walls. On the other hand I see social media as an invaluable part of my life and learning.

Having used social media since its inception and blogged, facebooked and tweeted for many years, I’ve come across a large number of critics. I respect those who simply opt out as well as those who don’t participate on grounds of privacy (weak and strong). That’s three of my categories. On the other hand, I resent those who simply sneer and/or don’t have any real knowledge of these media in terms of their functionality, actual use and potential. I’m also impatient with the hypocrisy behind lurkers who sneer, and duplicitous hypocrites who condemn but use it at the same time. Stay clear or share, don’t just take or sneer.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Cambodia: what do you do when all teachers are killed?

Teachers annihilated
Cambodia all but wiped out its teachers in the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge genocide. In a curious twist of fate, many of the senior cadres and architects of the revolution had been teachers and many of prisons were former schools, including the notorious S21 in Phnom Phen. Think of it –being a teacher would most likely get you killed. Think of the problems they’ve faced after this holocaust; no schools, no books, no professional teachers, no cultural capital around teaching and a generation of people left illiterate. The numbers are shocking. Soviet sources state that 90% of all teachers were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Only 50 of the 725 university instructors, 207 of the 2,300 secondary school teachers, and 2,717 of the 21,311 primary school teachers survived
The Khmer Rouge took away the very things the people held dear; family, religion and work. Children were separated from parents, husbands from wives. Intellectuals, teachers, monks and eventually even city dwellers were seen as the enemy. It was ‘dialectics’ picked up by intellectuals who had studied Marxism in France, taken to surreal extremes. 
This is very recent history (1975-79) and it’s never far from the surface when you’re in Cambodia. My tuk-tuk driver’s head hung low when he told me that both his older brother and father had been killed at that time. It was the saddest and most poignant moment of my whole trip. This is still a country of graves and landmines, and seeing people daily with missing limbs is a blunt reminder. Landmines are an evil and make no mistake, if you sell them, you should hang your head in shame, as you’re part of that evil.
I’ve reported from schools in Africa, China and the Middle East and always try to get a feel for education on the ground when I travel but this was different. We’re talking ‘Year ZERO’ here. Let me tell you one anecdote. A teacher I met in Cambodia told me of a parent who didn’t want to send her daughter to school “as they’ll all (teachers) be killed some time”. However, this is rare. Cambodia and Cambodian parents are now almost obsessive about education, partly because they’ve been through so much.
Meet Sue
I met Sue in Siem Reap market where she was buying a few dozen pirated DVDs. In her seventies, she’s worked in rural Cambodia for the last three years. This polite woman from the Isle of Wight came here on holiday and decided to devote the rest of her life to teaching the rural poor. As she said, “When I’m gone, I just want to make sure I’ve left a legacy that works”. After losing her money on an ill-fated attempt to buy land for a school, she persevered and the local MP has given her some land. The main problem here is that it is difficult for foreigners to buy land (understandable for other reasons) and the difficulty in erecting permanent school buildings (NGOs often have to build collapsible structures). She’s here for good and clearly loves the children, people and Cambodia. “I’ve learnt a lot about life since I’ve been here” she said, a lovely role reversed line from a dedicated teacher.
Sue’s scalable technology
Sue has a computer and dongle which she uses for email and to keep in touch back home but when it comes to technology in her school, she was smart. The reason she was buying so many bootleg DVDs was that she wanted to expand her children’s knowledge of English. English is the aspirational language here, as it is everywhere else I travel. She’s also careful to teach them Khmer, as they need to read and write in their own language to progress at school. So she gives them a treat every Saturday, which is ‘movie night’. She has a TV but is after a projector, as she wants to show movies to 100 people at a time. Her rationale is that this is scalable solution taps into their natural motivation to learn English, but expands their knowledge, cultural and linguistic, in all sorts of ways. Instinctively practical, she knows that the choke point is the limited sockets and electricity. This is smart thinking.
Another issue is cultural context. Although these are western movies, she had lots of David Attenborough and National geographic stuff! She explained that displays of affection, even kissing on screen, can be seen as shameful, so she carefully views and selects the programmes she shows.
All in all, she was building a sustainable, scalable solution by fitting the technology to her scant resources with a fair amount of cultural sensitivity. This is exactly what I presented at Online Africa, and why I’m so critical of many of Sugata Mitra and Negroponte’s ‘parachute projects’. Innovation should not trump sustainability. Innovation is only innovation when it’s sustainable.
Monk and me teaching
While poking around in a Buddhist monastery, I had a second illuminating experience. No, not religious enlightenment. I came across a monk, who was teaching English. His kids were not monks but local children, many who had been sent here by their parents. He invited me into the classroom, which had no walls, a dirt floor and I did a little teaching. The roof was less than 6’ and I’m 6’4” which led to some hilarity, as I had to cock my head to one side. They were a lovely and lively bunch, keen to chat and ask questions. They continued talking to me after the class, keen to extract as much ‘English’ practice as they could. The sad thing was the awful national textbook they were using, written, it seems, with the intent to prevent you learning English, an awful, grammar-laden affair full of sentences, no real English speaker would ever utter. It made me aware of the fact that some schools may be doing little to actually teach English, just going through the motions.
Then a shock. In a room next to the open classroom was a row of computer screens all still wrapped in the plastic they had arrived in, covered in dust. They had never been used as they lacked sockets and electricity. Once again, my point about sustainability was confirmed.
They had been kindly donated but no one had really thought about the support resources and how they would be used. Interestingly, as I was doing my bit in the classroom, one kid’s mobile went off. Like kids everywhere, they love their mobiles. Everywhere I went, cheap mobiles were being used to text, make calls and listen to music.
Informal learning

In practice, most people learn their language skills in work. This is important. Time and time again I met young people who had really learnt English on the job. Necessity is the mother of language learning. Even very young kids were picking up languages through selling. This tiny 5 year-old could count to twenty in three languages and challenged me to a game of tic-tac - for money! She wasn’t in school but she was as smart as a squirrel.
In my hotel, this young girl, a waitress, was allowed to use the computers when she had finished her work and no guests were around. She was doing lots of useful things. I watched her use Google earth to view Angkor Wat, Facebook and message away. She was constantly reading, writing and picking up IT skills useful for her future work prospects. E-learning, in Khmer, to learn English and other practical, vocational skills, would be a godsend.
Schooling not enough
In speaking to young Cambodians, it became clear that some learnt a little English in schools, but not much. There are real problems with the quality of teaching, materials and lack of teachers. Teacher attendance in state schools was also appalling in some areas. Sue had been to schools where the kids were there and were getting on with learning but the teacher hadn’t bothered to turn up! To be fair the salaries are between $20-50 a month. Many teachers have themselves, failed to finish their secondary education, teacher training is poor and some need to work to supplement their salary.
English is their passport to further education, work and prosperity. Tourism is growing at an astonishing 25% a year, and I can see why. Angkor Wat is a dream cultural destination but the country still has that laid back feel, with good food, cheap accommodation and charming people. What these people need is some formal learning, in basic English, then support in a vocational context. An interesting addendum was Sue’s comment that she was looking for a good local person who could also teach Chinese, as this was the big growth area in visitor numbers.
So what did I learn from this? First, Cambodia has much to teach us, as the madness of killing teachers has not gone from our modern world. I had to cancel a trip to central Nigeria twice this year because of the threat from Boko Haram (translation: Western Education is bad) and in some areas of the Islamic world, education is war, with teachers and even pupils being targeted by religious zealots.
Second, Cambodia certainly needs more good teachers and schools but it has recognised that vocational training needs to be its main focus. Sure it has Universities, all private, with fees at $360 for the first year and $400 thereafter but they’re all in the cities, so travel and accommodation expenses are a problem. The quality is low and there’s the usual aloofness and lack of alignment and relevance. But the main focus is, rightly, on the idea that people need to 'learn to earn'.

Third, what I witnessed was ‘schooling for the sake of schooling’. The English textbook was ridiculous, teaching hampered by a lack of training, irrelevant tests and so people were in classrooms going through the motions. What these countries really need is not more ‘schooling’ but better ‘teaching and learning’. They need curriculum reform, teacher training and a reboot of the system. I saw lots of great work done by volunteers like Sue but the sheer scale of the problem, means that a radical shift is required. The good news is that young Cambodians are getting on and doing it for themselves. This is a young and vibrant population in a country of micro-businesses. The problem seems to be the age-old politicians, corruption and their lack of vision.