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Technological leapfrogging is leveling the playing field

By Brian S Hall / February 10, 2014

Technological leapfrogging is leveling the playing field

“By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been.” That’s according to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and I couldn’t agree more. However, not all is right with the world. For example, many girls and individuals with severe physical limitations are regularly denied access to a full education. That’s all about to change thanks to smartphones, tablets and a little thing called technological leapfrogging.

Technological leapfrogging is the process whereby new technologies spur sudden, massive improvements within a particular sphere and obliterate longstanding barriers that denied access to many. We’ve seen it before with computers and the Internet, and now, with billions of smartphones and tablets in use around the globe, there’s little doubt that educational opportunities will soon be advanced around the world.

According to chief scientist of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Alex Dehgan, smartphones and free educational resources like the highly-regarded Khan Academy, along with the rapid rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), “will allow millions more people access to [an] education that was once out of reach.”

The trend has already begun, with 40% of Coursera students coming from the developing world. For those who don’t know, Coursera makes math, language, computer coding, agriculture and a multitude of other academic subjects readily available to anyone with a smartphone or tablet.

True, most children still don’t possess a smartphone or tablet, but this is changing at a rather startling rate. Consider that over a billion smartphones and more than 200 million tablets were shipped in 2013 alone. The numbers for both device categories continue to grow while prices continue to fall. As more of these devices make their way into the hands of the world’s most impoverished and disadvantaged citizens, they could spark an educational technological leapfrogging unlike any we’ve seen in human history.

A new “Diamond Age”

Nearly 20 years ago, the famed science-fiction author, Neal Stephenson, wrote The Diamond Age, a futuristic tale of nanotechnology, supercomputing and radically unprecedented access to learning resources. In the novel, a young member of the lowest working class named Nell discovers a device that today we would instantly recognize as a tablet computer. This device changes her life, oversees her education and teaches her about the larger world around her.

What Stephenson got wrong, however, was his vision of a future where only a handful of these amazing devices existed — and none of them were (legally) available to the marginalized segments of the global society. Reality has proven far richer and far more opportunistic — and has happened much sooner than expected.

Technological leapfrogging may sound like a buzzword, but its potential to empower those without access to a formal education is very real. According to UNICEF, “making sure girls and women have equal access to quality education is key to sustainable economic development.”

The real benefits of technological leapfrogging

Millions of children, mostly girls, are currently denied the opportunity to attend school. This is typically due to extreme poverty, armed conflict, school fees, negative classroom feedback, gender bias and exploitation. UNICEF set out to examine the impact that providing girls an education has on individual females and their communities. Its findings are telling and hopeful:

  1. Girls with access to education “vastly improve” their own lives. This also has a direct positive impact on their family.
  2. Providing girls with a quality education is a “highly effective tool” in fighting both poverty and disease.
  3. A 1% increase in female education raises the average level of that country’s GDP by .37% percent.
  4. Every additional year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by as much as 20%.

Through the looking glass

Low-cost and widespread availability of smartphones and tablets and the amazing breadth of educational services available still have another ally in this fight; today’s mobile computing devices are uncommonly easy to use.

According to Common Sense Media, 38% of children in the United States under age 2 have used tablets or smartphones, and it’s not because their parents forced them to do it like a piano lesson. Glass touch screens and app-centric UIs are beckoning, accessible and powerful. The same study noted that children are “highly likely” to simply pick up their parents’ smartphones and “begin navigating their capabilities.”

It’s no surprise there is an amazing range of low-cost and self-directed apps to help children read and count, while promoting creativity and social connections. Children can now learn at their pace, and from nearly any setting. Economist Felix Salmon of Reuters writes that “self-directed learning” could promote creativity and critical thinking, which prove more powerful in today’s world where ideas trump labor.

Self-directed empowerment

A recent Fast Company article examined 10 ways mobile technologies can revolutionize education. Topping their list was “Continuous Learning,” highlighting the fact that children can now “bypass” formal — and possibly restrictive — educational institutions by accessing educational content during pauses throughout their daily routine or at night. Fast Company noted that the combination of affordable mobile computing devices, free mobile learning (mLearning) resources and access to these tools outside of formal channels can break down barriers that have long prevented many from receiving an education:

mLearning promises to be able to put girls and women of all ages in contact with high-quality education privately and on their own time. Along similar lines mLearning also helps bring educational material within the reach of people with extreme disabilities, who may not be physically able to get to a classroom or campus on a regular basis.

In both of these cases, new freedoms can be exposed. As a result, these groups can take control of their educational and professional destinies.

In addition to continuous learning, the Fast Company list tips its hat to everything from synergies with mobile banking and mobile health initiatives to what they call the emergence of a new literacy: software literacy. With ten convincing examples of how mobile technologies will impact learning, it’s easy to see how children long denied an education may soon have the ability to reach their fullest potential, while helping their families and communities do the same. All they’ll need is a mobile device and a desire for a better life.

For more information on technology and education, view our presentation on the Classroom of the Future and follow us on Twitter for updates.