It’s not where you live, it’s what you know

by Vivien Stewart

In an op-ed in The Times of India, Bill Gates wrote: “Information and communication technology is opening up enormous opportunities for many more people to participate in the global economy no matter where they may live. Soon, the prospects of a highly educated [person in an] emerging economy will match those of a young person in Europe or the United States. This opportunity will depend not on where you live, but what you know.”1

Developed countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada have poured billions of dollars into bringing technology into schools without, as yet, realizing a huge difference in productivity. The early focus on buying computers and wiring schools has given way to a focus on more clearly defining the objectives of information and communication technologies in education and linking those to needed changes in curriculum and professional development. Still, effectively integrating technology into schools and classrooms continues to elude school systems in many developed countries.

However, the greatest likelihood for educational transformation through technology may occur in emerging economies, where schooling has not been universal and governments can’t keep up with the growing aspirations of their populations for education at all levels. In these countries, technology can provide access to underserved communities, can improve quality and learning outcomes, and can deepen educational experiences on a large scale.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates addresses a press conference in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008. Pic: AP.

For example, in India, the government is facing the challenge of expanding enrollment in secondary schools from 40% to 65% of the age group over the next few years and doubling the number of university places without sufficient financial resources or teachers to do so. Technology has to be a big part of the solution. As Sam Pitroda, chairman of the Indian government’s National Knowledge Commission, points out, “school is not synonymous with a building with a blackboard and a teacher.” India is taking advantage of the fact that technology makes it possible to bring the knowledge of the entire world to the smallest rural villages or urban slums. Experiments with online courses; with open sourceware, in which universities put their courses and materials online for free; and with iLabs, where students can perform a range of experiments online despite their schools’ lack of traditional laboratories, will help India meet the knowledge challenges for its more than one billion people.

In China, where there has been vast migration from the countryside to large cities, it’s difficult to attract people into teaching in rural areas and bring the quality of education in those areas up to the standards of the cities. Rural schools use satellite broadcast and distance learning technology extensively to provide high-quality science education, taught by master teachers, as well as professional development for local teachers.

Korea, by contrast, is a highly wired country where computing is ubiquitous and students live in a digital culture. Here, the driver for using technology isn’t lack of access or quality of schools, but how to communicate effectively with today’s students. Korea has created a national online tutoring system to help students prepare for examinations. A digital textbook is also being piloted. The digital textbook would be a tablet-based multimedia learning environment with content from a wide range of sources, a learning management system, and authoring and evaluation tools. It also would promote student-to-student as well as student-to-teacher interaction. Initial research shows significant learning gains among middle- and lower-achievers. Overall, the tool makes knowledge more up-to-date than a traditional textbook and also develops self-directed learners while reshaping the role of the teacher as guide and advisor.

Go Global

One of the most powerful ways in which technology could potentially transform education is that it encourages students to go global—to overcome geographic barriers; to communicate and collaborate with their peers around the world; to publish findings and share words, images, and videos internationally; and even to talk to one another in real time. As an example, Asia Society is linking 100 American schools with 100 Chinese schools with classroom-to-classroom projects that promote language learning (Chinese and English, respectively) and learning about each other’s cultures. Another Asia Society project, Creative Voices, connects U.S. schools with Muslim schools in Indonesia and Pakistan. Students in each country create videos about their lives and discuss them with their counterparts. Given the importance of U.S-China and U.S.-Muslim relationships, the kinds of deeper cultural learning promoted by these projects have implications that go far beyond education. Another example, Stanford University has developed a college-level course on Japan for U.S. high school students in 29 states that is taught by scholars, diplomats, and experts from Japan as well as the United States.

Technology has also greatly expanded the options for learning outside school space and time. Despite legitimate concerns about excessive time on videogames and social networking sites, the fact that children can learn without teachers through “self-organizing learning environments” has significant potential, especially in areas where good teachers and schools are in short supply. In one famous experiment, researcher Sugata Mitra put an Internet-connected computer in a “hole in the wall” in a slum area of New Delhi and filmed what happened with a hidden camera. This experiment, since repeated in rural villages around India and Cambodia, shows that uneducated children can teach themselves to get online on their own and can, working with peers, teach themselves to the level of their more affluent peers in formal schools. Mitra has subsequently shown that nine-year old children in England, working in groups with appropriately programmed computers, can teach themselves what 16-year-olds are expected to know for English examinations. Finally, his “English grandmothers” project involves large numbers of English grandmothers in reading stories via video Skype to children in rural India who are trying to learn English.

Has technology revolutionized education? Not yet. But with connectivity soon to be available anywhere, anytime, with the new understanding of learning from research on cognitive science, and with the engagement young people have with technology, the future design of educational environments are likely to be both digital and global.

Vivien Stewart is a senior advisor to Asia Society.


1 Gates, Bill. “Education for the Future.” The Times of India, April 3, 2008. Accessed April 8, 2011.

Asia Society