Photo: Alan Foo providing training to teachers in Selangor.
One of the downsides of Negroponte's One Lap Per Child (OLPC) scheme, which now attracts headlines more for the multiple problems it faces than implementations until date, is the availability of content. Critics of OLPC say that providing the hardware is one thing, but what about content? Because the OLPC XO Laptops -- or all laptops that compete with XOs -- are limited in terms of resources like processing speed and memory capacity, one significant challenge that OLPC or similar education projects around the world face is availability of readymade content. It needs to be small or "computer-friendly" enough to work on machines as under-powered as a $200-XO (the XOs don't come within $100 anymore!)
For instance, says Edward H. Tse of the Interactions Laboratory Department, University of Calgary, Canada (involved in trying to create a new interaction techniques with computers), "content provision is a serious issue for these devices. If it is the expectation that teachers will produce all of their own content, using an OLPC could be more work that just buying a book and sharing it among students. Content needs to be provided free of charge."
Talk to any of the scores of other IT-enabled educators around the world and the common refrain would be while it is much easier to carry hardware to the remotest of areas, getting hold of appropriate courseware or content is a big hurdle.
But the good news is that perhaps a solution is now at hand. Alan Foo Ho Kok and Joanne Looi, two IT entrepreneurs of Chinese origin, but currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, claim to have devised a solution that makes teaching through the old and "weak" machines much easier and more efficient. Additionally, it overcomes the content availability problem by creating a repository that specially caters to school-level education.
Called AGE (which is the short form of All Genius Educator) Global Education, this is an ICT-enabled project that consists of a special software that allows teachers to create their own content which can run with scant computing power. Moreover, there is also an online library -- though the website http://asdwww.paperlesshomework.com -- of readymade homework modules that "can be used in classrooms and as homework thus saving teachers a lot of money, work and time."
"The problem with today's ICT-enabled education systems is that the end products or contents require a high amount of bandwidth," says Alan Foo. "You will find that most shrink-wrapped content consists of huge pieces of software that come on compact disks format, as e-books, or in flash drives which can work only on high-powered machines. And more often than not this is the biggest hurdle for the proliferation of ICT-based education."
According to Foo, teachers in the poorer countries and in remotes areas find it almost impossible to go digital due to complexities and costs. Of course, Internet based multimedia modules have overcome some of the problems in making use of ICT in mass education a success. But this too has limitations because Internet-enabled machines usually need to be high-end. This may be why, despite availability of a plethora of computer-based educational content, the use of old traditional blackboards and printed books and paper still dominate school-level education around the world.
"Our website provides multimedia modules that are easily downloadable and redistributable (using diskettes or otherwise) and can be used offline as well," says Foo. "These small-sized, non-Internet based multimedia modules overcome most barriers to making ICT a success in mass education."
Interestingly, even though AGE solves the much bigger problem of content availability, its developers prefer to stress its environmental aspect. "Our
main mission is to create near paperless classrooms and more environmental friendly world" says Foo, adding that using ICT in education not only makes it easier, but it also dispenses with the need for environment unfriendly papers, inks, photocopies, and time-wasting activities like writing questionnaires on the blackboards."
"You can compare AGE with the OLPC scheme in the sense that OLPC is focused on the easy availability of hardware, while we are focused on easy and widespread availability of content," he adds.
And, even if the corporate world has been waiting for a paperless office for more than 30 years, Foo still dreams that this project could make paperless schools a reality some day. "Imagine how much greener the world could be if all schools -- at least in China, India and Indonesia -- could go paperless," says Foo. "That's my dream and that's what I hope to achieve one day."
Another OLPC-downside that AGE addresses is that teachers need not be computer geeks to be able to utilize ICT-enabled education. The content creation software, called the AGE Homework Tool, Foo claims, is "a down to earth" authoring tool "that allows any teacher of any level of computer literacy to create instant digital self-correcting homework and use it in both modern and legacy environments."
Further, AGE also automates the process of creating, distributing, correcting and collating for teachers, "thereby freeing them from one of the most boring task -- correcting homework."
One innovative aspect of ICT in Project AGE is that it uses older legacy tools to develop new content, thus allowing content of small size that can run offline. Students can thus take their digital multimedia lessons anywhere. And the typical AGE content module with animation is only about 40 Kbytes in size and so can be easily copied onto pen drives and diskettes in older computers.
Conceived about 10 years back, Foo he says he has worked hard to formulate content that does not adhere to any particular school's or country's curriculum and can be used by all. Currently AGE's contents are available in English and Mandarin but efforts are on to introduce Bhasa Malay and Bhasa Indonesia as well. That's because Foo's immediate expansion plan focuses only on taking AGE to China, India and Indonesia, besides going deeper into Malaysia where it is already "well entrenched" -- implemented in 6000 government-aided schools.
"We are not global yet," he adds. Our solution is appropriate in environments where the level of penetration of IT is not deep. Moreover, with 2.7 billion people the population of China, India and Indonesia represent half the world's population," said Foo, quickly adding the website nevertheless get hundreds of hits from school and students around the world.
So how many hits would that be? Foo is reluctant to quote a number. "We launched this website in January this year so it is too early to monitor," he says. "But I reckon we must be getting several thousand hits a week."
Project AGE was officially launched in 2005 with a $48,000 grant from the Malaysian Government. About half of that grant has already been spent and the balance will be spent this year to take the project to other countries in Asia. Eventually, Foo projects that AGE would require $40,000 per year to run which is expected to be funded by additional grants and AGE's own revenues.
"A big feature of AGE is that its subscription is pittance," says Foo. Teachers and schools can download AGE's content free for one year for an annual fee of $10 per license to access to its content. And the rate for content creation software, AGE Homework, is $30 per year. However, if schools and teachers are willing to share the content by uploading it on the website, this service becomes free for an additional year.
These subscription fees are modest, especially in view that AGE content is virtually copyright-free. "A user needs to pay just the subscription fee each year. Thereafter, the user is free to make as many copies as needed of downloaded content," says Foo. "This means that once downloaded, our content can be shared with anyone for free."
Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.
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