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Using Agile Approaches to Improve Teaching, Learning and Education in Developing Nations

| by Shane Hastie Follow 11 Followers on Nov 07, 2014. Estimated reading time: 6 minutes |

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Julian Harty, an ICT Education Advisor, is delivering a keynote talk at the upcoming Agile Pune conference, focusing on the work he has been doing using agile approaches to improve education outcomes in developing nations.  InfoQ interviewed him about his work and his upcoming keynote titled "If not now, when? If not you, who?".  

InfoQ: What is the problem you want to tackle, especially given your link to agile methods where we can try things without waiting for 'everything' to be defined?

There are various challenges I needed to resolve, the main ones were:

[Too] many projects to ‘help’ developing countries, poorer people, etc. fail. For instance, when I first visited Kenya in 2012, I saw examples of unused computers, screens, and even a petrol generator to power the computers which hadn’t been used for over 6 months, and the petrol generator was still sitting unused at the same school when I visited again this July, 2 years after it was provided. Total cost for the equipment was probably $2,000 USD while the effective value is probably zero or negative since it’s not being used and now 2 years old.
Education, particularly with state systems can be sclerotic and moribund. Projects that purport to improve education can involve many millions of USD, but not deliver tangible results e.g. vacuous ‘digital curricula’ paid for but elusive.
There was so much I knew I didn’t know (Known Unknowns) where I wouldn’t be able to know without actually trying to make stuff happen. Power, reliability, content, whether the schools and teachers would want and be able to use the equipment, etc. etc. all needed answers. The only practical way was to try by doing and learn during the process.
I was working alone, self-funding the work, and realised I could have-a-go where what I learn and discover would be interesting even if I wouldn’t be able to achieve my goals.

InfoQ: Please can you explain how you are building learning infrastructure in rural schools, especially given the limited funds available?.

Raspberry Pi’s are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain devices with lots of enthusiasts globally who are experimenting and contributing knowledge and other materials in ways their work can be reused easily. They also use minimal power, so can be powered using as little as 3 watts (provided by a small solar panel for instance). They can be used as a micro web server yet be able to support tens of concurrent users watching videos. The materials are all available online, but might be impractical for people in rural schools to find or use without projects such as RACHEL and Kahn Academy Lite. Similarly, Kiwix enables offline access to much of Wikimedia Foundation’s contents, including entire Wikipedia sites.

The infrastructure I’m establishing is on a micro level. One or two Raspberry Pi’s running as a WiFi hotspot, and powered somehow, generally with an external power-pack acting as a UPS so the Pi can continue to be used even if external power has failed. Schools can use various computers to access and consume the contents; some have old desktop computers, others laptops, and some have Android tablets, etc. Virtually anything with a web browser can be used with RACHEL and Kahn Academy Lite. Where schools have some sort of Internet access it can be used to enable the software and materials on the Raspberry Pi and Android tablets to be updated. However, we also use portable memory sticks and external hard drives as they are more practical than trying to download large volumes of content online from the rural locations.

InfoQ: You talk about “improving teaching, learning and education” using agile techniques – please can you give some examples

I’ve spent enough time in high-technology companies globally and worked using Agile principles and practices to realise that concepts such as sprints might help provide a lightweight and useful structure to the pilot projects. Similarly, gathering evidence would help disabuse some of the concerns I had when looking at other projects and help me to show by-example what might help other people who wanted to do similar work.

Collaboration and Communication: I’ve worked with an eclectic set of people and organisations during the last 2 years. These range from hardware vendors e.g. for solar panels and battery packs, to government education departments, opensource project teams, major corporations, friends and volunteers, and various NGOs, in 4 continents. In each case we try to find ways we can collaborate and learn from each other. Communication ranges from handwritten notes to VC discussions, contributions to opensource projects, blog posts, etc. With each pilot project I follow up on an ongoing basis and request honest and open feedback (which can be a challenge culturally for many people in Africa and India) rather than ‘telling me what I want to hear’. We also use simple templates for some of the written feedback to help collect some of the data.

People in projects are encouraged to learn to take ownership and responsibility, to make decisions, to contribute, and to work with each other both within a project and across projects.

Lean principles include providing a minimum of equipment and budget initially where we only expand the scope once we have evidence those resources has been used adequately, and where they can justify how additional resources would enable that project to do more.

Q: Can you share some key insights you’ve gained while trying to help schools in India, Kenya & Chile?

There needs to be at least one champion either at the school or who’s able to visit and help the school. It’s also important to make the projects public which helps the people involved to support the project while reducing the likelihood of equipment being ‘reallocated’ or ‘disappearing’.

The people involved need support and encouragement; none is paid by my projects and they need to decide to continue investing their time and energy into sustaining the project in addition to their other responsibilities and commitments.

As I discovered in Chile, all the elements are available, computers, technical people, etc. what people need is to realise what’s possible using these projects and then actually do so – as per this conference’s theme of Action Precedes Clarity.

Technical people can add tremendous value for relatively small effort.

InfoQ: How can individuals engage and contribute to making these changes?

Technical people can help in various ways, those who gravitate towards IT, hardware, etc. can replicate pilot projects in additional schools. They can also help commission schools, for instance by installing the self-contained RACHEL software on existing computers at a school and helping the pupils and staff to gain confidence using the software and materials.

People who are familiar with online email and who can have both English and another language skills can help to translate the User Interface, the exercises and other content into additional languages. For instance, several people in India are now contributing translations for Kannada and Hindi and I hope others will help with Tamil, Telegu, etc. in the coming weeks. Recent activity is tracked online here.   

Programmers are well placed to help with the translations (since they appear within the User Interface), and help improve and extend the various opensource projects such as Kiwix, Khan Academy Lite and RACHEL

The Agile Pune 2014 conference will be held in Pune, India on 21-22 November 2014.

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