March 5, 2008 By Indrajit Basu, International Correspondent
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