Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Online learning - unplugged

How can digital educational resources benefit those without internet access (about 3.2 billion people according to Internet World Stats) or even without electricity? Open educational resources (OER) are available in hundreds of languages but they don't help those who cannot access that material. The real potential of online education is making it accessible for all - even offline.

There are many examples of this around the world where online material is downloaded where bandwidth is available and then used offline in remote regions, but one particularly interesting example I found is described in an article in Campus Technology, Distance Learning Without Computers, It describes a project called Education for Humanity run by Arizona State University in collaboration with a number of humanitarian agencies where online higher education is offered to students in refugee camps in Uganda. These camps often lack both electricity and internet access so the solution involves a device called a Solar Powered Educational Learning Library (SolarSPELL - see film below). This device stores downloaded educational resources from the university (or any other source) and uses the open source learning management system, Moodle, for course delivery. It is powered by solar energy and can support up to 17 mobile devices on its local wifi network. The device is cheap and portable and has been used in many projects around the world including this one in Uganda. The solution allows students to access material, interact and navigate an online course in the same way as they would with internet access. Where possible, online interaction can take place using mobile devices and Whatsapp.

There are some interesting conclusions to this project. Firstly, students who studied ASU's course on agribusiness performed much better than average with some getting extremely high grades. Motivation was of course extremely high since the students all depended on agricultural business and had immediate practical use for what they learned. Being able to immediately test what you have learned in real life situations contributes enormously to completion rates.

Another valuable result of the project was that they developed their digital literacy skills, despite being unplugged. The offline environment was as close to the online version as possible and this gave them confidence for the future.The students clearly saw the benefits and motivation rose accordingly.

Besides the improvements in students' marketing and financial analysis skills, an unexpected outcome was a boost in digital literacy, Bauer noted. "Although the facilitators were actually in charge of powering up the boxes and being in charge of the technology, they really gave students the option to learn how it works, why it works that way and how the WiFi [in SolarSPELL] was different from the one that they may use to access the internet. We saw their confidence in their digital literacy levels improve, in terms of feeling comfortable in working with technology. And the facilitators were telling us about how excited students were to come in every day.

Because of the limited number of devices that can share the local wifi capacity, many students had to share a laptop or tablet. This proved to be beneficial because it added an element of collaboration that would have been lost if there had been one device per student.

One area of particular interest is the way people who were forced to share a computing device in the pilot project were also forced to work together. "We'll see what the data says, but it will be interesting to [find out] exactly how that collaboration might have improved grades and helped people's understanding.

In developed countries we often fail to discover the benefits that can arise from relative scarcity of resources. Sharing devices forces students to share their ideas and negotiate a solution to the problems they are trying to solve. This could easily be implemented in more connected classrooms to foster better collaboration skills and mutual support.

The course literature had to be revised and adapted to the local situation and OER was the solution. The publisher of the textbook used for the regular course at ASU did not allow the book to be distributed digitally, so the teachers replaced it with OER which they adapted to match more closely the target group's needs. This is another good example of the vital role that OER can play in widening the reach of education, especially through adaptation.

Maybe another success factor for offline digital education is the absence of distractions, allowing students to concentrate on the task in hand rather than be tempted into checking the latest messages. Even in our always connected world we need to learn how to focus and this can be done by temporarily disconnecting or limiting connectivity. Sharing devices with limited or no internet access could have some benefits. Less is more as they say.

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