In a previous post, I listed the seven ‘aha’ moments that have been the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology. This is the second of seven posts that discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. (The first was: Media are different.)

What was the discovery? (1974 for the first time, then continually reinforced since then)

This stems from my experience of working in developing countries. Ever since I started working in this field, people have argued that the direct importation of  ‘Western’ (educational) technology is the solution to educational problems in developing countries. This is hubris, and just plain wrong. Progress in education in developing countries has to start at home. Western technology can help, but only as long as it is adapted and transformed locally.

More importantly, before technology can be useful for developing countries (or any other for that matter) a number of social, economic, political and technological infrastructures or conditions  need to be in place or extensively developed before ‘new’ educational technologies can be useful. A simple example is an affordable electricity network that reaches most homes and schools. Another is the need for suitable training in teaching. A third is for non-corrupt government so that educational technology purchases are not influenced by bribery from rich countries trying to sell their homegrown technology.

How did this discovery come about?

My first experience in fact was a very positive one. I was working as a consultant in 1974 for UNESCO in Thailand. The aim was to help the Thai government build an educational radio network for the Ministry of Education. I was responsible for assisting with curriculum development and design of the radio programs. It was decided rather late in the day to survey the existing audio-visual equipment in Thai schools at the time – radios, audio recorders, whether or not the schools had electricity in all classrooms, etc. Furthermore, they wanted a census of all 20,000 schools – not a sample – because of strong regional differences. And the whole thing had to be done over a six week period, from design and translation of the print questionnaires, to delivery, completion and collection, data processing, analysis and report writing. I didn’t think this was possible, but my Thai counterpart in the Ministry assured me it was, so long as I could design the questionnaires and the tables for analysis in advance.

With the help of my Thai counterpart, I designed the questionnaires and the ‘shells’ for the tables for analysis. The questionnaires would be delivered with the teachers’ salary payments, and returned when the teachers collected their next salary payment, then transported via the Ministry’s internal mail network back to our office in Bangkok. ‘But how are we going to process and analyse data from 20,000 schools in one week?’, I asked.

I was taken to the Thai National Census Office, where I was introduced to six formidable Thai women, all senior managers in the Census Office. Yes, it would be no problem, they said, after looking at the questionnaire and the sheets of table ‘shells’ I had drawn up for the analysis.

‘How?’, I asked.

‘We have the latest IBM mainframe and punch card equipment’, they said.

Sure enough, on the designated date, they delivered a massive print-out that was a complete national census of A/V equipment in Thai schools, with a 98% response rate.

I went with my Thai counterpart to thank the ladies at the Census Office. I told them how impressed I was.

‘I have just one favour to ask of you’, said the Director. ‘We have an agreement with IBM that all our use of the equipment must be approved by the IBM counterpart director.’

‘But it’s been done already.’

‘Yes, but if we had asked first, he might not have approved. It’s a mere formality, but do you mind?’

‘Of course not.’

So I’m escorted to a very large corner office at the top of the building with a magnificent view over Bangkok, and behind an enormous, empty desk is an American IBM consultant. I told him what I wanted to do (and not that it had already been done).

‘Have you ever designed a questionnaire before?’ he asked. I told him that I regularly surveyed 20,000 students a year at the British Open University.

‘Well, OK, but I doubt if these people here can manage it, ‘ he said, to the Thai Director and myself, ‘ but if you want to give it a try, and they can fit it into their schedule, and you’re willing to manage it, then it’s OK with me.’ He continued in this vein for some time, criticizing the competence of the Thai staff.

When we got back to the Thai Director’s office, I exploded. ‘Why do you have to go through that arrogant son of a…..?’

‘Well,’ she said, ‘It is a small price to pay for such a valuable gift.’

This UNESCO project turned out to be very successful. The radio network was built and in 1978 Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University was officially established, building on the work that had been done to establish the radio network. STOU now has over 170,000 students. Foreign aid was important and helpful, maybe necessary even, but certainly not sufficient. The successful use of educational technology, at least in this instance, is nearly all due to the efforts of the Thais themselves.

Why is this significant?

Let me start with a quote from a recent column in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman:

Nothing has more potential [than the budding revolution in global online higher education] to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. ….And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity…..For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.

However, equally breathless statements in the past have been made about radio (in 1930s), television (in 1960s), and satellite broadcasting (in 1980s). Delivery is not the issue. We have, and have had, the technological means to deliver educational content of the highest academic quality in terms of its source, the elite universities, into the poorest countries in the world, for over 70 years. Indeed, I have worked on projects for all these technologies – and in online learning – in developing countries, but still the problem of billions of people with insufficient education has not gone away. Using the same arguments as Friedman, radio would reach many more millions than online education as most poor people do have a radio, which can now be operated even without batteries or grid electricity. But that wouldn’t be sexy.

Before we make the same mistakes with MOOCs or other forms of online learning, we need to learn from past experience. For instance, I recently completed a contract for a Mexican university network that wanted to develop a national online university aimed at the lower economic groups in Mexico (what socio-economists describe as groups C- and D). These in terms of numbers are the largest socio-economic groups in Mexico, constituting well over half of the population. The problem was, none of them have Internet access in the home – none, because of income inequality and a virtual monopoly of telecommunications services resulting in very high cost Internet access. MOOCs will not reach these groups, at least for another five to ten years, and Mexico is by no means one of the poorest countries in the world.

If Friedman had done a little math, and calculated the multiplying costs of providing computers all over Egypt, providing security so the computers would not get stolen (as happened with many of the TVs used in the Indian satellite project in the 1980s), the telecommunications costs, and above all the costs of hiring the facilitators, you would have to ask whether the Egyptians would not be better off using this money for more elementary schools and teachers, in terms of return on investment. This is a particularly pertinent point, given that the USA has some of the worst public schooling in the OECD, in terms of student performance. Maybe what the U.S. needs is better schools and fewer MOOCs. But then, I wouldn’t presume to tell Americans what they should do.

Seven lessons for online learning in developing countries

I am not arguing that online learning, or even MOOCs, have no value in developing countries. They do, and we have seen that for instance in Africa online learning is developing at a faster rate than anywhere else. However, there are certain conditions needed for online learning to succeed.

1. Education is socially and culturally based. Online learning developments need to be planned, developed, and managed locally (i.e. nationally or regionally). Only local people understand the local contexts in which online learning will have to work.

2. Online learning may not be the immediate priority for national or international funding: adequate electricity, Internet access, and teacher training are usually necessary pre-requisites for online learning (even or especially if foreign content is to be used).

3. Learners need low-cost, convenient access to computers (or mobile phones) and the Internet in a safe and secure environment that facilitates study. That condition still cannot be met for billions of people, but is improving rapidly every day. Thus timing is critical.

4. Content, and even the technology, are usually the smallest cost components. Learner support (i.e. teachers or facilitators) is often necessary for successful learning, even or especially when technology is used for delivery, and learner support is usually the most costly part of the system.

5. Learners need qualifications that are recognized in their own country and help them get better jobs. Trust is an essential component, and certificates that are offered by foreign institutions to MOOC students but are not recognized for admission to or credit in their own institutions are bogus and fraudulent. However, local vetting of qualifications from foreign online providers is costly and diverts some of the most highly skilled local faculty from other responsibilities.

6. Online learning, foreign expertise and even foreign content in the form of MOOCs and open educational resources can help, but the conditions must be right, and the conditions are always demanding.

7. There is no silver bullet. Simplistic solutions stem from a lack of understanding of what the problem really is.

Now for your comments

I’d really like to hear from two groups:

  1. those of you in less economically advanced countries who have had experience of international development projects in educational technologies, and especially in online learning: what worked and what didn’t? Do you agree with Friedman that MOOCs are the answer?
  2. those of you who have worked as foreign consultants or foreign staff on international development projects in educational technologies, and especially in online learning: what worked and what didn’t?  Do you agree with Friedman that MOOCs are the answer?

Further reading

There is a huge amount of literature on the use of educational technology and mass media for education in developing countries. Most of it is still relevant today to online learning. Some of the best work was done for UNESCO by Dean Jamison, Stephen Wells and Stephen Kleese, ironically at Stanford University. It’s a pity their work seems to have been forgotten by their successors. Emile McAnany, of the University of Texas in Austin was another  excellent evaluator of radio in developing countries. Perhaps the best work of all though was done by Wilbur Schramm, from the East-West Centre at the University of Hawaii. Here is a very selected list of further reading.

Arnove, R. (1976) Educational Television: A Policy Critique and Guide for Developing Countries New York: Praeger

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables

Bates, T. (2002) National Strategies for E-Learning in Post-Secondary Education and Training Paris: International Institue for Educational Planning

Carpenter, C. (1972) ‘Television or something else’ in Schramm, W. (ed.) Quality in Instructional Television Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

Jamison, D., Klees, S. & Wells, S. (1978). The Costs of Educational Media: Guidelines for Planning and Evaluation. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications

Jamison, D. and McAnany, E. (1978) Radio for Education and Development Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications

Schramm, W. (1975) Big Media, Little Media Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications (for Schramm, big media were television and computer-assisted learning and little media were radio and print)



  1. Access to the internet worldwide in 2011/12 was 34% (see Hence, if we devote all our efforts to the provision of Internet based learning, we are catering for only one-third of the 7 billion world population.
    Moreover, there were 1.4 billion people without access to electricity. Of these, 51% (675 million) are in the Asia-Pacific region and 44% (585 million) are in sub-Saharan Africa.

    At the ICEM Conference on 1-4 Oct in Singapore, I will be running a Special Track Session entitled, Learning with Low-Tech. I am presenting a paper myself, “Audiovision for training Teachers of Nigerian Nomadic children” but need to find three more presenters. Yesterday I asked COL and RECSAM (Penang) for recommendations. Do you know of anyone who would be interested to attend the conference and present on the Low-Tech track?


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