This article first appeared in Fast-Forward Progress: Leveraging tech to achieve the global goals.
It has been said that teachers affect eternity, because they can never tell where their influence stops. The impact of education both in the lives of children — especially the most disadvantaged children — and in the strength of their societies is commensurately limitless.
Children who learn more, earn more as adults – providing more for their own families and helping boost economic growth while breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty.
That is why education is at the heart of sustainable development: it lays an indispensable foundation for today’s children to carry on — sustain — development progress in the next generation. Recognizing this fundamental link, Agenda 2030 sets ambitious education targets, calling for global action to provide every child with free, equitable, quality primary and secondary education.
The challenges of meeting this goal are enormous and we will need every tool we have – and some we don’t yet have – to overcome them.
In 2013, the year for which we have the most complete data, an estimated 91% of the world’s primary school-aged children were enrolled in school – and as many girls as boys were enrolled in primary education in two-thirds of countries in developing regions where gender parity once lagged. That is a victory for millions of children, but millions of children are still being missed.
In West and Central Africa, for example, the enrollment rate in 2013 stood at only 74%. The education of millions of children living through conflicts and crises is at urgent risk — with around 24 million children living in 22 countries affected by conflict out of school. And the quality of education children receive when they are able to go to school is often very poor: globally, more than one in three children of primary school age – around 250 million children – leave school without ever learning how to read, write and do simple arithmetic, according to a 2014 estimate.
ICTs can help us reach these left-behind children – supporting our efforts to increase their access to learning opportunities; to improve the quality of the education they receive; to help identify the obstacles children face in accessing education and the challenges schools face in retaining students; and to monitor our progress toward realizing the SDG pledge to “leave no one behind”.
Although ICTs are not a solution in themselves, examples abound of ways in which they are helping expand children’s horizons by increasing their access to higher quality education and promoting their learning. For example, in Sudan, the Can’t Wait to Learn initiative uses solar-powered tablets and interactive, self-paced software to help out-of-school children access the official Sudanese primary-level mathematics curriculum. The children use the tablets in community spaces that are staffed by trained facilitators – a necessity to maximize the value of digital devices.
Argentina is building a network of tech-based, rural high schools to help more children attend secondary school – a real falling off point in school enrollment. Well-qualified teachers stream lessons in real time from urban headquarter offices to community centers. Each urban headquarter can provide ICT supported education to 10 classrooms, making precious educational resources go farther and expanding access to higher quality teaching. Not only does this programme connect more students to quality learning opportunities, it also connects them to each other. Once classroom exercises are over, students from hundreds of schools can interact with one another in open chat windows. This programme is currently covering 40 000 students in 3000 community centers.
These are comparatively low-cost, high impact interventions that can change the lives and futures of millions of children. Distance learning systems can also help improve teacher training and support other community programmes, such as teaching parents and caregivers about the importance of stimulating play in early childhood development, which can not only help children learn later in school, but to learn more as adults.
The role ICTs can play in helping every child realize a quality education goes beyond distance learning or laptops in schools. ICTs can also help us identify barriers that stand between too many children and a quality education, and track progress to overcome those challenges.
We are beginning to realize the potential uses of ICT-enabled ‘perception data’- information provided by the intended beneficiaries of development interventions about how programmes and initiatives are working, or not working.
For example, U-Report, a mobile polling tool developed by UNICEF now used by 3 million young people in 34 countries, enables young people to voice their opinions and provide crucial perception data about problems in their communities. In Liberia, U-Reporters working with the Ministry of Education helped shed light on why enrollment and completion rates were dropping drastically, providing direct evidence of the reasons that prevent them and their peers from enrolling and completing school. Is it because walking to school is unsafe? Is it because teachers are absent or abusive towards students? Are there adequate hygiene facilities for girls?
Answers to questions like these can help illuminate where and why progress is lagging – and, in turn, can help governments to develop more efficient, effective and targeted interventions to address the situation. ICTs can also serve as effective tools to monitor performance and boost accountability for results. In Peru, the EduTrac initiative uses mobile technology to gather data in remote communities, including data about teacher and student attendance, timely delivery of school materials, and school maintenance. Students, teachers and communities are all involved in the collection, interpretation and use of such data – an inclusive way to improve school quality in communities far from urban centers.
Similarly, ICTs can help deliver education and learning opportunities to children living through emergencies – monitoring the impact of conflicts on children’s ability to access classrooms, mapping the location and condition of schools, tracking the distribution of learning materials, and providing distance learning opportunities. With an estimated 24 million children forced out of school as a result of violent conflict, and 50 million children on the move in search of safety and a way out of crushing poverty and climate-related crises, the potential impact of such programmes is enormous.
ICTs also can help us achieve the SDG education targets by helping educate people about the SDGs. Already reaching children in 160 countries, the World’s Largest Lesson (WLL) is a new curriculum and online learning platform designed to teach the world’s children about sustainable development.
More broadly, the SDGs recognize the critical role ICTs can play in boosting so many of our development efforts. SDG Target 9.C calls for governments and their partners to significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.
Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.