Achieving Universal Primary Education

wysiwyg_image_246_2792853by Daragh Gleeson

One of the great success stories of the Developing World is the improvement in the provision of primary school education. In 1970 global primary school enrolment was at approximately 50%. Now enrolment in developing regions has reached 90%.

This is a fantastic achievement, but due to the global financial crisis total aid decreased in real terms in 2011 for the first time since 1997, and fears have arisen that the momentum may stop.

(Note – this article proceeds on the assumption that foreign aid is beneficial for the advancement of education in developing regions and that it has contributed to such advancement. However there are those that dispute this assumption.)

It remains to be seen whether the classic teacher/classroom model, where a properly trained educator provides accurate instruction to a reasonably-sized group of students, can be bested on a large scale as the “staple” of education provision. However difficulties with providing the necessary infrastructure have produced a number of different innovative approaches to try and remedy the deficit, some of which may prove to be leading models in the provision of education if funding continues to be scarce.

Mexico was quick to embrace the potential of technology in providing education and established its “Telesecundria” programme in 1968. This involved televised lessons in distant regions which were supervised by a single teacher. One advantage of the programme was that the entire range of subject matter was covered through the use of just one teacher and television, which significantly cut down on costs, enabling larger numbers of schools to be established in sparsely populated areas. The program was a huge success, and was boosted by the aid of satellite transmission in 1993.

In China in the 1970s the Chinese Central Radio and TV University was established which has helped to train students as diverse as engineering personnel, teachers, and farmers. According to the university, over 38 million students have benefited from the service.

India had success with a correspondence course with its National Open School, which now helps around 500,000 students a year at various stages of their education, and in the Philippines combinations of radio, print, audio, and video recordings have been used for distance education since 1952.

In Brazil a distance education programme for teachers called “Proformação” has achieved significant results in recent years. It was designed to train 27,000 uncertified teachers in 15 Brazilian states and was found to have an extremely positive impact on teaching practices for participants.

It can be difficult to identify what is the ideal educational content in an area. Many point out that in impoverished regions, most people will not secure formal employment and will be supported primarily through agriculture and trading.  It is argued that the focus should be on life skills – topics like financial literacy, entrepreneurial abilities, health maintenance, and administrative capabilities.

In India the “Barefoot College” has transformed ideas of how a vocational school such as this can operate. It was set up by Sanjit Roy, who wanted to teach rural people skills that they could use to help their villages. There is an overwhelming focus on practicality over academic training, and one of the college’s strengths is turning women into solar engineers. It has changed villages around the world for the better, and reshaped people’s lives. For Santosh Devi, a semi-literate lower caste woman from Rajasthan who attended the Barefoot College, it has meant that she has gone from having to avert her eyes when passing a person considered to be “upper caste”, to being asked by such people could she please help to provide solar energy for their homes. The Barefoot College has already generated imitations in other countries, and is attracting students from all continents whose travel is funded by grant money.

In Africa one interesting organisation called Tostan uses a community empowerment model to educate participants on everything from maths and literacy to human rights and health, and has reached over 7,000 communities from eight countries. The programme is deliberately holistic and participatory.  It uses local languages and volunteers to reach as many numbers of people as possible, and is expanding rapidly in size.

Recently on the technological side of things there has been a great deal of hype about “MOOCs” – Brazil2Englishmassive open online courses, and their potential for education in the developing world. However, while these are becoming increasingly popular in high income countries, the obvious challenge facing the implementation of MOOCs in the developing world is that it’s necessary to own a computer and to have internet access. Early successes with distance learning in places like Mexico, China, and India were based on radio or television technology, or paper correspondence. For MOOCs to make a significant impact on education there may need to be extensive infrastructural changes first. Nevertheless there are organisations like the African Virtual University which provide higher education to students, and the World Bank is contributing to pilot projects to explore the potential of MOOCs. And it should of course be kept in mind that when considering the barriers to innovative approaches being implemented, deficiencies that are often present in the implementation of the classic teacher/classroom model must also be considered. Without adequate resources and supervision, teachers may often be absent, students may often drop out soon after enrolment, and the content of what is taught can be lacking.

A technological option that may prove easier to implement than computer-based MOOCs is “m-learning” – learning through mobiles. Ownership of mobile phones in the developing world is high enough to make this possible, and access to the internet through mobiles can be affordable for prospective students. As early as 2004 the University of the Philippines’ Open University started an m-learning program for simple health, literacy, and numeracy education, and UNESCO is currently researching the viability of m-learning in five different regions of the world.

So what is the solution to a possible tightening of the purse strings? If governments cannot be induced to raise aid levels, more alternative routes will have to be explored. M-Learning may help to provide a very basic level of education in communities where there are no other options. MOOCs may be beyond the reach of most of the world’s poor, but this may change. Mobile phones were once the preserve of the elite, but are now cheap and are relatively easy to obtain. There may come a watershed moment when the same happens with internet access on a tablet device.

If the model of community –based schemes like that operated by Tostan and the Barefoot College continue to be emulated, then there is a potential for large-scale cost-effective vocational training which, like in the case of Santosh Devi, can change lives.

One may hope that if there is a return to global economic stability, aid levels for education may rise again, though that is far from sure. In any case, if a solution is not found then millions of children around the world will remain without primary education. It’s clear that the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education by 2015 will not be reached. The question is – how long will it take?

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1 comment
  1. There are different pros and cons of online education but one can certainly believe that studying in home certainly help u to manage your time frame easily for other activities rather than attending to your other schooling methods.

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