Bringing Online Education to Mongolia, in Wireless Backpacks
Monday, November 28, 2011
As a turbulent snowstorm whips across the vast, desolate Mongolian grasslands, a group of schoolchildren huddle over laptops, their eyes transfixed as the sagacious Sal Khan works through Newtonian physics.
But Khan is only reaching these kids because of a bold initiative from another creative edupreneur: Neil Dsouza, age 27, cofounder of TeachAClass.org, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to enabling access to education in developing countries. Dsouza was previously an engineer at Cisco, where he helped develop the first 4G core routers for AT&T and eventually Verizon’s mobile network.
Plenty of people have tried to tackle education in remote areas. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, for instance, has shipped millions of laptops to impoverished corners of the world. The impact has been faint, however, leading OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte to recently propose a more radical approach: dropping tablets from helicopters to remote villages, “then go[ing] back a year later to see if the kids can read,” he has declared.
But to those already on the ground, the idea of indiscriminately flinging equipment from the air and hoping for a positive educational outcome seems like a recipe for waste. OLPC has already donated over 7,000 laptops to Mongolia. When Dsouza arrived, he found many collecting dust on shelves. Some have not even seen the light of day, still unopened in shrink-wrapped boxes.
“Technology is starting to become a waste in developing countries,” notes Dsouza. He points to startling findings from the World Bank’s very own Independent Evaluation Group that “only 30 percent [of its projects worldwide] have achieved their objectives of implementing universal assess policies or increasing ICT [information and communications technologies] access for the poor or underserved areas.”
It’s not just due to misguided strategies like airlifting hardware, either, Dsouza says. Too many Western-driven programs have neglected to take into account geographical limitations and cultural differences-whether it’s failing to realize the lack of basic IT infrastructure in developing countries, or assuming that everyone naturally understands the potential and use of computing devices.
Haunted by memories of piles of unused laptops, Dsouza devised an ingenious plan: Bring a chunk of the Internet’s offerings to Mongolia. He packages content from Khan Academy, MIT open courseware, and other resources into portable, self-contained servers that can be wirelessly accessed by laptops and computers. These servers, which cost roughly $350 apiece, are small enough to fit in a backpack and need only a power outlet to boot up. Other laptops need only wireless capability and a browser that supports Flash to log on. What this creates, in essence, is a local intranet network-what Dsouza has dubbed an “Education Hotspot”-that allows users to access materials hosted on the server, even in areas so remote that Internet is either outrageously expensive or non-existent.