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Cathryn Shelton is a research assistant at Project Connect.
It is no secret that policymakers and tech companies are looking to improve the quality of U.S. education by introducing technology in the classroom. The most frequently pushed agenda is increased use of tablets and laptops, which according to some studies contribute to significant improvements in productivity. The New York Times recently shed light on the relationship between tech companies and teachers, raising ethical questions about faculty incentives for incorporating more technology into their curricula.
The use of digital tools in the classroom is also relevant to the developing world. Many international development actors view tech as essential to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which call for inclusive and quality education for all.
However, donors run into some critical problems when trying to bring technology into the classrooms of least developed countries: no one has accurately determined how many schools exist in the world, where they are, which ones are connected to the internet, or the bandwidth speeds of those connected. Without data, how can organizations effectively use technology to improve educational opportunity?
Previous studies have tried to estimate how many schools are connected to the internet. A 2014 report by the International Telecommunication Union found that less than 10 percent of schools in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa were connected. A 2016 World Bank report analyzed the uneven distribution of technologies and found that 60 percent of the world’s people were still offline. These studies are valuable, but there has yet to be a comprehensive effort to identify all internet-connected schools.
Project Connect, in partnership with UNICEF, is trying to change that by attempting to identify every school in the world and measure its actual or potential connectivity. The organization is building a digital platform that aims to visualize a school’s connectivity in real-time.
The task is enormous. Non-government and government sources have contributed some datasets to Project Connect, but they contain inaccurate or incomplete information on school location. Furthermore, reliable sources for measuring connectivity are almost lacking entirely. Governments mainly receive connectivity data from internet service providers (ISPs), an unreliable source given that they have an incentive to claim that their bandwidth speeds are better than they are.
No organization can knock on the door of every school in the world, which is why Project Connect and UNICEF are piloting scalable methodologies to bring schools out of the woodwork and evaluate their bandwidth. Satellite imaging is being used to locate schools from the sky, identifying them by certain indicators such as whether there is a playground nearby or if the building has various physical features that differentiate it from surrounding houses or stores. Current connectivity measurements are being returned from probes installed in schools themselves, but over time this could be done via aerial means. Cell towers could be pinged to give proxy measurements on megabits per second, if the schools have mobile connections. Drones with radio frequency sensors might even be able to return information on the strength of internet signal in a given area.
Only when schools are accurately located and their connectivity known can governments and international development agencies effectively work to eliminate the growing digital divide in education. The ongoing effort to optimize technology inside classrooms is noble, but the impact will remain limited if they’re not connected to the internet in the first place.