It seems to be raining computing devices for development - with features that can (or will soon) address the need for ruggedness, security, use by multiple students, and versatility. Clearly, this is just the beginning of technology becoming a low cost commodity that can serve the needs of education in a globalized world.
I am James Teicher, Director of CyberSmart Africa and I think that the discussion of ICT4D technologies needs to be enhanced with an additional dimension - learning.
Learning needs to be the driving force in a comparative discussion about technology
The desktop versus laptop discussion is missing a critical aspect -- how the technology configuration serves the needs of education - which is why computers are being purchased in the first place. Furthermore, the learning component, just like the computers, must be appropriately accounted for, and budged into the program components.
As most practitioners understand, the training, content, and support of ICT4D costs substantially more than the equipment, and is typically underfunded (reference the ongoing ICTworks conversation revolving around OLPC in Peru). This oversight is bound to perpetuate itself, and implementations with great potential will suffer, if learning objectives are not part of every comparative discussion of technology that serves ICT4D.
The UNESCO ICT Competency Standards Implementation Guidelines (supported by an extensive body of research) repeatedly emphasize that digital resources should be used directly at the point of instruction, integrated with the curriculum and teaching practices "…within the classroom to support and reinforce learning activities and social interactions."
Furthermore, a key factor in order to use technology to impact student learning is to ensure that teachers have sufficient and ongoing professional development. In other words, without appropriate advance planning, budgeting, and expertise, neither laptops or desktops will be used effectively.
Desktops or Laptops -- which serve learning better?
In developing nations, desktops sit in a secure computer room; and there is typically very little budget for the kind of pedagogical training necessary to integrate what goes on in the computer room with the ability to complement classroom instruction. Furthermore, the lack of reliable electricity makes it next to impossible to keep student access to the computer room on schedule.
The net result is that use of desktops in the ICT4D context is relegated to catch-as-catch-can ICT skills training -- documented time and time again to be a waste of resources. All of the ICT skills students learn today will be obsolete by the time they graduate; and appropriate ICT skills training -- in order to be true to the UNESCO standards -- should really occur in the context of meaningful, learner-centered instruction.
I tend to be a fan of computers that move between classrooms simply because, when used effectively, they can have a direct impact on regular instruction. Furthermore, desktops require a degree of infrastructure investment (a secure computer room) that makes it very difficult to reach the schools with poor infrastructure. This leaves out the vast majority of schools in sub-Saharan Africa.
At CyberSmart Africa, we have made learning the central element of everything we do; and for that reason, we focus on teacher professional development and learning content to drive a whole-class, student-centered instructional approach.
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