On Monday, Pearson announced a new $15 million USD fund that aims to bring affordable education to poor children in Africa and Asia. It’s part of the publisher’s efforts to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals of universal primary education. According to The Guardian, NGOs question the approach of for-profit education as they found that school attendance has been driven by the abolition of fees.
Pearson’s fund will invest in private companies that offer innovative approaches, sustainable business models and improved learning outcomes through educational solutions, ranging from mobile content to teacher training and accreditation services. The first investment is in the Ghana-based Omega Schools, a privately held chain of affordable, for-profit schools.
Affordable education cannot mean that we ship containers with physical textbooks to Africa, it implies access to the Internet, may it be via WiFi or mobile networks.
I think it’s pretty telling that mobile content is explicitly mentioned in the press release. Affordable education cannot mean that we ship containers with physical textbooks to Africa just to extend the lifespan of a dying business model or because it is “better than nothing.” Affordable education implies access to the Internet, may it be via WiFi or mobile networks.
In our Western societies, mobile has come to mean foremost “frictionless posting” of your Instagram dinner photo or getting directions on a 3D map to the nearest theater, mobile access in developing countries means much more than convenience. And as I always say, we should learn from it.
To give you some examples: just a couple of weeks ago the SMS turned 20 years old, and it probably had the biggest impact on most people on the globe. Today, two-thirds of the world’s population — over 4 billion people that is — have access to it through their mobile phones. A phone that’s that even the oldest and cheapest “bar of soap” can send and receive SMS.
For example, with mobile devices, savvy entrepreneurs have developed systems to inform farmers on the current price of their crops so that the middle men cannot betray them with the wholesale price anymore. They also get the weather forecast and can do banking transactions. In India, there is a even service called Nano Ganesh that lets farmers control water pumps via their mobile phone.
Back to education. In Haiti, a government program called Ti Manman Cheri, or Dear Little Mother, pays mothers who send their children to school up to $20 a month via mobile phones. In North Africa and Indonesia, mobile phone providers offer free access to themobile version of Wikipedia to all users.
On the other hand, I’m sure that it won’t take long until we see smartphones taking over the developing world. Thanks to outsourced manufacturing, huge knowledge has been developed in China, Taiwan, South Korea and other places, and while we are eagerly waiting for the rumored new “cheaper” 7-inch version of the iPad, small companies are making tons of decent Android-based tablets that price at around $50 USD. And the same is, of course, true for smart phones. The same companies that once specialized in cloning iPhones are now creating their own handsets and sell them like sliced bread in developing countries.
And the infrastructure is growing fast, as well. African nations, China and India knew that it would make no sense to try and build cable-based networks. Instead they focused on the mobile infrastructure early on. Today, Airtel announced the launch of their 3G network in Rwanda, in partnership with Ericsson. As a bonus, Airtel will offer all its customers introductory free Internet access to experience the service for the first two weeks. Every customer will receive 1 GB of free access every day, up until July 17, 2012. I don’t think that you will see such an offer from your provider in North America or Europe.
Back to Pearson. I think there are two core benefits for the publisher. First is the data that will become available for mining. They basically start on a blank slate, as parents of those poor children won’t have any access to modern technology or the Internet, in most cases. Hence problems with data protection and privacy are simply unknown. I imagine it to be rather difficult to set up a field test in the US, with parents and teachers being concerned about what will happen to their data. For the kids and parents in Africa it will just be a given thing and part of their education, I suppose.
Also, it’s interesting for Pearson to send their content (which they already produce and own) to as many students as possible. Developing countries are a huge and mostly untapped market yet, which means that there is a lot of profit to be made, even with cheaper prices.