The limits of ICT in development

A good read, this interview of Kentaro. Those familiar with Kentaro or the ICT4D Jester (see this awesome post by the jester on Dr. Kurien) are aware of the healthy disrespect he has for interventions that puts technology above the human element – whether it is in the classroom, or in agricultural extension.

It’s the anecdotes that really keep the technology sector going in the [economic] development context. It is so easy to get an interesting story if you take some gadget and give it to a child. I have done this myself multiple times. The first thing that you see is kids just overjoyed that they have this new gadget in their hands. It’s a new toy, and they love it. You can’t not take a photograph of a smiling kid holding a laptop.

The reality is, that joy is the same joy that you see when you peek over the shoulder of a kid who has a smartphone in their hands in the developed world, which is to say they’re overjoyed because they’re playing Angry Birds. On the one hand, I do think that a certain amount of educational toys and play is important, but I just don’t think that K through 12 education of any serious kind can be based entirely on that kind of play.

I wholly agree. The tech solutions promoted in the field often ride on hype. Unfortunately, some interventions, like the One Laptop per Child, end up as electoral campaign promises which are neither tested, nor costed. Often, a technical fix is used as a substitute for systemic reforms that are slower and harder, but necessary.

Education is a good example. Technological innovations increasingly vie for the attention of practitioners, policymakers and researchers. But there are key questions that need to be answered for any proposed technological intervention:

  • Is the link between technology and educational outcomes well established?
  • Do we understand how best technological solutions may be leveraged and how different aspects of teaching methods, assessment and education management stand to benefit from it?
  • How can we design and iteratively adapt incentives to encourage adoption and enhance the capacity of frontline implementers to utilise technology in order to enhance their own efficiency and effectiveness?

Here is the link for Kentaro’s book – Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology

Toyama’s warning resounds: Don’t believe the hype! Technology is never the main driver of social progress. Geek Heresy inoculates us against the glib rhetoric of tech utopians by revealing that technology is only an amplifier of human conditions. By telling the moving stories of extraordinary people like Patrick Awuah, a Microsoft millionaire who left his lucrative engineering job to open Ghana’s first liberal arts university, and Tara Sreenivasa, a graduate of a remarkable South Indian school that takes children from dollar-a-day families into the high-tech offices of Goldman Sachs and Mercedes-Benz, Toyama shows that even in a world steeped in technology, social challenges are best met with deeply social solutions.


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