Monthly Archives: February 2013

What Education Can Learn From Technology

The user research approach that guides the APS and Tech paper is one that comes out of the technology sector. User research is the discipline of developing a deep understanding of users and incorporating them into every element of a product’s design. It is the process of learning users’ values, their goals, and how they interact with technology, then using this to inform how products and services can be best designed for them. User research is the groundwork for user friendly products but it wasn’t always like that.

Early stages of technology were more User Hostile than User Friendly and reminiscent of what’s represented in this Dilbert comic.

edtechindia UX dilbert

Computers were cumbersome machines built by engineers whose main concern was making it work…not necessarily to make it something people would want to work with. If the users didn’t understand the system, nor the complex user manual…tough. They just weren’t smart enough or willing to try hard enough to make the most of the device.

As the internet evolved and the technology market became more competitive, a computer that worked wasn’t enough. A shift occurred, where techies began to consider that there may actually be advantages to building things that people enjoy using. Rather than trying to guide users through how to fix the problems with a new interface, companies started learning enough about users so they could build better interfaces that didn’t have problems. By developing the practice of cultivating deep understanding of the people, technology ushered in the wave of devices that so many of us cannot do without today. With technology being such a competitive market today, understanding the user is no longer an extra element to give your product or service an edge. It’s a pre-requisite that is core to a company’s capacity to stay relevant, and competitive in the market.

UX iPad addiction

So what does this have to do with the hundreds of thousands of private school students in India and throughout the world?

Development has seen its own uncomfortable version of the “User Hostile” computers of the 80s. In development interventions across all sectors, from health and education, to infrastructure and agricultural sustainability, several well-intended projects have been funded, implemented, and sorely lacking in the positive outcomes it claimed to be trying to achieve.

In a review of more than 50 cases of unsustainable development projects in the world, the organization Globalhood notes that some of the major themes across these failures is

“a shallow understanding or complete disregard for the broad and often complex contexts in which projects exists; [and] a cultural paradigm that perpetuates unsustainable development based on narrow mindedness, uneven power dynamics, exclusion, rigidity and a lack of feedback and accountability”.

These are challenges that could have been minimized with a UX-like approach to understanding the users of the social services being provided by these organizations.

While I am grateful that good User Experience is the reason I can play angry birds, update facebook, and read three different books from the same device, the innovation and power of a well-designed product should not be limited to just recreational use. It is much more crucial for this approach to be applied to the products and services that help deliver on the promise to give children all around the world the chance to receive a quality education. Any endeavor to further develop the condition of human beings must maintain humans at its core.

This is a perspective that is growing in important ways as companies are finding their way to the intersection of social good, user research, and design. IDEO, a leading design and innovation firm has developed an arm solely dedicated to the pursuit of social issues through understanding the users or humans involved called Ideo.org. Furthermore, they’ve helped make these principals actionable by developing an entire guide of robust human-centered design research methods that can be applied in field settings. These were tools that we used to build the foundation of our findings in Hyderabad’s APS sector.

The immediate objective of our paper is to arm external stakeholders with information about the APS community in India that will lead to better designed educational technology products. However, we also have a much larger hope that  asking these questions and understanding communities becomes as commonplace in development, social enterprise, and the nonprofit world as it has become in the  technology.

English Aspirations: How Ed-Tech Can Fill the Gap

School children line up in Cochin Kerala India

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The majority of affordable private schools in India are English medium schools. With the exception of Hindi and regional dialect language classes, APS teach all subjects in English. When parents hope to judge the value they are receiving from their child’s school, spoken English skills are one of the first things that they look for. Though parents often cannot speak English themselves, they ask their children to read English billboards and to repeat phrases they have learned in school to determine how much they are learning.

The best explanation for the desire for spoken English skills is the nature of the Indian job market. English is valuable for anyone who wants to work for a major corporation, become an engineer, enter into medicine, or even gain employment in the hospitality industry. The parents, students, and school owners of the APS community all know that English education is a vital part of reaching this goal.

However, APS teachers are largely untrained and often lack strong spoken English skills. Their primary vocabulary is from their own school years and textbooks, which they learned through rote. Even when only English is technically allowed during school hours, school staff and students often speak in their native language inside and outside the classroom. This translates into student English skills that are far below expectations.

Can I talk to the president please?

Can I talk to the president please? (Photo credit: Fountain_Head)

Education technology could play an important role in the APS sector’s desire to meet the need for proper spoken English training. There is mounting academic literature supporting the idea that ICT is the best way to spearhead English education, not only in developed nations, but all over the world. A recent UNESCO report argued:

“Literacy instruction traditionally emphasizes the acquisition of specific skills and information, but downplays the importance of analytic use of language. Recent developments in educational psychology suggest that literacy is best taught within a context that stimulates problem solving and analysis along with reading, writing and ICT literacy competencies. ICT can offer such learning opportunities (Alfassi, 2000). While learning with ICT, students are likely to become thoughtful, literate users of language.”

The potential of ICT for English education is beginning to be recognized outside of academic circles and in the business world. Airtel, one of the largest mobile service providers in India, has partnered with Brittanica and LearnNext to provide encyclopedia and educational games on computers. Another company, Applied Mobile Labs, has launched English On Mobile, a product that uses mobile phones to provide spoken English classes.

With India being the second largest smart phone market in the world, it is likely that there will be many more companies tapping the vast potential of ICT for teaching English.

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