Internet Solutions for Girls’ Education in Indian Slums

Project Overview + Definitions

Our project will focus in urban slums of emergent economies. We have chosen to start our exploration with India, considering our relevant with that country and the issue of internet access there. The living conditions we’re focusing on, slums, are those with sufficient physical and nonphysical support such that residents’ main barrier to internet access is personal rather than infrastructure or systemic. That barrier is principally cost but also includes socio-cultural norms. Specifically, our primary target group is slum youth that are not in school, often girls, that due to different barriers explained in more detail below, don’t have access to education.

For the purposes of this project, we are using the United Nations (UN) definition of “slum,” which is a living area lacking any of the following (UN-HABITAT, 2007):

  1. Durable housing, such that it provides permanent protection from extreme climatic conditions;
  2. Sufficient living area, such that no more than 3 people share a room;
  3. Access to sufficient, affordable water without extreme effort;
  4. Access to a private toilet or public one shared with reasonable number of people;
  5. Or secure tenure, i.e. de facto or de jure protection against forced eviction.

However, India does have some slightly different nuances that may become relevant, and we acknowledge that there is some debate in this area (Nolan, 2015).

High-Level Project Plan to Approach

The final goal of this venture is to roll out sustainable access to internet content for girls with insufficient formal education, concentrating on the highest-impacted content for educating and empowering them within their communities (UNICEF):

A single year of primary education correlates with a 10–20 per cent increase in women’s wages later in life. Academic studies and the return to a year of secondary education is even higher — in the 15–25 per cent range (UNICEF).

This system could then be spread to similar target groups (potentially boys, complement to official schooling, adult education, etc) in Indian slums or beyond.

One of the core challenges to this venture is customer cost, including both capital and maintenance costs for hardware and recurring costs of data access. We’ll examine addressing these from multiple angles, including: (1) ways to reduce hardware costs through frugal engineering, (2) ways to limit data needs, potentially by running intranet locally with hybrid (intermittent) connection to the web, and (3) ways to partner with and/or incentivize telecom suppliers.

The other major challenge is sociocultural, which has a number of facets including (1) norms that block girls’ access (physical, social and economic) to education and technology — including specificity in target audience) and (2) low/no digital literacy among these target users. We will focus on the technological/UX aspects of those issues, though with clear consideration to the sociocultural approaches (Mitra, 2010). The following sections present some of the key issues and prior art lessons as they relate to our project scope.

Relevant Barriers to Internet Access

Addressing Barriers to Girls’ Access to Education in India

Research in this area indicate that there are primarily three main factors that block girls from having access to education: family/community, schools and policy/system related issues. In the following table, a more in depth analysis of the most relevant barriers and their gender perspective has been provided (UNICEF):

Therefore, one of the challenges of our project will be how to overcome this barriers, that might even required cultural and social changes in order to provide education to girls in Indian Slums, such as the preference families have towards boys. This means that our efforts will have to be directed not just to the final product or educational content, but address the need for empowering girls. On the other hand, it will have to be considered that access to a traditional school might be limited or non, which is going to constrain our final deliverable and its nature.

Addressing Cost Through Frugal Engineering and Implementation

Our project focuses on regions where basic needs are mostly met and internet access is available, but the challenge lies in integrating the technology into an improved education system. While the bulk of solving this problem may be in training facilitators and determining what resources they need, it is useful to give them tools that are low cost and easy to implement.

Realistically, individuals in developing countries need a device that is lower cost than a laptop. Smartphones and tablets fit the bill, however the gross cost of these devices are not the only financial factor. The way these devices are distributed and used (or not used) make a big difference in whether money is well invested or wasted. Following are examples of devices that were used for education in both effective or ineffective ways. Their efficacy was typically determined by two main factors: device type and distribution.

There exists an idea that if people just have access to the internet through cost-effective smartphones, they can educate themselves just by being exposed to the technology. However, it has been found that while cheap mobile phones have helped people with banking and farming, their price point can actually cause increasing rifts in inequality between those who can and can’t afford the phones, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, many people use the internet capabilities to communicate with friends rather than seek educational materials (Schmitt, 2015). Better results have been seen through organizations who purchase devices and then implement them through a particular program, rather than just expect widespread adoption. In rural Pakistan, the nonprofit Developments in Literacy (DIL) provided teachers with smartphones to gain access to teaching tutorials and download lesson plans at Wi-Fi hubs that were specifically established for them. Individual teachers have given feedback on how helpful the teaching aids have been: “We used to get frustrated but were helpless. Now, whenever we want, we can look at a teaching aid video on our mobiles and better understand the concepts” (USAID, 2015).

While smartphones are cheap and can be implemented in an organized way, the global consensus seems to be that laptops and tablets are better suited for student needs. The One Laptop Per Child initiative was a well intentioned program that gave free laptops to children, but it was an example of poor execution. It never reached its projected low cost of $100. Additionally, laptops were often handed to children without the oversight of an institution or teacher. In such cases where students were far behind on the technological learning curve, or teachers didn’t know how to incorporate them into their curricula, the devices’ potential would be wasted (Allen, 2012). Conversely, the Hole-in-the Wall project, which put a laptop in a public location for anyone to use, saw more success with the use of remote facilitators called “grannies,” who interacted with the children and encouraged them to keep learning (Guardian, 2000).

An even cheaper device than a laptop which has seen widespread use for student education have been tablets. During the Ebola crisis when schools were shut down, buses equipped with tablets were used to drive out into the countryside and bring education to the children who couldn’t go to school (Rumie, 2017). Meanwhile, countries like Thailand and Turkey have rolled out huge programs where they are distributing millions of low-cost tablets to students through their school systems (Trucano, 2013).

Still, there is a need to ensure the quality of tablets. In the case of the Indian initiative, Aakash, tablets that cost only $35 were sold to university students, but the program had trouble delivering products upon payment, and the actual hardware was low quality and unreliable (Watters, 2012). Fortunately, decent tablets are being sold for under $100 to the general public by big brand names, such as Toshiba, Amazon, and Lenovo, proving that it would be feasible to design a functional yet low-cost tablet with internet accessibility and educational apps for students in our target population (Android Authority, 2017). However, it is important that they be distributed as part of a larger program, rather than just handed to users with no educational context or institutional support.

Addressing Digital Literacy of Target Users

We expect our solution will serve two types of end users: learners and facilitators. Facilitation is assumed for now based on the limitations or prior non-collaborative efforts and on current research and implementation (Allen, 2012). Facilitator digital literacy is unknown at this time.

For learners, School in the Cloud is the leading organization into research of unfacilitated youth acquisition of desktop computer literacy. Application to other GUIs is largely unexplored, but the desktop results are promising. In brief:

Groups of children can learn to use computers on their own, irrespective of who or where they are…This method of acquisition of computer literacy does not depend on the existence of schools or teachers…such group self instruction is as effective as traditional classroom instruction…It is also considerably less expensive… (Mitra et al., 2005)

Initial research reports similar success in subject material learning via acquired digital literacy:

…We conclude that groups of children, using the Internet, can answer test questions ahead of their time and obtain acceptable test scores…[including higher grade levels] in excess of seven years…[they] seem to retain the answers individually for up to 3 months after the testing…[and] seem to be capable of reading and understanding text that is, at least, 4 years ahead of their individual reading capabilities, if they are allowed to read in groups. (Mitra and Crawley, 2014)

As the last sentence implies, however, there are limitations and best practices for these results. This method, known as self-organized learning, stems from complexity theory and functions by learning on the “edge of chaos”. Best practices include:

  1. Youth working in groups (optimally ~4) with a single computer. However, learners can freely move and speak between groups. Persevering these dynamics will be critical for the prototype used in the first round of contextual user testing.
  2. Facilitators (“Grannies”) who person needn’t — and in fact shouldn’t express — any subject knowledge but should be eager to coordinate and praise. Facilitators present the Big Question and mediate the Review Session (i.e. intergroup presentations, debate, and process postmortem). During the actual exploration process, however, they are largely “invisible”. Current facilitators are available online, but this may not be appropriate for our venture. If not, recruiting and empowering facilitators will be a key bottleneck.
  3. Groups need a “Big Question,” meaning one that actually sparks their curiosity and that they want to explore. Certified teachers and facilitators maintain a large bank of questions; however they assume different levels of external knowledge (e.g. asking about specific animals or tools). Similarly crowdsourcing and aggregating Big Questions may be important for the facilitator UX.
  4. Finally, groups need actual content to explore their “Big Question”. This content needs to be organized in an internet search-like fashion, rather than as a single textbook, etc.

In summary, the key requirement for all UXs in this venture with be keeping the self-organized groups on the “edge of chaos”: both by enabling learners to balance there and empowering facilitators to course correct. Based on current research, this will require (1) appropriate “Big Questions” that spark curiosity, (2) matching content organized in research-supported ways, (3) a learner UX that enables dynamic groups of approximately 4 on one device, and (4) extensive (but largely documented) support for facilitators.

Addressing Data Challenges to Access

One of the key challenges to this venture will be providing sufficient internet data to users who cannot typically access it under current service models. There are a number of ways to lower data needs and/or costs, however. Usage can be restricted by providing short bursts of internet connectivity at off-peak hours and offline synchronization. For instance, Development in Literacy, a nonprofit organization in Pakistan, introduced an mlearning application for teachers by providing downloadable learning content only on the first day of each month (USAID, 2015). Facilitators and/or learners in our system could work similarly, with only one person downloading new content at a given time and then storing and sharing it offline. Other ideas can be taken from services like offline file and music sharing.

These optimization methods do not negate the efforts of supply-side approaches, however. Leveraging lower telecom and government data rates may also be a key strategy. For instance, the Digital India campaign has introduced free Wi-Fi at 50 major railway stations. The program is is expected to propose tax incentives for the purchase of smartphones costing less than 10,000 Rs (approx $150) (Kawoosa, 2017). Similar efforts in other countries are using partnerships with major telecoms; EveryoneOn (through Connect2Compete) is working to drive US data prices as low as $10 per month (Schwartz, 2013).

Public Private Partnerships for Successful ICT Projects

Our proposal will also likely suggest a cross-disciplinary solution involving players from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. This collaborative approach will be necessary considering the challenging nature of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) space as well as the the complex sociopolitical dynamics within which these technologies must sit.

While poverty rates are declining globally, and people have more access to technological infrastructure than ever before, many low-income urban communities still lack access to internet. For some, this is a matter of cost; they are simply too poor to afford even the cheapest services offered by private internet providers. (A4AI, 2016). Others lack the training needed to take advantage of the range of information and opportunity afforded by internet access. In either case, public internet and support services are critical. These sometimes take the form of free public access offered via libraries and community centers (A4AI, 2016). Many countries are even experimenting with offering completely free internet, which has dramatically increased access to education and enabled low income communities to receive important skills-based training (A4AI, 2016). Government policies also go a long way in regulating the price of data. Malaysia is a great example of successful government policy to support internet penetration. Through transparent policies, steps to increase competition, tactful public private partnerships, unique subsidies, and infrastructure sharing, the government has made significant strides in improving internet usage penetration across the country (A4AI, 2016).

There are limits to this approach, however. For example, governments struggle to sustain public internet programs because they lack sufficient “understanding of the strategies needed to create and sustain public access centers” (A4AI, 2016). Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) have proven valuable in supporting these and other challenges faced by public sector internet initiatives. For example, Universal Service Access Funds (USAFs) supply government money to private companies and nonprofit organizations to provides services they cannot. In doing so, USAFs can not only increase access to important services, but they can also spark demand for services and open up markets for future business opportunities. As A4AI explains, “USAFs can direct funding to where it will be most effective in closing digital gaps and enhancing demand, which in turn will accelerate the virtuous cycle of broadband ecosystem expansion” (A4AI, 2016).

PPPs have proven to be particularly useful in ITC projects as these are often long-term, expensive, and high risk projects that both government organizations and private companies are hesitant to take on alone. It is estimated that 56–87% of all government sponsored ICT projects fail (Desivilya, 2011). PPPs help reduce this failure rate by relieving the burden of service delivery, project management, and business planning from the government and free public agencies up to focus on its core function: building and maintaining infrastructure (Desivilya, 2011). An exceptional example of a successful PPP within the ITC sector is collaborative work being done by Foris Telecommunication, an internet service provider that places “Digital Inclusion” at the heart of its business strategy. The company’s unique “two-tiered approach… [emphasizes] a balanced combination of low price, value, flexibility, and top broadband service access…[while also working with the government to support expansion of] the computing and communications technologies and availability in the countries it enters” (Desivilya, 2011). Thus, Foris can focus on efficiency and innovation, allowing the government to raise the quality of its public services, which in turn opens up new business opportunities for Foris (Desivilya, 2011).

Key takeaways for us as we move forward with devising a solution for improved internet access for female students in Indian slums are: (1) Responsibility for infrastructure should remain with the government. This will help ensure quality oversight and equal distribution of resources across communities, (2) Private partners excel at efficiency and innovation and should be involved in ICT projects to support project management and ensure profitability of the initiative, (3) Non-profit partners can deliver content in hard-to reach communities, and should be consulted about content and delivery of internet services

Considering these diverse stakeholders together, our solution might provide internet access to underserved populations alongside educational programming to build technological competence and support further the adoption of technology and internet usage across a previously unserved population.

Proposed Project Deliverables

Given the scope and issues discussed above, our proposed end-semester deliverables are a pitch (including appropriate prototypes, etc) and accompanying grant proposal/report. These deliverables will be catered to persuade a relevant telecom or (non/inter-)governmental organization to partner with this venture and handle the next steps of development, notably specific user research.

Considering these deliverables and current time constraints, our tentative plan is as follows:


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