Children living in remote areas often have to travel long distances to get to their nearest school. When they get there, classrooms can be crowded and facilities outdated. Courses for adults who want to improve their basic education or learn more about specific subjects, such as new farming techniques or business development, are sometimes only found in the larger towns and cities. Even if a course is affordable, travel and accommodation expenses while attending can be prohibitive. However, using ICTs to deliver these courses can reduce the cost of study and offer greater educational opportunities to people in rural communities.
Local telecentres give students the chance to follow online courses, even if the training institute is based in other countries. Teachers can use chat applications to lead real-time discussions, and students can exchange experiences in web forums. Video conferencing is also increasingly popular, simulating the classroom environment and allowing interaction between participants.
Radio and television are useful too, for presenting educational programmes. But adults who already lead busy lives can easily miss the programmes, or cannot attend the distance learning courses at the appointed times. Many of them would prefer a flexible study routine, with access to the training material as and when they need it.
The Mobile Learning for Mathematics project provides on-demand learning for students. Run by Nokia, the project uses web and mobile applications to deliver mathematics exercises and theory to cell phones. Teachers can apply the same content in the classroom and students can follow up by taking short tests on their phones. Students receive immediate feedback and can compare their scores with other learners around the country or even elsewhere in the world.
The project team experienced a number of challenges while developing educational content for cell phones. They had to keep each lesson short, for example, to fit the small display, and ensure that the data was compatible to work with a variety of phone types and over multiple cellular networks.
The NGO, Literacy Bridge, encountered similar problems when testing a range of equipment in Ghana. No single piece of technology was suitable for their literacy and agricultural education projects, so they built their own device. The Talking Book is a small audio computer, about the size of a portable radio that can record and play back lessons on any subject.
The main advantage of the Talking Book is that the audio can be in any language. An organisation, therefore, can produce content to suit the people who will use it, and the material can even come from experts within the community. For example, users can record agricultural advice from local farmers who have already tackled a specific problem. Other producers can listen later, when convenient, either in a group using a loudspeaker, or individually with earphones. The audio file can also be copied to other devices and distributed to neighbouring communities.
The Talking Book can run for many hours on locally available zinc-carbon batteries, which solves a problem that limits so many ICT projects: access to a reliable power source. But electricity is steadily reaching remote areas, and internet coverage is spreading too. In response, another Ghanaian initiative, the Ghana Schools Project, provides training courses for rural communities to introduce them to the technology so that they will be able to take advantage of it when it arrives in their area.
In the meantime, there is no single technological solution that serves all learners and suits all types of training courses. However, ensuring that people in rural communities have the same access to education as those in the urban centres is an aim of many governments and organisations. They can all learn a lot from the experiences of those pioneering the use of ICTs in this field.