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Reconceptualizing Global Education System With Mobile Technology

May 07, 2012
Paul Kim

My name is Tumukunde! I have no name, I have no parents. I’m a street boy. I’m probably 11 years old. People say I’m a little big for 11, but I do not really know my age. I don’t know where I am from, where I was born. But I live in Street.– From A Dream Of A Street Boy From Kampala, Uganda, by a Young Boy from Uganda

This is an introduction of a story written by a boy living in Uganda. The story based on his daily life is one of the winners of the global storytelling competitions sponsored by Seeds of Empowerment. The project collects children’s stories through storytelling competitions in underprivileged urban slums or remote rural villages in the developing world. Selected stories are sold on Amazon and Apple App Store. The revenue from downloading stories is sent back to the children who won the competition and supports their educational needs. This is one of the many projects Paul Kim has been leading to reconceptualize the global education system focusing on deprived areas around the world. The Office of International Affairs met with Paul Kim, CTO and Assistant Dean for Information Technology at Stanford’s School of Education, to hear about his approach to global education and works on mobile learning.

Q. Your expertise is educational technology focusing on mobile learning. How did you become interested in this field?

PK: I became quickly interested in mobile learning when I realized the speed and magnitude of the mobile penetration especially in the developing regions. Today, there are about 5.9 billion mobile subscribers out of 7 billion people on earth. Through a series of mobile learning studies in more than 20 regions in the developing world, I found mobile technology to be a highly versatile and effective educational resource.

Q. As you mentioned, mobile learning is one of the most rapidly growing fields in education. What is your focus in leading various projects in this field?

PK: Mobile learning requires the right kind of pedagogical model to be best integrated in education systems. In a complex ecosystem such as an education system, technology alone rarely makes a significant difference in the real world. Therefore, I focus on seeking effective, yet affordable technologies coupled with sound pedagogical models to help educate children around the world.

"I am convinced that mobile technology can cause a pedagogical paradigm shift in education systems and is already making interesting impacts globally"

Q. What is your approach in making mobile technology accessible to underprivileged students in developing countries?

PK: Innovations in our university labs often could be meaningless to local ecosystems in the developing region if you don’t truly understand their environment and local needs. You need to thoroughly consider all potential idiosyncrasies (i.e., including value perceptions) of a local ecosystem. When you do so, you will avoid a situation such as giving solar cell-powered notebook computers to a region where they do not get enough sun all year round. I call this contextualized innovation. In the same vein, you need to create tools that are simple enough to operate in a developing region with highly challenging conditions. Interestingly, simple tools can also work well in developed countries. When I designed a very simple mobile learning management network system for users in remote rural villages in Africa that had no configuration buttons, it ended up being better received and more widely used by educators in the U.S. In this case, simplicity is innovation and this reverse innovation can lead to sustainability.

Q. What are the major projects that you have been working on that have been influenced by those two concepts?

PK: Since 2006, I have been traveling to numerous regions in the developing world to implement mobile learning projects to investigate their unique impact on education and society in general. I work with USAID, UNESCO, the National Academies, and many private sector leaders. I have also enjoyed working with the research team of POMI (Programmable Open Mobile Internet), a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project and running mobile technology workshops in various classes at Stanford. Out of all, one of my favorite activities is to work with Stanford students to plan and carry out international educational development projects. They devise and implement various education and assessment solutions in locations such as remote villages in Tanzania, slums in India, or refugee schools in Palestine. I also have projects such as SMILE (Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning), ROSE (Remotely Operated Science Experiment), and 1001 Stories (Global Story-micro economy project) sponsored by companies and research organizations around the world. Through the projects, I am convinced that mobile technology can cause a pedagogical paradigm shift in education systems and is already making interesting impacts globally.

Q. Technology changes so rapidly these days; however, the notion of the “education system” is highly institutionalized based on long-term plans. How do you handle the challenges resulting from the different natures of the two areas?

PK: Certainly, the clock speed of technological evolution is much faster than the evolution clock in most education systems. Such different clock speeds can be attributed to the social DNA deeply rooted in each ecosystem. Until recent years, technology has not been perceived as an important game changer in the education space. As people pay more attention to individualized learning opportunities in the post-Internet era, however, numerous possibilities have been introduced to educators. Therefore, it is not a conflict between education and technology, but a constructive interaction that will continue to optimize and maximize student learning. We must actively support and leverage such interactions

Q. As Chief Technology Officer at Stanford School of Education, how do you think the school has grown for the last 5 years in terms of global education technology? Were there any changes of focus during the period?

PK: Certainly, technologies have helped us enhance our communication channels with the world and also improve data gathering and analysis methodologies. In addition, thanks to social networking and media, we are much closer to the global audiences than ever before. However, we are still far away from making a dent on global educational issues. We need to produce a new generation of global leaders who effectively leverage the 21st century technologies and solve global problems. With projects such as POMI, we believe we have taken very important steps in the last several years. With our continuous efforts, we hope to improve various educational challenges around the world.

Q. How do you think education will evolve in the next decade? 

PK: I promise that future learning environments will not be based on direct instruction or cookie-cutter, conveyor-belt-like schooling curriculum, but highly adaptive, individualized, life-long programs that help all people of all ages and regions to reach their full potential. Mobile technology innovations are at the center of that evolution.