The Metaverse is going to change education. Virtual reality is going to deepen and enrich learning. AI is changing the way we adapt and personalize learning. We are very aware at geNEOus (formerly NEO Academy), that every time we make these statements, and explore what they mean for institutions, that there is a bias and a slant to the perspective. All of this is only true if you have access. The Global North largely does, and the Global South often does not, and therefore access to the means to enrich education through technology will only deepen the divide and reinforce existing inequalities.
3.7 billion people globally are not online, and imagine what those people are losing as jobs and communities move online, MOOCs and virtual learning communities ramp up, and employers increasingly accept micro-credentials and digital learning portfolios in place of formal academic learning pathways. The internet is not the solution to everything, uses huge amounts of energy from largely unsustainable sources, and all the rest of it, but does create opportunity that should at least be available to everyone should they choose it.
Unless that gap can be closed. Until now various public-private partnerships, or laptop-for-every child initiatives have failed to produce real traction, but things are ramping up with the Giga Project; a joint initiative between UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) with the aim of connecting every school to the Internet by 2030.
2030 is the year by which 193 nations of the world have committed to delivering the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Connecting every school has a chance at making a real impact on SDG 4 (quality education) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), but which has a knock-on effect in other SDGs from reducing poverty and gender inequality to improving innovation and employment.
Giga is the only policy specifically named in the UN Secretary General's Digital Cooperation Roadmap, which aims to achieve universal connectivity by 2030, and promote digital goods and digital inclusion for a more equitable society.
With US$ 5 billion in current financing, from a blended model of public and private partnerships (that is SDG 17 in action, by the way) Giga has developed real momentum, connecting almost 4000 schools in 3 years from Kenya, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Botswana, to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Honduras.
That might sound obvious, but there is more to it. It is not as simple as rolling up to a school and plugging them in. In Colombia, for example, AI technology and satellite mapping identified 6000 small, rural schools that were not part of the Colombian Government's official datasets. That would be 6000 schools left behind by national policymaking, which will instead now be brought online.
Nobody really knows how many schools there are in the world, and by around 2024, Giga hopes to answer that question.
The tech to do this is centralized in Giga's Barcelona headquarters where they are using blockchain technology to monitor real-time connectivity status of the schools that have been connected, and AI to develop mapping and analysis for schools that remain offline. There is also a team running data modeling on infrastructure and policy in each target region, so that the most regional-appropriate connectivity solutions and partnerships can be identified and utilized. This is tech for good, and tech at its very best.
In tandem with connectivity, there are efforts worldwide to shore up digital human rights and inclusion. In the age of crypto and open source, new users of the internet must also be supported to protect themselves and their communities from exploitation and harm.
Companies left to their own devices tend to avoid poorer areas with less infrastructure, because the cost-benefit analysis is pretty clear. Milton-Friedman economics don't really support sustainable development, and that should surprise nobody. We needed a shift, and a commitment, and lots of cash.
But now that we are finally reaching forgotten communities, there comes a responsibility to do this right. Schools can act as connectivity hubs for isolated communities and their lifelong learning and development, but that exposes their cultures to new influences. Opportunities in the digital world are not simply there for the taking, but require really strong capacity building and co-creation of best practices and safeguards that respect cultural norms and practices.
We come back, as always, to the role and responsibilities of the education institutions. You may be in Colombia, where your government is taking a direct role in the capacity building of rural schools, as they connect to a new world with unseen dangers and complex opportunities. You may be in Finland, where not only is every school already online, but there are fully online schools now exporting a successful educational model to the rest of the world.
Regardless, we have a part to play. What can your institution offer to be part of this change? Perhaps you can offer remote technical assistance to newly connected schools. Perhaps you could help train educators to build their digital skills' capacity, or invite learners from newly connected schools to take part in your online classes and enrich the experiences of both sets of students? Even directly raising money to help fund the NGOs building capacity on the ground is hugely important.
We agree that education is a human right. We have policies of inclusion, and mechanisms from scholarships to community outreach which broaden inclusion and access through more innovative admissions and recruitment. However, in a truly connected world, perhaps we need to think beyond inclusion and equity in our own institutions, and help others beyond our borders and urban centers. We need to play a part in this, and the best bit is that our students can get involved too, through peer-to-peer teaching and learning, fundraising and awareness raising projects.
To reach out and see how you can contribute, as a teacher, techie, fundraiser, trainer, expert or institution, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That's how it starts.