Online Education Key to World Literacy

Many kids play hooky all day, every day. More than 40 percent of children old enough to attend secondary school are not in the classroom, many because of violent conflict in their home countries. Another 800 million adults are illiterate. Efforts to reach these people have stumbled because of a lack of teachers, poor governance and declining foreign aid. Educators are coming to believe that the only hope of closing the literacy gap in developing countries lies in extending the reach of online education.

Once disparaged as the jurisdiction of "diploma mills" and profiteers, the Internet is reforming this image: there's an explosion of new Web-based teaching tools made available to struggling school systems, from free open-source curriculums to online networks for refugee children trying to keep up with their classwork.

UNICEF is working with Roundbox Global, a U.S. software company, to refashion a program originally created to help an Ohio charter school work with teenage mothers and other at-risk students. The new version would allow students and teachers who have fled war zones to meet online and work together on homework and so forth in an online library. "When you're running out of your house, the textbook is the last thing the kids are going to grab," says Roundbox CEO Justin Beals. Roundbox is also experimenting with text messages and digital voice recognition to help reach refugees who don't have access to PCs.

Some established low-tech education programs are getting digital makeovers. India's Open Schools, one of the largest and oldest distance-learning programs in the world, is now distributing course materials online, adding flexibility and lowering costs, says Sir John Daniel, director of Commonwealth of Learning, an international education-technology group. Question banks help students when they're confused about an assignment, and rolling schedules for online tests are more convenient for working students.

Distance learning via the Internet has also become a tool for training millions of new teachers needed to fill schools in underserved areas. This is especially important in primary schools, where lack of teachers is a big reason why 75 million children who should be in the classroom aren't attending. In Africa, international agencies and local universities use distance learning through the Internet and mobile phones as a primary way of preparing the nearly 4 million teachers needed in sub-Saharan Africa to fulfill the agency's universal education goals. In South Africa, an online "wikibook" contains open-content math and science textbooks tied to the national curriculum that teachers can download free of charge. Such open-source education materials are becoming increasingly popular because they give poor countries access to free courses, textbooks and lessons that they can adjust to their students' needs.

Efforts to reach teachers and students are still plagued by a dearth of computers. A UNESCO survey last year found student-to-computer ratios of one to 21 in Mexico, one to 71 in Guatemala and less than one in 3,000 in Malawi and Niger; less than 10 percent of schools in many African and Latin American countries have Internet connections. However, several projects have shown that when laptops or PCs aren't available, cell phones and even radios can bring Internet education to students in poor countries. A Nokia-sponsored program in the Philippines allows teachers to download supplementary teaching materials from an online library to their cell phones. International agencies and universities have begun to use text messaging in teacher-training programs. A radio station in Sri Lanka takes calls from listeners with research questions for Google; the answers are then broadcast back over the airwaves.

There are limits to how much technology can contribute to the efforts to close the education divide. Distance learning is proving not to be a useful model in primary education; for kids this young, interacting with a real, live teacher is irreplaceable. And "no one's going to want to read 'War and Peace' off their mobile phone," says Daniel. Computers, online wikis and open-source software and curricula are also not much use if teachers don't know how to use them. Sheldon Shaeffer, the UNESCO director for Asia, says several countries have fallen into the trap of investing in new gadgetry without thinking ahead about the costs and logistics of training educators to use it.

Nor has the problem of diploma mills that dupe students into paying for useless online degrees gone away completely, even as online education acquires a more benevolent image. International educators held a meeting in Paris at the end of November to discuss the spread of the online fraudsters and what to do about them. Online education "is not a panacea," says Shaeffer, "but it has huge potential." Despite the hiccups, international education experts believe the use of the Internet and other sorts of communication technology for education is likely to become the primary vehicle for education aid in a few years. Just as the developing world leapfrogged landlines and went straight to mobile phones, it now seems to be at the cutting edge of online education.