The Future is here…
The education revolution is upon us, and like all tomorrow’s taxis, it’s driven by digital technology.
It’s in our schools, our communities, and our homes; it’s on the screens and in the ears of autodidacts everywhere. Forget AI for a moment and understand the Internet in the simplest terms, as a giant copying machine. We live a click, a swipe, a mere word (“Hey Siri, Alexa, Cortana. Okay Google.”) away from tuition from the world’s best universities; from the most comprehensive encyclopaedia in history; from a vast array of interactive courses and open-source textbooks; from YouTube videos and Instructables on everything under the sun. And most of it is free. Granted, there’s a lot of junk out there, but we’re living in a golden age: it’s never been easier or cheaper to access resources for learning.
…It’s just unevenly distributed.
Learning has never been easier — as long as you can read. Access to the web’s quality educational opportunities depends on your having already had a quality education. In our wireless world, children in a poor community might have the information super-highway running through the air around them, but without an on-ramp of basic skills they’re stuck living in its shadow. As data becomes ubiquitous and essentially free, education’s digital divide is becoming less about bandwidth and more about the ability of individuals and societies to use what’s already there. The irony is that access to 21st century learning opportunities depends on mastery of a 5000 year-old tech- nology: the written word. Literacy, in the deep sense of being able to read with fluency and with critical understanding, and to write both to communicate and to think, is the bridge over the digital divide.1
Literacy is the foundation of quality education provision, and its con- tribution (along with numeracy and scientific understanding) to social outcomes and economic growth makes improving the quality of literacy teaching a natural focus for education policy worldwide.2 In countries like Indonesia, where the reading performance of school- children and adults alike is extremely poor, it is an urgent priority.3
The hurdles that must be overcome to improve literacy outcomes worldwide are almost as diverse as the world’s classrooms. Now that most of the world’s children are in school, the challenge lies in improving the quality of the teaching they receive, and the quality of resources available for learning. The case of Indonesia reveals how difficult this can be: it has some 3.7 million teachers teaching over 62 million children in a highly decentralised and geographically dispersed education system.4 The need to improve literacy outcomes increases with distance from centres like Jakarta, as does the cost of intervention in terms of time and money, and the scarcity of expertise. With its enormous state sector, primary teachers in government schools might seem like a good place to start, but many Indonesian children are expected to arrive at school at age 7 already able to read and write, in practice if not in policy.
An alternative target is improving the quality of pre-primary education. Indonesia has almost half a million pre-primary teachers working in some 163,000 preschools across the country, but some 97 per cent of these are privately run by small teams with small budgets, making them hard — and prohibitively expensive — to reach with training and resources.5 To make things harder, more than half of Indonesian children aged five to six (roughly 3.8 million kids) don’t attend pre-school at all. Those who learn to read in time for school are taught by a “long tail” of family members, neighbourhood tutors, charity workers and community volunteers — another order of magnitude harder to reach.
It’s clear from this diverse set of constituents that there can be no one-size-fits-all solution for improving the quality of literacy teaching in Indonesia, even before considering adapting curricula to local contexts, or the sensitive issue of mother-tongue literacy. Many groups are doing good work, from the Ministry of Education and Culture and international NGOs down to individual schools, local charities, and community groups, but there is a mountain to climb, and progress is too slow.6
The Education Super-Highway
But what if the Internet itself offered a model for how to accelerate improvements for all the groups described above, in the form of open standards and open-source software? Together, these have played a key role in the rapid expansion of the web by allowing people around the world to create, use and adapt the software that underpins it for use on a huge range of devices.7 The potential of the same principles to accelerate improvements in education is already well recognised. Open standards for education and open-source curricula and resources could enable more rapid dissemination and localisation of good teaching practice and resources, and seed an “ecosystem” of supporting products and services that generate further improvements.8
Open Standards for Literacy
In this context, a standard is a specification intended to ensure that a product or process is fit for purpose and works as expected. The open standards that underpin the web include those that allow com- puters to communicate, and standards for how digital information is structured so that, for example, documents, photos and music can be opened on a range of devices. If you’re reading this in a web browser or document viewer, you’ve just benefitted from multiple open standards. These standards are “open” in the sense that nobody owns them or controls how they are used. They evolve in response to changing needs, and die out if they cease to be useful.9
An open standard for literacy education might start by offering a definition of literacy before describing a set of outcomes, skills and sub-skills that together constitute literacy in a given language. An open pedagogical standard could lay out principles of good teaching practice or methods for curriculum design. These standards might map neatly onto those created by national bodies, or extend, simplify, or localise them. Together they provide teachers, trainers and curric- ulum developers working in diverse contexts with a common vocabulary, helping them to clarify goals and to establish shared refer- ence points for evaluating and improving the quality of teaching and learning. Free to use and easy to adapt, they are tools for making the tools of education.
Open-Source Curriculum Development
Open-source software is software that can be shared freely, and where the source code used to make it is available to all. Anyone can see how it works, improve and adapt it, or use it as the basis of something entirely new. Perhaps the best example of this is Linux, the free operat- ing system that runs more than half of the Internet’s servers (including those of Google, Facebook and Wikipedia) and the billions of phones and tablets running Android, a version of Linux. Apart from being free, the strength of open-source software is that it gets customised and extended by its users in response to their own needs. It often starts a bit rough and ready, but rapidly improves as people use and modify it, and share what’s worked for them, creating astonishing value in the process.
An open-source literacy curriculum would work in a similar way. A busy teacher, or a teacher who has limited training or experience, might pick it up and use the whole thing in their classroom, saving time and effort and, assuming that the curriculum is of good quality, perhaps improving their teaching in the process. Some teachers might modify and improve it, sharing their changes for others to try, and the most useful pieces of this new “code” would be adopted back into the main curriculum. In another example, a charity might use the open- source curriculum as a basis for a mother-tongue literacy initiative, rewriting much of it but taking advantage of the existing standards and structure to achieve their own goals. Work based directly on this curriculum “kernel” would continue under an open-source license, but other supporting material such as training events, videos, books and other resources might be commercial.10 The more the resources are used, modified and shared, the better their quality becomes, and the greater the value of the “ecosystem” in terms of its potential to support anyone teaching anyone to read, whether in school or out.
Writing the Future
These are not new ideas, but the rapid expansion of Internet access and current levels of commitment to literacy education might make them ideas whose time has come for Southeast Asia. Open standards for education combined with open-source curricula and resources have the potential to multiply the effectiveness of work already being done by the diverse coalition of teachers and tutors, community workers and parents working to bridge the educational divide. They may help us to reach a future where all our children have the skills to access the educational riches that the Internet offers — and to write our future.
Stuart Patience is a founding board member of Yayasan Tunas Aksara, an Indonesian literacy charity. Find out more at www.sayasukamembaca.org
PISA 2018 Reading Literacy Framework Framework, pp. 6–10. Retrieved from: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/data/PISA-2018-draft-frameworks.pdf
Eric Hanushek has written extensively on economic returns to education. See Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann, The High Cost of Low Educational Performance: The Long-Run Economic Impact of Improving PISA Outcomes (OECD Publishing, 2010).
See this blog post by Lant Pritchett: https://www.riseprogramme.org/node/145
Derived from UNESCO statistics retrieved from: http://data.uis.unesco.org/ (2015 data).
"Private" schools include those operated by non-profit and community groups. These figures are from Amina Denboba, Amer Hasan and Quentin Wodon, Early Childhood Education and Development in Indonesia: An Assessment of Policies Using SABER (World Bank Publications, 2015).
At current rates of progress, it will take more than 100 years for the average Jakartan student to reach the current OECD average. For more details, see Research on Improving Systems of Education, retrieved from: https://www.riseprogramme.org/node/145.
For a good overview of the mix of government, commercial and scientific innovation that made the internet possible see Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
See Open Educational Resources, https://www.oercommons.org/ and Opensource.com, https://opensource.com/tags/education.
For more information, see https://open-stand.org/about-us/principles/ or https://opensource.com/resources/what-are-open-standards
For an introduction to business models based around open source projects, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_models_for_open-source_software