21st Century Cyber Schools Challenge

The Economist magazine ran the 21st Century Cyber Schools Challenge in conjunction with their Ideas Economy: Human Potential event in 2010. The winner, Andrew Deonarine, presented his winning solution at the event.

The Challenge

The topic of the 21st Century Cyber Schools Challenge was to design the model 21st Century Cyber School, as a means of addressing the unprecedented challenge of providing educational opportunities to the billions of school-age students (K-12, ages 6-18) in developing nations around the world. Addressing the important development needs in terms of the policies, technology, resources and coordination requires answers to unparalleled and complex problems. Designing such a program from the ground up represents extraordinary opportunities and challenges which, if successful, will ultimately shape the next century and the lives of billions of people.

Solvers are asked to provide well-structured and thoughtful original documents on the unique Challenges and innovative opportunities offered by 21st Century global Cyber Schools. Providing clear evidence of thought-leadership on the topic is extremely important. This Challenge seeks to build upon the work done by countless other organizations and individuals over the past several decades. Therefore, Solvers are encouraged to borrow from and built upon the ideas of others as long as proper citations and credit is given. If a solution is largely reliant on references to other people’s ideas and/or content, then the Solver should make sure to add their own creative and novel ideas to complement and improve upon the cited materials.

Submissions may cover any topic, although the Seeker believes that the topics below are among the most important and challenging:

  • The balance between eLearning and personal interactions (between students and between students and teachers)
  • The allocation of resources between liberal arts and STEM
  • What do twenty-first exams look like?
  • Can lower schools create truly global citizens?

The Solver

When he won the Challenge, Andrew Deonarine was a third year resident in the Public Health and Preventative Medicine (Community Medicine) residency program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and a junior fellow of St. John’s College. To learn more about Andrew and his experience solving this Challenge, check out his blog post, I’m a Solver – Andrew Deonarine. Below is a video of Andrew’s interview at The Economist Ideas Economy: Human Potential event.

Watch Andrew’s interview at The Economist Ideas Economy: Human Potential conference in New York on Sept 15th, 2011:

Solution Summary

CyberSchools Schematic

In locations such as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, children, teens, and adults do not have access to education. Many are illiterate, and cannot make use of books and other learning material. While some technologies, such as inexpensive laptops and tablets have been proposed to address the educational needs of this population, the devices are too expensive, require some degree of literacy, and are difficult to implement in resource poor areas. However, cellular phones have significant penetration in the world’s poorest countries, since they provide a means to make a living. In essence, they comprise a global, untapped computer network.

In his solution, Andrew presents a cellular phone based technology called EduCell that develops and distributes educational material using a method called PhoneCasting. PhoneCasting allows someone to write their own educational program using their phone and distribute it to other devices. EduCell consists of a piece of software that that runs small multi-lingual “scripts”, easily developed by local teachers in developing countries. Scripts are then assembled with multimedia to create interactive modules that teach reading, writing, arithmetic, etc. Modules can then distributed (PhoneCasted) to millions of other phones via an Internet server, or pre-loaded, at no cost. The benefits of the PhoneCasting technology are significant: neither software programming experience nor knowledge of English is required to produce content, which democratizes software development. This would, for the first time, make basic literacy and educational material accessible to hundreds of millions of cellular phone users, and their children, around the world.