English for the underserved: Alternative technologies to bridge the digital divide

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This post is based on Michael Carrier’s talk at InnovateELT 2017 in Barcelona, English for the underserved – technology to close the digital divide.

Much of our work in ELT technology helps ‘first world’ kids with first world tech access. This post looks at the other world – the next billion learners, in rural areas of Africa & Asia. These learners and communities have difficulty accessing electricity, connectivity, textbooks – we can fix that with new EdTech.


Butare is a sizeable town in the south of Rwanda, about 4 hours from the capital Kigali. The school we were visiting was a collection of low red brick buildings around a fairly muddy and uneven school yard. The classrooms were cramped, given there were 50 kids in each, and the chalkboard was so scratched that it was hard to read the English vocab the teacher had written up.

We brought a gift of dictionaries, as they had none. They only had a few textbooks that were kept locked in the headteacher’s office. There was only intermittent electric power – but the learners were energetic, sharp and eager to learn.

Ever since I first visited Rwanda when I was at the British Council, and saw the difficult conditions that teachers faced in the rural and small town schools, I have felt that we in the EdTech community could really do a lot more to help students and teachers in developing economies. This led me to look into the world of ‘alternative’ EdTech, by which I mean simply innovative EdTech that is outside the mainstream of what schools and teachers normally use.

Our access to technology gives us such a privileged situation, because it brings access to global knowledge and opportunities for higher education, employment and mobility – exactly the life chances that students in emerging economies lack.

Although Western economies send billions in aid to emerging economies, it doesn’t always find its way into classrooms, and certainly not English language teaching classrooms. The UK aid ministry, DFID, has set its heart against ELT as a previous minister, Clare Short, considered learning English to be colonial and elitist.

Most aid agencies are rightly concerned with poverty alleviation, and with improving the basic education of primary school children, especially girls. This is the most important focus, of course, but it’s hard to see why a small slice of the £13 billion the UK spends on aid could not be targeted at improving access to educational technology and connectivity, so that disadvantaged students can get better opportunities to learn and expand their horizons.


The problem of digital learning is that, no matter how wonderful the technological affordances are, and how much they complement teaching and support learning, they are all somewhat useless if students cannot gain access to the technology because they lack the economic power or the infrastructure.

This is the so-called digital divide (a term I’m not particularly keen on). UNESCO defines the issue thus: ‘’the global spread of ICT has increased inequality, and … the poorest and most marginalised have therefore failed sufficiently to benefit”.

What attracted me to the world of ‘alternative’ technology is the energy and innovative spirit of the people who are trying to reverse this marginalisation while keeping a close eye on the cost to users.

There is no point in coming up with incredibly innovative new technologies if they are so expensive that no individual, school or village can afford them and only Western governments can utilise them – interactive whiteboards come to mind here, as a prime example of the most overrated and over-priced EdTech (cue howls of outrage from some quarters).

So I was drawn to projects like LifePlayer and Rachel (see below) because they seemed to be fresh and idealistic, innovative yet inexpensive, and held out the promise of solving real-world needs for disadvantaged people.

Problems & Solutions

The key issues are easy to identify. Students and teachers need access to reliable electric power, access to Internet connectivity, access to devices that are Internet enabled, and access to a wide range of appropriate learning materials and content.


To solve the issue of access to electricity and reliable power, a number of organisations have been offering solar-powered technology. A good example is Lifeline Energy, run by Kristine Pearson from South Africa, which provides solar-powered radios and MP3 players to allow teachers and community leaders to bring audio content into rural areas and isolated villages without reliable power. The MP3 unit could record radio broadcasts for later sharing, and could be updated with new content by adding a cheap memory card in the front panel.

While at the British Council I set up a project with Kristine to buy large quantities of this solar-powered MP3 player, called the LifePlayer, and to equip them with memory cards containing the British Council’s listening material, podcasts, and teacher training material in audio format so that this could be used in low resource contexts.

This has been successfully rolled out in Kenya, Mozambique and Ethiopia and possibly other countries since, allowing both students and teachers to gain access to materials that would otherwise be too difficult to deliver via traditional publishing or broadcasting.


To solve the problem of lack of connectivity in remote or undeveloped areas, we need to look at the advances in long-distance wireless connectivity.

Intel have developed a new type of wireless Wi-Fi called WiMax, which can send Wi-Fi signals up to 5 miles along line of sight from antenna to antenna. This is used in some rural areas in England, where phoneline-based broadband is unavailable or too slow for people who need to work remotely. One friend of mine used something similar to set up a cooperative village Internet provider that broadcasts Wi-Fi from a dish on the tower of the village church.

The second connectivity support is to provide prepaid telco programs. This is relevant if your students have an Internet enabled phone, and a strong enough signal to be able to connect to the Internet from their location, but the cost of a monthly data subscription is far too high for them to afford.

The solution is to give them cheaper access through a prepaid card, which works like a scratchcard with a code number. For a small fee this gives, for example, one gigabyte of data access but does not commit users to an ongoing monthly subscription, which would be unaffordable. Intel have developed several programs like this, including with the Vietnamese Ministry of Education, in order to help people access the Internet via PC or phone at an acceptable cost.

Portable servers

What if power and connectivity access can’t be so easily solved as suggested above?
Then we have to take the Internet closer to the students – think ‘Internet in a box’.

What we need is a portable offline server. I know you’ve always wanted one.

A portable offline server is essentially a modified router, Wi-Fi access point and server squeezed into one small box, about the size of a A5 notebook.

In addition to the router you have at home, it has a hard drive to hold content selected by the teacher or school, and a rechargeable battery.

While it is in a centre with a live Internet connection, material can be downloaded from the web on to the server. Teachers can also upload and organize any type of content stored locally in their school, or created locally, for access by the whole class.

This content is all accessible via the Wi-Fi hotspot to anyone with a browser and a wifi device, even when the server is disconnected from the Internet – it’s self-sufficient.

It runs off its battery power, long enough for a school day, and it creates its own Wi-Fi hotspot. Students use phones or tablets to get wireless access to the curated content on the server’s hard drive – which is accessed via a standard browser.

As the server is portable and self-contained, it can be moved from room to room in a school or used outdoors in a more remote location where there is no electricity and no external connectivity.

The beauty of this solution is that teachers or schools or educational aid groups can preselect and load content onto these portable servers, via network or USB or memory card, charge them up in a central location and send them out with a group of phones or tablets or laptops to be used anywhere in the field.

The Intel version of this concept is called an ‘’education content access point’’ and costs around $250-$300. (https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/education/products/content-access-point.html ). There are others available, including one based on Raspberry Pi.

A fantastic example of this is the Rachel project.

Rachel stands for ‘Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning’. The charity that runs the Rachel project, WorldPossible, is determined to bring connectivity to the 60% of the world’s population that remains offline. This population is predominantly rural, low income, elderly, illiterate, or female.

A common refrain we hear is that children are in school, the teacher is there, but no-one is learning. Offline content serves as a resource for students and teachers to not just educate themselves, but also develop vital 21st century skills in digital literacy, research and critical thinking.

—  Jeremy Schwarz, WorldPossible

The Rachel server runs on Ubuntu and drives tablets and notebooks in a small off-line learning lab, hosts off-line copies of websites, audio files, PDF reading texts, lesson plans, video clips and anything else that a standard browser can access.

Offline content

The server is not much use without good learning content. We can’t expect local teachers to always create their own, so we need to direct them to external sources that are free – their budgets don’t run to expensive UK ELT textbooks.

Sources of off-line content are rich and varied, as open educational resources (OER) are being built up and extended in a number of different repositories – British Council being a prime example.

The Rachel project offers off-line versions of Wikipedia, TED talks, 400 books from the Gutenberg Project, the African Storybook project, and Radiolab.

Schools and teachers can provide their own off-line content simply by making any kind of locally-available or downloadable English language teaching material available in browser-readable format – such as PDF documents, listening files in MP3 format, and videos in MP4 format.

Device access

Of course, none of this is of much use unless students have devices which can access the Internet directly or via the off-line server.

The penetration of mobile phones even in emerging economies is extremely high and by 2022 it is estimated that there will be 8.9 billion mobile subscriptions and 6.1 billion unique mobile subscribers, which is almost one for every person alive on the planet.

It is therefore likely that in most locations a sufficient number of students in the class will have access to a phone that can be used to access learning content.

If not, schools and aid projects need to develop loan systems so that the teacher can bring one device per group of students into a class along with the off-line server.

Where this is not possible, then the students can also access learning content as a group rather than individually. Teachers can provide the class access to the learning material from the teacher’s phone or tablet, by connecting it to a portable Pico projector and displaying this on a white wall, or a wall covered with a white sheet of paper. It’s not cheap (about £200-250), but cheaper than a set of 50 tablets.


It seems only fair that we should look for ways to share the benefits we in richer countries have experienced, and some of these ‘alternative’ technologies may help to bridge that digital divide.

We will need more investment help, perhaps via EdTech NGOs that gain funding for such work, and we will need much wider access to open-source language learning materials – but that’s another topic.

I’m working on a longer exposition of these issues for a future paper, so check out www.michaelcarrier.com later for a copy of the article.


Michael is managing director of Highdale Consulting and consults for Cambridge English among other organisations. He has an MBA and an MA in Applied Linguistics and has worked in language education for many years in senior management at IH, British Council, and Cambridge English. His focus is teacher development, intercultural awareness, and the application of digital technology to education. He is on the boards of TIRF, ICC, International Students House, and is a Fellow of the RSA.



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