Technology Can Make Learning Possible Anywhere

Innovation is complex. It exists in the space between the world of science and human emotion. It is fueled at the precise moment when hope conquers logic and creates the momentum to make possible the impossible.

For me, the innovation moment began with a photo of desks on a mud flat.

The desks were sandwiched between a brilliant blue sky and caked orange earth. The email said: “We need to begin online classes here in September.”

That was impossible. It was March 2010. There was no Internet, no power. In fact, there was no building. But a defiant hope captured the imagination and somehow triumphed over logic.

Jesuit Worldwide Learning is a nonprofit organization that provides higher education opportunities at learning locations across the globe. Begun in 2010 as Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, the program draws on more than 450 years of experience delivering high-quality education that focuses on forming the whole person.

As a global network, the Jesuits have embraced communication tools since their origin. Providing high-quality blended learning that honors their transformational pedagogical approach was a logical next step. Focusing on marginalized communities around the world fused mission with technology. But what has Jesuit Worldwide Learning learned?

It’s not about the technology

Education is about the learner.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution with technology-enhanced education.  Setting up an education program should begin with a detailed analysis of what the optimal student learning experience looks like. Doing that analysis uncovers the basic requirements for infrastructure needs. The goal isn’t to deliver education to the computer, but rather, to the student. Education isn’t a one-way transmission of knowledge; it is a three-dimensional experience.

The core mission of Jesuit education is formation and care of the whole person – embodied in the Latin phrase “cura personalis.” Another hallmark is questioning and debate – “eloquentia perfecta.” These principles shape the fundamentals of the Jesuit learning experience and influence the design of technology-enhanced education delivery at Jesuit Worldwide Learning.

To provide the highest quality of courseware for our learning sites, we decided to use broadband learning materials that were based on the latest research into how students learn using media. This approach set up a scenario that could limit our reach in areas where bandwidth was weak. So we had to get creative and develop tailored technological solutions across our learning sites, so that we could deliver the same standard student experiences we wanted to achieve – everywhere.

Students use connected learning to earn a diploma in Liberal Studies from Regis University, Dzaleka Camp, Malawi. Credit: Jesuit Worldwide Learning

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution 

For us, the key to setting up a learning environment is to standardize on the desired student experience across all learning sites. This drives technology solutions that will differ depending on the unique variables at each site.

In Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, near the equator, temperatures soar.  Wind and heat are a constant. When we began in 2010, we had less than 1 mbps of bandwidth for seventy computer stations. This is less bandwidth per station than an antiquated dial-up modem.

Since we knew we needed to be able to both provide high-quality materials and create a way for teachers and students to interact remotely, we decided to use the bandwidth we had for the human-to-human interaction. Then we created a local network where our students could access videos and audio-narrated presentations. By downloading the educational content to a local server, we were able to give students the latest multimedia content even though we had very little Internet bandwidth. As an added benefit, the server also helped to manage the Internet usage.

But bandwidth was only part of the problem. Next we had to deal with the heat, wind and lack of power. We chose what’s called zero client technology – essentially a small box that splits the computing power of one computer to many computers. This technology provides full computing capability while requiring very little power, and – crucially for the environment we were operating in – doesn’t add to the heat already in the room. Due to their compact design and lack of moving parts, zero clients aren’t affected by dust – another major issue for us at this site.

The system was simple and easy to set up and could be supported remotely. The small size of the zero clients made shipping and transport cost-effective, and the lack of value in the individual parts made them less vulnerable to theft than laptops.

The interplay of variables becomes very important when assessing a new site. There are times when the best solutions aren’t necessarily the most efficient or least costly. In Amman, Jordan, bandwidth is plentiful, and excellent equipment and support are available through local vendors. Balancing what can be purchased inside the country and what cannot is an important part of the solution.

Where possible, purchasing locally is ideal. Doing so means having local support, which is critical when repairs or replacement parts are needed. Supporting the local economy is another benefit. And the savings in shipping and import costs can be significant. In short, there are hidden costs in implementing, managing, and supporting a learning environment from afar that can be minimized by buying locally.

Technical solutions are complex – your choices enable or limit your what you can offer your students

One way to think about providing a technological solution is the following:

Best Learning Environment = Cost (Best Hardware + Best Software + Best Connectivity + Best Power + Best Support + Best Policies)

Breaking down the formula in its individual components helps with decision-making.

Best Hardware

It can be tempting to make choices based on today’s needs, but it’s important to think ahead, to the needs of future programs, as well as maintenance and replacement costs. Cheaper, basic computers purchased today will become obsolete faster. It is better to invest in the best you can afford – the savings will be greater later.

Your best choice for hardware may not be a computer at all. One very good solution is the Microsoft Surface tablet, which runs traditional applications like Microsoft Office and Microsoft Windows while providing the benefits of a tablet in terms of portability and power saving.

Or, if your learning-management system is completely cloud-based, using a device such as a Chromebook can be a great cost-cutting solution. On the other hand, it increases what you’ll need in bandwidth and restricts what you can teach – these are the trade-offs and decisions that each program and site has to confront.

Finally, as mobile technology improves, it is important to pay attention to novel solutions that maximize your reach while adhering to your standard student experience.

Best Software

By installing the latest licensed software, you build in the capacity to embrace new features – many of which conserve bandwidth and extend the capabilities of your equipment. Educational offerings will change. Emerging solutions, like Virtual Reality and extended cloud-based tools, require minimum standards.

Free or pirated software can be very expensive if you have no one to support it or if it puts you at a legal risk. There is excellent free open-source software available depending on your needs.

Best Connectivity

There is a huge push for cloud first. Many services that were once available locally require access to the cloud. Bandwidth costs are dropping and new solutions are being introduced at a rapid pace. It is important to understand what your Internet provider is guaranteeing and to review your connectivity solution each year.

Best Power

We have so many choices in power today, from solar and wind to traditional grid and generators. We can place a learning lab almost anywhere on the planet. By calculating what it will cost to power equipment and by choosing a solution appropriate to the local environment, you can help conserve resources.

Best Support

Refugees building the Arrupe Center, Dzaleka Camp, Malawi. Credit: Jesuit Worldwide Learning

Using local vendors is one way of helping the local economy and ensuring you have local on-the-ground support. There are times when this might not be possible. In that case, negotiating the best support (or replacement) agreements for both hardware and software is important.

Best Policies

Often overlooked are the policies necessary to develop when creating a learning environment. Policies like computer usage, lab maintenance, and replacement policies are essential to consider when creating your learning environment. How do you ensure safety? Are you putting students at risk by requiring them to carry equipment?

All of these variables need to be balanced with the funds you have to create the right technology-enhanced learning environments.

Finding the right partners

Organizations may sometimes feel they need to control all aspects of the environment in which they operate, but good partners can be essential and provide great value. In the case of Jesuit Worldwide Learning, we always rely on a local partner who knows the context, knows the culture, and can help administer the day-to-day activities of the learning environment.

Our first and most enduring partner on ground is Jesuit Refugee Services. They are known for their expertise in providing primary, secondary and community-based education in emergency contexts. By partnering, we were able to immediately extend their services and enhance both of our missions.

To cite just a few others:  Our students can earn a diploma in Liberal Studies from our academic partner, Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Community Certificates are awarded from multiple universities. Georgetown University hosts the student information system and the learning management system. A unique partnership with Salt Lake City Community College and the University of Utah provides a learning pathway to a bachelor in social work degree. Other institutions, like Georgetown University-Doha Campus and Gonzaga University have provided services like assessment and procurement. John Carroll University, and the University of San Francisco, among others, have donated equipment.

It is important to consider the type of partners you need.  Some to consider are technology partners, legal partners, academic associations, corporate partners, foundations and donors. A clear mission and vision statement helps determine who can enhance your mission and help you move one step closer to fulfilling your vision.

What happened on that mud flat? Under the direction of Jesuit Refugee Services, built with bricks made by the refugees, surrounded by a community garden, the Arrupe Center is now a hub of activity. From language acquisition to university courses, students are changing the community around them. Learning with students from twenty-five different countries and faculty from around the world, the center embodies the Jesuit Worldwide Learning vision: “Learning Together to Transform the World.” The impossible became possible – by innovating at the margins.

Cindy Bonfini-Hotlosz is vice president of information technology and innovation at Jesuit Worldwide Learning.


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