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2023-11-30

Is Computer Education Always Good?

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  This article is part of the series: Digital Malawi: Developing Hope in the Information Age

Children are the hope, and they represent the future. That's what I immediately understood after becoming an international volunteer in Malawi, a small African country with more than 50% of the less-than-18 population. Thus, although it won't be the same, I was able to deeply relate my experience to Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, which illustrates Conor Grennan's volunteering journey started at an orphanage in Nepal.

To make the children's future brighter, one of the "low-hanging fruits" we can pick is an investment in education; ever since I started researching international development, I've seen a lot of young people-focused education and training programs funded by organizations and governments to promote equitable access to intellectual resources and directly empower the future generation. As a volunteer in the ICT domain in Malawi, I have also been part of these initiatives over the last few months with a particular focus on computer skills.

computer-programming-trainees * With the trainees I'm teaching computer programming (cf. "Malawi's Mzuzu e-hub empowers youth through tech").

A key takeaway is that, although education and training may sound straightforward as a way to make a positive change among young people, transferring tangible knowledge and skills from generation to generation is, in fact, not an easy task. It requires a deep understanding of local contexts and a long-term perspective. Otherwise, training itself will change nothing about the power dynamics between the rich (who already have money, knowledge, skills, and power) and poor (who need to be empowered and supported to catch up), and what remains, in the end, would be the prolonged stagnation of the country's economy and technology penetration.

In my view, this can be an essential challenge for developing nations, where people are more short-term focused and "self-centered" under their completely different priorities from the Western nations. We rather need to be conscious of the negative externalities the immediate outcomes may pose in the long run, and implementation of education and training programs won't be an exception. It is a systemic problem, and whether education works effectively or not—I found that there are three critical components underneath that mutually impact each other and determine a consequence, especially when it comes to the emerging, widely accessible computer skills:

  1. Existence of role models in the domain
  2. Quality and practicality of the courses
  3. Context awareness among donors and program implementers

Role models shaping the market and defining the standards

Most importantly, in Malawi, there isn't a computer technology "industry" due to the low internet penetration rate. Even though I interacted with several people who recognize themselves as software engineers and entrepreneurs, their skills and experiences are hardly comparable to the professionals I know across the globe1. As a consequence, regardless it's intentional or not, they provide low-quality, unprofessional services. Some examples I witnessed include but are not limited to:

  • never-ending mobile application development projects that have continued for nearly 2 years without any releases;
  • small businesses that do not attract people, do not invest in the quality of their products/services, and hence are not sustainable;
  • scam-like cryptocurrency services exploiting vulnerable populations, operated by poorly trained people who teamed up with random foreign businesses.

The situation does not positively contribute to forming a healthy market where the quality of services is ensured by the competition while weeding out bad actors. That is, there is no incentive/motivation for the service providers to improve their quality of work and invest in their skills/knowledge, resulting in a not-growing, stagnated market and talent pool as a whole. If no one knew how to best use the technology and what a professionally planned/executed project looks like, fellow young people would not have the right role models they could learn from.

Can non-professionals teach the practical skills?

Due to the lack of professionals who deeply and experientially understand the topic, there are not many people who can train young people with industry-grade practicality in mind. As a result, even though international organizations and governments are putting a lot of money into training future technologists, the programs delivered by the inexperienced implementers won't bring meaningful impacts other than satisfying immediate KPIs such as the number of (young/female) people reached. Here, people seem to be teaching for the sake of teaching with no idea of ensuring the quality of the contents, and they often use copied and pasted materials from some books or websites.

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A post shared by Mzuzu E-Hub (@mzuzuehub)

* I participated in a graduation ceremony for a digital skills training program. The real challenge arises AFTER graduation: How practical the acquired skills are, and how to find opportunities to exercise them.

The situation reminds me of boring classroom experiences in my high school and university days2. The lecturers naively followed what was written in textbooks, and a linkage between theory and practice was unclear. Since the level of understanding and progress varies among the students, their one-size-fits-all lecture style made the classes shockingly meaningless. I eventually studied the things for the sake of studying, following an immediate KPI called a test score. What did I learn from the classes? Almost nothing. Where do these training courses bring us as a career opportunity? Nowhere3.

Importantly, teaching other people is the ability one should seriously practice with a relevant background, as school teachers do. In this regard, one of the promising directions many organizations are trying to adopt lately is the Training of Trainers (ToT) model. Under the model, local (usually inexperienced) people are trained by external professionals to fill the gap and become future trainers. Ultimately, they come back to their home (e.g., country, community, organization) to transfer what they learned at ToT to the locals.

Optimizing for local contexts

If there are not enough role models, success stories, and training practices onsite, why don't external forces like international volunteers intervene in the situation and push things forward? Well, such radical treatment might work in the short run, but it won't be sustainable unless the knowledge, skills, and practices are properly transferred to locals and adapted to their local context. That's why the ToT model can be promising; by developing future trainers and sending them back to their communities, the model allows the education programs to better respect local contexts without abusing the power dynamics and introducing the form of oppression/assimilation.

To give an eye-opening example, when I recently traveled to rural Malawi by car, I found a strangely clean, well-developed brand-new section of highway running only for a couple hundred meters; anywhere before and after the section is a typical rough, low-quality, partially broken asphalt. According to my Malawian friend, that particular section was professionally developed by Japanese volunteers, and Malawians are very impressed by the quality of their work. However, the volunteers had gone back to Japan, and locals could not replicate the work afterward, contrasting the Japanese-made section and the rest of the original roads weirdly vivid. If we don't consider local contexts, the development work can be unsustainable and surface the imbalance like the highway road demonstrated.

When it comes to information and digital technology, the importance of context-awareness is particularly high because the technology is extremely accessible to the general public and reflects the power dynamics in the global society. That's why I'm coming to the small African country to investigate the flow of information. Computer education is, therefore, a sensitive topic, and I strongly believe a deep understanding of local contexts and careful planning/execution is a must. However, unfortunately, it's still common to see one-size-fits-all, copying-n-pasting approaches to the country's technological and economic empowerment programs.

Having said that, sharing my concerns won't help. To go one step further, I recently discussed the challenge with Malawian organization leaders at a conference and realized the importance of a locally owned, context-aware partnership ecosystem to make digitalization, and its education and training efforts, inherently, happen in a true sense.

keynote * I gave a keynote talk at the event, highlighting the past, present, and future of digital technology in Malawi.

Situating myself in the local environment, I constantly suffer from a powerless feeling as a volunteer; in the extreme environment, it is obvious that there are countless things that I cannot help/change. But, this is what it is—I can only take one step at a time and act *with* locals to accumulate tiny, tiny changes.

1. Even in the other developing nations, I know quite a few established professionals who do a very good job. Hence, I hypothesize this is a country-specific issue in Malawi.
2. I went to a technical high school, where you receive specialized occupational training as early as possible. I started learning information technology there and then continued the journey to a university.
3. Another example is coding boot camps we see a lot nowadays, like in Canada. They provide structured training about specific programming and software engineering topics. However, since it's usually not optimized for professional development in the local contexts, many of my mentees who recently graduated from the boot camps are struggling with identifying a next step.
  This article is part of the series: Digital Malawi: Developing Hope in the Information Age

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  See also

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2023-09-08
Definition, Role, and Current Status of Digital Literacy in Malawi #LiteracyDay
2023-08-23
Starting Field Study on How Information Flows in Malawi

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Last updated: 2023-11-30

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, previously working at a Big Tech and Silicon Valley-based start-up company where he wore multiple hats as a full-stack software developer, machine learning engineer, data scientist, and product manager. At the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications, he is passionate about promoting the ethical use of information technologies through his mentoring, business consultation, and public engagement activities. See CV for more information, or contact at [email protected].

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