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Declared a fundamental human right by the United Nations (UN), literacy and education are vital to the health and empowerment of individuals and are crucial elements of well-functioning civil societies ("The Right to Education," n.d.). The UN views education as central to progress in each of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Specifically, the second MDG has set a 2015 target for ensuring that all children worldwide can complete a full course of primary schooling ("Millennium Development Goals," n.d.).
Lester Brown, author of World on the Edge and director of the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), has described individuals without education as having "a severe handicap, one that almost ensures they will remain in abject poverty" (Brown, 2011). While primary education enrollment rates have risen considerably over the past decade in developing communities, tens of millions of children do not attend school (69 million as of 2008). Even for those attending school, basic resources such as paper, pencils and textbooks are often limited or entirely lacking. In many regions, drop-out rates are high ("United Nations Millennium Development Goals," n.d.). Many communities are also in need of adult education opportunities and learning resources for individuals who did not have the option of attending school or were unable to complete a substantial amount of schooling. The EPI reported in 2011 that almost 800 million adults are illiterate and thus at a high disadvantage.
The striking potential benefits of improving education levels in poor regions have been quantified by, e.g., UN Development Program studies. Multi-country research suggests that increasing the average education of the labor force by 1 year raises the GDP by an astonishing 9 percent.
As neuroscientist and 'long-term thinker' David Eagleman says, "It's now becoming clear that the development of human capital depends on open access to education and opportunities. And many economists have been really emphasizing lately the importance of cultivating human capital because the investment translates directly to economic output... The problem is most of the world doesn't have the opportunity to get the education that's afforded to a small minority. And so for every Einstein or Yo-Yo Ma or Barack Obama who has the opportunity for education, there are uncountable others who just never get the chance, and this vast under-tapping of our civilization's potential steals security from our future," (Eagleman, 2010).
Responding to the range of education-related demand from communities around the world, many organizations and innovators are working to provide individuals and communities with options for both guided and independent learning. Effective, low-cost tools for students and teachers, such as the Kinkajou microfilm projector (which can disseminate instructional materials more cost-effectively than books and has helped over 3,000 adults in 45 Malian villages learn to read) are being developed and implemented at a rapid pace ("Kinkajou," n.d.). A growing array of educational materials for self-instruction, such as those available from Wikiversity, or facilitated distance learning (for example, the videos of Khan Academy) can be accessed in any area with Internet connectivity. Additionally, initiatives like the Fab Lab program started by MIT (which provides rapid-prototyping tools to communities enabling them to fabricate everything from solar-powered turbines to health care instruments) are offering children and adults exciting avenues to learn, master and innovate with powerful, cutting edge tools and high-level concepts ("Welcome to Fab Central," n.d.).
Creative advances in teaching methods and tools, paired with the ongoing expansion of Internet access through cost reduction and new technologies, are improving the prospects for achieving the MDGs and ensuring that the right to education as stated in the Universal Declarations of Human Rights one day becomes a reality for people and communities worldwide.
In addition to education, effective communications improve the business, political and social life of communities. While under-resourced areas usually lack the traditional telecommunications infrastructure found in more developed nations, these areas can and do leapfrog---taking advantage of more current or even emerging technologies to create new infrastructure that bypasses outmoded, unwieldy hardware. Even in the poorest regions, Internet cafés, cell phones and portable satellite-based Internet access have transformed people's access to knowledge and timely information.
Mobile phone technologies and applications in areas without landline infrastructure are helping people to improve their businesses, conduct financial transactions and base decisions on up-to-date information. United Villages, for example, allows small shop owners to restock inventory by placing orders via SMS. Initiatives now underway provide medical test results to patients via SMS and prompt follow-up measures. The continuing expansion of Internet access opens up new avenues of communicating and learning: for example, open textbooks, like those of Flatworld Knowledge, that can be read and even edited via Internet enable both independent and collaborative learning.
Exchanging news and perspectives through social media keeps individuals and communities informed, engaged and empowered. In 2011, citizens have brought to the world's attention aspects of conflicts in Libya and Egypt that might otherwise have gone unnoticed or underestimated (Memmot, 2011). Information technologies are of course vital in crisis situations. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, information technologies such as SMS and Ushahidi (a web-based mapping platform) were rapidly deployed to gather and synthesize information that assisted relief efforts (Nelson and Patel, 2011). New 'grass-roots' applications to flag and track such phenomena as disease development or weather hazards are emerging and maturing rapidly.
With the development and adoption of new communications infrastructure and devices, the potential for individuals and communities to adapt, self-educate and transform is enormous.
Teaching Aids: Materials and technologies for teachers and community-based educators to use with their students.
Student Resources: Online platforms and other innovations for self-study or to supplement formal instruction.
Phone Applications: Software and services that can be used on or via mobile phones.
Desktop Applications: Software and services that can be used on or via desktop or laptop computers.
Communication Technologies: Innovations that facilitate the exchange of information.
Brown, L. R. (2011). World on the edge: how to prevent environmental and economic collapse. New York: W.W. Norton.
Eagleman, D. "Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization." Seminars on Long-Term Thinking [Conference]. San Francisco, CA. 1 Apr. 2010
Kinkajou, Design That Matters. (n.d.). Design That Matters. Retrieved July 31, 2011, from http://designthatmatters.org/portfolio/projects/kinkajou/
Martinez, R. & Fernandez, A. (2010). The social and economic impact of illiteracy: analytical model and pilot study. Santiago, Chile: UNESCO Office Santiago and Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Retrieved July 31, 2011, from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/ulis/cgi-bin/ulis.pl?lin=1&catno=190571
Memmot, M. (2011). Remembering Mo Nabbous, 'The Face Of Libyan Citizen Journalism'. NPR. Retrieved July 31, 2011, from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/03/23/134770586/remembering-mo-nabbous-the-face-of-libyan-citizen-journalism
Millennium Development Goals, United Nations Development Programme. (n.d.). UNDP. Retrieved July 31, 2011, from http://www.beta.undp.org/undp/en/home/mdgoverview.html
Nelson, A. & Patel, M. (2011). How Mapping, SMS Platforms Saved Lives in Haiti Earthquake. MediaShift. Retrieved July 31, 2011, from http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2011/01/how-mapping-sms-platforms-saved-lives-in-haiti-earthquake011.html
The Right to Education - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (n.d.). UNESCO. Retrieved July 31, 2011, from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/right-to-education/
United Nations Millennium Development Goals, United Nations. (n.d.). United Nations. Retrieved July 31, 2011, from http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/education.shtml
Welcome to Fab Central, Fab Central. (n.d.). Fab Central. Retrieved July 31, 2011 from http://fab.cba.mit.edu/
Fab Lab program: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fab_lab
With an extensive collection of video lessons on subjects like chemistry, trigonometry and history and suite of math exercises, KhanAcademy.org is a valuable resource for students and teachers around the world.