Loon Signs Disaster Relief Agreement with AT&T

Loon, the internet connectivity subsidiary of Alphabet, is partnering with AT&T, to assist with communications during natural disasters. Loon balloons, flying in the stratosphere and integrated with AT&T networks, can be quickly deployed to serve as “floating cell towers” to restore phone and data service.

Loon has played this emergency role in the past, including in partnership with AT&T. In 2017, Loon deployed balloons to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. That year Loon also deployed balloons to Peru to restore connectivity lost to extensive flooding.

Based on 2017 experience, Loon has continued to work in Peru, now launching commercial operations to connect schools, clinics, businesses and consumers in remote parts of the country.

Loon reports it has received regulatory approval from 50 countries to fly its balloons. The new agreement with AT&T will involve all countries in which AT&T operates or in which AT&T has international partner roaming agreements.

Update from GIGA

GIGA is the UNICEF / ITU project to connect every school on the planet to the internet. It is a big task: there are likely about two million schools still unconnected.GIGA has provided a recent update on current efforts. Highlights include:

  • 9 of 11 states in the Eastern Caribbean (OECS) are now fully connected.
  • Active programs mapping school connectivity are underway in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda.
  • Kazakhstan is taking the lead in Central Asia programs, including integrating over 10,000 schools into GIGA global mapping platform.
  • GIGA is moving forward with mapping, connectivity, content and finance programs in many countries, with current priority on Kenya, Niger, Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, El Salvador, Honduras, Dominica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent.

Simultaneously, the large tech firms are making progress in connectivity issues. Loon is now operating commercially in Kenya and Peru and seeks to scale. SpaceX has announced initial commercial services in the US at the end of 2020, with global service offerings in 2021. There are many open questions around services and costs from Loon, SpaceX and others, but major infrastructure is being built.

Under ideal circumstances increased connectivity through new services and GIGA’s comprehensive schools database can lead to rapid extension of school connectivity over the next few years.

Schools in Developing Countries

Some schools in developing countries are impressive. Innova Schools in Peru are groundbreaking. The Hamels Foundation School in Malawi is awesome. There are many educational points of light throughout developing countries.

Many other schools in developing countries — millions, actually — are unbelievably constrained. In rural Nicaragua classes may be held in shipping containers. In Africa, many schools are held by necessity outdoors. Often a “school” may have a teacher (with limited training), a blackboard — and that is about it. Limited classrooms, no desks, no books, few teachers, no standard curriculum — that is the best you can find in many places.

I was visiting schools once in rural Malawi, and since I was a foreigner, I was handed a note from a school I hadn’t visited requesting help. It outlined that it had few teachers, desks, and toilets:

If schools are lacking even the most basic elements of education, what good will broadband do? A lot actually. One thing is clear from even the most resource-constrained environments: education is a generally a very high priority. If that means holding class in a shipping container or outside under a tree, so be it. People make the best with what they have.

If there is connectivity and at least one device, that opens up a world of opportunities. Teachers have resources. Students can get curricular materials. Ministries of Education can start to reach more students.

Broadband doesn’t solve the education problem. People still need teachers and desks and toilets. But it can help a lot — and in environments where education is prioritized, people are resourceful and benefit from connectivity.

Why Starlink Needs a Schools Strategy

Growing companies benefit from public goodwill. When Google was expanding quickly, the combination of excellent services and a “don’t be evil” management motto built up a reservoir of public goodwill. Tesla, with a combination of excellent products and goal of reducing global fossil fuels, has a large reservoir of public goodwill.

SpaceX has goodwill — its engineering is amazing and its goal of making humans “multiplanetary” inspires some people. SpaceX’s Starlink program, however, which will provide satellite broadband globally, doesn’t yet share that same goodwill. Any news search on “Starlink” will generate a long list of articles about how Starlink is going to destroy astronomy, make asteroid catastrophes more likely, and lead to a runaway problem of space debris. None of these are likely true, but you wouldn’t know it from the press.

The irony is that Starlink might in fact represent Elon Musk’s greatest contribution to the planet. Linking four billion people currently without internet to the rest of the world is one of the epic stories of our generation. It can create opportunity, knowledge and wealth at a level heretofore impossible.

One straightforward way for Starlink to get ahead of the press and start building public goodwill would be to make a commitment to provide broadband to schools in developing countries. If Starlink launched a “100,000 schools” program, probably in coordination with the UN and ITU, that story would eclipse all the others.

Of course there is another reason for Starlink to commit to helping link 100,000 schools: it is the right thing to do.

Increased broadband in developing countries is going to create many problems — just ask Facebook about Myanmar. It will also create unbelievable opportunities. It is time Starlink started building up its reservoir of public goodwill. It will certainly need it down the road.

Sustainable Development Goals and Education

In 2000, the United Nations established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set eight development targets to be achieved by 2015. Each goal had associated metrics and timelines.

In addition to mixed success, the goals prompted debate about whether the best, most legitimate eight goals were chosen. There was a parallel debate around the chosen success metrics.

Despite the shortcomings or disputes, however, the MDGs are widely credited with increasing attention, funding, and coordination around fundamentally important global milestones.

As the end of the 15 year window approached, the United Nations launched a follow-on effort entitled the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Careful to avoid criticism of a hasty selection of targets, the UN considered literally hundreds of possible goals, eventually (and painfully) winnowing down to 17 goals — including 169 “targets” and 304 “indicators”. (The large number of goals, targets and indicators unleashed a new wave of criticism.)

Making the “final cut” of 17 goals is #4 / Education, which reads:

By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.

Countries are making mixed progress towards this goal. Some have already achieved it (Canada, Iran, China, Sri Lanka), while others remain far from the goal. The greatest challenge is across sub-Saharan Africa, where over thirty countries have major challenges ahead.

Confronting these challenges will require many strategies. Certainly linking the next million schools to the internet should be the highest of priorities.

Global Education During a Pandemic

My new teacher

A major secondary effect of the pandemic is the creation of a global education crisis. UNESCO estimates that over 1.5 billion children worldwide are currently out of school in over 180 countries.

In response, UNESCO has launched the Global Education Consortium, a network of public and private sector organizations coordinating to address global education challenges. The Consortium includes multilaterals (WHO, UNHCR, ILO), private sector (Microsoft, Facebook, Zoom, Coursera), philanthropies (Khan Academy, Sesame Street), and many others.

As part of the initiative, UNESCO has published resource lists of online tools as well as a best practices guide on distance education.

One major challenge is that many children do not have access to online resources. In a number of countries (and some states in the US), instruction is now happening by television and in some cases by radio.

If there were a silver lining to this rapid shift to online learning, it is that as broadband reaches more communities in coming years, online resources will be better developed due to the challenges the world now faces with education during a pandemic.

Google.org and Global Education

Google.org is Google’s philanthropic arm that directs corporate resources to global problems of importance. Principal areas of focus include education, training, and social justice.

Google.org’s education efforts are divided between domestic and global efforts. Internationally, Google.org supports dozens of initiatives involving curriculum development, teacher support, connectivity issues, refugee education, and other topics.

One example initiative is Pratham Books in India which provides online tools for translation of books into local languages. The majority of books published in India are in English or Hindi despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people speak local languages. Pratham Books now offers titles in 60 languages.

Tools to translate books and curricular materials into local languages are relevant in many countries now expanding internet connectivity. Half the world’s population speaks one of five languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi). The other half speaks over 6,000 languages. The internet will need to become much more multilingual as the next three billion people come online.

Tech Hubs and Schools

Soon schools in many regions of the world will be gaining internet access for the first time. They will have immediate access to global curricular materials, student resources, online education initiatives, and much more.

What they often will not have, however, are resources that are culturally appropriate and in local languages. Half of the world speaks one of five languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic). This is the half that is essentially online now. The other half of the world speaks over 6,000 languages. This is the half that is essentially soon to come online.

So how to bridge from global online resources to local needs for education?

One key strategy is to use tech incubators. Cities around the globe are now home to thriving co-working spaces bringing tech-oriented professionals together to build local online services and apps. Tech hubs, such as Nairobi Garage in Kenya, BongoHive in Zambia or Phandeeyar in Myanmar provide the space and tools that entrepreneurs require. They also provide an immediate and invaluable source of community to help with collaboration, training, and promoting innovation.

Coworker.com lists co-working spaces in 170 countries – and growing! Co-working spaces represent a mostly hidden, but very consequential, form of tech infrastructure in developing countries that will benefit education and other sectors.

Online Education and Covid-19

Duolingo flies

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there are suddenly over a billion kids worldwide out of school. Online education services are trying to respond to the need.

Khan Academy, the free online suite of K-12 courses, says that traffic is up over 50% and climbing. Prior to the pandemic, the site already served 18 million students in 42 countries with 10,000 classes in 42 languages.

Founder Sal Khan is running webinars for teachers turning to Khan Academy for assistance in leading online classrooms.

Indian education company Byju’s has made all curricular materials free for the month of April. The firm saw a sudden 60% jump in traffic within seven days of the new policy.

Duolingo, the online language learning service, is also reporting a surge in usage of its various offerings. English proficiency testing is up 200%. Active users in China are up 100%.

The surge in online education activity highlights the need for connectivity for students. Around two million schools currently lack any connectivity, a situation which needs to change in the near future.

Bridge International Academies

Hundreds of millions of children have no school to attend. Hundreds of millions more attend schools with poor facilities, minimal supplies, and frequently absent teachers.

Because of this dire situation, a number of countries are experimenting with international private schools that focus on new technologies, broadband linkages, standardized curriculum, rigorous evaluation, and low cost.

The best known of these is probably Bridge International Academies, whose high profile is partly due to an august list of investors, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Omidyar Network, and World Bank. Bridge currently operates in five countries: Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India, running or supporting nearly 2,000 schools. Bridge anticipates teaching 1,000,000 students in 2020, and aims to educate 10,000,000 pupils by 2025.

Bridge provides teachers with a tablet that includes all lesson plans in highly scripted formats. Bridge rigorously collects data about teacher and student progress. Administrative cost are kept low due to centralization of many tasks; each school requires just one administrator with a smartphone app. Costs for students depend on region and economic status. In Uganda, for example, parents pay about $66 per year, which is much cheaper than other private schools and roughly on par with “free” public schools that require a number of purchases.

Bridge points to studies which demonstrate that its students out-perform public school children.

Simultaneously, private school networks — and Bridge International Academies in particular — are lightening rods for an exceptionally high level of controversy. Bridge has had periodic conflict with ministries of education, teachers unions, and other organizations with strong opinions about education.