Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai’s trip to Congress to answer questions from the House Judiciary Subcommittee on its digital advertising dominance is indicative…
There is a primary school in Uganda at the foot of a dormant volcanic crater. It is not unlike many schools in this country. It has no electricity. The classroom walls are mud.
A third classroom is in the process of being built but it’s already in use. The kids like it because the unfinished walls let in plenty of light so they can copy from the small blackboard; the lesson today is Malaria.
They write in examination pads, their ballpoint pens making lazy circles in the air as they copy the chalked diagramme of a mosquito. Some use pencils — black and red Staedtlers, the ends shaved to fine points. One boy secures his pencil in the cords of his hoodie wearing it like a jewel.
By 3pm, school is over. The kids have been here the whole day but it’s hard to tear them away from the blackboard. After end-of-day assembly, some rush back to continue their work and, when they are done, they slip their examination pads into plastic shopping bags and begin the walk home. They skirt the rims of crater lakes in the Ndali-Kasenda Crater Field and weave between banana trees.
They join older kids from a secondary school, who study under better conditions. Their classrooms are brick and they have desks that they share, but they have no electricity, either.
They simply don’t have them
They chat and play games as they head home to what will commonly be a mud hut lit by kerosene lamps. Not one of them glances at a cellphone. They simply don’t have them.
A teacher in the district capital, Fort Portal, put the number of scholars owning phones at 10%. Another teacher who gives computer training to three schools in this district, Nicholas Ategeka, reckons only about 20% of Uganda scholars even have access to phones.
Ad agency MetropolitanRepublic claimed in its recent Loerie award entry that its client, MTN, had implemented a cellphone-based learning programme which eliminated the need to build and maintain expensive libraries, an incredibly bold claim in any country. It turned out the programme itself is only in concept stage and it was compelled to withdraw the awards it’d won.
Even if all kids had access to phones, Ategeka is not convinced they have a role in education and points out an important factor. “Phones make lazy,” he says, “They use them in different purposes. They don’t concentrate because of these cellphones.”
Outside of class, left alone with the means to talk or text with friends, play games or surf the web, it would be difficult for a scholar to concentrate with these distractions, never mind focus on school work on a screen not much larger than a matchbox. A phone would have to remain charged under such intensive use, difficult in a home with little or no electricity, or far from a recharge station. And who would pay for that charge?
These are obvious considerations for such a project, making it all the more surprising that the judges and the majority of the audience at the Loeries swallowed it.
Even more surprising were the books supposed to represent the Ugandan school syllabus, books such as “Trip Advisor” and “Guide to 50 Best Restaurants.” Stranger still were a range of South African books on “Gumboot Dancing”, “Maskandi”, “Kwaito” and “South African Braai.”
There were other clues, such as the superimposed phone screens on the award-entry video and a blackboard with the name Zuma scrawled on it, placing the film in South Africa.
Ultimately, there was a complete lack of substantiation for the agency’s claim of eliminating the need for libraries, as well as statements such as: “Students did most of their reading and researching off their phones.”
Exaggeration in the extreme
At face value, it is exaggeration in the extreme, with absolutely no foundation. A little more thought and one must wonder about the feasibility of encapsulating an entire school syllabus in text form so that it is intelligible, practical and constructive. It would need indexes, categories and a means whereby scrolling through the text of books, hundreds of pages long, would not be painfully time-consuming.
Feature phones, constituting the great majority of phones in this region, would not even be able to display essential diagrams.
So why was it not thrown out during the judging process? Perhaps the ad industry is conditioned to believe its own hype.
Most of us have scammed
Most of us have scammed; I certainly have. All of us exaggerate for effect. Or perhaps we are so far removed from the realities of Africa that we would rather believe the hype instead of facing the grueling challenges?
If we were to believe MetropolitanRepublic’s spin, then education in Uganda is in good hands and we could move on to something else. But it’s not in good hands — far from it.
By claiming to be actively doing something about education, one is reminded of the inept claims of our own government. Perhaps we are far too used to this hype as well.
The advertising industry is full of well-educated, extremely talented people, but it is driven blind by awards and the creative egos that chase them. Awards are vital; they raise the bar.
But with the brains that the industry has, far more concerted effort could be put into making a positive difference. The Loerie Awards body can encourage this like it has with the Ubuntu award, and it can and should do more.
Its decision following the withdrawal of MetropolitanRepublic’s entries is the right one in the circumstances, and let’s hope it sends a clear message to the industry and encourages agencies to follow through with their initiatives and prove themselves with results.
Probably best served
When it comes to education in Uganda and most of Africa, an improvement can probably be best served by the means people have succeeded with right up until now, in the best circumstances, in the richest countries: With good teachers, with blackboards, with books and pens. [Or how about this approach, as reported by Wired.com? — ed-at-large]
Perhaps it is there where we should put our effort. My conviction is that education depends on teachers who are, in turn, well-taught and well-paid by a government that is not afraid of the power of an educated youth; teachers who are passionate, imaginative and completely dedicated to their task.
If we must play such a role, then we, too, must be completely dedicated to the task, not to the award.
This article by Anton Crone originally appeared on Marklives and is republished with permission.