Unlocking the Educational Potential of the 3.5 Billion Still Offline

Special Focus : Imagine a Learning Environment Where…
Access and Inclusion September 10, 2018

There are still 3.5 billion offline in the world today, 75% of which are distributed in just 20 countries, most of them disproportionately rural, female, poor and illiterate. The problem is, these countries with the least internet access are the same ones with the least access to quality education in general, including fewer qualified teachers per student and fewer educational materials[1].

At the same time, there has been more and more innovation in the world of online education to combat poor localized education. Almost ten years ago, the UN announced the world’s first tuition-free online university, designed to use the Internet to bring further education to the masses, requiring only an admission fee of $50 or less. Yet for the group most in need of this, it is still too expensive and unavailable in their language. As a result, more than half of the world’s school-aged children are not learning, according to Save The Children. Roughly 750 million people over the age of 15 still can’t read or write a basic sentence.

Simply waiting for improved internet access could lead to missing a generation of leaders. This article will focus on the offline education revolution and finding solutions for the 3.5 billion offline people of the world.

Through utilizing basic Nokia phones (think your old 3310) and low bandwidth android applications, some groups are finding innovative ways to serve the offline world. As we go forward to address the issue of equal access to education worldwide, we must keep this group in mind.

The key to providing equal access to education has four key principles:

1. Empathy

2. Test and iterate

3. Systems thinking

4. Letting users shape their own education

Embodying this, KA Lite has been able to bring the Khan Academy offline, providing high quality education to where it is needed most.

1. Empathy:

Without understanding the end user, we cannot design education solutions they would want to invest their time in. Empathy can be achieved by asking the right questions. How else can we know why individuals may or may not want to go to school, whether Western education systems are right for users on the other side of the world or why a parent may be taking their child out of education to work?

Eneza education and mMitra use empathy to provide better education solutions. Through a gamified format, Eneza education provides offline quizzes focused on rural populations in East Africa via text message. Their solution focuses on children who have dropped out of school to keep them up to speed, so they first understand their wants and needs. mMitra provides mothers in India with daily, time-sensitive pregnancy education content via calls in local dialect, specific to a woman’s age and pregnancy stage.

2. Test

Testing means taking your solution out into the field, getting feedback and iterating. Testing is a key tool in overcoming assumptions which you may or may not realize you’re making. Testing is all about taking something to market to see what works and using feedback mechanisms to improve it.

Whilst building teleStory, a mobile application which enables illiterate parents to read to their children for the first time, we conducted hundreds of pilot group studies to find the right model and content that really would engage parents to read to their children every night.

3. Systems thinking

Solutions may sometimes cause unintended effects. A child going to school may reduce income for a whole family. This could mean a missing meal for the household. Other circumstances such as seasonal drought may prevent a rural family from paying regular school fees for two months which is the real reason a child falls behind in school. We must think of problems and solutions at the systems level.

Two examples of solutions which have harnessed this are BRAC play labs and IMPCT play schools. Both organizations recognized the need for early childhood play care and the opportunity to combine this with education. IMPCT have established a unique playcare model funded by the profits of sustainable coffee, providing income to the parents whilst children learn and stay in care.

4. Shaping:

Finally, we must allow users to shape their own education. End users may be able to create better solutions for themselves and it is often true that necessity breeds innovation. This can be seen in India, where TED talks and other videos are shared on street corners via old SD cards for a few rupees. Groups, if empowered, will create new models of distribution which will work for them. Similarly, when Sugata Mitra left a computer in the wall for children in the slums to use, they learnt how to use it themselves, without an instructor or supervision.

As Picasso wisely said, “every child is an artist”. We should allow them to harness their natural curiosities by creating the future of education in the world today. If we hold back as policy makers and decision makers, we will miss out on user innovation.


When we design for accessibility, we can often create better solutions than we would have originally. I’d like to challenge you to go and think about your own experience with education and measure it against these four inclusive design principles.


[1] Facebook’s 2018 Inclusive Internet Index (3.8bn without internet access)


McKinsey & Company: Offline and falling behind: Barriers to Internet adoption, October 2014 – distribution https://mck.co/2wWzYFa