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Imagine for a moment that you have one chance to pass a driving test; if you fail, you can never reapply for a license. You ask for the material you will be tested on and are told you can see it only briefly, peering over someone else’s shoulder. No one has trained you to operate an actual car. And when it is time to take the test, you are blindfolded. The result will, of course, be catastrophic.

This isn’t a bad analogy for the challenges facing a typical African elementary- or secondary-school student, even though most world political leaders and development specialists agree that the future of African nations lies in education. African schools teach toward set exams, which determine who passes and who leaves school. It is a system that does not foster much creative thought but in its own way ensures certain standards. Or would, if access to educational materials were equal throughout all schools.

But it is not. Educational materials are expensive to print and to supply to remote rural schools. Senegal is typical: school textbooks cost two to three times what poor families can afford, so only one in five students receives them.

There is an alternative. Using digital satellite radio to connect to a content distribution network, students could download new material–as soon as it becomes available–to small handheld computers recharged with solar power or crank chargers. Then they could take it home to read at night, on a backlit screen, even in homes without electricity. That is the technology my company, EduVision, has been developing for the last two years.

Not only would such a distribution system get more, and more current, material to more students, but it would also introduce students to an important new approach to learning and working. Students who compete throughout their school years for top ranking will not be prepared for workplaces where collaboration is becoming far more important. An electronic environment for group work–a textbook wiki of sorts, in which students around the world can compare notes and share information–could teach collaboration at the same time that it teaches academic material itself.

In the future, students in schools throughout the developing world will communicate and interact to solve problems and complete assignments. They may be in the same class or school, or they may be in different countries. They may never meet in person, but they will form close connections and learn to work in teams. They will also have access to vast libraries of content where they can find solutions, answer questions, and explore the life of the mind.

Matthew Herren is founder and chief technology officer of EduVision, an e-learning company based in Zürich, Switzerland. He is also one of our TR35 winners. Here’s his TR35 profile.

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