Mobile Technologies and the Volunteer Potential


5 minute read

First published at mEducation Alliance.

Peace Corps Volunteers in the field have access, perspectives, and skills that are unique in the aid worker community. While there is a lot of attention in the ‘mobile education’ space placed on the technologies, systems, and platforms, we know that it is not enough to simply airdrop devices and services.

We recognize from our collective experiences in the Mobiles for Education (mEducation) Alliance that successful interventions for mobile education must be designed within a context of support, adaptation, and (ongoing) education. Our Volunteers help to bridge this gap and tether ideas, projects, and programs to the communities and individuals that they touch.

And while the fundamentals of what it takes to be a successful Volunteer haven’t changed in over 52 years of service (commitment to serve, empathy, language acquisition, innovative thinking, etc.), the tools available to them have changed significantly.

The role of Peace Corps Volunteers

Peace Corps Volunteers serve as development workers who are typically embedded and immersed over a 27-month period in a host country (in low and middle resource regions of the world), working in one of six sectors (Education, Health, Youth Development, Community Economic Development, Agriculture, and the Environment).

These placements are most often in remote cities, town, and villages while the work of the Volunteer has them interacting with community members far and wide. Volunteers engage in projects and programs that increasingly make use of mobile devices either for their own sake (as educators and generalists mastering new skills), or as a means to increase the effectiveness of their existing projects and programs (as agriculturalists, environmentalists, etc.).

In addition to the six sectors that Volunteers work in for the primary projects, Peace Corps has also identified six topics of work that cut across all sectors and activities–Gender Equality & Women’s Empowerment, People with Disabilities, HIV/AIDS, Youth as Resources, Volunteerism, and Technology for Development (T4D).

For these topics, we provide training for incoming Volunteers during their initial 10-month homestay in their host country, and various Peace Corps posts extend and adapt this training according to their particular needs, programs, and priorities.

Why Technology for Development through Peace Corps

There are essentially four convergent factors that make Peace Corps’ work in applying technology such a timely priority. One, the technology environment (especially mobile) of host country locations has changed dramatically over the last decade, bringing mobile phones and data access to all but the most remote locations.

Two, incoming Volunteers are bringing their mobile devices from home and are more comfortable using them in their daily work. Three, technology projects and supplements are in high demand–from host countries, local counterparts, and are reiterated as a high priority of the US Government.

And four, convergence of the previous three points leads to a landscape of Volunteers, counterparts, and communities where the existence and use of technology for both personal and professional purposes is less taboo and is quickly becoming a basic expectation.

These factors do not apply exclusively to Peace Corps Volunteers, either. The examples of development and aid workers exploring various newer technologies to help with their work are only growing - and many of the ‘more’ (broken link at http://www.meducationalliance.org/content/landscape-review-mobiles-youth-workforce-development interesting ‘examples’ (broken link at http://www.meducationalliance.org/content/opportunities-mlearning-india) have been discussed in various mEducation forums.

The Peace Corps T4D Strategy

But it isn’t simply about putting phones in the hands of Volunteers or promoting e-readers as magic bullets for literacy education in their classrooms.

Our Volunteers are deployed into incredibly diverse and varied communities, and while we do focus our training and have a streamlined approach to the types of projects that Volunteers engage in, there are simply too many environments, variables, and differences to prescribe global one-size-fits-all solutions.

What works in one place may not work in another–whether it’s across the globe or just down the road. This context allows us at Peace Corps to think broadly and strategically about how we train our Volunteers in thinking about projects that use mobile technologies.

In short, we train them on how to think about technological interventions themselves within the context of their communities. Over time, both the Volunteers themselves, Peace Corps Posts, and Headquarters staff have begun to develop a set of guiding principles in T4D from the perspective of Volunteers:

Be empathetic - As much as possible, put oneself in the shoes of the user / learner / community.

Don’t define in terms of technology - Defining both problems and solutions excluding the means themselves ensures that one is on track for the appropriate outcome, not simply measuring the tools used in that outcome.

Don’t take interfaces for granted - When people speak of “intuitive” interfaces, they really mean “familiar” to them. Usability design is couched in culture, history, and consumer–few things are innate.

Find low cost solutions that build on existing infrastructure - The simplest and easiest solutions are often the most effective, sustainable, and best.

Share, share, share - Global learning occurs when methods, experiences, solutions, and failures are shared widely.

Two Examples of Technology for Development

Bantu Babel ­— Zambia. This year, a group of Peace Corps Volunteers in Zambia worked with local software developers to create Bantu Babel, a mobile app on the Android platform that acts as both a dictionary for seven less commonly-spoken Bantu languages in Zambia while also providing a basic phrasebook for those languages (video background of the project).

This project sparked into being from a recent ‘Innovation Challenge Hackathon’ (was at http://innovationchallenge.peacecorps.gov/ but now broken) sponsored by Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, calling on Volunteers, coders, and development workers all around the world to take a look at solving challenging problems through innovation and technology.

The Anou — Morocco. After two years of working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, Dan Driscoll began a project to make it easier for local artisans to sell their crafts over the Internet.

Working with local counterparts and other software developers, The Anou was launched. The platform allowed amateur artisans to post their products on eBay or Etsy without necessarily knowing how to use a computer, or even be able to read or write.