Mike Laflin directs EDC’s International Development Division (IDD), based in Washington, D.C. IDD, which employs approximately 400 staff in 26 countries, is a leader in the use of technology to address issues of access and quality in learning. IDD is also implementing national educational reform programs in several countries. A former teacher in England and Kenya, Laflin has three decades of experience in international development. He has been at EDC since 1992.
What are the main challenges that IDD faces working overseas?
Many developing countries have emphasized efforts to increase access to education for primary students, and we’ve seen some improvements there. However, we have not always seen equal improvements in the quality of learning. Many kids are finishing primary school without literacy and numeracy skills. Some of our recent work, such as projects in Guinea and Nigeria, has been predicated on changing that. But, huge numbers of children are still not enrolled in school—over 100 million around the world. Ten sub-Saharan countries have more than a million children not in school. There are a lot of reasons for this; one of the main ones is HIV/AIDS and the poverty that it brings. Many teachers have died, and there are many orphans whose parents died of HIV/AIDS. Our work in Zambia and Tanzania is a direct response to that challenge.
IDD often works in countries in conflict. What is the IDD approach in these volatile situations?
One impact of conflict is that there may not be school systems at all. They have either broken down or they never existed. So, one of our strategies is to provide basic education by radio. It can be effective even without a formal structure. Right now it’s working in places like Sudan and Somalia. There’s an appetite for education and a high level of acceptance of interactive radio instruction (IRI) among both formal education systems and among communities.
Tell me about the evolution of radio instruction.
ML: African countries have used radio for enrichment for more than 50 years, but until 10 years ago many countries believed that conventional systems alone could solve their problems. Now, leaders recognize that radio is an inexpensive complement, and one that can have a quick effect on learning outcomes. It also trains teachers at the same time. But for radio instruction to be accepted, countries have to be ready to look beyond conventional systems. In Tanzania, for example, there was initial resistance to radio. Once people saw it in operation, they liked it, and it was found to be effective. A national Grade Four test showed that “radio students” were learning as much as children in conventional schools. You need that kind of evidence.
How did EDC come to have expertise in interactive radio instruction?
IRI was first tried by Stanford University in the 1970s. EDC became a champion of it in the mid-80s and had a successful radio science project in Papua New Guinea. In the mid-90s, other organizations lost interest in radio and turned their energies to computers. We said, “We’re going to stick with radio and work with computers.” That was a critical period for IDD because it set up so many later opportunities.
What innovations do you see as particularly promising for the future?
We will continue to point our creativity at designing applications that fit. We will ask questions like, “What isn’t being done for students after primary school, especially in math and science? How can we use technology in ways that are affordable and effective?”
Tell me how you got involved in international development.
I started as a teacher in England and went to teach in Kenya in 1972. I worked for the Kenya Schools’ Broadcasting Service until 1978, developing educational programs for the radio. I have continued to do a variety of work using technology or media to deliver education ever since. I worked on a USAID radio project in Liberia in 1982. I came to EDC in 1992 to direct the LearnTech project. This kind of work only becomes more important as countries’ needs grow and technology becomes more sophisticated.
Originally published on September 1, 2006