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Questions and Answers with Ken Banks

Creator of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning mobile messaging application aimed at the grassroots non-profit community, Ken Banks is one of the world’s leading voices on mobile technology and development. He spent two decades working on projects in Africa to connect mobile technology to positive social and environmental change, and has looked specifically at how everyday technologies can be used to democratize opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local community, and promote a return to local resource use. His work and writing on Africa, technology, and innovation won him many accolades, including Laureate of the Tech Awards, CARE International’s first Entrepreneur in Residence, National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow. Ken talks to us with passion about his extraordinary work, and the power and limitations that technology holds when it comes to learning.
  • By In Focus
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  • 27/09/ 2016
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How did you come up with the FrontlineSMS idea? How has it evolved?

Making sure we make the most of the incredible opportunity mobile presents has taken up much of the last 15 years of my professional life. My experience of the African continent began ten years earlier in 1993, when I visited Zambia to help build a school. Since then I’ve returned to live and work on the continent on many occasions, always spending time with grassroots non-profit organizations, the majority of which were locally run. With a deep understanding of the problems and challenges they faced, it was no surprise that the initial focus of my work in mobile was to be there. As mobile phones began to show their development potential, they were the ones, I feared, who would be left behind. There were signs that, by focusing on the top tier of non-profits in the developing world—those with funding, access and resources—we were leaving those further down behind, and few people seemed to be paying any attention.

My response was to build a tool which would specifically meet the needs of that grassroots community. The idea for FrontlineSMS came to me one rainy Saturday evening in early 2005, in Cambridge, UK. Over the previous two years I had been working extensively in South Africa and Mozambique with a South African NGO on a contract with the oldest international conservation organization in the world: Fauna & Flora International. We were looking at ways national parks could use information and communications technologies to better communicate with local communities—something that has traditionally been problematic. Since SMS (text messaging) usage was just beginning its astronomical climb, it seemed like an obvious communications tool to consider.

While many solutions at the time were being developed around something many grassroots communities didn’t have—the Internet—FrontlineSMS focused on leveraging what they did have. By connecting a mobile phone or a GSM dongle to a laptop computer, people could send and receive messages directly via the mobile network without the need for the Internet, without the need for expensive equipment and without the need for complex technical training. Early adoption was slow, but it gradually grew and, ten years on, FrontlineSMS is being used in over 170 countries around the world for all manner of social change activities, from election monitoring, to conservation, agriculture, health, education and activism.

Can mobile technology help redefine learning? What are your thoughts about the links between innovation, entrepreneurship, social change, and education?

Perhaps I’m a little old school, but I don’t think technology will ever replace teachers. Learning tools can supplement, enhance or extend the learning experience, but I still very much believe that it’s not all about the technology. So when we talk about any kind of technology redefining anything, I’m immediately skeptical. The technology certainly can help, but first it has to be used in appropriate ways.

Clearly the Internet and mobile phones can provide access to a vast array of resources previously not available to students, and provide access to rich learning materials such as interactive websites, videos, and games. While we’ve seen considerable focus and progress in these areas over the years, most of the entrepreneurship and social change initiatives I’ve come across don’t focus specifically on education—although, of course, health messaging is, in effect, education, as is information about candidates in an election, all things delivered today through mobile phones in various countries. With education per se, and how new technologies can enhance learning, most of what I come across are solutions developed by social businesses rather than lone innovators, so many people see e-learning solutions development as a business opportunity. They don’t tend to think the same about health, which is interesting.

How do you imagine the school of the 21st century?

I think schools look different everywhere, so it’s hard to picture what schools in general might be like. In the world of social innovation I live in, the world is the classroom, and when I think about some of the most valuable things I’ve learned over the years they’ve certainly come outside of any recognized learning infrastructure.

In terms of what the future of learning might be, I’m a big fan of Ashoka’s ‘Changemaker Schools’ initiative, which seeks to arm students with the kinds of skills they’re going to need in a rapidly changing world of work. Skills like empathy and problem solving, for example. I think the most successful students of the future will have more of their education rooted in the real world, rather than the one that existed in the 20th century.

We were honored to publish your article on mobile learning in Prospects. What are your thoughts about continuing to work with the IBE?

I am always excited to work with people and organizations open to change and disruption in their fields—but the kind of change and disruption rooted in the realities of what’s needed rather than what people would simply ‘like’ to do. As the technology landscape leaps ahead in the developed world, we’re presented with increasing numbers of tools which we can consider as learning tools for children in developing countries, but we shouldn’t just see it as a case of ‘technology transfer.’ We need to consider which tools might be most relevant and appropriate, based on local needs, before rushing to show how innovative we are. These are all issues I’m passionate about, so I always welcome the opportunity to work with people keen to make the most of the opportunities available today.