Bringing Design Skills to Schools in the Developing World

The Internet crashed, some of their best-laid plans had to be tossed out the window, and their shirts and shoes were all wrong. But that was all part of the learning experience for six Adobe volunteers on a two-week trip to rural Cambodia. Their mission? To train local teachers to use technology in the classroom, and to build their own human-centered design skills.

Their adventures abroad are thanks to Team4Tech, an organization that works to expand economic opportunities across developing countries through education. “We’re working to advance 21st century skills that are critical in the global economy: creative problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and communication,” says Julie Clugage, co-founder and executive director of Team4Tech.

And it’s working. Since its founding in 2012, Team4Tech has transformed the lives of kids with new opportunities in their schools. Julie recalled an experience when she was working to teach STEM in an area outside Cape Town. “There was a young boy who loved cars and dreamed of becoming a car designer. He came to our program after school and he got motivated to improve his math scores. He realized that was how he could someday become an engineer.”

On the Ground in Cambodia

Having that kind of impact is what drove the team of six Adobe volunteers during their recent trip to Cambodia, where they were tasked with helping schools to integrate tech into the classroom. Team4Tech partnered with CARE Cambodia – they were working on Know & Grow, a program serving schools in rural parts of the country, and they’d just secured 32 laptops and 95 tablets for four junior high schools in Ratanakiri, a historically underdeveloped and war-ravaged province.

“Creative use of technology in classrooms can make a huge difference,” says Julie. “A lot of times in developing countries, the teaching technique is rote memorization, so students aren’t really learning the skills they need to be competitive in today’s economy.”

Lin Yang, one of the volunteers, remembers planning before the trip: “We wanted to cover a lot of ground, from the basics of Windows and Android OS, to internet and security, communication and productivity tools, and desktop and mobile apps.”

But part of the experience, once they arrived, was figuring out how to adapt on the fly. The team’s first, and easiest, course correction was their clothing — dress shoes and shirts didn’t cut it without air conditioning, so the team quickly shifted to sandals and polos. But it was trickier when the internet crashed because all the attendees in the session tried to use it at the same time. They realized that they needed to preload programs and files onto flash drives. After the first lesson, they also had to revise their teaching plans. “We’d tried to do too much on the first day and we didn’t give them time to practice,” Lin explains.

So, the team tossed out their original plans and created new workshops to give teachers time to experiment with the apps on their tablets, edit photos, shoot videos and tell stories. In the second week, the team helped the Cambodian trainers teach more teachers, planting the seeds for far-reaching change in classrooms. “We trained about 14 trainers, who then trained about 40 teachers. And those teachers, in all, teach over 1,000 students,” says Lin.

Mutual Benefits and Critical Impact

Tech professionals are uniquely suited to the unexpected challenges and last-minute improvisations that are part of working in developing areas. “Human-centered design is something our tech partners have in their DNA. They’re open to brainstorming sessions, and they know how to do rapid prototyping, get feedback and revise,” Julie says. And being in the field helps volunteers deepen these skills even more. “Our volunteers come back to their day jobs with an enhanced perspective on the power of tech, the importance of being human-centered and the ability to address problems in an emerging market.”

And their work is making a difference at a critical moment—access to technology continues to drive the global economy, so having the right tools and 21st-century skills could help students in places like rural Cambodia find career options beyond manual labor or subsistence farming, and break the cycle of poverty.

“What I saw on this trip,” says Lin, “is the power and the potential for change that technology can have. When you go to a developing country, or even here in the U.S., folks who have access to technology have a leg up. It made me realize that we, as technologists, have an immense responsibility to share what we know with others.”

Check out Lin’s Spark page to learn more about the team’s experience in Cambodia, and read about Team4Tech’s work on their website. To find out more about the ways we’re using Adobe’s tech and skills to advance economic opportunities around the world, read about our education and pro bono initiatives.

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