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Bridging the Digital Divide: A Journey Through Appropriate Technology

Photo: Three Mountains Learning Advisors – digital literacy class in rural Rwanda- people waving with their phones

In this article, Jan Willem Eggink from Three Mountains Learning Advisors, Rwanda, argues that bridging the digital divide requires course designers to go the extra mile by leveraging appropriate technology and tailoring their design to the people they seek to serve. He elaborates on four lessons he learned from his practice as an instructional designer.

By: Jan Willem Eggink

In the late 70s of the past century, I was studying Tropical Agriculture; the personal computer did not yet exist, nor did the Internet, let alone remote learning. Teaching and Training was a face-to-face affair and technology was something you could touch; a machine, a vehicle, a pump.

As idealistic students, my peers and I were frustrated by the siloed approach of our professors. While they preached the optimisation of plant growth, water usage, and fertilisation in large-scale irrigation schemes, we felt disconnected from the reality of poor small farmers who didn’t benefit from such schemes.

Photo: Delft University – large-scale irrigation in Sudan

It was during those formative years that we championed the concept of “appropriate technology” – solutions tailored to the specific needs and capacities of the people they were meant to serve. We embraced the notion that technology should be by the people, not just for them. It was a philosophy encapsulated by the mantra “Small is Beautiful,” a sentiment echoed in the popular book11 of the same name.

The standard reply of our tutors was that appropriate technology at best could serve a niche market of idealists, but to feed the growing world population, you needed large-scale high-tech top-down solutions. Case closed.

Fifty years have passed and we have landed in the digital age. Now we do not think of steel and oil companies when we talk about Big-Tech, but of software companies and internet providers, governing the World Wide Web.  

And again, we see people in developing countries missing out on the opportunities of technology. We also have given it a name: the digital divide.

Once again, the predominant approach to bridging this gap has been top-down solutions championed by governments and big-tech companies. Their focus on universal 4G coverage and the distribution of smartphones and laptops seems logical, assuming that connectivity alone will pave the way for equal access to information and opportunities.

But is it enough?

My experiences with appropriate technology have led me to question this approach. While connectivity is undoubtedly crucial, simply providing access to technology does not guarantee its benefits. In fact, for marginalised communities, it can introduce new challenges and vulnerabilities. It’s a realisation that has prompted me to revisit the principles of appropriate technology – to consider ow we can tailor technical solutions to empower, rather than enslave.

I think also here Small is Beautiful. I’m not talking about doing things totally differently, I’m talking about carefully tweaking technical solutions together with the future users in such a way they profit most.

At Three Mountains Learning Advisors ( see:, our journey embodies this ethos. It began in 2014 when my wife and I, running an e-learning company in the Netherlands, received an assignment from an international NGO to create e-learning courses for several African countries.

During our research, we discovered a glaring gap – the lack of localized content that resonated with African audiences.

That is when we decided to move to Rwanda and set up a local instructional design company. Over the past nine years, we’ve cultivated a team of 12 dedicated Rwandan instructional designers. Together, we’ve created a plethora of e-learning courses, in English, Kinyarwanda and French. Our journey has been filled with lessons – lessons that underscore the importance of language, context, and user-centred design.

Lesson one: language matters

The most effective learning often occurs when individuals are addressed in their native language. In our practice, we initially develop all our courses in English and subsequently, if necessary, have them translated by our local team members and then reviewed by a designated proofreader chosen by our employer.

Interestingly, we’ve observed that the English versions of our e-courses tend to be more widely utilized than their Kinyarwanda counterparts. However, this trend can be attributed to the fact that online e-courses typically attract individuals who are educated, have access to connected devices, and have been immersed in English education throughout their lives.

Recently, we’ve received some assignments geared towards less technologically connected individuals, and in these cases, we’ve noticed a preference for the Kinyarwanda versions of our courses. This underscores the importance of language in learning, albeit in ways that may be different from what one might initially expect.

Lesson two: context matters

People learn best when you present them with recognisable examples and role models they can relate to. So, when you make a course for farmers, you take your examples from the challenges local farmers face and film testimonials of local people, preferably at recognizable places. If you use enacted videos, you make sure your actors look like locals, are dressed as locals, behave like locals and talk like locals (so, preferably they are locals). If you want to promote gender equality, you rather make use of existing examples of women in positions of power, than create imaginary characters and situations. 

Finding the right situations and characters requires some field research. We always plan field visits, before we start designing a course, to understand and ‘feel’ the context in which our target group lives. This helps enormously in finding the right tone of voice and examples. On our first field visit, we take a lot of pictures. During later field visits, we interview people and shoot the videos we need for the course.  

Lesson three: look through the eyes of the target group  

To make successful localised e-learning, you must put yourself constantly into the shoes of your target group and ask yourself:  would I be interested in this information if I were a member of the target group? What would I want to learn? What is difficult for me to grasp?  What would catch my attention?  This will help you find the right subjects and the right tone for the course you are creating. However, your employer also may have specific ideas about what should be in the course and how to formulate certain messages. We often find ourselves spending quite some time discussing content and reviewing draft courses with the employer (often more than one person), to get to solutions that satisfy everyone.  

Lesson four: adapt the technology used to the realities of the users

This last lesson has proven to be the most difficult one. We still live in a world where access to high-speed internet and sophisticated devices is far from universal. Yet, in many tenders, we won,  the technology to be used was already determined. For example, it said: “You are going to make an interactive e-course for rural women entrepreneurs, which will be placed on our platform.”  Then, what can you do when you find out at your first field visit that 80% of the target group does not have access to the Internet, nor has smartphones?  In our experience, few employers then have the flexibility to switch technology. They rather say things like: “But in the future, they will have smartphones, so just make that online course.”

Picture: Three Mountains Learning Advisors – woman watching a video on her simple phone

To our great regret, we must admit that over the past years, we have made quite some online courses for target groups with no access to the Internet. This is a shame, because also for people with simple phones and no access to the Internet, we can make interesting and very effective e-learning!   For example in the form of simple videos, more like podcasts with images, adapted for use on simple phones.

Offline digital courses pose the challenge of distribution. And indeed, that requires more effort than putting your e-course on a platform and letting your learners stream or download it from the internet.  But it is possible.  People can get courses on the SD card of their simple phones, copying it by BlueTooth or cable from each other.

And once, people have a video course downloaded on their phone, they own it! I had not realized the importance of that aspect before I saw it happening before my eyes.  A first batch of e-courses on the platform of our employer was not received with much enthusiasm by the target group, in this case, rural women. The second batch, which we made in the form of downloadable videos for simple phones, made some women even cry when receiving it. They now ‘owned’ a course on how to improve their standard of living!  Instead of having to listen to a Master trainer and taking notes to find out a week later that they had forgotten most of it, they could listen to the same course whenever they wanted, six or seven times while doing their household chorus or working in the field!


Closing the digital divide requires a willingness to go the extra mile. It demands an embrace of diversity, adaptability, and inclusivity in our technological endeavours. By leveraging appropriate technology and tailoring our approaches to the people we seek to serve, we can truly bridge the digital gap and create a more equitable digital landscape for all.

  1. Small is beautiful; A Study of Economics As If People Mattered is a collection of essays published in 1973 by German-born British economist E. F. Schumacher. See also: ↩︎

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