One of the most usual critics for laptops initiatives in countries like Rwanda is how to start a project like this when the country has no experience with other “ICT in Education” initiatives! By “ICT in Education” (expression I personally think is completely misguided) the criticizers usually mean computer labs programs.
“How Rwanda wants to learn how to run before knowing how to walk?” is a common recurrent question I need to face in the discussions around the project. For some people this looks like a sounding argument, and in a certain perspective, they are right.
Managing a nation wide laptop initiative is several orders of magnitude more complex than running a computer labs program. When you start a laptop initiative like the one OLPC proposes, in a very short period of time you have thousands of students accessing their laptops what creates an urgent demand for a very sophisticated maintenance program, very intense teachers capacity building program and lots of resources invested in wiring all classrooms of beneficiary schools.
In a computer labs program, everything is much easier. You have just a few computers (usually 10) per school, which demands the training of only a single teacher, the “ICT Teachers” and a much simpler maintenance program in place. There isn’t also the pressure from the school community to have things working, since the computers are locked inside the lab. The school manages when the students have access to it, what might happen only once every few months. When the machines are used inside classroom time, it is usually for an ICT course that teaches students office productivity tools. Not integrating computers in the teaching activities is usually seen as an asset, since there is no pressure on the teachers to change their teaching practice. Indeed, a much easier to run program.
However, such perspective only focus on the complexity of the program implementation and totally misses the outcomes that you expect from the presence of computers in schools. What people should reflect is the relation between investments versus outcomes in order to analyze which program performs better. In this case, the outcomes also need to be measured in terms of what children learn and how they cognitively developed. After all, we are discussing a project in the education sector.
It doesn’t matter how nicely your project was developed and implemented, if children don’t learn or only grasp the use of outdated software; the initiative is going to be a failure. However, even if the project looks messy, but children developed intellectually beyond what they would without computers, your initiative will have achieved some level of success.
If countries like Rwanda want to catch up with developed countries, they need to transform their educational system! This is something that most people accept. However, Rwanda needs audacious initiatives adapted to the local constraints and possibilities and not merely copy outdated and unsuccessful models from developed countries. By their side, developed and emerging countries won’t slow down their development for Rwanda to catch up. This tinny African nation needs to jump ahead other countries in order to make the gap shorter.
In places where you need to cover long distances in a short period, learning how to run before knowing how to fly is a necessity!
If we look to Africa today, there are many examples that can help us to see such discussion into a more concrete basis.
Maybe the most sounding one regards the growth of mobile telephone services, the cell phones, throughout the whole continent. Mobiles in Rwanda are a fever, almost everybody in the cities has at least one, and the availability grows fast in rural areas too. Everybody wants to communicate.
The first time I traveled to the countryside, it was impressive to see almost everywhere the MTN small signs, stating that “here you can buy airtime”, meaning the scratch cards that allow you to put credits in your pre-paid phone. Without exaggeration, in the rural areas you will find huts with MTN and TIGO signs and battalions of people selling the “airtime” . The companies created a whole micro-business ecosystem allowing that ordinary people have a small profit reselling this mobile phones products. Especially outside Kigali and Butare, the country two major cities, one of the cell phones more important asset being commercialized is power. Everyday hundreds of car batteries leave the cities towards the countryside with only one objective: to recharge the cell phones of thousands of people around the country. By 100 Rwandese Francs (around 20 cents of a dollar) you can get your mobile recharged and get in touch with the world.
Curiously, Rwanda has only 1000 land lines in the whole country. When cell phones arrived, nobody started advocating that before starting with the new technology, the country would need to finish its land line infra-structure project. Actually, cell phone showed much fit to the country’s reality, spreading fast for affordable prices. Internet access in the country is also following similar path when 3G and other wireless technologies are the only way most people have to access the network.
Again, it wasn’t by blindly following other countries’ models that Rwanda achieved such success in access to mobile technology. It was by seeing what are going to be the standards of the future and pursuing them today that we can try to address local issues. In other words, it is through the deep understanding the GLOCAL that countries can develop.
Another interesting perspective is how this new technologies can enable us to think differently about old problems. I recently discussed this issue in another post, where I raised the challenges of teacher’s development for laptop initiatives. Some people who provided me feedback, focused too much about the difficulties of the OLPC project here. Although, my original intention was to point out how important it is to think differently about teacher’s development, and deep our discussions away from the trivial strategies of “train the trainers”.
Two years ago when I arrived in Rwanda, one of the most interesting things I noticed was the absence of names in the streets and numbers in the houses. Most places just don’t have an address, and when they have people just don’t know it. Most of the orientation is done through landmarks or just giving directions. Taking out the most immediate problems with taxi drivers, this fact has a profound effect in you daily life, like the absence of an efficient Posting service. In order to get you letters, the mailing man doesn’t come to your place, you need to go to the post office and inquiry if you have any letters.
This causes a major problem in sending bills to people for services like phones, Internet, water, etc. Simply there is no way for the bill to reach your house. This simple fact almost bankrupts Electrogas, the national energy company. People just didn’t pay their bills. This made the company to change the billing from a post-paid model to a pre-paid model, meaning that now you must buy electricity credits and enter the code into your meter before use.
When I arrived in Rwanda, 99% of the services in the country were pre-paid. However, in the last year several new post-paid services started to show up in the country following the basic same recipe: you pay a one-month deposit for the service and your bills are sent to your e-mail.
The “electronic address” supplying the gap left by the lack of physical addresses if one of those situations when new technologies allow us to think differently to solve even the most simple problems, like sending a bill to a client. Of course that instantiating physical addresses would bring several other advantages, however this will be a long process and many problems can’t wait that long to be solved.
Back to the laptop project, we are in a similar situation. Of course that providing high quality education for teachers is something everybody wants. Although with the lack of qualified human resources to develop them, you reach a “chicken and egg” problem. Uneducated teachers can’t develop children that by its chance also will become low quality human resources, including future teachers.
In order to break the vicious circle, we need to devise new development strategies that take advantage of the presence of computational power and low cost mobile technology of the cell phones to reach hundreds of thousands of students in short periods of time. It isn’t just an issue of providing a short training to some “teachers trainers” and fell in the illusion that they will learn in weeks the expertise that others took decades to develop.
What needs to be done is create ways that the experiences learn by teachers and children learn can easily flow across the society so there is a knowledge pool deep enough to base a next level of development. For the locals in charge of such process, it is an issue of connecting with other people that are facing similar problems across the globe and exchange experience.
In other words, it is necessary to bootstrap a networked continued development program that comprehends from children to national managers in order to develop the necessary skills to roll out the full potential of the laptop initiate.