Friday, 29 August 2014

Powering Potential - bringing computers to rural off grid schools

An amazing use of Raspberry Pi's...

Today I met an amazing young man called Albin who is the country director for Powering Potential a charity setting up solar powered computer labs in rural, off grid schools.

We visited Welwel secondary school, one of ten schools they have set up in and around Karatu, close to Ngorogoro crater in Tanzania.

Because the capacity of solar panels is not sufficient to power many standard desktop pcs they are running a system based on Raspberry Pi computers, with locally bought keyboards and monitors - meaning one station uses about 10 watts, compared to between 60 and 300W for a normal desktop machine.

The cost of internet access is prohibitive for most schools so they have installed offline Wikipedia and Khan Academy videos and other educational content called RACHEL from World Possible.  They even supply low wattage battery powered projectors with rechargeable speakers so a whole class at once can watch.

Recently Powering Potential have completed three more school installations, all of which include three weeks training delivered by their locally trained technicians.  These remote local communities have to demonstrate commitment to the project by building a suitable room, providing transport for the equipment and accommodation for the trainers during the training.  

A remarkable achievement - no wonder President Kikwete recently expressed an interest in a role out to the 80% of Tanzanian schools; who are not yet connected to the grid...

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Teacher Training with Village Education Project Kilimanjaro

Tacking the harder problems in Tanzanian schools...

Katy Allen is an ex London lawyer who has been working to improve the standard of English in government primary schools in this region of Tanzania for the last twenty years through the charity she started, Village Education Project Kilimanjaro, VEPK..

Katy started by refurbishing schools – mending leaking roofs and putting glass in the windows so the classrooms aren't filled with dust when it’s windy.  She soon realised that although Tanzania has done a good job of getting children into school, it has been much less successful in getting them to learn there.

Problems are huge.  Teachers are told where to teach and spend many hours travelling on very poor roads to get to work, using up a high proportion of the meagre salary to do so.  

Teacher training covers content not methodology so teachers generally spend lessons copying notes from (often inadequate) textbooks for the children to try to copy down into their flimsy exercise books, understanding nothing.  That is if they are lucky enough to have a pen. In this class a quarter of the class did not, and had to wait for their friends to finish and lend them one. 

Some of the classes are enormous, up to 109.  There are not enough classrooms so half the children come in the morning and half in the afternoon.  Even so there are two classes in the room above so while one class is being taught the other is supposed to sit waiting.  There are no pupil books or teaching aids.

VEPK runs seminars for Maths and English teachers, teaching them participatory teaching techniques using materials found locally such as bottle tops.  They also run one to one sessions with teachers explaining the topics they find hardest.  They show them how to analyse the results of the trial exams to work out which topics their children are struggling with - standard procedure in the UK, but a revalation to these teachers. They are also producing and trialing new text books

The enthusiasm in which Katy and Barb were greeted in each school we went to was evidence of the high regard they are held in by teachers and children alike. The lessons I saw were interactive, pacy and fun - a far cry from the standard lessons here.

You can read more about VEPK's work here.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

On the road with ACCT - Affordable Computers & Technology for Tanzania

Bringing technology to village schools in Tanzania...

I spent Friday bumping down steep rocky paths with Robert from ACTT in his car visiting some of the 90 rural schools he has installed computers in.  

We saw a lesson delivered  using their mobile solar lab to 13 year olds, most of whom had never seen computers before.  

I met Gabriel using Encarta science as he wants to be an engineer and Najma using Wikipedia offline to practice her English. She wants to be a politician to ensure Tanzanian men respect women. 

It's not without its challenges though. Throughout the day Robert juggled calls on 2 phones. Problems ranged from the broken down bus transporting laptops for a lab technicians training session in Dar to issues at customs due to a new tax on the second hand computers he gets shipped from Close The Gap a Belgian NGO.

Most of the employees at ACTT are former street kids from the shelter where Robert used to work. 

Ally was orphaned at 10 but Robert trained him to be a technician. Without ACTT he said he would probably be in prison or an addict on the streets. Instead he is training the next generation....

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Mr Githuri's laptop out on the Somali border

One man's mission to bring education to all...

I met Mr Githuri (aka John, but they are more formal in Kenya) when he was teaching Science at Muthurwa Primary school in the slums of Nairobi.  He is one of the most inspiring teachers I have ever met.  Even when an over-enthusiastic British teacher corrected his teaching in front of his class he thanked her rather than take offence..

When I showed him BBC Bitesize on the laptops we had taken over he was amazed "How can British children fail if they have access to so much information?" he asked.  He loved Google Images so much he stayed up half the night meticulously creating his first PowerPoint to show his class.
He diverted rainwater from the school roofs to grow an award winning vegetable garden to supplement the meagre lunches for the pupils. 

Now the government has sent him to another school a 2 day bus ride from Nairobi, right up by the Somali border.  The teachers often have to relocate to follow the nomadic children, there is usually no electricity and he lives in the school compound, always on call.  He sees his young family only every 3 months. Most teachers would complain, but he is full of enthusiasm for the children's thirst for learning.  They are the first generation to go to school, and their parents are largely sceptical, particularly on educating girls, but gradually he is bringing them round to share his love of learning..

We managed to meet up briefly at Nairobi airport, where I gave him a donated laptop. With his thirst for knowledge I know he will make excellent use of the offline Wikipedia in English and Swahili and hours of Science videos downloaded from YouTube that I copied onto it.... at least as long as the battery keeps going...