Afoako is in the Ashanti region of Ghana and it is where, before studying at Edinburgh University, James volunteered to work – in the Integrated Community Centre for Employable Skills (ICCES), of which there are 60 across rural areas of the country.
He founded the trust while in Ghana and it has steadily grown in its scale of operations – from sending four computers in 2010 to more than 1000 last year. The trust accepts donations of old IT equipment from companies and individuals, wipe them to industry standards and ship refurbished machines to Africa. Over the next three years, it is planning to send 4000 computers to 200 schools in Malawi.
In their presentation, Sir John and Lady Nicola highlighted a tablet developed in conjunction with the Zambian Government which contains the country’s entire primary school curriculm for years one to seven; lessons and detailed resources for teachers, in seven languages.
“But is that going to be applicable as students get older and the choices they can make in the curriculum increase,” said Lady Nicola. “What about using mobile phones?
“We hear a lot about using mobile phones for education in developing countries, but our experience recently with the ICCES was that less than half of the centre managers and ICT teachers had smartphones. And then what about social media, search engines or games?
“In many ways we are rather spoilt for choice – but perhaps one point to make here is that many of these rely on access to the internet – and yet access the internet in Ghana is 28.4% and only 6.5% in Malawi.
“Access to the internet is only one of the barriers to the use of IT in education. Power in Africa is also a problem – even where you have access to the grid, power cuts are frequent and many rural areas do not have access to the grid.”
They showed the so-called SolarBerry: “The idea is to repurpose a shipping container, use solar energy to provide the power and low energy Raspberry Pi’s, monitors and so on, to give access to IT resources.
“What we want to do is to promote the use of the computer lab to support teaching in all subjects – but for the teachers and students, this is quite a journey.”
Lady Nicola spoke about RACHEL (remote area community hotspot for education and learning), developed by non-profit organisation World Possible, that brings educational web content to offline communities.
“RACHEL not only delivers content, but it does also allow people to search for content, as you might do on the internet. However, imagine being presented with this if you have never used a computer before. Where would you start?
“One of the challenges we have at the moment in Ghana is to change the perception that computers are for learning ICT and convince teachers and students alike that they can be used to support learning for all the courses they are studying and that they should also be used as a resource for the community as a whole.
“So digital learning is here and is already making a difference. However, I think we need to acknowledge that there are also challenges and try to address these in designing and using digital content.
“Firstly, the potential scale is massive, so it is vital to prioritise and not bite off more than you can cope with. Be wary about making assumptions – it may sound like a great idea, but that may only be from your point of view – sense check your ideas before putting a huge amount of effort into something that may not deliver what you are aiming for.
“Be ready for those who want to maintain the status quo – after all, people have been learning from blackboards for ever – why change? Ensure that whatever you develop is platform neutral and easy to adapt as technology changes or as you need to update content.
“Finally, remember that people learn most effectively if they see what they are learning as being relevant to them.”