Innovative Practice - Better connected

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Second-hand laptops improve teaching and literacy for pupils and teachers across Rwanda

The background

When Australian educationalist Stephen Harris visited Rwanda at the request of the Anglican Church to help some of its schools in the north of the country, he was overwhelmed by what he saw.

It was clear that the country - still rebuilding after the genocide of 1994 in which an estimated 800,000 people died - still needed outside help to improve its educational infrastructure and the life chances of its young people.

But he also realised there was a huge amount of potential within the country and that, despite its past, Rwanda remained keen to use "borrowed talent" to help development.

"As an educator I was immediately asking the question: 'What could we do?'" he says.

Harris' school has had an ongoing mission focus on Rwanda ever since, and he has visited the country many times, including a trip last year when he organised an international education summit.

"With entrepreneurial thinkers, action-oriented people and those with a commitment to serving this generation we hope to create sustainable and economic options for improving infrastructure associated with school and schooling," he says.

The project

One of the biggest challenges facing the education sector in Rwanda is the standard and quality of teaching. Teachers there often have had a poor education themselves and are not qualified to educate their students to the desired level. Many of them can't speak English - a major handicap in a country which uses that language in exams.

Harris believed that by putting technology into the hands of students and teachers they could be helped to teach themselves, so he started collecting and distributing second-hand laptops, smartphones and tablet computers.

The students initially used their devices to contact Harris and other volunteers via email and social media, asking questions and engaging in conversation to improve their English language skills. Meanwhile, Harris connected with their teachers to help improve the latter's literacy skills.

Evidence that it works?

Harris found that students were so enthused about their new opportunities that they regularly walked 10km to the local market to buy five minutes of internet time so that they could contact the outside world.

"They are bypassing school and turning to the internet and social media in particular to communicate with other people and improve their education," he says.

Harris now hopes to establish an international school-to-school programme linking schools across the world via social media.

The project

Approach: Giving second-hand technology to young people in Rwanda to inspire them to become independent learners

Leader: Stephen Harris, director of the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning and principal of Northern Beaches Christian School, Sydney, Australia.

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