It’s easy to think that ICT will be the answer to the problems in developing countries and that it will solve everything. In many ways it is obvious that to address inequality, access to the internet and all the information it offers must be good, and this struck me most forcibly during my very first visit to Umubano Primary School in Rwanda in 2014.
An eight-year-old girl came up to me and asked if there were lions in Rwanda. I was at first surprised that she would ask me, a visitor, a question about something in her country. Then I looked around and saw that there were no reference books and above all, no possibility to google the answer – the default action for almost everyone in countries where everyone has a smart phone, a tablet or at least access to the internet at school, their local library or café.
That was the start of a journey. Eighteen months later, there are thirty tablets at the school as well as a fully stocked library – there are ‘real books’ and there are e-books, there are apps to support learning in most subjects and there is great excitement about new ways of learning.
This is the most important point – the reason the girl’s question was so striking was because in the UK if a child had asked such a question, the usual response would be: How could you find out? And the child would then be encouraged to think, look around and then go and look it up. In Rwanda where rote learning has been the main form of pedagogy, this child thought that the only way to find out something was to ask an adult.
It was clear to me that the most important contribution APIE could make to Umubano Primary school - and to education more widely in Rwanda - would be to transform the pedagogy. ICT would clearly play a part in that. The journey to implementing ICT at Umubano, however, turned out to be more complicated than I envisaged. Here in the UK we take it for granted that information is literally at our fingertips, forgetting the time it has taken for this to happen.
Visiting the National Media Museum in Bradford recently, I saw an exhibition of the timeline of home computing. Looking at this with my son, now 31, we remembered our first (enormous!) computer that he used for a school project and on which I typed my Masters dissertation, laughing about the funny noise of the ‘dial-up’ to the internet, which often took several attempts to connect and which you couldn’t use at all if someone was on the phone at the same time! This was in the 1990’s. In the classrooms at this time in the UK, children were already being encouraged by well trained teachers to research and work things out for themselves, so that when the internet arrived in schools it was a natural progression for children – even if some teachers were afraid of it!
What I also then discovered was that because many people had thought that ICT would be the quick fix to closing the achievement gaps between the rich world and Africa, schools had already received many computers. Where were they then? Lying in boxes, in cupboards, covered in dust, untouched, unused. It is one of the most classic examples of aid gone awry – good intentions not thought through, donations unused for a whole host of very good reasons.
These reasons include: lack of power or frequent power cuts, lack of connectivity to the internet, lack of appropriate space to house and use the computers, lack of security – both physical and virtual - and most of all lack of knowledge of how to use these strange machines when even books are still a rarity. We set ourselves an ambitious but realistic target: to get all the pieces in place within a year. The Rwandan Government included ICT in the new curriculum this year (2016) and encouraged us to work this out and then share our learning, which we are now doing.
It took all that time, a lot of research, many, many conversations with a variety of different people and organisations but we did it. Now at Umubano Primary School we are so excited about what is happening. Thirty tablets are in use every single day. All the teachers have had training in how to use them, there is good technical back up thanks to the support of Carnegie Mellon University (Rwanda) and the most exciting thing is the way it is integrated into a new kind of teaching, where children are working more independently, teachers are facilitating not dictating, and everyone is excited about learning.
ICT is most definitely key to rapid development. Solid partnerships where everyone has ownership and engagement in the process is even more key to its successful implementation. We have even more ambitious plans now, and this time we aim to achieve them even faster... Meanwhile, next time a child at Umubano Primary School asks me a question, I know what my answer is going to be!