28 May 2012

Rwanda: With Locally-Made Content, Laptops Become Real Education Tools

It's been over two years that the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project, under the Ministry of Education, started the distribution of XO laptops, as they are officially called, to children of P4 to P6 across the country. As many as 105,000 XO laptops have already been deployed so far.

However, only 185 out of 2,388 public primary schools have so far been served mainly due to the fact that the majority still has no electricity (only 473 do, although a program of setting up solar power in the remaining ones is being rolled out). The laptops usually come loaded with a universal selection of content that includes educational material and games.

Even though the laptop is a powerful tool for learning and collaboration, exposing children to a wealth of knowledge and providing opportunities that they would not have with traditional educational tools such as textbooks, one thing has so far been lacking: a curriculum adapted to Rwanda's education system.

Until now, students were being introduced to the pre-loaded general content, most of the time unrelated to the curriculum. Yet this is changing, and the integration of the curriculum is already being carried out.

"The integration of curriculum is a fundamental step in our strategy," says Nkubito Bakuramutsa, the OLPC Coordinator. "The idea of integrating technology in schools goes beyond just the deployment of laptops. It is a full transformation of the role of the teacher who becomes a facilitator, a moderator between the digital knowledge in laptops and the students."

He adds that with the adapted content, the laptops can even serve to help develop the skills of primary school teachers, many of who are still underqualified.

The new content is being tested since May 16 in two schools, and the system that has been devised has the advantage that the curriculum has to be installed only once in the school's server, from where the children can access it with their laptop's wireless network connection. So there is no need to go through a lengthy process to install the content in every single machine, and any adjustments to the curriculum can be carried out easily.

However, having the curriculum stored only in the school's server has the disadvantage that you have to be close to the premises to be able to access it. To solve this, students have the option to save content for offline reading and revision at home.

Deaf/mute pupils

From an educational point of view, the use of the laptops means that the information can be presented in a much more interesting way. "The digital content is presented in a graphically rich and interactive environment, which enables students to visualize things better and therefore retain the material more in a playfully way," Bakuramutsa points out. "For example, when in biology the teacher wants to talk about human blood circulation, the student can watch an animated graphic of the blood actually flowing throughout the body."

One of the schools that received laptops is the Institut Filippo Smaldone in Nyamirambo, which is an exceptional case since it caters specifically for deaf/mute students. To say they are satisfied with the experience is an understatement.

"These laptops have really helped improve students socially and intellectually," says headmistress Sister Antonia Gadaleta. "They are always excited when using them. For them, images are very important."

Those students are actually doing very well because they are more focused, adds Bakuramutsa, and their teachers are experts in creating bridges between the regular lessons and those for special needs. "We are working on a special content for handicapped students as well," he explains.

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