School support systems

Alex Twinomugisha

GeSCI doesn’t provide individual learners with equipment or training courses, but encourages countries to develop their own systems and institutions. What is the advantage of this approach?
It is important that each country develops education policies that suit the local situation and that are tailored to the population’s specific needs within the resources available. It is not our job to question or influence those policies but to provide advice, show ministries how ICTs can benefit their particular situation and help staff to develop the necessary skills to use the technology.

Sometimes we have to provide a reality check. For example, a government might want to provide broadband internet to every school, but if the country’s infrastructure doesn’t allow for that, we have to look at alternatives. Maybe they could distribute information by sending out CD-ROMs on a regular basis, or by using radio programmes.

It is important to realise that there is no single solution. You cannot decide to install computers in all schools if only a small percentage have access to electricity, for example. The teaching staff also needs to learn how to use the technology, and schools have to work out how to maintain the equipment in the long term. Every situation requires a different approach, and we work with the education ministries to determine the most practical solution in the given circumstances.

How can teachers benefit from e-learning?
Teachers are essential to the introduction of ICTs in schools. They are the ones who will be able to use the resources from the internet and from mobile applications, and apply them in their lessons. The teachers will be the ones who bring the technology into the classroom and instruct students on how to make the best use of it.

E-learning is also important for developing teachers’ professional skills. Many schools still rely on unqualified staff to teach students. These staff members can use online courses to gain extra qualifications. Meanwhile, students can lose out when teachers have to take time off to travel for professional development. Instead, teachers could use the internet and even cell phones to follow distance-learning courses.

We have to remember too, that ICTs can greatly improve the efficiency of the school administration services. Staff members have quicker access to records stored in a database, they spend less time completing handwritten reports, and education departments can receive regular updates via internet. In this way, the technology can help other school staff provide effective support for teachers.

What can rural communities do to improve their access to education?
People in rural areas can try to make the ministries aware of their needs, and show that there is demand for particular services. Even if they don’t meet government staff regularly, they can voice their opinions through NGOs working in the area, which can communicate their requests to the relevant department.

Meanwhile, governments have to remember to include people at all levels when developing new policies. The ministries have to consider the priorities of people in rural communities and ensure that they also have a place in any future plans.

Is technology likely to become an integral part of teaching in the future?
Yes, I think it will. And since so many people now have access to cell phones, even in very remote areas, I think they will become very important to the learning process, not only in school but outside too. Cellular network providers and phone manufacturers have realised that there is a big market in cell phone services. They are making it increasingly easy, and affordable, for people to access information and educational applications. Students use these apps in their own time, for their own personal interest and for homework. The schools need to realise this, adapt to it and make use of this extra resource.

What kinds of technology are currently being developed to deliver e-learning more effectively?
I don’t think we need to worry too much about the technology anymore. Everything we need to bring education to schools and rural communities already exists. It’s just a question of the time it takes until it becomes available to everyone.

Looking at it in the long term, I think the lines between the different types of technology will blur, and all devices will be able to access the same resources. The focus will be on the development of applications and services. Those students who like to work with others will have the tools to collaborate with people all over the world. Those who like to solve problems will have greater access to the information they need. We just have to make sure they all know how to use the new technology, and make the best of the opportunities available.

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Alex Twinomugisha is Africa regional director of the Global e-Schools and Communities Initiative.

31 January 2011

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