The Educational Support Network in Zambia enables teachers to use ICTs to produce locally relevant digital lesson notes for distribution to other schools in the country.
Modern, culturally relevant textbooks are in short supply throughout Africa. In Zambia, for example, there are no specialised educational publishers, so textbooks have to be imported. This puts the cost beyond the reach of many government-funded schools who often have limited budgets. The small group of private schools that can afford to import textbooks face another problem: a lack of relevant examples and references that are recognisable to Zambian students, and which would capture their interest. The problem is less significant in subjects such as mathematics, biology and chemistry, which are fairly generic. But history, geography and political studies should be more closely linked to the local, national or regional setting in order to be accessible to students.
To address the problem of inappropriate – or non-existent – classroom materials, many teachers in Zambia produce their own detailed notes for their lessons. The notes tend to be handwritten since few teachers can afford to buy a computer for home use. Even if the school has an ICT lab, many older teachers, who did their teacher training before the local training colleges had access to the technology, are unable or reluctant to use a computer.
The teachers, therefore, construct their lessons around their own notes, but because they are handwritten and personal to each teacher, they are often used only once. ‘The notes and the textbooks are not updated,’ explains Namakonde, a teacher at Roma Girls School in Lusaka Province, ‘and this was reflected in the performance of pupils.’ However, these notes can contain a wealth of useful information, including cultural references and links to local situations.
Recognising that the teachers’ notes represented a unique national educational resource that had never previously been used, the not-for-profit organisation, One World Africa-Zambia, set up the Educational Support Network (ESNet) to develop educational material specific to the country’s schools. A pilot phase of the project began in 2006, with eight secondary schools in four provinces in Zambia: Copperbelt, Central, Lusaka and Southern provinces.
The selected schools were all outside the capital city, Lusaka, had an available internet service provider in the area, and had the infrastructure and space to support the extra activities. For example, ESNet may have needed to install computers in teacher resource rooms rather than in the school ICT labs used by students, so that the teachers could work undisturbed.
ESNet initially trained 45 teachers from the eight schools to type and transcribe their handwritten notes using computer software. ‘We selected four subjects: history, geography, civics and English literature,’ explains Priscilla Jere, executive director of One World Africa-Zambia, ‘so that teachers could utilise the information they already had.’
The typed documents were then e-mailed to a central editing centre where four volunteer teachers (specialists in the four chosen subjects) worked to standardise the text. The volunteers had also received advanced ICT training through ESNet in order to adapt the text to fit an agreed template and add graphs, diagrams, images and additional information from the internet. It takes between six to eight hours for a volunteer teacher to enhance each set of notes.
The edited notes were then peer-reviewed by the editing centre staff and submitted for final approval to a specially appointed quality control team. This team consisted of officials from the national Curriculum Development Centre, a standards officer from the country’s Education Development Centre, head teachers, and staff from a publishing house. When approved, the notes were copied to CD-ROM and returned to the participating schools. The final documents were also published on the ESNet website.
The biggest challenge for ESNet was maintaining a steady flow of digitised notes from teachers to the editing centre. One World Africa-Zambia had originally hoped to deal with 117 notes every three months, but this proved to be too ambitious. Zambian teachers have busy schedules and a strenuous workload, particularly during exam time. They simply do not have enough time to transcribe their notes during school hours. The project team, therefore, reduced the target to 48 notes per quarter, and after several meetings with teachers from the participating schools, they developed new ways to improve the efficiency of the process.
The teachers often had to transcribe their notes after hours, because during school time the computers were in constant use. One solution was to persuade school principals to allow these teachers access to one specially designated computer, and allocate them extra time within school hours to transcribe their notes.
Maintaining internet connectivity was another issue. Several schools lost their internet connection because they were unable to pay their bills. Some schools tried to generate additional income by setting up an internet café on the premises. However, this was not successful in the long-term as neither the teachers nor the students possessed the business skills needed to sustain it. Other schools negotiated higher fees with their respective parent teacher associations in the hope that the slight increase of US$2 per pupil each month could be used to pay for connectivity and computer maintenance.
ESNet has helped to develop a process to give teachers the skills to digitise, enhance, collate and share their previously informal notes. ‘The performance at our school has risen to a much higher level,’ says Namakonde. ‘Our pupils now have access to up to date information.’
An evaluation of the project showed that 89% of participating teachers felt they had benefited from the new skills they had learned by being involved in the initiative. ‘I produced my own teaching notes and sent them in for editing,’ said one teacher. ‘I now have detailed notes that I can use and share with other teachers who are not part of this project.’
The next step will be to create a self-sustaining online network of teachers. Those participating already share their ideas using the Dgroups platform. However, persistent connectivity challenges at the eight participating schools continue to inhibit any sustained discussions via the internet. As far as distribution of the documents is concerned, this has been solved by copying the content onto CD-ROMs and sending them to schools.
Increasing the number of computers in the participating schools is also a top priority. Three schools have already managed to purchase refurbished computers with ESNet’s support. The project team is now looking for ways to provide the remaining five schools with more computers. In the long-term, this initiative will help to build up a pool of high quality, culturally relevant teaching material that other secondary school teachers in Zambia can easily access and replicate for use in the classroom.
is executive director of One World Africa-Zambia , and Theresa Stanton is country manager for Zambia at the International Institute for Communication and Development .
ESNet teacher notes
One World Africa-Zambia
Video showing ESnet work