Hemaima Tutuo reports on the first few months and future plans of a recently established ICT learning centre in the Solomon Islands.
‘Exciting’, ‘interesting’, ‘fantastic’ and ‘impressive’ are just some of the words used by the young people of Honiara in the Solomon Islands to describe their first training session at the newly established Youth First Computer Centre (YFCC).
In many developing countries, ICTs are rapidly becoming indispensable tools for participating in global markets, for improving the delivery of services, and for enhancing local development opportunities. Over the past few decades, the Solomon Islands have hardly benefited from the diffusion of ICTs due to a number of challenges and constraints. The country is still recovering from the ethnic conflict that ended in 2000, and the population is scattered over the six major and almost 1000 smaller islands – 85% of the population live in isolated villages on undeveloped outer islands. Efforts to improve connectivity and access to ICTs have also been hampered by the lack of a national strategy to mainstream ICTs in rural development.
However, since the establishment in 2001 of the People First Network (PFnet), an internationally acclaimed communications network based on radio email technology, the government has been actively promoting rural connectivity. Even on some of the remotest islands, there are now community owned and operated email stations, enabling the rural population to send and receive email. The establishment of ICT learning centres such as the YFCC in rural areas may be seen as a next step in this development.
The YFCC was initiated by the Solomon Islands ICT Working Group and is implemented by the Rural Development Volunteers’ Association (RDVA), a non-profit organization set up by the Ministry of Provincial Government and Rural Development. The YFCC has benefited from the generous assistance of the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP). The YFCC’s main objective is to provide training courses to improve computer literacy and awareness of ICTs among young people, including high school students and the unemployed.
The YFCC held its first training courses in East Honiara in March 2004, with intakes of students from 12 local schools. In the first month of operation, a total of 110 students, 53 boys and 57 girls, enrolled for classes at the Centre. Since few of the students had prior experience with computers, the majority attended the beginners’ course, which involves a total of 10 hours of training in basic computing. Most of the participants have shown great interest in computers and are eager to learn more. Follow-up courses offered by the YFCC include an introduction to Microsoft Word, and an email and Internet training course. The fees are reasonable – schools pay $SB 50 (about € 6) per student for the basic computing course, and private citizens $SB 150.00 (about € 17).
Although the activities so far are limited to Honiara, the YFCC is already working with PFnet in a project to link the Centre to rural schools and community centres on other islands via PFnet’s email network. In this project, the YFCC stands to benefit from PFnet’s technical expertise and its experience with distance education. Via PFnet, rural community high schools will be able to participate in educational ICT activities coordinated by the YFCC, such as the design of school websites. Students will also be able to enrol in distance learning programmes. In a pilot project launched in 2002, PFnet in partnership with the University of the South Pacific in Honiara established the first distance learning facility at one of Solomon Islands’ rural community high schools.
The pilot project has set a precedent for the adoption of ICT-enabled distance learning as the cornerstone of the government’s education policy. Recently, the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development announced that it had received funding from the EU and New Zealand for a two-year programme to establish a rural e-learning centre in a community high school in each province. The YFCC is in a unique position to help young people acquire the skills they need to participate in e-learning, and to further develop ICT-enabled educational activities for the benefit of young people throughout the Solomon Islands.