WorldTeach volunteer Patrick Donovan introduces simple technology and opens up endless possibilities for his learners in Namibia.

Over the August holiday, I got my hands on a cool technology put together by a colleague, Joris Komen, who I met during my struggle to get information about the state of education technology in Namibia. Joris is working with a team of talented hardware and software folks who more or less hacked a wireless router so that it could transmit the content of a USB stick (also specially formatted for this purpose) to up to/over 40 wifi-enabled devices at once.  So you need no internet whatsoever. You simply turn on this little router (about the size of a smart phone, which is what my students think it is), and then look for a network called ‘OpenLibrary’ on your device.  Once connected, you enter a particular URL in your browser and from there you can navigate between all the various resources.

In short, wireless router + USB pre-loaded with content = an entire class (using our school PCs) can access educational resources ‘offline’. The connection is fast, even with videos, and reliable.

So what is the content? A US-based non-profit called World Possible has created a package of various Open Educational Resources (OERs) that anyone is free to download for use offline. That package is called ‘Rachel’ and it’s what Joris & co. put on the USB. It includes a lot of good stuff, such as:

  • Khan Academy videos
  • Curated Wikipedia articles (mostly school-related, but some more general topics such as sports and pop culture)
  • Encyclopedia of Health & Medicine
  • Hesperian Health Guides (illustrated guides on health topics that are useful for people located in very rural settings, with limited access to medical personnel/facilities)
  • CK-12 Textbooks (open-sourced, high quality math & science textbooks)
  • E-books from Project Gutenburg
  • Resources gathered by the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project
  • UNESCO teaching resources

Note: the total ‘Light 2 Read’ package, which clarifies why it’s so named, includes a solar panel for charging and a very low cost tablet.  So really if you get the whole package, you can be anywhere (with at least adequate sunlight) and have unlimited access to the above resources.  A really promising idea, particularly because it meets learners/families where they are (i.e. it’s a self contained network that requires nothing external, no hardware, software, internet, power, etc…, to operate).

Initially, I used the device as a sort of ‘dummy internet’— a way to teach learners about how internet works at a conceptual level and show them how to find and connect to a network. It also allowed me to go over the basics of using a browser: inputting a URL, using links to navigate between pages, etc…  At the same time, I tried to expose students to the variety of content and spark some curiosity so that they’d explore the resources independently, without my directing them to a specific page.  Typically, this involved pulling up a page about Lionel Messi or Lady Gaga, waiting a few seconds for the learners to see it on the projector, and then giving clues for them to find the page on their own (their first foray into the ‘hot and cold’ game, I believe).  After some time spent in the more ‘fun’ sections of the site, I attempted to redirect them to some of the academic materials and explain how they could use them to study independently.  I think that resonated with some students, but it’s difficult to get the digital approach to studying to catch on.

Beyond introducing L2R in formal ICT classes, I’ve tried to employ it as a supplemental resource for learners preparing for exams. This approach is more ad hoc in that I’ll observe one of the learners studying after school, and then set up the L2R and direct them to a specific video or page that has additional content.  Sometimes they run with it, other times they go back to their way. It’s hard to tell if they’re actually finding the content useful or if they’re just captivated by the tech/anything that resembles the internet. There’s a small number of students that do come back and ask to use the ‘OpenLibrary,’ so I’ll take that as proof that they get something out of it.  But I think I’d expected to see more ‘user adoption.’ I’m confident that with more time and effort I could get many more learners (and teachers) realizing the potential of L2R, but until then, here are some of the challenges that stand in the way:

  • Getting to the site that hosts the content can be difficult for many learners.  And that’s not a knock on how the product works, but rather an indicator of where a lot of learners are in terms of their computer proficiency.  All you have to do to access the material on the USB is connect to the network (OpenLibrary), open a browser, and type in the URL ‘http://home’. Try to imagine you’ve never used a computer before. Actually that exercise is futile because I’ve come to realize that there’s an almost irreconcilable gap in perspective between those who’ve been using computers for years and those who have just used their first one (though I like to believe I’ve managed a degree of fluency when communicating with either party). But let’s play along anyway:
  • To connect to a network, you need to find the tiny little wifi icon (which you don’t know is a wifi icon) in the bottom corner of the screen. You then need to click it, find and click the right network, and click connect.  I’d apologize for being too specific if those weren’t all things my learners struggled with.
  • Once connected, you have to open a browser. That we did okay with (“it’s the blue and orange circle, with a tiny fox curled in a ball”). But typing the correct URL in the correct place, that was a problem.  Everyone typed some bastardized version of the URL (which must be exact) into the search bar found in the center of Chrome/Firefox, not the URL bar atop the browser.
  • When they got to the right place, typing the URL was no walk in the park. The combination of a colon and two forward slashes just messes everyone’s world up.

Once at the site, a lot of learners just sat there staring at the home page. I’ve got three distinct but ultimately interconnected reasons why:

  • They don’t know how to proceed. The tool works such that once at the page, you just navigate using hyperlinks, the back button, and a ‘home’ button. It took learners a long time to get comfortable using the links to navigate, and especially going back to previous pages. Often times they would just close the browser and start all over, which was brutal given the above mentioned issues with getting to the site. They also didn’t recognize the presence or utility of a scroll bar, so they stared at one-tenth of the site’s content without realizing there was way more out there.
  • They lack the instinct, the curiosity, to explore (or in web-surfing terms, ‘click around’).  I suppose they’re not used to a situation where they are free to peruse a large body of content and pursue what piques their interest. They’re used to, in class and at home, being told explicitly what to do and how to do it. But in this digital environment, it’s up to them to move from one place to the next; they are responsible for determining the next step, and that freedom is daunting at first.  When you’re used to getting orders, it’s hard to transition to a less structured environment… that sort of ‘liberation’ isn’t necessarily welcome.

As a result of the above, when they look at a list of topics and fail to see anything of note, they stop there.  Without the impulse to look deeper, their reaction to a largely school-centric table of contents is something akin to ‘meh’ or ‘so what’.  After I picked up on this, I’d start navigating to pages about soccer players or movie stars, and all of a sudden everyone in class wanted to figure out more.  It feels like one of those “you don’t know what you don’t know” type situations- they’re bored by this thing Mr. Donovan is showing them, until Mr. Donovan pulls up a picture of Wayne Rooney. Then every wants ‘Sir’ to help them.

Learners are accustomed to studying in a certain way. A very one-dimensional way. Any deviation from that bears an ‘adaptation’ cost, meaning they replace a certain amount of time-being-productive with time-spent-adapting (to this new tool and technique). And the deviation here isn’t just from the nature of the content that they’re consuming, but the medium through which it’s consumed.  Many of the learners still have a sense of general, ‘everything’s new and cool and/or intimidating’, awe when using computers.  To use technology for study purposes, the tool itself needs to melt into the background, enabling the learner to focus completely on the content being delivered. It will take time before that happens with my learners.

But generally speaking, working with the L2R has been really exciting.  It’s such a portable, easy to use technology that delivers a huge amount of helpful content, not just for learners but also for community members.  People talk a lot about access to internet, and that’s hugely important, but a big part of what they mean is really just access to information.  The internet is just the most dynamic way to do that. But given the challenges of connecting rural communities, L2R serves as a formidable alternative for providing people with really helpful resources. And when you consider the potential to tweak the content on the USB, customize it for cultural nuances and differing curriculums, you have a really powerful, self-sufficient tool.

Huge thanks to Joris and his team/colleagues. They’re very dedicated to making a positive impact in Namibian education, and they are equally as dedicated to creating solutions that work in Namibia and are driven by Namibians. And beyond coming up with L2R, the context Joris has given me about ICT in Namibia, in just a few brief exchanges, has added immense value to the insight I’ve gleaned in the classroom.