Notes from Sierra Leone: Setting up the Mobile Learning Lab
A full day in Kabala
by Wanda Bedard, 60 million girls Founder and President
The day started at the offices of our partner, CAUSE Canada, just outside the town centre of Kabala. It’s another tremendously humid and hot day. I heard it snowed in Montreal so I’m just trying to keep that image in my mind to keep cool.
We showed the Mobile Learning Lab to Samuel and Matthew, CAUSE’s IT specialists. Samuel works closely with World Possible and had been anxiously awaiting the new RACHEL-Plus, a WiFi server with up to date educational programs. He wasn’t disappointed! We took out some of the tablets, fired up the RACHEL-Plus and then I got to see the wonderful look of amazement on his face. Priceless!
As Samuel, Matthew and Barb McIntosh started going through the content, I could hear the excited comments over its quality and diversity. They could visualize the impact of this information at many levels in the community. They immediately saw the Sierra Leone books from CODE Canada as a wonderful addition to help the children enjoy reading something with a familiar context. I can’t convey just how deeply they saw the value of this.
Of course, KA Lite, an offline math and science tutorial, is already a huge hit throughout the District of Koinadugo. Since it was the main software on the Raspberry Pi (RPi) (an earlier version of the WI-FI server), they have been using it for the last three years and are familiar with the program.
They can’t say enough about how students and adults alike have found it useful. People are drawn to the technology and are absolutely entranced by what they can learn.
Later in the morning, I was able to join part of CAUSE’s staff meeting. Country director Joseph Bangura introduced me and thanked 60 million girls for our support of the Peer Literacy (PL) program, which has grown incredibly since we first funded it in 2012-2013.
During a recent visit by UNICEF Sierra Leone, the PL program came to their attention. They were intrigued by this innovative approach to supporting literacy and have asked to return to learn in more detail how it works and to discover whether it can be replicated on a larger scale. High praise indeed!
I met with Mr Bangura after the meeting and heard about CAUSE’s recent work with UNICEF: new programs in Early Childhood Education, helping out-of-school children get back to school, and a program targeting girls, who are pregnant or have become mothers, to support them and their children and ensure they can get back to school. Fascinating approaches to seemingly intractable problems.
Setting up the Mobile Learning Lab
We finally brought the Mobile Learning Lab to its new home at CAUSE’s Integrated Learning and Resource Centre (ILRC). We set up the RACHEL Plus, pulled out some tablets and let the staff figure out the rest. Thirty seconds later, I could hear and see the amazement in the sheer volume of content available.
You cannot imagine how limiting the lack of textbooks and Internet connectivity can be. Cell phone connectivity is sporadic throughout this very remote area. While CAUSE has a Wi-Fi connection at their office, the bandwidth is too limited to do much more than send e-mails.
The ILRC is a very busy place. Four days a week for two sessions of 90 minutes each, groups of 25 senior secondary and junior secondary students come in after school to work on KA Lite – at the student’s choice and level. Samuel and Matthew are there to set everything up, troubleshoot and then (literally!) pull the kids away when their time is up.
The students often beg for more time to continue working. Wait until you see the size of the classroom where this happens. The desks are placed together in four rows the width of the room. It’s 30˚C outside with high humidity. But the students are glued to the monitors in absolute concentration – all after a full day in school.
One day each week, the RPi and laptops are taken by jeep or motorcycle to various remote areas for 3-4 hours for local students to use KA Lite. I’ll see that in action later this week.
Seeing the Peer Literacy Program in Action
In the late afternoon, we went to WCSL Primary School to watch the PL program in action. Once a week, the PL girls have a lap top computer to show the Fantastic Phonic videos to the kids, both to enhance the program and increase the children’s engagement. Samuel or Matthew come by with the laptops and the RPi to different PL programs in the district. The new RACHEL Plus will make life much easier because of its rechargeable battery that doesn’t need to be powered up through a laptop and for its much wider Wi-Fi range. And now, of course, the Fantastic Phonics content has quadrupled with the addition of multimedia and exercises!
This year, the PL program will be following Grade 1 and 2 students all year. It was felt that the younger kids would most benefit from this intensive immersion in learning English through phonics using Fantastic Phonics. I saw The Cat on a Mat in action, yelled out by groups of giggling 6 and 7 year olds. Some of the PL girls brought in props like a cap from the stories to help the kids visualize what they were learning.
I wish you could have been there to witness the unbelievable enthusiasm of the almost 200 students. Yes, 200 grade 1 and 2 students. At WCSL, there are over 100 students in the grade 1 class. Not the grade 1 level, the grade 1 class! Elementary school is grade 1-6 and there are over 700 students in this seven-classroom school.
Only half of the teachers are fully trained and paid. The other half receive a stipend from CAUSE and are supported by the community. Parents send their kids in such great numbers because of CAUSE’s support of the school through their CAUSE Kids program and the PL support.
The mobile library helps reach students in outlying communities
This morning, I went to Musaia with Barb, Samuel and Matthew so to see how CAUSE’s mobile library works. This was initiated in January 2015 as a way to give some support and access to content for students who had already been out of school since September 2014 because of the Ebola outbreak. Schools were closed for 10 months until the virus was contained and, as a result, children lost a full school year.
CAUSE brought the RACHEL and computers to a number of outlying communities to give students access to Khan Academy. The interest was so great that literally hundreds of kids would line up waiting for the jeep to arrive each week.
The program has continued since then because of the great demand from these villages. I’m told the Paramount Chief himself attends to work on KA Lite with the kids!
Community centres prepare younger children for school
We visited some early childhood education (ECE) centres that are being run by CAUSE for UNICEF and will open next week. These are centres, given by the community, so that trained personnel can help parents understand the importance of early play with their children.
Children come with their parents and have time to play with a wonderful assortment of toys: blocks, puzzles, crayons, paper, scissors, puppets, finger puppets, measuring cups and so much more. The centres are essentially one large room where kids can play on mats as the parents learn intervention techniques. The goal is to stimulate kids aged 0-5 years so they are better prepared to enter school.
We visited three new centres in Fadugu, about 25 minutes south of Kabala, on fully paved roads! In the meantime, Samuel and Matthew are preparing the tablets, charging them, and making sure everything is ready for tomorrow’s test of the Mobile Learning Lab with the grade 5 students from Kabala. Very exciting!
We had a super day today, scouting out possible locations for our year-long trial. (By chance, we came upon a perfect solution to many of our concerns: security, proximity to the schools, and proximity to CAUSE office.)
Planning for the first test of the new RACHEL Plus
I spent this afternoon with Barb, CAUSE’s amazing IT guys, Samuel and Matthew, and Balamusa to discuss the details of our first “live” trial of the tablets and the RACHEL Plus. We have decided to do an absolutely completely self-directed program.
The grade 5 students will be given the tablet – not turned on – with no instructions other than not to drop it. The 30 students will have access to the tablets for 2 hours without any assistance. We will watch what happens and learn from the experience to see what works and what doesn’t. The students are from four schools and their teachers will come too. Apparently, they are so curious about what we are doing! We will just have to keep them from the kids! I can’t wait to see how it all works.
This same group of kids will come for a total of 4 weeks until the holidays. I should see them once more before I go. We will collect our observations and then probably do another 8-week trial with another group in Kabala to fine-tune anything we discover.