Tuesday 17 September 2019

Bridging the digital divide with Africa

An Irish education technology charity is doing extraordinary work in bringing computers into 1,200 schools in Ethiopia, writes John Walshe

Students at Shimelis Habte Secondary School who are building digital literacy skills thanks to the Camara/Dell partnership with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education
Students at Shimelis Habte Secondary School who are building digital literacy skills thanks to the Camara/Dell partnership with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education
Students at Sodo Secondary School who are building digital literacy skills thanks to the Camara/Dell partnership with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education

John Walshe

When Bob Geldof and Midge Ure organised Live Aid in 1985 for famine relief in Ethiopia, that country had a population of 40m - now it's 107m and still rising rapidly. Almost two thirds of its people are under 25, which tells you a lot about the economic, employment and educational challenges facing a country twice the size of France.

But how do we get pupils to know and understand what is happening elsewhere in this globalised world of ours where events such as wars or natural disasters have devastating effects in one country and can affect others through mass migration, for example?

Development Education enables students to understand the world around them and to learn how to act to bring about change. It works to tackle the root causes of injustice and inequality, globally and locally. It's an integrated dimension of the primary school curriculum. It is based on the importance of critical thinking, the need to challenge stereotypes and to empower children to support change towards a more just and sustainable world.

Teachers need support in this area and that's what the Development and Intercultural Education (DICE) Project does by working with colleges of education. Chairperson Catherine Byrne says it supports teachers to integrate global and intercultural perspectives into their teaching practice. All student teachers in the colleges now take a module in development and intercultural education.

Promoting awareness of injustice and inequality in the developing world is one thing - getting people to take follow-up action is another.

Ireland has a long tradition of doing just that in Africa, firstly through the missions and more recently through the Government's Irish Aid programmes and through individual charities working on the ground.

Ethiopia is host to hundreds of western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaged in all sorts of initiatives, from irrigation to small scale housing to health screening and inoculation programmes. But one of the most important areas to target - arguably the most important in the long term - is education.

And, here, an Irish-founded international organisation, Camara Education, is doing extraordinary work in bringing new and refurbished computers to schools and, very importantly, providing training for local teachers as well as curriculum -aligned programmes and assessments. The word Camara comes from the Bantu dialect in West Africa and means 'teacher' or 'one who teaches with experience'. As Cormac Lynch, its founder, explained: "You put a child in front of a computer and what you have done is to give them an education, an education which allows them to learn, not through memorising but through inquiry - developing the brain and critical thinking in the process."

That's what Camara is doing with disadvantaged students in more than half a dozen countries - Tanzania, Lesotho, Zambia, Kenya, the UK, Ireland and Ethiopia - with the support of business, government agencies, trade unions and others. Since it was started in 2005, the charity and its staff have extended digital literacy to well over two million students in these countries and the aim is to reach three million within a few short years.

Camara's work is better known overseas than at home. Official recognition and encouragement abroad was scaled up recently in the form of a €10m deal which involves installing computers into 1,200 schools, with the Ethiopian government putting up three quarters of the cost. The remainder has to be raised by Camara and already Dell has chipped in with almost €550,000 in cash and computers.

Aongus Hegarty, the Limerick-born president of Dell EMC Europe, Middle East and Africa region, attended the opening of a new computer lab at the Shimeles Habte Secondary School in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa last month and talked to many of the students. He was impressed by what he saw.

"Access to education and technology is not a luxury, but a necessity and is at the centre of human progress," he told the launch.

Secondary schools in Ethiopia are huge by Irish standards - total enrolments of more than 2,000 or even 3,500 are not unusual. Not surprisingly, many work in split shifts with half the pupils starting at 8am and the remainder taking their first classes in the afternoon.

There is a hunger for education in the country that is palpable among students and their parents.

"Ignorance leads to poverty; education leads to prosperity," is just one of the slogans that adorn the walls of school buildings around the country. The "stay in education" message is preached by the government and by the school authorities.

And it is helped by having access to school computers, especially in a country where the average per capita income is only €655 per year.

Having home computers was unheard of in the schools we visited with Camara last month, but there was no doubting their benefits to the individuals fortunate to have access to them at school.

Students in all three schools we visited in Sodo in the south of the country were enthusiastic about their use. Kurem Desa gets to use a computer every day for half an hour and she says it helps a lot.

"For example, we can use them as reference about everything we have learned in class. My parents are very happy as they had no chance to access computers during their time in school," said Kurem, who wants to go to university to study engineering.

Fellow student Tsegaye Markos' first experience with computers was four years ago in school.

"It was a wonderful moment," recalled Tsegaye, who says he prefers reading online to hard copy books. The 18-year-old stressed that "education is important to me because it is a foundation for everything and the computer has helped me join the digital world".

His view was echoed by Berhanu Moreda Birbirssa, Advisor to the State Minister, Ethiopian Ministry of Education, who said that "ensuring our future generations have the right skills for today and tomorrow is critical to their success and their lives, and the continued growth and development of Ethiopia".

Irish Independent

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