Monday 25 March 2019

Tackling the digital divide at home and abroad

Social enterprise is working with underprivileged communities in Ireland and Africa to improve IT skills

Lucy Hanlon and Matthew McCartie in the sensory room at Holy Family NS Monkstown Farm, Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Tony Gavin
Lucy Hanlon and Matthew McCartie in the sensory room at Holy Family NS Monkstown Farm, Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Tony Gavin
Students at Linda Community School, Lusaka, Zambia

Meadhbh McGrath

It's been a couple of decades since computers arrived in classrooms, but schools are still getting to grips with how best to utilise them for effective teaching and learning. Camara, a social enterprise founded in 2005, uses technology to improve education in underprivileged communities, in both Ireland and Africa.

The organisation was set up by businessman Cormac Lynch after a visit to Ethiopia. Shocked by the conditions he saw in the schools, he returned to Ireland and sourced second-hand computers that could be refurbished, and shipped to Africa.

Over the past 11 years, Camara has grown beyond donated computers to offer teacher training, software packages and technical support, across six educational hubs in Africa (Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Tanzania and Uganda) and one in Ireland.

"The evolution of Camara came from refurbished computers but we very quickly learned it wasn't just about computers, it was about the motivation, the training and meeting the need there. These countries in Africa can't afford to spend €600 on new devices, so the refurbished model is important in terms of provision and access," says CEO John Fitzsimons.

Students at Linda Community School, Lusaka, Zambia
Students at Linda Community School, Lusaka, Zambia

"It's essential these days that students are digitally literate. Employers are saying, 'we don't want people who can memorise everything and regurgitate it, we want people with skills'. Obviously, on a basic level (that includes) digital literacy, as well as collaboration, communication and critical thinking."

Technology, he explains, is a key enabler for the delivery of such "21st-century skills".

In Ireland, the Camara team provides training for teachers and youth workers with both formal, school-based and informal, community-based programmes, aimed at students aged between eight and 18.

Camara Ireland manager Steven Daly explains that, as well as providing hardware and software to schools at a low cost, they offer ICT training courses such as Google Apps for Education, Freeware and Scratch. A three-hour training course plus 10 reconditioned computers, guaranteed for a year, would cost a school about €2,000.

"If the teacher is already comfortable using technology, brilliant, but the reality is that a lot of teachers are very uncomfortable using ICT because they haven't been supported," he says.

"What we encourage and support teachers to do has to be relevant and useful. We don't focus on teaching kids how to use Microsoft Word or how to type, we focus on teachers using technology to teach existing subjects - how do you use cartoon-making software in an English class? How do you make videos about history? How do you use YouTube as a tool to engage kids with geography? That's where the power of technology in education is.

"Technology isn't the silver bullet that delivers those skills, but it's a really good tool, which young people are really engaged by, to help deliver those skills."

Camara focuses on meeting local needs by dealing with schools on a case-by-case basis, rather than offering a one-size-fits-all model.

"Our education hubs go in and say 'what are your challenges?' A lot of the difficulty in Africa has to do with retention, a lot of kids are dropping out, and we all know that if you drop out of school your life opportunities will decrease significantly," says John Fitzsimons.

"In other cases, it can be about an underperformance in one subject, or another primary focus is digital literacy and access."

The majority of Camara's work takes place in their African hubs, where it aims to make technology accessible to all and use it to empower disadvantaged students. To date, Camara has helped nearly 2m people, including students, teachers and school leaders.

In Zambia, they work with 176 schools to develop digital literacy and prepare pupils for the computer studies exam in Grade 9, which tests students aged 15 and 16.

Before Camara started working in these schools, many students were unable to complete the practical side of the assessment, and its programmes have had a huge impact.

One Zambian school with which Camara has been working for four years is Linda Community School, Lusaka.

Keith Magee says teachers have gone from never using a computer to integrating technology in the classroom in "a creative, thoughtful way", and that technology in education has helped to accelerate development in the school.

"The computers have been very helpful to the learners and made it easy for them to understand the lessons as they are able to see and use the things we are teaching them," says class teacher Mr Mwamulowe.

Student, Gift Khawala (15) adds: "It is easier to practice and improve our ICT skills, which will help me and my friends perform better in the exams, and it will be easy for me to fit in well in work as almost every job out there requires one to have some computer skills."

Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign affairs overseas development programme, provides funding for Camara's projects in Zambia, and a recent evaluation report noted the positive impact, particularly on female students.

Kevin Magee explains: "We did quantitative analysis and looked at the aspirations of boys and girls. Girls saw this as their only opportunity to learn ICT skills, because the workplace won't allow them to be in technology - maybe they're going to work in the medical field or in secretarial roles, so their motivation was that this was their only opportunity and so were doing better than boys."

Primary schools make a more inclusive move

Newly refurbished rooms at a Dublin school offer a glimpse of the changing, and more inclusive, face of Irish primary education.

Holy Family National School, Dun Laoghaire, is celebrating the opening of a dedicated unit for children with special needs, including autism. 'Horizons' has two specialist classrooms, one for pre-schoolers and the other for older pupils, along with an activity room and a sensory room.

In recent years, the Department of Education has started to address the lack of provision for pupils with special needs, and Holy Family principal Daniel Kirwan took the opportunity to convert space to open two specialist classrooms.

Each of the two classrooms has six pupils, a teacher and two special needs assistants (SNA). Along with the adjacent activity and sensory rooms, they are designed to ensure that pupils feel safe and comfortable. When children need time out, they can retreat and explore soft play activities, or experience the cool, calmness of the sensory room.

While Horizons offers specialist individual and group learning activities, there is also an emphasis on integrating pupils into everyday activity, such as yard play.

Mr Kirwan says the unit has had a transformational effect: "Teachers can see progress and parents can see progress. The feedback from parents is very good".

- Katherine Donnelly

Irish Independent

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