Going the Extra Mile in Namibia: The Importance of Supports
Technology projects often refer to the last mile the final leg of providing connectivity to a client, such as a school or teacher training college. Going the last mile extending wires and cables into schools in developing countriesis deemed critical in the journey toward full integration of ICTs in schools.
Yet, as the experiences of dot-EDU initiatives in Namibia demonstrate, going the last mile is often not enough. Wiring schools is only part of the solution, albeit an important one. ICT for education projects must go the extra milecomplementing and supplementing the provision of wires, cables and satellite signals with human, technical and educational supports. These supports form the critical last steps in successfully integrating ICTs in schools.
Since 2001, USAID has supported three successive initiatives related to the integration of information technology in education in Namibia:
As a whole, these three initiatives have provided teachers and Primary Teachers College (PTC) instructors with the ongoing human, technical and curricular supports necessary to help teachers effectively use and integrate ICTs into instruction.
Teacher learning does not end upon the conclusion of a workshop. In fact, the real learningand the very real difficulties of using ICT to support instructionoften begin once teachers return to their schools and attempt to apply a particular method. To be successful, teachers need regular assistance and ongoing support. Follow-up support, the emotional, instructional and logistical support of a coach or mentor who understands how technology can improve teaching and learning helps sustain educational improvement.
Initiatives such as LearnLinks CATT and iNET realized early on the importance of this regular follow-up support. In addition to face-to-face and online professional development, pre-service teacher educators in Namibias four primary teachers colleges also had ongoing access to an online coach and site visits from iNET facilitators, who assisted these pre-service teacher instructors in using ICTs to deepen content, curriculum, and instruction in meaningful ways.
But the human support did not end there. Through partnerships with organizations such as the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH) PTC instructors received regular ongoing technology training, troubleshooting and integration help from local IFESH volunteers. And through the creation of local Teacher Resource Centers (TRCs) by the Namibian Ministry of Education, staffed with a full-time resource person, PTC instructors, as well as primary and secondary school teachers, can now hone their newly acquired technical skills with assistance from a TRC support person.
Learning to use computers is certainly a challenge. But learning to use these complex machines to support curriculum and new instructional methods is anotherand often far more vexingchallenge. Teachers cantand wontuse computers for teaching and learning if they dont have the curricular and instructional resources to do so.
The National Institute of Educational Development (NIED), with assistance from dot-EDU, created the Educational Development and Support Network (EdsNet), an online repository of curricular and content materials, syllabi, readings, and resources. This portal, created by Namibian educators for Namibian educators, is available in English and in Namibias primary local languages.
Because bandwidth is often an issue in this vast countrys rural regions Namibia is twice the size of California with 1/20th of the population dot-EDU has disseminated the entire EdsNet site to schools, teacher resource centers and teacher training colleges on CD-ROM. This way, curricular supports can be used in environments with low or no connectivity. This CD-ROM of materials provides teachers with a full range of curricular supports, as well as information on classroom management of computers, using ICTs to support learner-centered instruction, and using computers for assessment.
Ongoing Technical Support
Computers break down and teachers cannot fix them. When the nearest support is hours or days away, as is so often the case in developing countries, computers become unused and abandonedsymbols of unreliable, unusable and expensive innovations that fail to achieve stated ends. This is one of the biggest contributors to the failures of ICT in education and a recurrent theme in ICT for education projects in developing countries.
Through the efforts of SchoolNet Namibia, one of the more innovative and successful SchoolNet programs in Africa, the Alliance to Promote Information and Communication Technologies in Namibian Schools tackles this issue of technical support from both a demand and supply perspective. First, it attempts to reduce the demand for technical support by providing a thin client, open source-based approach to partner schools. Since all network and computer services are centralized, all maintenance and upgrading is done at the serverversus client location. Because it is constantly improved upon by programmers, open source software is regarded by many as more technically stable, thus mitigating the need for technical support. Next, SchoolNet has increased the supply of technical support by training 600 out-of-work youth Kids on the Blockand placing many of them in the populated northern regions of the country to assist with technical support, trouble shooting and computer management responsibilities.
The Last Few Yards
This convergence of human and technical networks offers teachers a fuller array of supports in their journey toward ICT integration and has done much to help diffuse ICT throughout the Namibian educational system. But there is some ways to go before Namibias journey toward ICT integration in schools is complete.
First, follow-up support must be supplemented with provisions for transportation to bridge the physical distances that often separate schools and TRCs, so that teachers can access TRCs and TRC staff can easily get to schools.
Next, teachers still need additional professional development that addresses true integration of technology into the curriculum and that demonstrates how ICTs really do improve student learning. To do this, teachers will need access to long-term professional development that focuses on improving their knowledge and application of curricula, instruction and assessmentnot just computers.
Finally, the last mile will not be complete until computers are made available in classrooms, not just school computer labs, so that computers become part of the fabric of the classroom, like other learning tools, such as chalk, a blackboard or books. When this occurs, the journey toward ICT integration in Namibian schools may finally be said to have reached its destination.