Guest blogger: Jim Teicher
Jim Teicher is CEO of CyberSmart Education, a digital learning company founded in 2000. CyberSmart Africa is a social enterprise dedicated to innovating and implementing highly scalable digital learning solutions for developing nations. Watch Jim’s 2012 TEDx Talk delivered at Columbia University Teachers College.
CyberSmart Africa is one of a number of organizations working in the region to provide innovative digital learning solutions. Using the world’s first adapted interactive whiteboard operating with inexpensive solar power, CyberSmart Africa brings affordable digital learning to schools that were previously considered to be unreachable. CyberSmart Africa implements a practical, whole-class learning strategy delivered in the context of regular classroom instruction. We bring ongoing teacher professional development, up-to-date learning content and equipment together to form a new learning solution for developing nations.
Following a successful proof-of-concept implementation funded by USAID/Senegal during 2011-12, we are entering Phase 2 of our development and efficacy testing – with the emphasis to enable scalability and quick uptake throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and globally. We are now partnering with the Senegalese Ministry of Education and the Millennium Villages Project and the Millennium Cities Initiative, joint programs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Millennium Promise.
The pressing need to reach more students
School attendance in Sub-Saharan Africa is dramatically increasing: the combined impact of a youth bubble – a burgeoning population of children, nearly half of whom are under 15 years old – and political mandates to achieve United Nations Millennium Development Goal #2: Universal Primary Education.
The current model for school technology integration – using school computer rooms and laptops – is both painfully inadequate and far too expensive to even begin to adequately meet the challenges of this youth explosion. Too few computers serve large numbers of students in the face of continuous power outages, and persistent technical and logistical challenges. Computer use occurs separate from classroom instruction and is limited to imparting basic technology skills that will be obsolete long before students enter the workforce. The eighty percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s schools that lack electricity and basic physical infrastructure are bypassed entirely – totally neglected by this existing model.
CyberSmart integrates equipment, learning content, and professional development
Equipment: CyberSmart Africa’s technology features use of a large, interactive, projected display – an adapted interactive whiteboard – powered by just one netbook computer. Designed specifically to meet the unique needs of low resource environments, the adapted interactive whiteboard consumes very little power and can operate off a single, solar-charged portable battery. Moving easily between classrooms, over rocks and sand, one interactive whiteboard effectively engages the 40-60 students in a typical class – hundreds of students each day in a single school.
Content: The whole class benefits from learning content previously unavailable – imagine interactive encyclopedias and virtual science experiments – in schools with no library and no science equipment. We look forward to integrating cloud-based learning content, but we currently rely on pre-installed software, including teacher-created lessons. We cannot rely on the Internet-delivered learning content now because of both the prohibitive cost of the Internet service, and the slow, unreliable data transmission.
Teacher Professional Development: Professional development enables teachers to facilitate active, learner-centered, technology-integrated lessons. Our teacher training is structured for scale, and includes train-the-trainer programs, extensive use of offline videos and offline interactive digital learning, SMS messaging, online learning, and the development of a mutually supportive professional development learning community at the school level.
Focusing on Scale and Economics
With less initial, recurring and ongoing technology-related costs, the CyberSmart ’21st Century School-in-a-Box’ significantly cuts the costs associated with the current technology integration model. Implementation is simplified because there is less equipment to be managed. Instead of most funds being spent on equipment, we emphasize ongoing teacher training – the single investment in education that is most closely associated with student success.
A Collaborative, Ongoing Learning Adventure
The impact of CyberSmart Africa is clearly observable in the classroom. Teachers lecture less and students participate more. The entire class benefits with up-to-date content enhancing reading, science and history classes. We are currently refining all parts of our learning solution with the anticipation of eventually including the integration of tablet PCs and smartphones.1
Different Pathways, Same Endpoint
Integrating digital learning into schools in Sub-Saharan Africa will not follow the same path as the economically developed world. Desktop computers and the wired Internet will be bypassed in favor of mobile devices and mobile broadband connectivity. Children’s introduction to the Internet will occur mostly at school, not at home. Still, regardless of such differences, the successful integration of ICT to support everyday teaching and learning will always require teacher training to include the successful modeling of positive, effective and responsible technology use.
1 While the future use of mobile phones in education is exciting, the use of mobile broadband in Sub-Saharan Africa is currently too expensive, and networks are too slow and unreliable for classroom application. The support of what will amount to millions of connected devices poses an overwhelming task.