Rural network blossoms

July 8, 2005

UK-Africa collaboration is breathing life into the continent. Olga Wojtas reports

The University of Fort Hare, the Open University and the Egyptian Ministry of Education have teamed up to bridge the African digital divide through mobile technology.

Shumi Dladla, leader of the Digital Education Enhancement Project (Deep) at Fort Hare in South Africa, explained the condition of rural schools.

"Rural for us also means poor. It's not just geographical but socioeconomic. I don't know whether you can imagine a school with no resources, no electricity," she said.

Light, handheld computers, laptops and video cameras help teachers to plan and research lessons, carry out assessments, and develop professionally.

Pupils also use the devices for their studies.

Some teachers walk for miles to recharge the equipment in hospitals, although there is a growing network of motorbikes that are used as generators.

"Teachers have been operating on their own, quite isolated, but Deep has fostered a sense of sharing and collaboration," Ms Dladla said.

It has also fostered greater confidence among teachers whose isolation meant they have doubted their abilities.

"To begin with, they were very timid and didn't want to share. They were not sure whether what they were doing was worth anything."

Pupils have also gained confidence by being able to communicate with peers elsewhere, including the UK.

The project is co-ordinated by Jenny Leach of the OU's Centre for Research and Development in Teacher Education.

Bob Moon is the centre's director. He said: "We have been experimenting with different modes of communicating, to support teachers in very remote and demanding situations, and we think the use of information and communications technology is now reaching a level of maturity that enables it to have a significant impact on provision."

But Professor Moon stressed that while the OU offered advice and system support, the courses themselves were being developed in Africa.

Ms Dladla said the OU had been crucial in pointing out the right direction and being a sounding board for ideas.

"The OU relationship has been good because it has been full of respect," she said. "It has been an equal partnership."

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