Rwanda: Progress report on the OLPC program

Computing

By 2017, Rwanda intends to distribute half a million laptops to primary school students across the country through the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. However, as Nkubito Bakuramutsa, Rwanda's OLPC coordinator explains to The Independent's Matthew Stein, the program is expected to revolutionise a lot more than the country's education system.

Q: What progress has the OLPC program made to date?

A: In 2008-09 our pilot project started with the distribution of 10,000 laptops. We followed that up with a contact of 100,000 laptops. In 2010 we distributed 65,000 of these to P4, P5 and P6 students in 128 schools. And since this past June, we have been in the midst of distributing the remaining 35,000 laptops in an additional 70 schools.

Q: What is your ultimate goal?

We want to reach all one million students between P4 and P6. We have now placed an order for another 60,000 laptops and with the distribution of these we will have reached about 17 percent of the P4-P6 population by June 2012. However, we are currently doing a lot of research on how we can increase these numbers drastically to reach our goal by 2017.

Q: What's the process of importing OLPC into the schools?

The first step is to wire all these schools to ensure that they have power plugs in the classroom, and we also add light in the classroom at the same time. So this program is also about improving the infrastructure of the schools. If they're too far from the electricity grid we are using solar panels. The second phase is connecting them to our servers and local area networks, which they can connect to through a wireless local area network that we install as well. Once students access the server, they can download the Rwandan curriculum in its digital form as well as books and other learning material to improve their skills

Q: How do the students learn to use the computers and its programs?

A: The teachers have to be at the centre of this transformation. First we selected 150 schools and asked that the headmaster and a teacher of their choice come to Kigali for one week of training. The first two days is spent on how to use the laptops and the other three days on the methodology of teaching the material with a computer. Then they go back and teach other teachers in the school. We then visit each school individually. We spend five days working with the teachers and students and we spare one day of training for the community so that it can understand why we're putting these laptops in the school, the impact it should have on the students and why it's important for Rwanda. We're trying to deploy ICT in such a way that it participate not only in the enhancement of learning but it also contributes to the development of the country.

Q: Have you encountered any challenges?

A: There have been some natural consequences: for the student it's a new approach to learn, to access knowledge; for a teacher, teaching with the laptops and digital software becomes more challenging because they are no longer providing the students with content to memorise. Instead, they are trying to enhance the understanding of concepts, so more than memorizing the children focus on innovation and creativity. Inserting technology in school is a fundamental change to classic education. It's not just enabling books to be in a digital format--it's a really new way of learning. We don't want them to repeat just what's on the board. We want them to demonstrate that they've really understood the concept. It's called constructionism--learning by doing.

Q: Do the laptops belong to the students?

A: No, it's school property. The students can take the laptops home with them but before we distribute them we add a security feature that allows our server to do a roll call every three weeks to check if the computers are inside the school. If they are not there, the laptops are disabled. Once the students graduate from P6, they leave the laptops behind for the next batch of students.

Q: The government is now spending more than $200 on each computer. Is this expense really justified given the amount of challenges Rwanda, as a developing country, face?

A: In Rwanda we are using more and more ICT in our hospitals, airports, for all kinds of infrastructure projects to develop every part of our country. Who are the people that are going to man this infrastructure? Who are the people that are going to integrate or customise this infrastructure to our environment?

These are the people we are training today. We need them to help us reduce the level of ICT consultancy we require with the outside world. Rwanda can invest in other sectors too, but through OLPC we are increasing our independence from all these external dependencies, which are extremely expensive. We are investing in the future, not in the present. We need all these skills to be brought into Rwanda and primary school is really the foundation. If you are well-trained in primary school then it will be easier to succeed. We want all children in Rwanda to have the same level of understanding and knowledge as a kid from Singapore, Finland or California.