In a bid to boost ICT skills in learners, majority of schools around the world are switching to digital classrooms. Even in Rwanda, the approach of smart classrooms is evident in some schools around the country through projects that were championed by ICT companies such as Microsoft. The New Times’ Solomon Asaba caught up with Anthony Salcito, the Microsoft Worldwide Education Vice President for an insight into the developments.
Below are the excerpts:
Rwanda started producing computers through POSTIVO BGH on a local scale, but Microsoft had entered partnerships with the Rwanda’s Ministry of Education to supply cheap and affordable software for the benefit of education, have these projects stalled?
Improving education around schools in Rwanda is absolutely something that we are continuing to do. This is an ongoing project and even in terms of evolution, we are focusing on how technology is going to support schools and educators across Rwanda. I know that there has been tremendous progress for me to say that Rwanda across Africa is one of the highlights in terms of having more vision for change after pushing through the transformation for more than a decade. The latest technology is part of this transition and we certainly recognise and more so are excited about what the future holds to continue pushing from the foundation. It won’t stop at that, we shall even seek to drive further for better technology. On the issue of the progress, the broader vision is largely attributed to impact change within the classrooms across Rwanda. This should look at the different ways of how we inspire both students and teachers. Yes there is more work to be done but I think Microsoft and Rwanda have a good partnership to push beyond the technology, while helping school leaders get ready for the technological transformation.
Like you earlier said, using technology in a flip classroom approach is to foster the digital transformation. How does this teaching approach compare with that used by teachers in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa?
The flip classroom is happening whether teachers are aware of it or not in many ways. Students are taking their learning and extending it with collaboration and support with digital tools. In Rwanda they have in their hands gadgets such as smart phones while others learn in an Internet café while watching videos or going through other items that they may not access in the classroom. But we want to empower educators, to embrace and celebrate the fact the learning approach is fundamentally shifting. Whereas they need time to deliver content to the students, they should embrace the fact that learning can happen outside the classroom. Obviously, technology and digital access to Internet become relevant at this stage. The more access you have to Internet technology and connectivity, the more you can embrace the fashion. To the most part, it is happening dynamically, and some teachers are doing a great job adjusting their teaching instruction to embrace this path.
This is what we want and even in East Africa, it is now happening in many countries.
To facilitate a similar cause, there was an arrangement that each student receives one laptop under the one laptop per child (OLPC) project in Rwanda for students to get acquainted with technology as early as possible. Fortunately government is even making this better with smart classrooms. How does this compare to the model of the Flip classrooms?
I think it depends on how you define the smart classrooms. The thing about flip classrooms is specifically about extending the learning outside the school. You want students to learn anywhere all the time. Of course they can and flip classrooms enable that to happen anywhere in the world. The time between a student and the teacher or students collaborating together is important. The OLPC is a good approach but there were challenges with handling of the gadgets and storage by the students. We are in the world of technology and digital content that requires more engagement of students through group work. Here students get to share more learning with each other.
What are your observations on the current teaching approaches from the global perspective?
As a third party observer, we recognise that the commitment on both the leadership across the countries and the schools is important for change. We know that the pace of change can be accelerated but the insight needs to be shared. Partnerships bring countries together and enhance collaborations. Sharing this information from any county even helps other countries looking for similar ideas but we challenge them to push even further and to take their foundation to make everything better. And hopefully that uplifts expectations in that it can be done in classrooms around the world, that we will also leverage the insight to learn more. Well we have the technology but countries need to guide the development of curriculums and tools for school leaders to enhance change and realise economic impacts. It is fortunate that Rwanda has now a new curriculum to boost competence of learners.
I think the key for us is that most countries are willing to open up their success but also address challenges. That way we can learn together. Innovation that happens in the middle of a classroom is the point around the world that needs to be illuminated. We are hoping to scale this up at the country level.
Much as promoting smart education is feasible for all classrooms around the world, the key challenge has been the competences of teachers in regard to usage of these devises, how are you addressing related challenges in Rwanda?
There are local innovative Microsoft educators who support the training of teachers in schools. So far 64 teachers have been trained in Rwanda in programmes that enable schools use more technology. These programmes are also available around the world and enable teachers share ideas within the schools. You also realise that these teachers cannot only pass the skills to the students but also to fellow teachers.
To move at the same pace, a holistic approach is required but how many countries are you planning to engage in promoting this kind of educational ecosystem?
We expect to engage a small group of countries to start with. They will be less than ten. The reality is that we want everyone to be part of this journey, so we want to open this with engagement and support from countries.
All it takes is commitment, investment, time and resources as well as willingness to share and be part of the work that we are doing together. Many of the countries that are starting either have foundations; we can build on this as well as existing commitments and projects of the foundations. I think that is where we are starting but as we build that base, we need to extend it around the world.
So what specific challenge needs urgent attention in East African classrooms?
The only thing we see is that there would be one teacher in the school who is embracing teaching using technology which does not encourage the transfer of skills to another teacher. In a similar sense there is need to engage leadership in developing countries to foster positive change. We are hoping that we can learn from different nations. When you travel around the world, you will find that the answers people need are there but the future of learning is just happening now, so we have to push forward for these digital classrooms. Obviously we have to work through training, leadership and development.
You realise the topography of Rwanda may not allow smooth full-scale ICT roll out especially the establishment of connectivity and electricity in distant schools, how could this be solved?
The problem may not only be unique to Rwanda and I am happy to share with you that under the Microsoft for Africa programme, consideration is made for access on all electronic devises. A lot of projects are already in place and we have designed devices that allow broadband connectivity to rural areas without electricity. It is a plan that we earlier considered for Rwanda. A few of them are already in South Africa and in Rwanda and some other countries around Africa. Exceptionally, part of this work is specifically to help ICT developments within schools.
The cost of technology still remains a huge problem on the African continent especially for some relevant devices and software, how are you planning on overcoming this hiccup?
We are also part of the learning journey as well and we learn tremendously from countries that try innovative approaches for the challenges. We understand that many countries are faced with challenges in transiting and we learn about what teachers need. Actually we have put that innovation into our products, so our products have evolved. Even though it is just Skype in the classroom, it has evolved. On the issue of hardware, we are working with several hardware manufacturers to make technology more affordable for classroom use and to be embraced like the pen that would make learning more natural. Under this arrangement students would do just reading and high-level learning of digital books or using a digital pen for art. We are working with that to get the right alignment for pedagogy and learning environment while continuing to lower the cost of connectivity around the world. Forging partnerships with local manufacturing companies is also crucial at this stage.
The world is rapidly embracing globalisation but youth unemployment remains one of the major challenges that countries are facing, how do you plan to address this challenge through digital teaching approaches?
It is not a coincidence that classrooms are changing. There is a shift in the workforce as employers demand for more competent individuals with the right skills to perform jobs. What is needed is to help each young individual achieve more after walking into a school with limitless confidence and inspiration through STEM studies. When you give students a goal to solve a problem, great things happen and thus teachers should make a big difference for this shift to happen. For example in other developed countries like the UK, governments want every class to understand that computing is a vital tool. They can use the simplest gadget like the microbit to code and customise programmes. In this sense, technology is made physical and when you do that you solve a problem.
However, all requires teachers to embrace the transition and the more flip classrooms we embrace, the better we can deal with the unemployment of youths.