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Electronic tablets are being used more often in education especially as kids are using screen based technology earlier and earlier in life. Tablets make information easier to obtain but they are difficult to take notes on. Two years ago in collaboration with the University of Alabama, Support Education supplied more than 2,000 tablets computers to allow for easy access to reference books and materials. Now that the pilot project has been completed they want to expand it to many other schools throughout the country. Capital’s Reporter Tesfaye Getnet sat down with Mulugeta Assefa Executive Director of Support Education to learn more about the projects. Mulugeta Assefa was a physics teacher for about ten years, and graduated from Asmara University in 1987. Starting from 2008, he was working as a field associate of the Widernet Project affiliated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and installed, trained and supported eGranary, the off line digital library. Currently he is working full time on Supporting Education in collaboration with the University of Alabama Sparkman Center.
Capital: Tell us about your expanding program.
Mulugeta Assefa: After having experience in working with the wider net project in reaching school and universities with eGranary, a huge offline digital library, (Internet in a box), as a supplementary resource for all levels of education, we started developing a local digital library to support the country’s curriculum.
Hence we have collected and developed the local digital library system, based on the existing curriculum and made it available on a server to be accessed through a wireless access-point installed in the school. The server is loaded with all curriculum text books, video tutorials, for high schools and preparatory schools and additional reference materials in different formats, educational applications, simulations and so on.
To reduce the network load and help the students have resources on the tablet, we loaded their digital grade text books and video tutorials, so that students can refer to them within and outside of the school compound, without the need for a wireless connection to the school server or Internet. This technology benefits all students that are far from connectivity and basic infrastructure, such as electricity, school, roads and the Internet. This should help reach pastoralist regions, and students which sometimes leave school after grade eight. This helps reduce the digital divide.
Capital: What is the involvement of university of Alabama in the pilot project?
Mulugeta: UAB Sparkman center, through the lead of Professor Craig Wilson, ( Director) is a full funding support for the development of the system, and piloting them in two regions, by providing server and related network material to be installed in the school, training, and tablets for the whole school community.
UAB Sparkman center has also supported and funded a course based e- library system, that benefited 28 medical universities in the country, and will also serve other universities and institutions in the country and abroad. Hence it will continue to be our key partner in our similar activities and others.
Capital: Should computers and tablets be used in a classroom for educational purposes? Will it allow students to learn faster?
Mulugeta: In these case tablets and computers are to be used outside the class hours, and the class should be used for interactive learning and discussion with their teacher. But the same also can be used by teachers to make the learning process better and supported by video tutorials and simulations. It helps the student to understand the subject matter more deeply through availing resources in different formats, as opposed to just sticking to only reading text books. It is a great support to increase the quality of education which has suffered a lot in our current situation, and supplement the MOE effort in this regard.
Capital: For the last two years you have worked in two schools, have you seen any improvement in education from the students because of the tablet computers?
Mulugeta: We have been developing the library system for over a year. The actual implementation of the pilot began last year in May, and we have not yet evaluated supporting the research with data. But we have observed that, the motivation to use the tablet and interaction with each other and in the classroom has increased. Students are seen with their tablets, during break and after class, sitting in a group and, accessing the server through the wireless for additional resources, or watch the video tutorial (called plasma tutorial) as many times as they need. This also reduces the number of absences from the class, as the students have more information on their subject of study and come to class to raise questions and get answers from their group or teachers in the classroom. To come out with the measurable data, we need to evaluate the achievements of students at their national examination at the end of this year, and years to follow. In general this technology reaches students with additional educational materials and creates a convenient way to learn. There is nothing that hinders them from being better and increasing their performance with support.
Capital: What made you choose to only work with grade 9 and 10 students?
Mulugeta: Our project has already benefited people from grade 9-12. We are preparing an MOU with the ministry of education to develop a plan for grade 7 and 8, at first and 5th and 6th, to be implemented in the coming year. We work to benefit and contribute to supporting the education system through tested technology at all levels.
Capital: We heard that the price of one tablet computer is around USD 100 that is not affordable for most of Ethiopian students. Are there other ways to supply them?
Mulugeta: We have developed a web based library system so any phone or computer will work. We are also working to reduce the price of tablets, with better performance and a good battery life that can be used during their school stay. We are working to make it available for less than 100 USD. To reach all students, MOE, development partners and the community should support this project through subsidizing the cost. Actually we recommend the availability in three methods. First, the tablets can be owned by school, and student can borrow from the school, like they do with textbooks. Second, it can be sold to the student through installments, and finally, part of the cost can be subsidized by development partners and the local community.
We believe in community involvement in the delivery of education to the new generation. Hence school administration and educational offices should work to interconnect the community with the school. Our public schools are fully funded by government. But they should also be supported by the involvement of the community and the student’s family. This develops the relationship and attachment between the school, family and the community at large. South Korea is a good example. They reached this level of development because of involvement of the community. Education helps the community and family. The student will get a job and serve their community when they graduate. The lives of their family must improve through their children’s education. If education and the community are interrelated in this way, nothing is expensive. They can afford to invest to their children. However, we don’t see this type of relationship in the country. I know that UNESCO is working and supporting these things. We should integrate our efforts to make those attachments, and direct our cumulative capacity to improve the lives of the community.
Capital: Who maintains the tablets?
Mulugeta: This is one job opportunity for TVET students. We are working on installing a lab to support such training. The student needs to have the skill to maintain their own tablet gradually. We need to make components available for them. This should also be supported by TVET and included in the training, to interrelate with each other to solve our problems by ourselves.
Capital: Some people argue that tablets are a good learning tool but should not be used as the only source of learning. Is it possible it could hinder working in groups?
Mulugeta: It is well known that, the virtual world cannot replace actual activities, exercise and real attachment to nature. Tablets are meant to be used like textbooks. Education motivates discussion and group work, whether we use a hard copy or digital resource. Education is interaction with nature and with social beings to be implemented to solve problems and contribute to development. Assisting education through technology is a key to development.
Capital: What are your future plans?
Mulugeta: Our primary concern is not tablets. We are software developers. We work on educational software. We work on supporting education, through interrelating education with technology. Our recommendation for tablets is to develop human power to have more tablet assembly plants and produce locally. We do not need to import the finished product, which is more expensive. We need to work on local assembly and make the solution available from within.