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Powering tomorrow's minds

A solar-powered Internet classroom hopes to overcome the infrastructure challenges preventing ICT access in rural schools.

The solar-powered internet school can run for three days without sunlight, says Samsung.

At the same time that some schools are introducing iPads for every child, the majority of Africa's learners are situated in areas where they'd be lucky to get access to electricity – never mind a pimped-out tablet.

This reality formed the basis for the development of Samsung's solar-powered Internet school, after seeing one too many 'drop a notebook' projects fail, says director for IT Solutions Africa, Thierry Boulanger. Because so many rural areas are without electricity, donated IT equipment often ends up lying idle, he explains.

“On average, less than 25% of rural areas on the continent benefit from electricity, resulting in isolated communities with limited access to education and connectivity – both of which are key to fast-tracking a nation's development.” 

The mobile classroom unit, which was recognised as the 'African Solar Project of the Year' at the recent Africa Energy Awards, is a 12m container powered by solar panels that allows 21 young minds and a teacher to access the Internet from wherever they are. Kitted out with an interactive 'e-board', educational software and Web-connected Samsung notebooks, the unit can run for three days without sunlight, according to Boulanger.

“In Africa, 75% of the students are in rural areas and in many cases this holds true for SA as well,” he says. The first mobile classroom was introduced in Boksburg in October last year, and is now enjoying a stint at Phomolong Secondary School in the East Rand township of Tembisa.

Learners can freely access the Internet but still be monitored by a teacher.

School principal Mocheke Thoka says this is the only secondary school in a population of around 350 000, and while the facility is meant for 1 200, it's accommodating 1 972 learners at present. Over 500 of these are orphans, but even when parents aren't absent they often can't afford the school fees. Nonetheless, 70 state educators, extra classes in the mornings and afternoons, and a feeding scheme caring for 1 500 has resulted in a 89% pass rate at Phomolong, and an award for the most improved secondary school in a township.

It's in this environment that the solar-powered Internet school has been residing for a few weeks, and Thoka says it has opened up a new world for the students. “They can go visit the centre during free periods and it has assisted them greatly with their projects.”

Boulanger says the solution was created with three priorities in mind. One, it had to be sustainable; two, it had to be completely independent of utility power; and three, an outside party had to be able to monitor the use of the project.

To meet the first requirement, Samsung had to ensure the container could be used even when things didn't go to plan. The solar panels on the roof and sides are made of a rubber-like material, rather than conventional panels, so it can be transported without them breaking. He adds that the unusual technology would also make it easy to track the panels if they were stolen.

The batteries inside the unit have been modified so they use a lead-acid gel instead of separate acid and water, so there's no risk of leakage during transit. The classroom server can also accommodate the complete curriculum from grade 0 to grade 12, so teachers could, for example, take a grade two maths class and then a grade nine science lesson straight after, says Boulanger.

He adds this is key from a sustainability perspective because the ability to electronically download content means schools save on having to order, transport and store textbooks.

Of course, the presence of a tech-packed container with access to power in the middle of a rural area is not going to go unnoticed. This formed part of the 'sustainability' considerations. “All the power supplies are locked into the bottom of the unit, so there's no temptation to plug things like TVs or heaters in,” Boulanger notes. If an opportunist were to try plug in an appliance that's not on the network, the system sends a signal to whoever is monitoring the unit that there's an unusual power discharge. There's also an alarm system and security bars on the windows. But Boulanger says the aim is to give the community a sense of ownership of the classroom. “If the village feels the Internet school belongs to them, they'll protect it.”

Finally, anyone who has spent any length of time in the African sun knows how quickly things can heat up. Now imagine seating two-dozen bodies in a metal container in direct sunlight. To remedy the situation, Samsung added 10cm-thick insulation in the walls, so the difference between the outside and inside temperature is around 10 degrees. There are also extraction fans that can be turned on.

In terms of being energy independent, the container can pretty much be taken anywhere as long as there's sunlight, says Boulanger. In the event of a gloomy forecast, some of the notebooks can be individually charged, with one hour of use for every two-hour charge, and if the sun doesn't come out for several days the interactive whiteboard can be turned around and used as a blackboard.

Finally, for monitoring purposes, an IP camera is stationed at the back of the container, which takes a photo of the class every 15 seconds. “You can be anywhere in the world and monitor what's happening in the classroom,” says Boulanger. Departments of education or other government entities would typically be the monitoring bodies.

Doing the math

Samsung trains two or three teachers at the school to use the IT equipment, with the aim that they pass this on to other members of staff.

Leveraging ICT to help rural communities get a leg up into the developed world has long been a goal of governments and organisations. A working paper from World Bank grant programme infoDev, for example, points out that ICTs are 'infrastructural technologies', in that their impact has been as strong and widespread as electricity and transportation. “They are no longer merely 'nice to have' but are fundamental to integration and inclusion,” says the paper.

However, achieving ICT integration in rural areas is proving far easier said than done. Typical barriers include illiteracy, a lack of computer skills, low incomes, and poor penetration of telecoms infrastructure.

Boulanger believes introducing something like the solar-powered Internet school could help solve many of these problems, at least as far as education is concerned. “We're moving away from 'Here's a notebook, here's a spec, here's a price', to 'Here's a sustainable solution.” He adds that several governments and provincial departments have expressed interest buying classroom units, which would then stay at the given schools permanently.

Everything included, the unit costs about R900 000, a figure many may balk at considering the many competing needs in education. But Boulanger argues that if one factors in the cost of electricity over the unit's lifespan (the batteries last for approximately seven years before needing replacement), the IT equipment itself, the cost of building a bricks and mortar structure, and the expense of sourcing and transporting textbooks, it's a sensible investment. The ROI is two-and-a-half years, and he adds that the school could double up as an adult learning centre during the hours it's not being used by school children.

Staying power

“We're moving away from 'Here's a notebook, here's a spec, here's a price', to 'Here's a sustainable solution.”

Because the unit is a new concept, it has been travelling around the country so Samsung can gather feedback on its performance. This pilot unit at Phomolong will soon be heading to Nigeria, and Boulanger says there's been lots of interest from ministries of education across Africa and even as far as Pakistan.

Kea' Modimoeng, head of corporate citizenship for Africa regional HQ, says they make sure to train two or three teachers at the relevant school so they can conduct classes in the unit. “At the moment we're focusing on moving it around to test it in different environments, but if a school makes good use of it we'll look at putting in an e-learning centre or stationing the classroom on a permanent basis.”

Samsung has set up small factory in Midrand, through a third party, which is building the mobile containers. The first prototype took eight weeks to build, but construction is now down to six weeks with more containers to be rolled out soon. “With these centres, we aim to reach 2.5 million learners on the continent in the next five years,” says Modimoeng.

Future calling

For 16-year-old Musa Mavuso, the Internet school at Phomolong has not only helped him complete schoolwork, but opened up a future career path. “I didn't even know such a thing as a mine surveyor existed before I began researching it on the Internet. Now that's what I want to be.”

Inspired

“I didn't even know such a thing as a mine surveyor existed before I began researching it on the Internet. Now that's what I want to be.”

He adds that he knew little about computing previously, but that Web resources are now in many cases easier and more helpful than the library.

“It's more productive. I gain more information through the Internet than through opening books. Time is also very important. There is so much work at school and you have other work at the same time. With the Internet I save time and get more done than at the library.”

Matric student Lefa Makgato says she's also exploring career options, as well as completing her final-year studies. “It's very easy to do research now... previously it was very difficult because the matrics knock off at 16:30 while the library closes at 16:00.

“At first it wasn't easy because I didn't have access to the Internet at home. But it's become easy to use the computer and go on the Internet. Learners should look for opportunities to also get this Internet school at their school.”

Boulanger stresses that ICT is an enabler rather than an over-arching solution, and the mentality has to shift from simply giving schools a notebook and walking away.

“Technology provides access to an environment students wouldn't otherwise experience. This is how we are going to create the future for Africa – through education.”


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