INTERNET FIRMS NEED TO HELP OUR STUDENTS
Covid-19 and the advent of Online schooling have exposed how behind our public schools are in using technology for both the present and future.
The recent schools shutdown and the prospect of further disruptions have quickly shifted schools’ attention to the possibilities of online teaching. Overnight, Zoom lessons have become de rigueur and lesson delivery through nascent VLE system have blossomed.
Schools have started adopting hybrid lessons, with some pupils having a couple of days at school and the rest through Zoom and VLEs at home.
The new normal has exposed the digital divide that exists in our society. The laptop scheme and wireless for schools have all been a good start in Seychelles, but have lacked a holistic view and approach. Private schools rose to the challenge while our government schools have literally been caught napping.
Below, I look at some issues and how they could, and MUST, be tackled as we move forward.
No School email for staff & pupils
First off, hardly any secondary school in Seychelles has email with their own domain names for all their children and staff. In the current crisis, private schools have been able to send regular instructions and work to pupils and it has been invaluable.
Google provides free email for schools but as far as I know, no Seychelles school has taken it up. My impression when talking to educators, is that due to a combination of slow speeds and high data costs, staff use only Whatsapp or their own email to communicate.
Schools have not shown great interest in having staff or pupil emails as a result, and are waiting for DICT or the Ministry to initiate the process.
The reality is it would take less than a day to get it up and running and schools could easily set it up on their own or ask DICT to host it on their server.
In-house Technical support
Most schools now have an ICT technician – such is the importance given to the subject and the breadth of technology being used in schools. In Seychelles there is excellent strategic support from the Ministry but schools would benefit from more immediate access to technical help to deal with immediate day to day problems.
They could perhaps share a technician between two schools if costs are prohibitive. A teacher mindful of keeping order in the classroom may be reluctant to use a piece of equipment if he/she is not confident in operating it. And that is one of the reasons why many donated equipment such as interactive boards, laptops and projectors can sometimes be left idle or not be used to full capacity.
A VLE is a system for delivering learning materials to students via the web. These systems include assessment, student tracking, collaboration, and communication tools.
Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Moodle, have been around for some time now and their value has been greatly enhanced in the current crisis. To support parents and students, schools have streamlined information by creating one place for all the assignments, schedules and expectations for pupils to access.
Companies like satchelone.com have been successful at driving this change. They are prohibitively expensive for Seychelles, but Google classroom is free or a local one could easily be built by NISTI’s technicians, or other ICT providers.
LANs, Wired & Wireless networks in schools
At present schools have no LANs (local area networks). They only have a basic wireless network which teachers find slow and that does not cover the whole school. Teachers still share education materials on USBs and access to common materials is restricted.
There are various possibilities. Schools could go for a mix of wired and wireless networks, and for LANs they could use the existing servers that they already have. Or they could use cloud services which would lessen the need for technical support, although the latter can be expensive for large groups.
Projectors and Interactive whiteboards
In most developed countries, ceiling projectors and interactive whiteboards are integral parts of the classroom. Indeed, some schools are already moving on to interactive screens. Both are expensive, the latter prohibitively so for now.
I was struck therefore to see that the beautiful new Praslin Secondary school had ultra large blackboards and a miniscule whiteboard on the classroom walls, a seeming failure to anticipate the future. Even if staff were keen to carry on using a blackboard for cost sake, surely good practice and an eye to the future would have been to have two equal size boards; one a blackboard and the other a whiteboard. In the case of Seychelles, a matt whiteboard would allow for projection on to it and the ability to write on it with a whiteboard marker – the poor man’s interactive whiteboard!
A cursory search through the internet or through websites such as TES (Times Educational Supplement) on any topic will reveal a huge wealth of resources for teaching. Indeed, I marvel at how easy it has become for a new teacher to access resources these days. Much of it is of limited use unless one has projection facilities and ideally access to a LAN where they can be stored and shared.
Regular filter maintenance, replacement of expensive short life lamps, and electricity costs have all been major factors that have slowed down the introduction of projectors in schools.
The arrival of projectors such as the Casio lamp-free projectors that consume 40% less electricity, do not need filters and can be run for 8 hours a day for 10 years before the bulb would be expected to fail, has changed the equation for schools.
The establishment of a LAN in all schools, fast internet access and projectors in classrooms will revolutionise teaching and the return from this investment will be far greater than anything that is being done at present.
The emergence of Zoom as the go-to video conferencing software for schools has led to huge innovation by teachers. Some staff are currently conducting lessons via Zoom for their classes once a week. Using free whiteboard software such as Promethean ActivInspire coupled with Zoom, they are able to make lessons far more interactive than ever.
One can imagine that in a well organised school, a teacher that is absent for say a minor injury could possibly still do part of his/her lesson from home and require only basic supervision in the class, or a class next door could be relayed by Zoom to the one with the absent teacher, opening new ways of dealing with absence. The lesson could then be stored online for access by absent pupils.
The digital divide & high Internet costs
Having all the above can only work if pupils have good broadband access at home. Even in the UK, it has been recognised that during the lockdown, a significant minority of pupils could not access the work being set by their schools. This was because either there was only one laptop or pad being used by the parent for work or a number of children having to share.
Broadband prices for unlimited access in Seychelles is prohibitively expensive representing about 15% of a basic salary. Until that is corrected, there will be a digital divide with poor children drifting further apart.
Politicians across the ideological spectrum must make it a matter of urgency to rectify this inequality. In this decade, surely Internet access must be viewed as important as TV, water & electricity.
And here, government must seek the assistance of Internet service providers to make a basic unlimited broadband (time limited if financially necessary) available say till 7 p.m.
Schools can also help, by providing a safe space after school for deprived children to have access to their wireless networks and computers so that they can work. The government could also expand access by providing cheap tablets requiring less maintenance for some families.
Towards a hybrid model of learning
One of the realisations of the past 3 months of lockdown education is that some of the change will be permanent. Educational activity will no longer be only face-to-face or only online but a blend,and schools must have the ability to move from one to the other seamlessly.
It is true that no amount of online access to education materials, can replace the interactivity that a one to one contact with a teacher can provide. However, given the sheer abundance of learning materials and the threat of future pandemics; it is surely time to envisage a more resilient model of education.
Teaching children to learn independently, to take control of their learning has always been a mantra for teachers. Now is the time to build access to these resources and halt the loss of human potential that Seychelles educational system experiences every year.
A few years ago, I was reminded by my brother as to how at an early age, I had along with another pupil (the lawyer Kieran Shah), had finished reading every book in the Seychelles College Library. My love of reading started early in nursery with the legendary Ms Rouillon , devouring the weekly editions of Beano and Dandy that could be bought every Sunday at the Anglican Church bookshop, and eventually the College Library.
It is a reminder to us, that much learning takes place outside the classroom. For working class children to thrive, they need to have greater autonomy in an age where the “Library” is online. It is a dereliction of care that we fail to provide access to all children to the huge educational resources of the net. L. Talma