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Kasiisi Project: Notes from a technical lead

“I like to use the computers for English and to know about them” says Daphine of Kasiisi Primary School in rural western Uganda.
The Kasiisi Project helps to promote conservation through education around Kibale National Park, Uganda by building classrooms, hiring extra teachers, supporting healthy environments, providing support for 90 students to attend Secondary School, and working with other school support organizations.  Over the past 15 years, Kasiisi has grown from a small, one-building school to a massive compound with a kitchen, library, teacher housing, and now computer classes. Much of the early success of Kasiisi can be associated with a strong Head Mistress and support from the Kasiisi Project. My name is Jeff Bittner, and I have been working for the Kasiisi Project since October 2008 helping to support Kasiisi and the 4 other schools in the Project. I have been involved with a variety of activities since my arrival, including the introduction and implementation of roughly 150 XOs (see our Kasiisi blog for more background). As a person working in the schools before, during, and after the introduction of the XO Laptops, I have seen the way that these computers can excite and engage the students, as well as the complications that come with them. Recently, I have come to see how essential it is that local projects with long-term commitments are partnered with XO deployments.  This is one of the difficulties of running a small pilot. While the XO’s have the ability to bring technology and a new learning tool into underfunded and isolated rural schools, careful planning is necessary for success.

About Kasiisi School

Teachers at Kasiisi Primary School are responsible for 150+ students each, do not have any University teaching degrees, have few supplies, and are restricted to government-mandated curricula. The performance of their students is based on standardized, national exams.  Many have never used a computer.  There is no power at the school or in the villages where the students and teachers live. So they must learn to use new tools and ideas outside their curriculum. This is a big challenge to an already underpaid and overworked teacher, but the ability to bring this new technology to a rural school is worth the work, if done correctly. One of the first challenges at Kasiisi was to create a power supply to charge the computers.  We built a charging station ( schematic) and an associated generator house to store and run the generator.  Secondly, the teachers needed to learn how to use the XO’s.  After several weekend workshops, we decided that the Ugandan teachers would benefit from a professionally-taught,full-scale computer course.

Workshops and Project-based learning

We found a computer class offered at the local university (approximately 30 minutes away by car) and arranged for all the XO teachers to take a computer class during a holiday break.  We were able to use money from our project to pay for this additional training, which gav the teachers greater confidence using computers, and got them excited about the many ways in which they could use them personally. This excitement has continued to motivate the teachers. In addition to the more tangible elements of the XO deployment at Kasiisi, there was a need to help the teachers understand the project-oriented philosophy of education for which the XO laptops are designed.  This is far outside the normal realm of teaching for these schools, and we have had regular discussions about this sort of teaching philosophy and how XOs can be used to support it. We also installed a server with Moodle software installed, which allows us to create a virtual classroom environment, an easy concept for teachers to understand and explore.   By uploading quizzes to the server, the students have an additional medium for reviewing material, and teachers have a use for the computers (in managing their classes) which excites and motivates them.  Practice exams on the server have an obvious and immediate result. This combination of traditional ICT uses in the classroom and the project orientated education endorsed by OLPC, helps keep the students and teachers engaged. We will continue to share updates on our website as the teachers and students progress.