Past and present governments have channeled some resources into establishing community and school Information and Communication Technology (ICT) centres. These ICT centres have been established purposely to enhance the learning of ICT in schools and communities. A typical ICT centre would have a set of computers and accessories with no access to the internet or an Intranet. ICT teachers are expected to use these computers to teach school children some basic computer hardware and applications. Just a few of these ICT centers are connected to the internet through either private initiatives, VSAT or through the government’s fiber backbone initiative.
The ministry of Communication of Ghana’s vision for community information centers (CIC) is to create rural access centres and use the medium of ICT to promote community-based ICT applications that will promote operational efficiencies delivered through effective and timely availability of information.
According to a 2004 government project strategy chanced up by yours truly, government through the ministry of Communication had plans to build community information centres in all districts in Ghana to serve as centres of learning and assist in bridging the digital divide between rural and urban communities. This document, also known as Ghana’s ICT for Accelerated Development Policy “also proposes the deployment and spread of ICTs in the Community as a way to improve the economic base and further accelerate growth and development towards transforming Ghana into an information society”.
The initial setups where a collaborative effort by the Government of Ghana and the Government of India. These centres were expected to be connected to Satellite from the remote location as the near-end and to the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT as the far-end to facilitate system management and finally establish a link to the government portal at the Information Services Department of the Ministry of Information to facilitate government to citizen (G2C) interaction.
These ideas surrounding the establishment of CIC where laudable until Covid-19 arrived to disrupt the system. On the 30th day of March 2020, a lockdown was announced in two regions in Ghana to curb the spread of Covid-19. Prior to that, all schools were closed, and new restrictions and social distancing rules were introduced. The Ministry of Education and the Ghana Education Service tried different ways of engaging students while at home. Mediums such as Television and Radio were used to engage students. Additionally, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) in Ghana also zero rated some educational Uniform Resource Locator (URLs) for students to access. All these interventions were to get students to learn what they would have been learning if they were at school.
All these interventions by the Ministry were not good enough. They never provided the interaction that the students needed. What was missing were the interactions between the students and the teachers. That is where the most important element comes in: the provision or availability of Laptops or tablets. If as a country, we had a policy of providing all students with a very robust locally assembled laptop or tablet which can have access to internet services, our nightmare would have been solved by now. We could as a country have gone fully online from day one for all students during the lockdown. It would be very easy for MNOs to provide free access to internet services for education purposes to all students who uses the free laptops or tablets. The mac addresses of these devices could be easily allowed on all networks to access internet for only educational purpose, that is, an interactive application where a student could interact with his peers and teacher in a classroom setting.
Ghana would not be the first country to provide free laptops to students. Countries such as Peru, Uruguay and Rwanda have adopted the one child one laptop agenda in full. Other countries such as Norway, Brazil, Bangladesh, South Korea and Spain are also implementing it partially. The United States does not provide free laptops from the federal government, but some districts such as the Los Angeles Unified district and Miami Dade (Florida) are providing free devices to students in their districts. It is also worth mentioning that some school districts are increasingly promoting ‘bring your own technology’ (or ‘BYOT’) initiatives to increase the access to laptops and tablets within schools.
If we are serious about turning the fortunes of this great nation, we should take some bold steps in making ICT and access to ICT devices for learning a priority. Free Secondary school without the access to ICT tools would produce half-baked graduates. These Graduates would not be competitive in the job market globally. Students in other countries are developing mobile applications, computer applications, robots, and other computer aided applications while our students are busy studying ICT on the chalk board. The provision of free laptops and tablets to students would open the floodgate for innovation and creativity in the development of software and applications by students. The pros outweigh the cons in providing free laptops to every Ghanaian child of school going age.
The free laptops must be designed and assembled locally in Ghana with local production offices in all Regional or district capitals. This first step would be an avenue for job creation for the youth. The citing of the assembling plants in the regions or even districts can support with the maintenance of these devices for either free or for a small charge.
With every child having access to laptops and free internet services for education purposes, we can eliminate the double track system, and increase enrollment drastically. We would not need to build more classrooms to accommodate students. All that would be needed is to enroll a cohort on an online system, get them connected from a specific time for an in-class experience. Occasionally, the online students could be asked to visit the schools for a “residency” type of experience.
Through curiosity and access to online materials, students with access to the free laptops (hitherto would not have had one) can learn new skills from free materials online and build their capacity without being in the four corners of a school building. Access can be controlled on these devices so that students cannot access X rated sites and other adult rated sites. A central management system to manage updates and security settings can be setup to control these devices. Unauthorised applications can be detected and deleted remotely. We have managed to implement free SHS, we can manage to provide free laptops and devices for all students of school going age thereby improving the economic base and to further accelerate growth and development towards transforming Ghana into an information society.
The Author is a Telecommunication Consultant | Member, Institute of ICT Professionals Ghana
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