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The eLearning pilot class in El Moshamir, where students have been typing the alphabet and drawing with Paint for 10 months.

This is the seventh in a series of posts on designing innovative education solutions in Sudan, based on a mission that took place from September 3 to 23, and ongoing work. This series is by Panthea Lee, a consultant for UNICEF and principal at the service design firm Reboot. Some of the earlier posts are being published retroactively, partly due to the poor internet connectivity while the team was in country.

The team just returned from a trip to Gedaref State, in Eastern Sudan on the border with Ethiopia. In Gedaref City, the capital, we met with government agencies to discuss their programmes for out-of-school children. We also traveled to the 700-person village of El Moshamir, where Ahfad University for Women and several partners (academic, public and private sector, and NGOs) are running an eLearning pilot. The project aims to give out-of-school children an accelerated education so they can then integrate into the formal schooling system (if they are younger) or can learn basic numeracy and literacy skills that will help them in the future (if they are older and less likely to go to school).

The school set up for the eLearning program is a 50-square-foot room with a bed (the school doubles as the teacher’s home), a child-sized table with six chairs (the 22 children thus attend school in shifts), and a suitcase containing the prized goods: three second-hand laptops and one mobile broadband dongle. There is a solar panel outside, the only source of electricity in El Moshamir – the few villagers who have mobile phone come to charge their phones at the school, the only benefit most families receive from the eLearning project.

When the pilot came to the village 10 months ago, 22 children (of the 100+ in the village) were selected to participate. There were good intentions and lengthy reasons for the particular selections; nevertheless, this has caused tension in the community. For the pilot represents the only accessible shot at education in the village. There is a local khalwa, a religious school, attended by 50 children. But there, children are only instructed in the Koran, and in the Arabic alphabet so they can read the Koran. Though the structure, curriculum, and quality of differ from khalwa to khalwa nationwide, in El Moshamir, the teacher is focused exclusively on the principles of Islam. Such an education may be rich in religious importance, but it limits students’ future opportunities.

In the past 10 months, the eLearning students have learned basic computer skills: they can type the Arabic and English language alphabets, and they can use Paint to create basic digital art. They also have been assigned email addresses, which they use to email each other. The computers, however, still haven’t been loaded with educational content (which have yet to be created, with no set timeline for development) and so, for 10 months, the children have been practicing the same alphabet letters and drawing the same shapes in Paint. Part of the rationale was that in the absence of educational software, children could take advantage of the equipment available anyway and get started on some kind of learning. But without educational content on the laptops, it is impossible to evaluate the validity and utility of the program.

For the time being, it seems that the only way to get an education is to leave the village. And in all of El Moshamir, there is one youth who had the opportunity to do so. Abdallah was educated in Khartoum, a six-hour drive away, from the ages of 7 and 14. A wealthy man in the area recognized talent in the precocious young boy, and decided to support his education. Abdallah is a middle child, and most of those educated in the khalwa are as well, as responsibility for tending to the family’s cattle fell to their older siblings, they then had the privilege of attending school. But as soon as his brothers got married, he had to return to El Moshamir to tend to the cattle. It’s been three years since he returned, and he is still frustrated about being pulled away in his final years of school.

“Chasing sheep is not the way to help my family,” he says. “If I am educated, I can get a job, earn money, and help my family and my village. I can build a well here, get us clean drinking water, send more of my siblings to school.” But his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Most children in El Moshamir, and other rural villages in the region, never go to schools (other than the khalwa), and Abdallah’s parents did not see why he should. Primarily from nomadic communities – the tribes that used to pass through El Moshamir began staying in the village since a mosque was erected 13 years ago – they start helping their families with their cattle herds as early as the age of 7.

“It was fine that he to school in Khartoum, but what will he really get out of it anyway?” asks Abdallah’s father, a former cattle herder that now farms seeds because he has Abdallah and another son to tend to the goats. “He’s not going to stay in the city anyway. He will be coming back to the village sooner or later, and you don’t need to know any poetry here.”

WHO publishes Zambia results of using SMS to improve early infant diagnosis of HIV infection
Digitizing Uganda's Health Services: UNICEF Uganda's New Mobile Programs