Kampala (UGA), May 2007 - "Provide Internet, and They Will Learn How to Use It" summarizes Daniel Stern from Uconnect in regard to his experience with a project that trained 175 officials in ICTs. For CHECK.point eLearning, he gives detailed insight into this project, whose task was to teach remote rural district officers in Uganda how to use computers and the Internet as tools to help them do their work.
You are working for an NGO called UConnect. What is UConnect and what is its overriding aim?
Daniel Stern: The object of UConnect is the advancement of public education by using Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). Our NGO is working to make Internet affordable and accessible to everyone, especially to the young people of developing countries such as Uganda and particularly the rural poor.
The training programme would need to conform to UConnect's guiding principles of sustainability, scalability, and reproducibility. Our small NGO was able achieve this within the short time frame and with minimum resources, so it should be possible to expand it to include other districts and be replicated for other projects.
How did you organise and carry out the training?
Daniel Stern: Economies of time and finance - training was to have been completed in only a couple of months, and our budget was a meagre $7,000 - dictated that eLearning be used to bring trainees to a level that would allow them to benefit from onsite two-day face-to-face training.
We recruited a team of Makerere University IT students to draft the training manual we would use, led by one of their instructors. Links were provided within and between modules to facilitate navigation by clickable tables of contents; terms were linked to their definitions in glossaries, and URLs given for source material, allowing readers to access websites directly and giving credit to authors.
Five modules, How to Use Office Suite Programs (including a section on Windows conventions), How to Use Email, How to Use Web Browsers, How to Use Utilities, and How to Learn to Type, were supplemented with a description of MTN Internet Services and a self-evaluation module. Introductory cover letters informed trainees their training would be learner-centred and tailored to their needs, needs they could only describe to us after studying the manual.
We had begun to contact district Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs) directly and during a conference attended by members of the national CAO Association. Being introduced to high officials by one of their peers paved the way for our establishing good rapport with each CAO. Later on, we handed out soft copies of the manual as well as an interactive training CD. Our trainers went up country, bringing with them additional copies of the manuals together with switches and Ethernet cable. Each of the two or three teams would give two two-day workshops each week.
Each new district office had its own surprises, and often the first step was to install Internet connection. We repeatedly experienced the immense pleasure of seeing officials light up one by one as each of their workstations got connected to the Internet.
Though a few CAOs attended training, most appointed another official such as the District Planner to represent them. Training was supposed to have been for only five officials, yet as word spread that trainees had Internet, additional officials would start to filter in.
As it turned out, most of the questions centred upon various features of Yahoo. The new Yahoo was a hot topic and, except for a few lessons on search engines and designing web pages, most of the two-day training, alternating between group and breakout sessions, was on the intricacies of Yahoo for organising officials' work.
To connect to broadband Internet, WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) was used. What is WiMAX and what role does it play in leveraging Internet use in Uganda?
Daniel Stern: MTN Uganda provided WiMAX to twenty-two rural district offices in Uganda as part of the Uganda Communications Commission's Rural Communication Development Fund (RCDF). WiMAX was considered to be the most cost-effective means of providing Internet to the district offices and was relatively easy to deploy as a means of distributing services from their microwave backbone to small rural towns already served by their GSM network.
MTN Uganda subsequently agreed to connect schools to the Internet within range of their WiMAX base stations at a significantly discounted fee of $150 monthly for a dedicated 64/64 k service. I applaud programmes like the RCDF and companies such as MTN Uganda that, respectively, promote and invest in the provision of Internet for unexplored rural markets. Internet is an important means of development, a vital resource.
Designing your training, you followed a learner-centred approach. What were the advantages?
Daniel Stern: When trainees understood from our bottom-up approach that it would be their show, it was natural for them to be more serious in conducting their own training. We made it clear that the face-to-face training would be learner-centred, and that they would only get out of it what they put into it through their own preparations, including supplying their trainers with a list of questions or topics about which they wished to be trained, and that the onus was upon them to make a success of it.
The workshops I took part in were about the liveliest I'd ever witnessed. At our departure, officials would continue asking questions, notepad in hand, as we loaded up our vehicles. Exhausted after two days of intense interaction, we were nevertheless quite stimulated.
Could you please tell us something about the general lessons learned in this project?
Daniel Stern: Establishing a good rapport with key contacts within peer groups to facilitate networking and communications is essential. Dealing with the bureaucratic government civil servants can be a serious obstacle, yet once their peers had introduced us, CAOs and other officials understood and respected that we were there to assist in training them and their subordinates to improve their productivity through ICT skills and became utterly cooperative.
Connecting officials to the Internet brought about a dramatic improvement in motivation for learning ICT skills. Internet makes things happen; and getting Internet or providing Internet is, to some extent, a goal in itself. Officials who had been reluctant to leave their work to be trained were completely turned on to learning how the Internet could work for them.