Digital Learning

student change makers

Teach For Uganda is excited about its partnership with Student Changemakers, a student-founded and run organization facilitating online learning and more in schools in rural Ugandan villages.

Background:

It seemed a straightforward idea, born of idealism and enthusiasm: two California teens would raise money to bring remote learning to schoolkids in Uganda. It turned out to be a good deal more complicated – and potentially more transformative.

Simon and Nate Cohen are high schoolers in California. Like all their peers, they faced the prospect in Spring 2020 of indefinite schooling through a computer screen. The prospect was unsettling but not entirely unknown: Nate already took courses part-time through Stanford Online High School; both boys were aficionados of Sal Khan’s Khan Academy, where their efforts a few years ago had earned them a meeting with the Great Man himself.

But when the world locked down, Simon and Nate remembered a family friend who ran an organization called Teach for Uganda – that country’s analog to the Teach for America program. The friend, James Kassaga Arinaitwe, visited the Bay Area in 2019 while his new bride was doing a medical and public health fellowship at Berkeley. James told Simon and Nate about the village he’d grown up in, the overpacked elementary schools where one teacher struggled with a hundred or more kids in a class, and the necessity of an education that – done right – represented your only way out of the village (as it had done for James).

What were these kids in Uganda doing now that their schools had shut down? How far behind might they fall, and what could be done to stop or slow that fall? Simon and Nate thought back to Khan Academy and their current online learning experience. They figured that, if they could raise money to send a bunch of tablets, they could arrest the slide, albeit on a small scale. They settled on a name – Student Changemakers – and got to work.

The boys got in touch with James. They spoke several times a week to James and fellows in the field to understand what was going on in the villages under COVID and beyond.

They quickly figured out that while Tablets were a great idea, their preloaded content would have to be limited. The tablets’ usefulness would be immeasurably greater if the kids using them had access to WiFi.

Regular Internet access is quite rare in rural Ugandan villages and schools; the project would need a specialized WiFi hotspot. The boys did some research and learned of a server called RACHEL (Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning). In addition to providing internet access, each RACHEL comes equipped with a digital learning library – one far more comprehensive than a single tablet could carry. Here were the beginnings of rural educational infrastructure.

No sooner had they resolved this issue, however, than another problem presented itself: electricity. Both the tablets and a RACHEL would eventually run out of charge; there needed to be a reliable source of electricity, in villages usually far from any established power grid.

Simon and Nate, therefore, worked with the TFU fellow and leadership to design the best, low-cost solar option and factored in the cost of buying solar panels to install on or near a village school.

Village leaders and parents quickly jumped in to do their part and provided free labor to build a solar-powered space to house the system!

Because of this community collaboration the cost of supplying a village with tablets, WiFi, and solar power to keep them going came to $7,500. Simon and Nate called and emailed friends and family, wrote letters to business leaders, and were able to raise money for a first village.

In March 2021, the Ugandan Minister of Primary Education visited the village to mark the launch of the project – Uganda’s first online learning initiative. The Minister declared that this ought to be the model for Ugandan primary school education.

In partnership with Teach for Uganda the European non-profit War Child Holland, Student Changemakers has been critical in getting the entire primary education syllabus available online.

Following the success of the first village launch, Simon and Nate have been able to raise money for four more villages serving approximately 5,000 children total!

Other youths around the US are joining the project as partners or contributors. The tablets Student Changemakers provides are necessary during Covid, but James and his cohorts at Teach for Uganda say they’ll transform the classroom when students return in person. Teachers who previously had to keep 100 or more kids on the same lesson at the same time will now be able to divide them into groups with tablets, learning in parallel at a pace that suits them. Moreover, digital learning allows these students to test which skills they need to strengthen and quickly adapt a tailored study program to their individual needs!

The unintended consequences for the villages have also been eye-opening: the RACHELs provide WiFi for everyone, not just the schoolkids; electricity from the solar panels likewise can charge phones and other electronics, not just tablets. This helps the whole village!

Parents have access to information about grain and livestock prices (to buy or to sell), and can keep in touch with a wider world that has seemed even more distant over the past year.

TFU fellows are building stronger relationships with parents and school leadership and already thinking about how they can use these charging station visits and the electricity in the school to host special community health and education sessions!

“It’s been a year of great challenges,” Nate Cohen says, “But we believe that our generation can build models and opportunities to change the game in educational opportunity around the globe! And we hope to help turn the tragedy of COVID into an accelerant for change.”

“Our dream is to grow this project across Uganda and beyond,” says Simon Cohen. “We need more students-leaders and donors to join us! But, most importantly, we wish that other kids our age take our small example as inspiration to just get moving and get involved however they can.”.