Rwanda's schoolyard tech

Photo caption: Rwandan schoolchildren use the XO computer in their classroom. The computer is provided by the One Laptop Per Chlld program. (Jon Rosen/GlobalPost)

KIGALI, Rwanda — As they cram in front of their green and white laptop, Gabiro Vainqueur, 10, and Agape Pacifique, 12, are at odds over their afternoon assignment.

Fifth graders at Ecole de Sciences Anglais Francais, a private school on the outskirts of Kigali, the two have been asked to write about something they’d like to learn when searching Google.

“We can use Google to learn about Barack Obama,” Vainqueur wants to type into the plastic device’s word processor.

“No,” says Pacifique, evidently a fan of Lewis Carroll. “Let’s learn about the story of the Jabberwocky. It’s very cool.”

This may not seem like a scene from a typical African primary school. Yet in Rwanda, thanks to a partnership between the Ministry of Education and U.S.-based nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a wired education is being touted as a key to the country’s future.

In an ambitious development agenda known as Vision 2020, the government of Rwanda is bent on transforming this predominantly agrarian nation into Africa’s first knowledge-based society. To do so, it’s investing heavily in its future work force, seeking to convert the 46 percent of its population under the age of 15 — otherwise a demographic liability in this land-strapped nation of 10 million — into a tech savvy asset.

“We’re really championing the insertion of technology into education,” said Manzi Nkubito, OLPC coordinator at the Rwandan Ministry of Education, adding he expects to equip all primary school children with laptops by 2015. “When kids who are now 8 are 18, a lot is going to happen.”

It’s a bold endeavor in a country where fewer than 10 percent of primary schools have basic electricity. Yet government plans are beginning to translate into action. The Ministry of Education has begun distributing 100,000 XO netbook computers purchased from OLPC for $20 million last year.

The LINUX-based devices are built to withstand dust, heat, and — with flash memory rather than a moving hard drive — schoolyard antics. The computers follow a pilot project of 10,000 donated by OLPC in 2008 and the new computers will be distributed to primary school children in each of the country’s 30 districts. According to Nkubito, participating schools without electricity will be hooked to the national grid or equipped with solar panels, and connected with wireless internet.

The Rwandan initiative marks the most significant commitment by an African country to OLPC, which made waves throughout the tech world in 2005 when founder Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced he would produce 20 million $100 dollar laptops for children across the developing world.

Five years later, though the project is active in more than 30 countries (including Uruguay, which last year became the world’s first to provide laptops to all of its primary school students), the cost of an XO is closer to $200 and global orders are nowhere approaching Negroponte’s forecast. Critics have assailed everything from the XO’s quality to the wisdom of governments investing in gadgetry when children have far more pressing needs. A recent UNICEF report, for instance, notes that 51 percent of Rwandan children under 5 — OLPC beneficiaries of the future — are moderately or severely stunted from inadequate nutrition.

Yet according to Sam Dusengiyumva, OLPC regional director, this is just why laptops are needed. “How do we address Rwanda’s hunger situation?” he asks. “Make children productive and give them a future.”

“It’s the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching him how to fish,” Nkubito added, paraphrasing Confucius. “Rather than taking care of people, we believe in giving them the tools to take care of themselves.”

Rwanda’s tool of choice, said Nkubito, is particularly appropriate in a country that lost many of its qualified teachers in the 1994 genocide, and where many educators are struggling with last year’s switch in the language of instruction to English from French. OLPC, which advocates a shunning of rote in favor of student-driven learning, is an approach, he said, that will facilitate student progress even when teachers are under qualified.

“With digital content,” he said, “you can replace this knowledge from outside. That’s the beauty of the internet.”

That said, as Nkubito admitted, the laptop project will only work as far as teachers see the devices as tools and not as foreign objects. It’s a fact not lost on Melissa Henriquez, who conducts OLPC trainings for both students and teachers.

“You work with kids one day and the next time they do wonderful things,” she said. “With the teachers, it takes more time.”

Yet Isidore Bimenyimana, a math teacher attending Henriquez’s training, remains upbeat. “This thing is too small for elder people,” he noted, fumbling with his hands on the child-sized XO keyboard. “But I like this technology. It’s as easy as drinking milk in the morning.”