Can satellite technology improve a child’s education?

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela  

Across Africa, children face many barriers to accessing a good quality of education. In rural communities the installation of new water points can encourage families to send children to school rather than making them walk many kilometres to collect water from a contaminated source. But one of the biggest challenges is that where education is provided in rural areas, the quality is not great. In many places, teachers are lacking skills and do not get support from central education authorities. The fact that teachers are not being developed, means that children are not receiving the best education possible.

In many countries, new satellite technology could become the catalyst we need to make a change to how rural education is delivered.. Over the next few years, satellite operators will be launching new high throughput satellites (HTS). In this article I am going to present the argument about how this new technology could be a massive disrupter to how education is delivered in rural locations. HTS satellites will arrive over Africa in the next couple of year. This will open up a new opportunity to  deliver education.

How the new satellites might have a positive impact on the quality of education.
A good quality internet connection alone will not deliver education, but when combined with good technology, appropriate content and skilled teachers, progress will be made. The perfect recipe for delivering excellent quality education will need these ingredients;

·         Teachers: Technology will never replace teachers. This is very evident in the way that the internet revolution has not put teachers out of work in locations which already have fast internet connections, so it’s not going to be any different in rural communities. Teachers will still continue to deliver face to face teaching and will manage the overall teaching experience for the children in the school. Using the same technology, the teachers themselves will be able to build upon their own skills.

·         Content:  The hi-tech world of rockets launching satellites into space is very impressive but in the end all of this technology is basic plumbing which connects students to a source of knowledge. As a technologist, it’s easy for me to design the infrastructure to deliver information to any remote site on Earth, but it’s the information which flows through these connections which is important. So as part of any distance learning programme, it’s important that we deliver appropriate high quality education content which at least covers numeracy and literacy but preferably covering additional topics such as culture, history, science, technology and languages. Government education departments will be key stakeholders and will have a view on what subjects to prioritize. Quite often, there will be a national curriculum which leads to a formal national qualification. One of the benefits of the connected world is that as content changes, it becomes quickly available to all students nationwide.

·         Technology: In the classroom, a combination of tablets and laptops will need to be provided with the appropriate education tools. It’s worth noting that there are many useful education software packages which do not rely on the internet for delivery. This means that some education can still be delivered even if the network is offline. There are risks to manage as well. The internet is a rich place where children can access plenty of high quality and rich content. It is also a very dark place full of content which is not appropriate for children to see. It is important that on any school internet connection, there is technology built in to prevent children accessing harmful sites on the world wide web.

Teaching the teachers
In many professions, people need to learn new skills or update existing skills, this applies to teaching as well. In many rural communities, teaching standards are often inadequate whereas in urban situations, teachers can be proactively managed and have their skills updated. If we were able to wire up rural schools to the internet, then this opens up the opportunity to deliver webinars or online workshops to the rural teachers so that they can be just as good as the urban teachers. As children are not in school all of the time, periods of time can be set aside so that teachers can develop their skills.  

Sustainability
To deliver a viable internet driven solution for rural schools, we have to approach the provisioning of the technology in a responsible and controlled way. If we were to provide the technical environment and set up the connection, the whole thing would likely grind to a complete stop a year or so after its been set up. This means that any project to deliver connected schools would need to be set up in such a way that the system was actively managed and interventions would be taken as equipment faults occur. In a nutshell, the roadmap to a successful and sustainable programme  looks like this: 

·         Electricity: Electrical power can be delivered from a solar energy systems (and supplemented by a wind generator in some locations). These systems can be designed in such a away so that there would be a number of day’s autonomy designed into the system to allow  for periods when there is significant cloud cover. The power supply will be matched to the load within the school (computers, lights, internet etc.).  Cabling and other power components will need to be kept in strong metal enclosures to prevent unauthorized modification.  Teachers and support staff will need to be trained how to operate the system and to prevent unauthorized items being plugged into the energy system. (if the wider community taps into the power, it runs out, and the school IT stops working!)


·         Load: Where possible, low power solutions will be used. For lighting, LED technologies can be really efficient. Android tablets and laptop computers would be selected in favour of desktop computers as they use less power.

·         Monitoring: The “Internet of things” or IOT is a new approach where  cheap technologies are being used to monitor and control things in all sorts of settings. We can use web based solutions to regulate content and internet access across many sites from a central point. The power supply system can be set up with monitors which reports on power consumption. As power data is monitored, it’s easy to detect sites where batteries are starting to hold less charge than they used to or even to detect if more power is being used than the system is designed for. With this sort of monitoring, information can be used to dispatch an engineer to a site to deal with a minor issue before it turns into a major fault taking the school complete offline.

·         Preventative maintenance: In some countries, the number of rural schools can be counted in the hundreds. This is more than enough to justify setting up a team of technicians to proactively manage the upkeep of the school estate. In some places which are hard to reach, spares might be pre-positioned so that local staff can carry out simple repair tasks (such as changing a battery) under the remote guidance of a technician. As satellite systems drop in price, it may be possible to keep spare parts in each location for the satellite system.

·         Connectivity:  This will be a continuous overhead cost which needs financing. The new satellites are going to make the prospect of such programmes viable as the cost of providing connectivity will be cheaper than it is now. The other revolution taking place is the role out of fibre across some countries. This is going to lead to 3G cover in some rural locations which means that we may not need to put HTS technology into all schools. As costs fall, it may be possible to use both technologies in some locations where satellite acts as a back-up for 3G?

 Communicating with Communities (CWC)
There is a massive movement in the humanitarian sector where connectivity is being provided to communities affected by disaster.  A school does not operate 24 x 7,  there could be a spin off where an internet hotspot could be set up for community use adjacent to the school. Such connections would be principled and secured. CWC projects should however only be included in places where internet services do not exist at all. The NGO sector is often considered as the “provider of last resort”, but the ”do no harm” principle means that it would be irresponsible to set up free internet connections forcing local business out of work.  

Conclusion
High Throughput Satellites will arrive over Africa in the next couple of years. This opens up a new opportunity for educationalists to deliver some very bold and high impact education projects for children. As a technologist, I am ready to do my bit to make this happen. So my call to action is for us (the NGO sector) to form a coalition of education experts, fundraisers and technologist so that we can be ready to change rural education for the better when HTS arrives.

Perhaps this sort of activity would live up to what Nelson Mandela had in mind?

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