Remote hill children of Rangamati becoming IT-savvy
By Kamrul Hasan Khan
Rangamati, Bangladesh, 26 February, 2014: At the beginning of this year, a new primary school was set up close to the home of fifth grade student Anamika Chakma. But she opted to continue with her old school situated far away because the latter had something to offer that most others did not.
Nearly 40 students of the Golachhari Government Primary School in the south-eastern hill district of Rangamati, moved to the new school when new academic calendar began in January. They made the move considering easier communication in the sloppy hilly terrain surrounded by a lake, where boat is the main transport.
Anamika did not follow suit, because her school has computers. Immediately after she saw one for the first time in her life following the establishment of a resource centre at the school just about a year ago, the machine captured her curiosity and love for it continued to grow.
Computer education and computer aided learning are largely unknown for government primary schools in impoverished Bangladesh, where one-third of the 154 million people live below the poverty line and only 1.49 percent people have access to internet.
This is not strange that Anamika, 10, who hails from a poor village in the huge Kaptai Lake, the largest of its kind in South Asia, with no electricity, has never seen a computer before.
“I never saw this machine before until two of them reached our school last year. At first sight, I wondered how those things worked,” Anamika says while practicing typing on a computer.
“Initially I was so afraid to touch them or push a button lest I break something unknowingly,” school uniform-clad Anamikasays, smiling. The other students are also very enthusiastic about the computers and they love to spend time at the resource centre on a daily basis.
The School-based Resource Center (SRC) at the Golachhari Government Primary School is a part of a spectrum of interventions under the UNICEF-supported 'Child Friendly Schools' programme at 22 such schools in three sub-districts at the remote, isolated Kaptai Lake area. The core idea of Child-Friendly Schools is to put the ‘child’ into the centrality of school improvement plan and transforming the school environment into a conducive social and learning environment where children will thrive, learn and grow.
Living in a difficult terrain
The 356-square-mile lake, created in the early 1960s as a result of building a dam on Karnaphuli River as a part of a hydro-electric project, submerged 54,000 acres of farm land and affected around 200,000 people, according to Rangamati Hill District Council.
The vast expanse of emerald and blue water ringed with tropical forest and hills has earned the district a name of Lake City, making it Bangladesh's one of the best tourist attractions, but the beauty came at a heavy cost for the families living around.
Most families, farmers for generations, were forced to turn to fishing for livelihood after the creation of the lake. Victims, mostly from different indigenous ethnic minority groups, resettled in the hilly area and small, scattered islands surrounded by water.
The lake is unreliable and often dangerous for boating due to its unpredictable nature. During the six months of the monsoon, water swells to high levels, making it riskier for the children to operate small, rickety wooden country boats to attend schools.
The situation leads to low enrollment rate of while national level enrollment rates appear on track to meet MDG 2, the district remains among the lowest performers.
School-based resource centres
The intervention, supported by the George Harrison Fund, USA, aims to increase access to basic primary education and learning opportunities for hard-to-reach children and their families living in the isolated, remote areas of the lake.
UNICEF is partnering by providing technical support to Rangamati Hill District Council and relevant government agencies in implementing the project, which started in late 2012.
Under the program nearly 1,000 students from six schools have now got access to basic knowledge on IT and computer aided learning through the SRCs, each equipped with two desktop computers, internet connection, solar paneling for electricity. New teaching staffs have also been recruited at each centre.
The other interventions, according to varying needs of the programme schools, include motorized shuttle boats to carry students to and from schools, renovation/reconstruction of buildings, water and sanitation facilities. Training programesfor teachers are also arranged so that they can teach students on health and nutrition, supply hygiene and sanitation kits and impart swimming lessons to students.
Through all these interventions, a total of nearly 2,100 students from 22 programme schools and their teachers, 480 adolescents and some 3,039 families living in the disadvantaged areas are benefiting, informs Dhana Moni Chakma, coordinator of the project.
“Apart from the students, adolescents, and families of the catchments are also benefiting from improved access to information technology through the School based resource centers, as they are open for the community as well,” he adds.
"We aim to change the school environment from traditional to child-friendly ones. I think the inclusion of these resource centers to the programeschools is significant addition to that end,” he says.
Quick computer learners
Like other programme schools, at Golachhari school too, students of third, fourth and fifth grades attend computer classes on a daily basis to learn computer basics and watch educational programmes such as movies and cartoons.
“These students had no idea whatsoever about computer before, so giving them basic knowledge was essential initially. But they were very quick to pick it up and always excited to learn new things,” school's resource centre facilitator Roni Chakma says.
“Everyone has learned to open and save word file, they can type, draw pictures and open applications. They are very excited as this week I am going to show them the basics of internet use,” he adds.
Sabinoy Dewan Chakma, head teacher ofHemanto Government Primary School, says the resource center at his school has created much enthusiasm among the students and the youths in the catchment area.
“The students love computer. They always push the facilitator to teach more, show more. Young boys and girls are using the centre every day,” Sobinoy informs.
Community also benefits
The Resource Centres, also been providing services to the community people for free, are open six days a week. The centres will soon be equipped with supplementary reading and extra-curricular materials.
This approach fits well into the government's campaign for Digital Bangladesh, aimed at delivering ICT services at citizens' doorsteps using information technology by 2021, the year when the nation will celebrate the golden jubilee of its independence, says Erfan Sharif, chief executive of Rangamati Hill District Council.
“This access to computer education, computer aided learning for the children and information technology for this isolated, disadvantaged population, even if they are on a limited scale, is an amazing thing to happen,” he adds.
“It’s good to see the buzz these resource centershave created among these students and their communities. I believe the impact will be huge and far reaching provided these programmes are sustainable," he says with cautious optimism.