Botswana makes strides in bridging the digital divide
Supporting learning through connectivity
“Computers classes are my favorite, that’s the only time that I feel connected to the rest of the world and it’s fun because we do a lot of things independently,” said Orateng Mothowamadi, a 15-year-old student at Tshwaragano Junior Secondary School in Maun.
Orateng is among 370 thousand students who have benefitted from a connect the school initiative driven by the Government of Botswana in collaboration with UNICEF and GIGA. Through the SmartBots and GIGA initiative, schools are connected to high-speed internet in an effort to strengthen online learning and the bridge digital divide.
Orateng beamed with joy as she shared her first encounter with the computer. She did not have basic computer skills. “I didn’t even know how to switch it on, I don’t even have a smartphone. Now I can enter marks. I know how to use a mouse; I can do research to complement what we were taught in class. Sometimes we just read about what’s happening in the rest of the world,” she said. Orateng said her parents are equally elated and they believe she will have a better future than them. They do not have the internet at home, nor can they afford to buy her a smartphone.
Orateng’s excitement is shared by her school Principal, Ms. Lynette Setumo who said that strong internet connectivity has improved efficiency in her school. It has eased procurement and finance systems because they no longer experience internet cuts. “it has also strengthened communication within the school environment and with parents,” she said. In Maun Secondary school, the high-speed internet has eased collaboration between different schools. A biology teacher, Mr. Thatayaone Tebogo says enhanced Internet connectivity in their school has eased collaboration between teachers and made learning fun. "Nowadays I just play a video from YouTube to show students how a heart functions, I no longer spend days drawing teaching aids and it saves time, " he said. He added that they created collaboration sites with teachers from other schools and they share information and strategies on effective teaching methods. “I easily connect with teachers as far as Mahupu Unified Secondary School in Kgalagadi,” he said.
The program also connects students in settlements and hard-to-reach areas. Teachers and students at Somelo Settlements no longer travel to Maun to connect to the rest of the country. “There were times when we traveled 75km just to go and read an email in Maun,” said one of the teachers Mr. Machira. The teachers also felt isolated from the rest of the world because of limited access to information. “We now have internet and can easily research as we prepare for lessons. The Ministry of Education and Skills Development has procured tablets for us and in the coming weeks, students will be taught how to operate them,” he said. Community members also visit the school to connect to the internet. “We have opened it to community members so that they uplift their lives. So, we are not just connecting students, we are connecting communities too,” said SmartBots Project Lead, Mr. Isaac Kgoromola.
Although the initiative has made great strides in bringing the internet to schools, students and teachers still have another hurdle to address, an acute shortage of gadgets. “The government of Botswana has done a great job investing through the SmartBots initiative. They have built the road, now we need the cars,” said Ms. Anne Rita Ssemboga, Giga -Southern focal point, ITU. “In one of the schools, a student population of 1200 shared 40 tablets,” she said. Teachers and school management decried the shortage of gadgets, saying it is likely to hamper government efforts of ensuring that every child is connected to the information and opportunities.
UNICEF Education Specialist, Ms. Leseka Mukokomani believes that the initiative will go a long way in bridging the digital divide and ensuring that children from less privileged communities are not left behind. “Currently over 600 schools are connected, but we still have a long way to go. Over 400 schools are not yet connected and most of these are in hard-to-reach areas where there is no infrastructure. In addition, we need to double efforts to avail gadgets in schools that already connect to the internet,” she said. Mukokomani added that both teachers and students need to be trained on safe internet use. “Online teaching requires a different skill set; therefore, we need to build teacher capacity,” she added.
GIGA initiative was launched by UNICEF and ITU to connect every school to the Internet and every young person to information, opportunity, and choice. Working with corporate and non-profit partners, Giga maps schools' Internet access in real-time, creates models for innovative financing, and supports governments contracting for connectivity.