Providing Lesotho's Children with Keys to the World

This is the story of our efforts to end the vicious cycle of poverty, disease, inadequate education, and early death
in a remote rural community in Lesotho, Africa, by providing quality education and life skills
to the young children there. Join us on our journey ...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Going Global? The Growing Movement to Let Kids Learn Just by Tinkering

Leslie Engle Young was at a schoolhouse in Agorhome, Ghana, surrounded by a room full of mystified fifth graders. None of them had ever used a computer or surfed the internet, and yet, Young had just handed out a stack of tablet computers, asking them to answer a few basic questions using these mysterious devices.

"The kids had no idea what was going on," she remembers. "The first girl who touched the tablet, I had to hold her finger to get her to touch it, because she was scared it was going to shock her."

Then, something happened that delighted and amazed Young: with no instruction whatsoever, the students started figuring it out. "It was instantaneous," she says. "They opened the browser, saw the empty bar at the top, and everyone just clicks on it. Then they're like 'Oh, there's a keyboard,' and started typing. It's like: 'How did you figure that out?'" By the end of a few hours, the students were presenting the new knowledge they'd acquired all on their own, using devices they'd never seen before.

Young is the director of impact for Pencils of Promise, a New York City non-profit that has built nearly 250 schools across Ghana, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Laos. Last month, Pencils of Promise began experimenting with an emerging style of teaching called the self-organized learning environment, or SOLE. In a SOLE classroom, rather than lecturing students, teachers pose a question and let them use technology and curiosity to arrive at an answer. It's a method designed to encourage critical thinking and knowledge retention.

The SOLE model didn't begin with Pencils of Promise. It's based on the theories, which WIRED explored in-depth last fall, of Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University. But Pencils of Promise is poised to take this growing movement a step further.

Rather than lecturing students, teachers pose a question and let them use technology and curiosity to arrive at an answer.

In 1999, Mitra launched a highly publicized experiment called Hole-in-the-Wall, in which he placed a computer in the middle of a New Delhi slum, and watched to see if kids could teach themselves to use it. They could, and they did. Mitra then parlayed that success into the creation of School in the Cloud, a set of schools based on the SOLE model. He argued that if students could use technology to take a more active role in their own education, they'd learn a lot more than they do in a standard classroom. Last year, Mitra won the $1 million TED Prize to bring the School in the Cloud to life.

Since then, the concept of child-led, technology-enabled education has flowered and is being tested in schools from New Jersey to Ghana. Other organizations like the X Prize are catching on, too. The non-profit recently launched its Global Learning X Prize, offering up $15 million in prize money for software that kids could use to teach themselves. Now, with Pencils of Promise on board, the SOLE model could potentially scale exponentially across its hundreds of schools. That is, if the Ghana pilot works.

Young says Pencils of Promise will be studying the two pilots in Ghana for at least the next six months, with help from a Newcastle University researcher. They'll track metrics like literacy and numeracy rates, but they'll also monitor student attendance to see if the SOLE really does keep kids more engaged, as well as its impact on students' critical thinking skills. If all goes well, the team plans to develop what Young calls "SOLE-in-a-box," that comes complete with tablets, a Wifi connection, and any other materials a teacher would need to run a SOLE.

It's important to note, however, that Pencils of Promise hasn't adopted Mitra's entire model, which entails essentially eliminating teachers and replacing them with technology. Technology, Young believes, can never replace a teacher. Instead, Pencils of Promise is teaching educators how to run a SOLE classroom for, perhaps, a few hours a week. That way, Young explains, the SOLE becomes just another part of the teacher's toolbox.

"We think teachers are really the answer to getting systemic change," she says. "They might teach 25 kids this year, another 25 next year, and so on and so on. If we can fundamentally change the way teachers are trained and supported then we would have a whole different education system."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Welcome Henk Boshoff - New L2L President

With our president, Janissa Balcomb, stepping down we are excited that board member, Henk Boshoff, has agree to take on the presidency for one year beginning Jan. 1, 2015.  Janissa has worked very hard to turn over a strong program when she steps down.  We wish her the best, and we are very happy that she will continue with L2L, only in a different role.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

L2L 2014 Trip Supports Student Learning

If furthering the mission of L2L was the goal for the 2014 trip to Lesotho, the trip was a success.  The village of Kokobe and its elementary school was the destination for the L2L team.  Another breathtakingly beautiful setting in the mountains of Lesotho awaited the volunteers.  Travel was arduous and accommodations were basic.  The enthusiasm of both students and teachers was infectious and made the trip well worth it.




 
Students were introduced to the use of a mouse and headsets.  Janissa had used the Scratch program to create some fun lessons to help students manipulate the mouse.  The training involved lessons that were tied to the math curricula. Evenings were spent writing lessons for the next day’s classes. The lessons were designed to help students’ problem solving skills.  Students were engaged in the lessons and both U.S. and Basotho teachers helped students with the day’s lesson.

 

 
Students were trained on how to set up the solar panels and set up the computers in the classroom.  This was an important step in developing long-term sustainability.  L2L president had the following to say about pacing for the project.

“We may not see a significant impact until the current first graders graduate

 or even until the next generation.  We are trying to make major changes in

the way people learn and think.  That takes time.  We have to be very

patient and keep plugging away at this.”

 

“One thing about our philosophy and approach is that we have to go at the pace

of the local participants, and we have to accept that delays or even outright

failures will happen.  That has to be part of their learning and growing process.

Part of learning to succeed is discovering that things aren’t always easy and that

failure is a possibility if you don’t try hard enough.  We as an organization have

to let the local participants succeed or fail based on their own investment in and

leadership of the project.  Then we have to mentor them in ways to overcome any

failures or setbacks.”

Kokobe teachers were left with the tools to help support their math curriculum with the XO Laptops.  With the project’s goal to develop long-term sustainability, the ball is now in their court.

  
                                                                         
                                                                   2014 Team
 

Note From The President

After 5 1/2 years as founder and head of Laptops to Lesotho (L2L), I will
be stepping down at the end of this year and shifting my focus to lesson
development. As a result, L2L is searching for someone to take over and
lead L2L into the future.

We are looking for someone who is familiar with Lesotho and has experience
working with Basotho.  Though we are based in the U.S., the president doesn't
necessarily have to be someone in the U.S.

We have a board member in Pretoria, South Africa, who is reluctantly willing
to act as Interim President, if necessary, until we can find someone who
will serve a full 3-year term.

In Lesotho, we currently have a native project leader, project
coordinator, and volunteer.  We also have seven directors in the U.S. and
South Africa and over 2 dozen part-time volunteers in 4 countries. Two of
the volunteers are handling fundraising, so that sometimes onerous task
would not necessarily be a part of the president’s duties.

As we are an all-volunteer organization, the presidency is a unpaid
volunteer position.

The president would primarily serve as a figurehead, leader, and
motivator, keeping the organization true to our founding philosophy and
approach, as well as acting as a liaison with our Basotho participants and
overseeing all project operations.

The L2L philosophy is to mentor, train, and encourage Basotho leadership,
with community involvement and investment in the project before the
schools or students receive any benefits, and to give Basotho control of
project design and daily operations.

L2L is currently supporting educational work at two schools in
Lesotho, serving nearly 600 students.  We are looking to expand to a
third school sometime in 2016, with groundwork being laid in 2015.

I plan to stay active on the Board, so I will be available to offer
support and guidance, if needed, as the new president gets familiar with
our work.

If you are interested in applying for the president's position, contact me
at jbalcomb@laptopstolesotho.org.

Janissa Balcomb

Laptops to Lesotho Video

Want to learn more about Laptops to Lesotho?
Click HERE for a short YouTube video.

X Prize Pledges $15M for Software That Lets Children Teach Themselves

http://www.wired.com/2014/09/peter-diamandis/

The X PRIZE Foundation, the brainchild of entrepreneur and futurist Peter Diamandis, is already working on everything from sending people to the moon, to cleaning up our oceans, to developing a real life Star Trek tricorder. And on Monday, the venerable non-profit announced another ambitious goal. It wants to bootstrap technology that will let the world's children teach themselves to read and write.

The newly launched Global Learning X PRIZE is offering up $15 million to fund open source software that can remake education in the developing world. Ideally, Diamandis says, the X PRIZE team is looking for software that is artificially intelligent, so it can better understand how students learn and what their interests are, in order to keep them more engaged in their education.

"This 200-year-old industrial age educational system that we all grew up in, in which we all sit in a classroom, the bell rings, and like cogs in a wheel, we change classrooms? Inevitably, half the students are lost, and half are bored," Diamandis told WIRED on Monday at the Social Good Summit in New York City, where the new prize was announced. "The question is: How do you change that so it's personalized education? That's possible, and that's the goal."

'We're aiming at kids who live in villages where there's nothing. This has to take them from complete illiteracy to basic reading, writing and numeracy.'

As Diamandis admits, there's no shortage of technological innovation in education these days. The last few years have given birth to models like the massively open online course, which promises to give an elite global education to anyone online for free. But as important as this technology may be, he says, it often "assumes a higher state of learning than exists." "If you don't have the basics of education, you don't know how to use the web and don't know how to type in a URL," he says. "We're aiming at kids who live in villages where there's nothing. This has to take them from complete illiteracy to basic reading, writing and numeracy."

Teams will have six months to register, after which they'll have 18 months to build their software. "It could be teams from Microsoft and Google or two kids in a garage from Nairobi," he says.

Then, the foundation will test those technologies with children throughout Africa, and it is now raising money through crowdfunding to expand that test from 5,000 kids to 10,000. Once the winning team is chosen, Diamandis says he plans to work with companies like Google, Samsung, HTC, and other device manufacturers to ensure the software is integrated into all of their new phones and tablets.

"I want to make this software available for every tablet and smartphone out there," Diamandis says. "Imagine that when someone gets a tablet in the future, it will become their teacher, as well."

Sunday, October 12, 2014

September 30 Travel Update

"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to carefully consider the potential risks of traveling to Lesotho due to ongoing security concerns. After review of current security conditions, the U.S. Department of State lifted the ordered departure status of non-working eligible family members of the U.S. Embassy in Maseru. The U.S. Embassy in Maseru, Lesotho is open for normal services. This replaces the Travel Warning issued on September 18, 2014."

Visit the Department of State website for more information.