It sounds like an air freshener, but the acronym RI-SOL derived from the merger of Relief International (RI) and Schools Online (SOL). Since 1990, RI has worked in “bridging and transitional” programs working with and supporting communities and societies in transition from crisis through to recovery and development and from centralized economic systems to sustainable market-based societies.
SOL was founded in 1996 by several influential leaders of the IT community in California’s Silicon Valley. Since then, SOL has been a leader in the installation and integration of IT in education. Over 5,700 schools in the US and 1,300 schools in almost 40 countries have benefited from the provision of computers and Internet connectivity. In the last three years, SOL has complemented its provision of technology and Internet access with an extensive professional development program for teachers. To ensure long-term sustainability, all programs are designed with the participation of teachers, school administrators, local communities, and relevant governmental agencies. RI-SOL has been involved in projects involving technology, education, and civic education in the following countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Macedonia, and Tajikistan.
Bangladesh has identified ICT (Information and Communication Technology) as a thrust sector for both industry and education, the government hopes to recapitulate the success of its neighbor, India, and become a competitor in the global information service industry. However, Bangladesh has a long way to go. It is among the poorest countries in the world, and is unequaled in population density. The country struggles with inadequate health care, high unemployment rates and alarmingly high illiteracy rates. Issues of governance, civil disorder and the perception of increasing religious intolerance make foreigners wary of investing in Bangladesh.
It is clear that if Bangladesh is going to become a player in the world information industry, it will have to help itself. The next generation will need skills including general familiarity with computer hardware, a good sense of how to use common desktop applications, a command of the internet and its tools, and the ability to use English as an international language. Already, Bangladesh has taken steps to make this happen: it has waived tax on the import of computer equipment and instituted a compulsory computer class in high schools. However, the effectiveness of its computer curriculum is crippled by a general lack of hardware, and equally, by a dearth of teachers familiar with computers.
The RI-SOL program is designed to promote ICT education in a catalytic manner, to accelerate what has already begun in Bangladesh and help the country realize its aspirations. The program makes it possible for schools to obtain computer equipment and an internet connection, and to train teachers in their use. Each center works with its surrounding community to develop a sustainability plan. After a year and half, the school continues its program on its own and serves as a model for surrounding schools.
The GCEP project has arrived in Bangladesh at an auspicious time in the country’s IT development. Computer technology and internet access are becoming available throughout the country, and the country’s access to the internet will explode within the next two years as high-capacity fiberoptic trunks are put in place.
Additionally, the tools to promote computer use in Bangladesh are just now coming to market. In the last year, both Microsoft and Linux developers released Bangla-localized versions of their operating systems. The Unicode standard which will serve as the basis for global exchange of documents in Bangla has matured, and fonts have been developed to express the full range of Bangla ligatures. Whereas the majority of computer users in Bangladesh are relatively well-off and are facile in English, general adoption of computer technology will require development of educational materials and resources in Bangla, and instruction by Bangla-speaking teachers skilled in computer use. One of the goals of the RI-SOL program is to develop this local content and expertise by training educators in the integration of ICT into their curricula.
Outside of the capital city, Dhaka, we have found that the majority of people have yet to realize the full potential of computer technology — this is particularly true in the education sector. While Cyber Cafés can be found in almost every district center, they are mainly used for email, chatting, watching movies and web browsing. Few businesses outside of Dhaka use computer technology, very few schools have computers (although a government-mandated computer course is required for all Class 9 students), and the user group base has not expanded much beyond young men. The technology is available, however it is has not yet been integrated into these communities and their lifestyles, and is therefore not being used to its full potential. The Global Connections and Exchange Project aims to introduce technology not only to students and to teachers but to all community members, thereby integrating technology into our target communities and diversifying the technology user base.
Several organizations have proposed plans to promote ICT-education in rural communities, some based around a community model and some based around a school model. The present iteration of the RI-SOL plan is a hybrid which combines the best of both models. The model is based on ten years of practical experience rolling out similar programs in other developing countries.
Sustainability is a key concept for the program. RI-SOL acknowledges that technology changes and computers become obsolete; the centers are designed to be self-renewing and to keep pace with technology while not imposing a burden on their community.
By working closely with Bangladeshi schools, teachers and their communities, RI-SOL will help Bangladesh achieve its goals in ICT education.
The Global Connections and Exchange Project is a US State Department-sponsored program which enhances youth educational opportunities by facilitating access to technology and Internet resources, by providing extensive teacher training, and collaborative online projects for students. The project develops civic participation and engagement among youth through educational projects based on community involvement, global citizenship, and awareness of current events, and cross-cultural issues. The project leverages the existing worldwide network of schools previously involved in RI-SOL’s educational projects in more than 40 countries throughout the world.
Opening an ILC takes months of preparation on the part of both the schools and RI-SOL. Schools are first canvassed for interest in participation in the GCEP program. At first, school administrators may not realize that the program is more than just putting computers in a room, but involves an ongoing plan to sustain a center that will become a resource for both the school’s students and its community. It is a large commitment on both the part of RI-SOL and the school, and creates a long-term relationship that puts demands on the goodwill and trust of both partners.
The ball is then in the school’s court. School administrators must complete an application. They must agree to allow unimpeded access to their facility by both girls and boys, and to participate in the educational and cultural exchange programs facilitated by RI-SOL.
Then, they must identify community members that will voice support for the new centers. The school must agree to make the ILC available for the use of community groups when it is not otherwise being used by its own students. Parents and teachers also have a voice in the running of the ILC, through a School Management Committee (SMC or PTA).
In the long run, each center is expected to become a self-sustaining entity. We realize that this will take some time, but encourage the schools to produce a draft plan even before the program begins. During the application process, each school must form a community committee, composed of local stakeholders. This committee will be responsible for monitoring the sustainability plan, adding locally relevant programming, promoting community use of the center, and holding the school accountable to the community that it serves.
When the application is completed, the RI-SOL country office reviews the application and evaluates it in the context of geographical coverage, equity of access to the site, number of students and community members served, and unique circumstances of each site. Every effort is made to select schools that will benefit vulnerable populations and those that would otherwise not have access to computer technology and the Internet.