Autor: Gyalsten K Dorji
Education in Bhutan is mostly about rote learning. This is apparent, when walking past the classes of Kuzhungchen community primary school in Kabjisa, on the outskirts of Thimphu, where students can be heard loudly repeating their lessons, over and over again.
But in one Kuzhungchen classroom, a revolution is being organised. The perpetrator: a little green laptop computer called the XO, previously known as the USD 100 laptop.
Although far from costing USD 100, the XO is still comparatively cheap at about USD 200. The reason for its low cost is the mission associated with it: to give children in developing countries access to the world’s vast library of information on the internet, thereby empowering them for their own education by making learning an interactive and fun experience.
A mission, the ministry of information and communications has embraced and will prioritise in its information technology plans for Bhutan. The OLPC project will target only rural community primary schools.
“This is the beginning and it won’t fail,” said communications secretary, Dasho Kinley Dorji, on the launch of the OLPC project at the community school yesterday and on its long-term projections. “For us, this is now a priority.”
“This is an education project, not a computer project,” said OLPC (Asia-Pacific) president, Anthony Wong, who is in the country, and involved in teaching both teachers and students on operating the XO at Kuzhungchen primary. “It’s about bridging the digital divide because, without the internet, children growing up in rural areas will be greatly deprived.”
Anthony Wong established the Asia-Pacific branch of OLPC last year, and Bhutan is the second country, after China, to be targeted by the project. On why OLPC was choosing Bhutan, he said, “In least developed countries like this, especially with the mountainous terrain and most of the population being rural, the quality of education tends to be very low.” He added that the software applications on the XO were designed not by IT professionals but education experts, and so would help improve the standard of education.
Asked how it would improve the learning process, he said, although it was too early to tell, one noticeable result for the children involved in OLPC’s (Asia-Pacific) first project was a rapid improvement in areas like English grammar and pronunciation. Wong also pointed out several features in the XO that would expose rural children to other areas of education, such as an audio application, that allows students to play various musical instruments using the computer’s keyboard. Some of the other XO features that may help rural Bhutanese students include applications on animation, mathematics, word processing, and networking.
Communications secretary, Dasho Kinley Dorji, said, “Just to be able to get the kids to fiddle with the computer, it’ll be education.” But obstacles remain.
A majority of Bhutan’s remote schools lack internet access and even electricity, required to recharge the XO’s 4-hour battery life. Said Wong: “Without the internet, the XO is still a very powerful piece of equipment.” Children and teachers could still collaborate over a local area network, using only the computers, he said. He said solar panels could be used to power the computer and charge the battery.
Which leads to another hurdle: funding.
The 269 laptops, currently at Kuzhungchen primary, have been funded by international agencies, like the telecommunications union and UNICEF. To literally realise the one laptop per child vision in Bhutan, the government will have to spend upwards of USD 200 on each laptop for over 40,000 non-urban located community primary students, which comes to about USD 8m.
Dasho Kinley said the government could find ways to afford this project, for instance, by reviewing purchase and usage of pool vehicles. He said one Toyota Hilux, which costs about USD 25,000, could buy more than a hundred XO laptops, adding, “But I hope our international donors continue to help in with funding this project.”
A more realistic scenario would probably be purchasing XO laptops, but keeping them in computer labs at school. “I hope that doesn’t happen,” said Wong, “this laptop is designed for the children to own and take home.”
Jamtsho Dorji, a teacher of 9 years, currently undergoing training on the XO, along with 27 other teachers of some of the most remote schools in Bhutan and 200 Khuzungchen students, told Kuensel: “This will be very helpful for not only students but us teachers as well. The XO would help teachers in letting their students visualise a world, outside their villages, they had no knowledge of.”