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Internet is breaching barriers to education for the most vulnerable

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ICT education empowers students all over the world with the power of knowledge and access to information, different cultures and lifestyles from every corner. (Credit: JAAGO Foundation / Facebook)

Online schools in the U.S. may still be struggling to assert their legitimacy, but elsewhere, they’re being harnessed to provide access to quality education for the most vulnerable.

The U.N. awarded two organizations yesterday for doing just that. One of those was JAAGO Foundation in Bangladesh, which brings qualified teachers to online and tradition classrooms in slums and remote areas.

“The theme for this year’s prize recognizes the urgent need to respond to major obstacles that lie in the path of the most vulnerable populations with regard to equitable and inclusive access to quality education and lifelong learning,” the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said in press release, announcing the recipients of this year’s $25,000 prize.

JAAGO (which means “wake up” in Bangladeshi) was Korvi Rakshand’s solution to limited access and poor quality education. As a 21-year-old recent graduate in 2007, Rakshand rented one room in a Dhaka slum to do his part in reaching Bangladesh’s 3 million out-of-school children.

“We saw that there were thousands of organizations providing education but very little of it was of good quality.” Rakshand told UNESCO.

Bangladesh has made significant progress in recent years increasing primary-school-age enrollment. However, children who are working, disabled, indigenous, living in extreme poverty or in remote areas still struggle to access education. According to UNICEF, only half of all children living in slums attend school, which is about 20 percent lower than the national enrollment rate.

With at least 10 percent of primary school teaching posts vacant, Bangladesh also allows high school graduates to apply for teaching positions, and one-third of staff at government schools teach without a certificate.

“The majority of qualified teachers graduated towards the capital to teach as opportunities were good. That meant there were very few quality teachers working in remote areas,” he said. “We thought that if we can reach outside Bangladesh and contact the whole world through internet surely we could do the same inside the country.”

In 2011, JAAGO connected 80 students to qualified teachers on classroom televisions through videoconferencing, with a couple of on-site teachers to help as well. Now, backed by Grameenphone, microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus’ telecom company, JAAGO operates 10 online schools, 13 traditional schools and one orphanage.

“The system had the added advantage that, for children, people on television have the status of celebrities,” Rakshand said. “To have those people talking to them personally, calling them by their names, from the capital meant we had already grabbed their attention.”

Information and communication technologies (ICT) in education is an area in which much research is still required. According to Rakshand, winning the prize means JAAGO can “undertake further research on how successful the methods we are using are.” They also plan to approach the government to discuss scaling up.

The other recipient of the UNESCO prize yesterday was Germany-based Kiron, which provides refugees free access to higher education through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on a single platform. Mobile devices allow students access, even from camps and shelters and regardless of asylum status.

“Kiron sees itself as a bridge builder between refugees and partner universities,” Oliver Klawitter, Kiron’s European affairs manager, told UNESCO. “Our aim is above all to empower our students to integrate socially and economically into society in order to take back control of their futures.”

According to UNESCO, “both projects have set good examples of how to harness the full potential of ICT in education worldwide, bypassing constraints, across countries, continents and cultures,” in order to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030.

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