Pamua Distance Learning Centre
About Pamua Distance Learning Centre
St. Stephen's Community College is situated on the north coast of Makira Island, about 1 hour's canoe ride from Kirakira. It consists of Pamua National Secondary School, Pamua Primary School and St. Stephen's Rural Training College. There are about 460 secondary school students in six forms and over 100 RTC students.
This month has seen the dawn of a new era in the delivery of education services in the region, with the opening of a distance learning centre equipped with broadband Internet in a remote rural community of Solomon Islands.
The first centre of the EU-funded Distance Learning Centres Project has just been commissioned at St. Stephen’s College, Pamua, in Makira Province and the facilities demonstrated to fascinated groups of school students, teachers and community members. A demonstration of interactive tuition platforms including video and audio conferencing and whiteboard created particular interest, especially with a live link-up with resource persons in Australia, New Zealand and Honiara.
Challenged by the pressures of fast growing population, a fragile economy and increasing ranks of under trained teachers, especially in the provinces, the Solomon Islands’ education system is turning to a home-grown technological solution with the assistance of it’s European Union donor partner.
The project is establishing one centre in a community high school in each province, as a pilot that has the potential for expansion. The centres are connected to broadband Internet using a new rural communications platform with VSAT satellite technology, supplied via the project’s solution partner Solomon Telekom. The installation of the VSAT equipment was completed by the People First Network, with solar power installed by Willies Electrical and Solar Power.
Supported by PFnet and the project, the full-time supervisor of the centre, Avis Mamau, is now commissioning the IT equipment and working to develop the community based management system and timetabling to ensure that not only the host school but all learning groups in the community have access. That includes trainee teachers, teachers and students of the rural training college and people who wish to pursue continuing education including “push outs” from the school system.
Although the focus will be on distance learning, the model for the centres is also that of a multipurpose telecentre, with expected applications in other sectors including telemedicine and rural finance. Indeed, two commercial banks are already planning to host agencies in the centres, enabled by the 24-hour solar power and Internet connection. Community FM radio is also a linkage that is being explored to add extra utility.
The project has also brought together content resources to support the K-12 curriculum and technical training in support of the rural training colleges. For instance, the computers are loaded with “schoolnet” resources from UNESCO and open learning material from the Commonwealth of Learning. The project has even started to tackle the scarcity of relevant local content, with the development of home-grown online courses on bee-keeping and turtle conservation. In the formal sector, providers such as USP are posed to take advantage of the centres by extending the availability of their programs to them. Due to the logistical restraints of the region’s geography with scattered remote communities, the region’s providers are already quite focused on distance delivery, and many have well developed flexible learning faculties. Thus, it is hoped that the centres will provide access to the distance programs of providers such as the Divine Word University of Madang and others. Technical courses such as provided by Fiji Institute for Technology are also being assessed, however the feasibility of such courses may have to be matched to the availability of practical facilities and an element of face to face teaching.
It is the understanding that technology alone will not be enough, that has led to the project’s concept of “champion teachers”. These are identified in the host schools and RTCs and are given extra training by the project, so they can become mentors and facilitators for their particular learning communities. For instance, the host school’s champion teacher will coordinate the school’s use of the centre, including assisting other teachers to understand the potentials and to help trainee teachers use the centres to support their training. Champions can be identified in subject areas and can then, with time, start to provide the required element of face-to-face teaching and even become online tutors for students who can access other centres.
The centres also have technical facilitators: each centre has a full time supervisor, coming from a background with not only IT skills but also training aptitude. Several are graduates with IT qualifications and teacher experience. These supervisors will provide the initial computer training required by most people in the community, and following an extensive training programme themselves, are now able to assist users in the range of Internet-based tuition and learning management systems.
The VSAT network can be expanded almost indefinitely by adding more centres with time, and with low-cost Wi-Fi networking. However, to meet the challenge of training and upgrading the large number of untrained teachers in the provinces, other more scaleable technologies are being investigated by the project, including the use of Worldspace digital radio receivers, which are very low cost and yet can receive data broadcast by satellites at broadband speeds. Through the Worldspace foundation and it’s partners, participating non-profits are able to upload content that is then broadcast by the Worldspace satellites and can be captured by remote stations at very low cost. The project will pilot nine sets of these equipments at PFnet email stations, and pilot their use in delivering rich multimedia content from the Solomon Islands education providers to remote schools.
Other potential technologies include interactive DVD, which might be an appropriate means to deliver content without the need for computers or computer training, and the new emerging range of low-cost laptop computers that are also low power (or even rechargeable by wind-up) and thus reduce dependence on power supplies.
Finally, the project is working with the Ministry to develop appropriate strategies and policies so that the use of the technology is firming tied to the real needs of the education system.
The centre accepts PFnet-style community email. To send an email to anyone in the community, write to pamua @ schoolnet.net.sb or nukukaisi @ schoolnet.net .sb (removing the blank spaces) with the name of the person in the address line.
More information on the project can be accessed from the project website www.schoolnet.net.sb
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