Technology for Schools & Beyond
In addition to maintaining operating labs, EVCO opens about three new labs every year. Most of the schools requesting labs hear about the program by word of mouth. Teachers or principals learn about EVCO at conferences or from friends. They find application information on EVCO’s web site. EVCO receives about 20 applications annually.
EVCO evaluates each request for sustainability and impact. Key elements include location and community involvement. Highest priority goes to “cluster schools” that serve more than one village.
Community involvement is perhaps the most critical factor. In addition to finding communities with a willingness and ability to provide an appropriate site and teacher, EVCO looks for applicants with local leaders, groups, and individual families open to engaging in the process of improving their own educational system.
EVCO Founder Seth Owusu says that people love to talk about Africa’s problems. “But when you ask them what they can do to be part of the solution, they don’t know.” EVCO wants to help people see that they can be part of the solution rather than waiting for someone else to fix their problems. EVCO’s computer labs show people the benefits of taking initiative to help themselves.
Once EVCO selects school sites, its program director visits the community at least twice to make sure everything is in place before computers ship from Maryland. Each lab set-up takes one-to-two days. This process includes installation, initial teacher training, student workshops, and a dedication ceremony.
Depending on its location, the infrastructure in place at the village, and specific needs at the site, setting up a lab costs between $2,500 and $6,000. Each installation includes everything from outfitting computers, to shipping, set-up, as well as ongoing training and technical support for three years. An EVCO representative visits each site at least once a year to keep things running smoothly, replacing or fixing equipment during this time. By the third year, most labs no longer require assistance. Many labs take the initiative to acquire additional machines and accessories.
Computer Lab Equipment & Technology
EVCO initially began refurbishing computers to set up labs, but because of the organization’s growth, EVCO now purchases new machines to outfit them. In addition to enabling the organization to keep up with demand, standardizing computers has streamlined IT teacher training, improved teachers’ abilities to implement lessons utilizing technology, and facilitated accessibility for students. Additionally, having standardized machines improves EVCO’s ability to service them during the three-year contract period.
Founder Seth Owusu installs the operating systems and software at home in his Maryland garage before the computers are shipped to Africa. Since many of the school sites EVCO serves do not have internet access, a critical piece of the installation is a hard drive filled with downloadable data. This server, Remote Area Computer Hotspots for Education and Learning (RACHEL), provides an internet-like experience for students on the networked computers.
RACHEL, created by an organization called World Possible, provides access to nearly any academic resource available on the web. With educational content equivalent to 50,000 books, it includes tutorials for math and science, Kahn Academy videos, MIT courses, and more. RACHEL’s capacity turns these remote, rural labs into research centers for students and adults in the surrounding communities.
As another part of its outreach to schools, EVCO offers a Photos and Fun workshop for communities that don’t yet have the resources in place to qualify for a computer lab.
This one-day workshop gives kids exposure to technology in a fun and accessible way. A motivational assembly about the value of staying in school kicks off the event, and then students break into small groups to photograph their village.
“Many of the students have never held cameras before or seen pictures,” says EVCO Founder Seth Owusu. “It’s a powerful experience for them. This workshop shows them that school can be more than just sitting down and working from the blackboard.”
All students and teachers take turns using one of the cameras. A laptop and photo-quality printer enable participants to see their photos immediately, print them, and post them in the halls at school. Their images remain as a reminder to students and parents about the opportunities school can provide.
Typically, EVCO provides three photography workshops per year.
Beyond School Children
Students benefit from having new tools to help with their studies, but EVCO’s reach extends far beyond school children. Facilities started by EVCO become library and training centers for entire communities.
Adults access the labs to learn how to use technology as a tool to improve their livelihoods. For example, potters and basket weavers come to watch recorded videos of their craft to gain new skills. At the EVCO lab in Bolahun, Liberia, the school offers computer classes for women involved in soap and fabric making. Learning to use programs like Microsoft Excel to manage record keeping helps these women to expand their businesses. At library labs, adults as well as college students use the computers for research and other studies.