Solar-powered classrooms have evolved from an experiment into the next big thing in educational initiatives by IT giants like Samsung and Dell.
A little more than two years ago, technology giant Samsung unveiled its first solar-power internet classroom at Phomolong in the Tembisa township outside Johannesburg.
Nothing had to be built: the classroom arrived ready-made, in a renovated shipping container. It starts with solar panels on the roof of a 12m container, which generate up to nine hours of electricity a day for the equipment inside the classroom. That makes it possible to power a 50-inch electronic screen, solar-powered notebooks, Samsung Galaxy tablet computers and wi-fi cameras, all linked to the internet through wireless broadband.
The classroom can accommodate 21 students at a time but, as important, it can store the entire school curriculum in a central computer, also powered by the solar panels.
Until the internet classroom arrived at Phomolong Secondary School, it had been achieving around a 66% matric pass rate. Within two years, at the end of last year, the rate had rocketed to 96.5%, with 102 out of 199 students qualifying for bachelor studies.
“Our achievement is a culmination of a number of sustained systemic interventions,” said principal MK Thoka in a letter to Samsung. He noted that the interventions had been “aimed at strengthening and improving performance of our learners particularly in mathematics, physical sciences and accounting”. Ambitious goals had been set, he said, and these had been achieved thanks to Samsung’s intervention.
Phomolong is just part of the solar-powered container classroom story. Last year, global computer manufacturing giant Dell launched its first Classroom in a Box in Nigeria. At the end of January this year, it brought the concept to South Africa as the Dell Solar Lab at the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (Shawco) centre in Kensington, Cape Town.
More than 300 children from nearby under-serviced areas, like Manenberg and Khayelitsha, have free access to the mobile computer classroom.
“Shawco has been a Dell ‘Powering the Possible’ partner for four years and with their excellent service, knowledge and relationship with communities through their welfare, development and education programmes, it made sense not only to place the lab at their Kensington centre, but to also collaborate with them to ensure that communities take full advantage of the benefits of this advanced technological structure,” said Stewart van Graan, general manager, Dell Southern and Central Africa, at the launch.
Meanwhile, Samsung has now deployed solar classrooms in 20 African countries. Some form part of Samsung’s own corporate social investment, while others have been bought by large corporations to fulfill their own CSI requirements. From Botswana and Lesotho up to Rwanda and Sudan, the classrooms are becoming a symbol of educational innovation in rural areas.
And the results continue to raise eyebrows.
“We put one in a little village in the northern part of Botswana, where there were many San people whose kids were not keen on school, and they had a high drop-out rate,” says Thierry Boulanger, Samsung’s director of IT and B2B Solutions, Africa. “Then we put in solar-powered internet schools. To this day, kids are lining up to go to school.”
What’s the attraction? Surely not just the shiny computers? That novelty would wear off fast.
“It’s about interactivity,” says Boulanger. “We’re engaging with the scholars, and they are exposed to something they’ve never seen in the past. Having a notebook computer or Galaxy Tab in front of them, while engaging with a teacher, is so much more enticing than a traditional blackboard and chalk.”
Student management software in the unit itself allows teachers to measure the performance of each student immediately. Spot tests can be given at the end of each lesson, and monitoring systems can go as far as to say whether the teacher was successful in delivering that lesson.
“Those are the things that make it so much more efficient and effective,” says Boulanger.
It doesn’t have to stop with the single classroom, either. At Phomolong, as well as further afield in countries like Rwanda and Tanzania, Samsung has now installed solar powered generators, allowing existing schools with no electricity or high electricity bills to be transformed into “smartschools”.
For Dell, the big win is that the solar-powered classroom manufacture is so easily repeatable.
“We want to try to mass produce it,” says Michael Collins, vice-president and general manager of Dell for emerging markets. “We’re trying to make it simple, drive down the cost, and get a bigger return for available funds.
“Education is a great window. With it, you can go anywhere. All you need is access and the ability to go exploring. The beauty of internet search engines and sites like Wikipedia is that you don’t stop learning. All you need is that window.”
Collins believes that the concept will work not only for children, but also for every community that sees education and knowledge as a springboard.
“Education will change Africa,” he says. “And access will change education.”