Dec. 6, 2022
The Learning Sciences Exchange (LSX) is a cross-sector fellowship program designed to bring together journalists, entertainment producers, policy influencers, researchers, and social entrepreneurs around the science of learning. As part of the program, our fellows contribute to various publications, including New America’s EdCentral blog; BOLD, the blog on learning development published by the Jacobs Foundation; and outside publications.
Brenda Bushouse is an LSX Fellow in the 2020-2022 cohort.
In the story The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a schoolboy in Malawi figures out how to bring power to his village’s broken water pump using bicycle parts, spare scraps, and the knowledge he gains from a textbook. The story of this boy, William Kamkwamba, has captivated the world, becoming a bestselling book and Netflix movie.
And it is now the inspiration behind the work of a man named Carl Meyer, an information technology professional and the executive director of ShiftIT, a nonprofit organization located in Blantyre, Malawi. Through his work, Carl has come to know William personally. One day seven or more years ago, Meyer had a brainstorm: “If Kamkwamba could achieve this with one book, what could other Malawian children do if they had access to more resources?”
All children want to learn but those without internet access in under-resourced schools face limited access to the wealth of publicly available information online. Nowhere is this more stark than the Global South where schools, libraries, and health clinics in remote areas lack internet access. And even if there was a way to provide internet access, subscriptions and copyrights restrict access for those unable to pay. Meyer wondered: What if there was a technology that allowed access to freely available resources?
A few years later, he met Charlie Schweik, a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who had a similar vision. (Schweik is one of the authors of this blog post.) With the help of Schweik’s students at UMass, they launched the World Librarians program, a model for connecting requests for information from students in under-resourced countries with publicly available, open educational resources.
At its simplest, the World Librarian project pairs children’s (or their teacher’s) requests for resources with librarians who have access to the Internet and open access materials. How that happens is through an innovative system that relies on both authentic social interactions and new technologies. First, educators, ShiftIT staff members, and other community members find resources to create solar-powered computer labs in the very rural, and offline, schools. These labs use refurbished laptops with no hard drives. They have no internet connection but the laptops have the ability to connect to WiFi. In most instances, school children are given their own ~$7 USD “Keepod” USB flash stick, which acts as the hard drive on the laptop, boots up the computer and provides a browser for students to access digital information.
Second, educators install devices with an offline digital library wifi server, called a “RACHEL.” The device includes a preinstalled library of open educational resource materials, such as Wikipedia, Khan Academy courses, the African Story Book, among others. Third, ShiftIT trainers show one or more teachers at the school how to use the computer lab (if needed), and how to access the RACHEL contents.
Frank Kazembe, physics and science teacher at Saint Michael's Girls School in Malawi, holds the RACHEL device signed by "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," William Kamkwamba. Kazembe also acts as the requester and data courier for their school.
While all steps are key, the fourth step is the important innovation: when children and their teachers want information that is NOT available on the RACHEL, they use a teacher’s cell phone to make requests for information. Teachers use an offline email technology on their phones called Datapost to send their students’ requests to the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass). A UMass searcher team, made up of UMass students and an open access librarian, locates material that they think matches the request (e.g., videos, podcasts, pdfs) and transfers it via Google Drive.The UMass team then alerts the teachers in Malawi using Datapost, letting them know their new digital content is waiting for them on Google Drive.
Fifth, upon receiving the UMass Datapost email, the teacher downloads the materials to their cellphone, and uploads this content to the school’s RACHEL device. The students now have access to open education resources on the topics they choose!
If the material transmitted does not exactly meet the teacher or student needs, another request-search-deliver cycle begins.
A key problem encountered with this process is that the teachers are downloading the data—often large video files—on their own personal cell phone data plan. A breakthrough for the World Librarians team was the use of the World Remit service, where the UMass team can add more data directly to the teacher’s cell phone plan using a credit card in the U.S.—what the World Librarians team calls “digital postage”—avoiding the personal cost to the teacher in the field. The searcher team at UMass has to raise funds to cover the digital postage.
In addition to solving some problems of access, the program is overcoming historical colonialism, that is, the idea of the Global North telling the Global South what to read or watch. The central motivation that drove Meyer and Schweik to work toward developing World Librarians was to give more agency to the information have-nots in Malawi. As Schweik puts it, “All we are really doing is acting as a librarian for the Malawian requester. We’ve essentially invented a technology-based workflow that allows people without access to the Internet to ask for librarian search services.”
Malawi now has over 30 rural school deployments supported by ShiftIT. The program expanded to Kenya. Its first World Librarians program serves the children living in a slum area adjacent to the largest landfill in Eastern Africa called Dandora. Requests from this Kenyan World Librarians locale included heart-breaking requests for “Information on how to make toys out of trash.” The UMass Amherst students found and transmitted an amazing set of Youtube videos made in India demonstrating ways to build just that – toys out of trash. Weeks later, the Kenyan courier emailed pictures of the children in Dandora making the toys in those videos.
Over the past six years, the World Librarian program has successfully provided open educational resources for more traditional academic questions, too. Examples include requests for “Information on Locomotion in Humans” (a secondary school request), “Junior history with a focus on The Maravi Kingdom,” “Simulators for chemistry reactions involving acids and bases,” and a Malawi girls’ high school request for “how to get helium balloons into space.”
The project is now in the early stages of creating a new installation in the 50,000 person Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, and is actively looking for funding to support that effort and other further growth.
What is remarkable about this project is that it shows just how small the world has become, and how technology coupled with social ingenuity can create systems where people on two sides of the world who have never met in person can help each other. On the one side, the information identified and provided to the Malawian and Kenyan requesters, undoubtedly helps them get information that THEY want and not what the Global Northerners think they want. But on the University of Massachusetts Amherst side, these requests help bring awareness to the student searchers, who come to realize how lucky they are to have access to so many informational resources, and also become more in-tune with their Malawian and Kenyan colleagues and their needs.
This very long distance library-requester project is showing it is now possible to help people across the globe in almost a one-on-one capacity. For more information, contact Charles Schweik at email@example.com
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