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Distance Learning Without Computers

Arizona State University is finding out what refugee farmers in Uganda and online course creators have to teach each other about making do with very little.

While online courses can offer the promise of education to a worldwide audience, what happens when the students have neither computing devices nor an internet connection? That's the challenge that Education for Humanity faces in delivering access to higher education for refugees and displaced people. This Arizona State University initiative, run by EdPlus, has multiple arms: a global "freshman academy" that provides credit-bearing online university courses intended to serve as a bridge to enrollment at local universities in the student's host country; modules to help people gain English language skills and professional competencies; and full access to ASU Online, with its 175 online degree and certificate programs.

The work has taught the university how to do a lot with little — particularly in the case of a pilot program serving refugees in Uganda.

Uganda hosts an estimated 1.1 million refugees with "some of the most progressive refugee policies of anywhere in the world," according to Nick Sabato, director of Education for Humanity. People have freedom of movement, access to health care and education, and they're given a small plot of land to do subsistence agriculture.

Working with the United Nations Refugee Agency and on-the-ground humanitarian agency Windle International, Arizona State developed a project plan to offer an agribusiness course in the Nakivale refugee settlement in southwest Uganda — a region well suited, Sabato said, for agriculture.

Agribusiness 250, an introductory course that covers the economic principles of agriculture, has been taught by Professor Jeff Englin for several years at the university. When Education for Humanity asked him to modify the course for refugee students, who had expressed a demand for this kind of training, he jumped at the chance. "It was an opportunity to pitch in and help these folks get some education to get a more productive life — and it seemed like a great thing to do," he told an ASU reporter.

However, there were a few challenges: figuring out how to deliver the course where internet was elusive and modifying the curriculum to work in the constraints of the program.

A Course in a Backpack

For course delivery, Education for Humanity turned to the Solar Powered Educational Learning Library (SolarSPELL), a solar-powered, offline digital library that was invented by Laura Hosman, an associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State.

SolarSPELL uses a simple and inexpensive design (the parts cost less than $200), portable enough to tuck into a backpack. The weatherproof, portable case contains a small solar panel and a voltage regulator that plugs into a battery to power a Raspberry Pi microcomputer. A micro digital memory card plugs into the microcomputer. The card contains all of the digital library content and some code that allows it to be accessed by any type of browser as well as a Moodle learning management system. The device creates a WiFi hotspot requiring no electricity or internet connection, and can support between 15 and 17 users in one sitting working on smartphones or tablets.

On the content side, Carrie Bauer, instructional designer for Education for Humanity, faced an immediate challenge. In spite of numerous attempts to work with the company that produced the textbook already being used for the Agribusiness course, the publisher wouldn't budge: It wasn't interested in having its copyrighted content made available directly on SolarSPELL, "despite the many passwords and security that we have on it."

So Englin and Bauer turned to open educational resources. Helped by a librarian with subject-matter expertise and a teaching assistant, the team compiled a replacement curriculum using freely available content as an alternative.

While Education for Humanity worked on producing the content and making it locally relevant, Windle covered the logistics: providing facilitators, helping to create the space and recruiting students.

Then, each day for seven and a half weeks between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., two cohorts of 15 students apiece were invited to come to the classroom and work through the self-paced course. Two facilitators were on hand to set up SolarSPELL and make "rolling library labs" available, outfitted with six Kindles and six Galileo tablets, each with a detachable keyboard. Because there weren't enough devices for every student, they shared them in pairs. After 2 p.m., the facilitators had the rest of the day (and daylight) to recharge the devices and extra batteries.

The course followed a 95-5 model, said Bauer, meaning 95 percent of the time the students were accessing course materials offline — readings, PowerPoints, quizzes — while connected to the LMS through SolarSPELL; the other 5 percent of the time was handled through cellular connectivity.

"Each facilitator was given a phone. At the very end [of each unit] students would take a poll and follow it up with [posting on] a reflection board," Bauer explained. The latter served as a place where people could share feedback about a given lesson and ask questions, and where the professor could see where students were having trouble understanding the concepts and post extra examples. A WhatsApp chat group also allowed people to interact with the instructor and vice versa. In addition, the facilitators had dedicated biweekly calls with Education for Humanity to share feedback.

Making the Most of What You Have

Because many of these students already had agribusinesses of their own, the instruction was often immediately relevant. As Bauer noted, "Some of them went to market every Friday, and so they would use what they were learning there." When a lesson worked, their successes showed up on the reflection board. She recalled one student who sold three products but announced that "now I understand that my honey actually sells the best and it takes less resources. I now can make more honey and actually make more money." Another student wrote about how displaying carrots in a different way led to better sales.

Besides the improvements in students' marketing and financial analysis skills, an unexpected outcome was a boost in digital literacy, Bauer noted. "Although the facilitators were actually in charge of powering up the boxes and being in charge of the technology, they really gave students the option to learn how it works, why it works that way and how the WiFi [in SolarSPELL] was different from the one that they may use to access the internet. We saw their confidence in their digital literacy levels improve, in terms of feeling comfortable in working with technology. And the facilitators were telling us about how excited students were to come in every day."

While Bauer estimated that the course mimicked 97 percent of what was delivered to more traditional ASU students, the outcomes were better. Englin told her that these two cohorts of students had "the best grades he had ever seen in the entire time that he has taught the course."

Now Education for Humanity is trying to figure out what's worth bringing back from that experience to improve how blended learning happens on the ground in the U.S. and other places where EdPlus delivers education.

One area of particular interest is the way people who were forced to share a computing device in the pilot project were also forced to work together. "We'll see what the data says, but it will be interesting to [find out] exactly how that collaboration might have improved grades and helped people's understanding," Bauer suggested.

For Sabato, the project as a whole encapsulated a lesson in "how to utilize what you have to the greatest extent possible." For the learners in the agribusiness course, "it was understanding within their subsistence farming environment what can they utilize to best capitalize and reap the greatest benefit. For us, it's how do we use an eager, determined learning environment — students who want to learn more — when there is no internet connectivity. The answer to that has been a combination of technology, of partnerships, and of very intentional design. I think those elements when combined really give us a lot of optimism for where this can go moving forward."

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