Piers Duffell is an American volunteer living in Swaziland. He says that he turned to the Indiegogo fundraising site as a way of raising money to build a computer learning class in a school in Swaziland. A combination of investment and cheap, revolutionary technology, with passion and support is making his plan a reality.
Duffell, not a computer expert by trade, aims to teach over 150 students computing and other skills. He said that he was inspired in part by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, and used its costing as a benchmark. This formula made the UK-developed Raspberry Pi credit card-sized computer an obvious choice, he said, and would let him fund a computing school with at least 10 machines for less than the price of a couple of Apple MacBooks.
Duffell set a funding target of £2,500 and topped that out with more than a week left to run. He said that the money will be used to power a school with Raspberry Pi computers, the micro-PC that is at the heart of a home-computing revolution. He decided to raise enough money for 10 Raspberry Pi computers and will pair them with Motorola Atrix dock for a screen and keyboard.
“The low price point (lower with components than an OLPC laptop) and accessibility - OLPC requires orders in the thousands and this lab is ordering 10 to 15 depending on how much is raised - pushed me to choose the Pi to suit the needs of my students and community,” he said.
“The extra funding will be used to purchase additional computers, higher-class, better quality SD cards, and if we can really go over the top I will consider WiFi antennas. As it stands, my priority is to increase the quantity of computers that will go to my students.”
Duffell said that he would use the computers to teach local children basic, curriculum-based ICT skills that otherwise they would be denied.
“I will teach according to a curriculum that my fellow volunteers use and will adapt it for these particular devices. Since I will be starting from zero with most students, I am confident basic typing, offline browsing, office utilities, gaming, and multimedia programs will help give my students a strong foundation that they can build on,” he added. “Computer literacy is like language literacy. If you start young and practise you are more likely to be fluent later on.”
Currently, says Duffell, the outlook is poor for local students who have a tendency to fall behind their peers.
He said that students often lag by three or four grades and lack skills in reading, writing and maths. Those few students that do graduate are ill-prepared for life outside the subsistence farming world. Those that do not graduate are in an even worse position.
Eben Upton, the founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation which promotes basic computer science teaching in schools, is glad to see his organisation’s technology has extended its reach so far.
“I'd say this is a nice bonus for us. We were very focused on the UK skills shortage, so its use outside the UK, let alone in the developing world, wasn't really expected,” he said.
“We're still a very small organisation, and can only do a limited amount ourselves on either the commercial or charitable fronts, so the extent to which other people are taking it into places and applications we could never have dreamed of is most gratifying.”
Upton said that the Foundation had expected to sell around 10,000 units. Today, it is well on the way to 1.5 million.
Duffell’s Pi computers will go into the Sidvokodvo Nazarene Primary School, which has 630 students. He said that the most advanced students, grades six and seven, would be taught to use the machines. With about 160 students trained a year, the volunteer hopes to create a legacy.
“I hope that, in time, exposure to computing in rural areas will begin at earlier ages. I don't expect to change the world or anything, just a small part of it,” he added. “If Swazis latch onto the idea I'd be very happy and will work to promote the model in my remaining time in the country.”
David Neal has been writing about technology since the Millennium Bug. He’s survived Alta Vista and the I Love You virus, and now works from his home in Kent.
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