ICT in Ireland and the Power of Automation

The teachers making a difference trip to Ireland was an eye opening trip for all of us. For me, it was the first time to be out of my country, and first time in another country. And to be honest, I experience two types of extremities. I experienced extremes of weathers from very hot and dry conditions in Uganda (in January) to very cold and wet conditions in Ireland (winter). I also experienced extremities of technology, the poor use of technology in Uganda and advanced use of technology in Ireland.

Accessing Train ticket using Automatic Teller Machines

The Republic of Ireland, like most of the countries in Western Europe, has a very developed and efficient public transport system. There are trains that connect major towns to Dublin, the capital and travel every hour at fair price. At the train stations, tickets are accessed using Automatic Teller Machines (ATM). To access a ticket, users have use the touch screen to select the departure station and destination station, then it prompts the user to insert money (small denominations of Euro like 5 euro, 10 euro). The machine then processes the tickets and outputs the ticket plus any balance, if there is any. The user get the ticket, goes over to the passage gates, push the ticket into some slot and the gates open for you to pass. This has to be done by everyone, because without the tickets, one cannot access the train boarding area to enter the train. These tickets are also revalidated at the destination station, where commuters have to pass it over access gates again, so they can leave the train station.

Dublin, the city of Wi-Fi.

Unlike Kampala that has a few private wireless internet connections, Ireland has thousands of Wi-Fi spots. Train stations, public parks, trains, trams, restaurants, hotels, cafés, shopping arcades, schools, universities and government buildings all have Wi-Fi. At the main street of Dublin, there are over 30 Wi-Fi spots, and every other street has almost the same number.

The Automatic Doors & CCTV cameras

Because of the harsh winter weather, most public buildings have automatic doors on the outside and push or pull door on the inside. This means that when entering a building balcony, the door automatically opens as you come closer to it.

Most public places also have surveillance cameras, and it is easy to understand why the Irish people value the last bit of privacy that they still have. Taking still photos and video is strictly regulated and one has to obtain consent, if people will be involved.


Subsidiary ICT contributing to National Development

Since Subsidiary ICT was introduced to A-level education in 2012, very many young people who pursue A-level education have been able to attain vital ICT skills before joining university and / or tertiary institutions. Before that, computer education was mainly done in urban schools and computer studies as a subject stopped in S.4 (UCE). Others had to train in private computer centres, scattered in many towns and the training was largely substandard.

Introduced in 2012 as a second subsidiary subject, Subsidiary ICT has led to standardization of computer education through secondary school sub sector, from S.1 up to S.6. Our young people now have the opportunity to acquire skills and remain globally competitive.

Unlike Subsidiary Mathematics that has only one paper, Subsidiary ICT has two papers; S850/1 Paper 1 (Application of ICT Knowledge) and S850/2 Paper 2 (Practical). These therefore enables to attain both vital theoretical knowledge that they use in day to day youth conversations and also practical skills that helps them accomplish tasks such as checking emails, printing etc. The teaching of Subsidiary ICT has contributed to the development of Uganda in the following ways.

Uganda has about 38% internet penetration, according to Uganda Communications Commission (UCC). The growth has been boosted by rapid growth in mobile phone penetration that currently stands at more than 50%. At least 22 million Ugandans own a mobile phone, with 33 per cent accessing the internet through mobile devices, such as tablets, iPads and smartphones. Most of those who access the internet are young people, many of whom learnt about the internet at school or from friends. These has changed the business dynamics for telecom companies since data is now a cash cow compared to normal airtime.

With over 70 of Uganda’s 38 million people being young people below 30 years, there is no doubt that most of these passed the secondary school education and are the one driving Uganda’s Internet use. These young people use applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube.

Subsidiary ICT has also contributed to rise of ICT innovation in Uganda. The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) every year organize the Annual Communication Innovation Awards (ACIA), and they have created a whole category to cater for primary and secondary school innovations. The category is called the “Young ICT Innovators” with its resultant sub categories “Rising Stars” for secondary schools, “……………..” for primary schools. Other competitions include Technovation Challenge and Science & Technology Innovation Challenge. It is important to note that in the ICT sector, disruption is the new normal. By having innovative students who are able to develop apps and hardware solutions to solve community problems is a plus. Subsidiary ICT has been instrumental in setting the foundations for innovations.

The mobile money boom can as well be attributed to teaching of Subsidiary ICT in Uganda. With most of them born after 1991, ICT students in secondary schools are definitely digital natives, not digital migrants like their parents. To these young people, life and technology are inseparable. They are willing to take up mobile money jobs, social media jobs, digital publishing, and phone repair. Much as there is massive unemployment in Uganda resulting in scarcity of office jobs, many are also driven purely by passion for technology and are able to readily accept these jobs and proceed with their lives. These small jobs are important today because they act as intermediary business enablers hence bringing sellers and buyers together, thus lowering barriers to entry and advertisement costs. These allows many other sectors to grow.

As far as I know, the teaching of Subsidiary ICT is going on well in Uganda, including northern Uganda. However, there remain pertinent issues such as recruitment of ICT teachers. When the subject was introduced, many schools recruited IT and Computer Science graduates to teach the subject. Many then went to university and did Post Graduate Diploma (PGD) in Education, a requirement to register as a teacher and join teaching profession officially. On the other hand, the Ministry of Education & Sports, chose to “retool” already existing teachers for two weeks to teach ICT. My view is that it is better to recruit IT and Computer Science graduates to teach and then ask them to professionalize by doing Post Graduate Diploma in Education, because they are already qualified and competent in field of ICT. Many “retooled” teachers have since abrogated their roles due to stiff competition & large skills gap. There is a big difference between being “qualified” and being “competent.”

Also, the MOES should donate computers to schools that have very few or do not have them at all. There should also be attempt to review the curriculum every five years, because the rate of progress in the ICT sector is so fast. And lastly, computer teachers should make an effort to come together by joining the Computer Teachers Association of Uganda (CTAU), a body that would help advocate for the unique needs of its members. I believe that making people knowledgeable is the only way of developing people. I therefore encourage young people to embrace ICT, because that is the only way we can make Uganda a Knowledge economy that creates, shares and uses knowledge for national development.

Lira Town College is using ICT to improve learning

Lira Town College is one of the pioneer government schools in Lira district. Established in 1967, it is a mixed ‘O’ and ‘A’ level day and boarding school located in heart of Lira town, in northern Uganda. Just like other schools in the region, it grapples from challenges of insufficient infrastructure, competition from private schools, stagnating leadership and inadequate funding. However, the current Headteacher, Ms Acen Sophia Rose is doing a commendable job, especially in improving infrastructure, student enrollment & staffing.

When I joined in 2012, Subsidiary ICT as a second subsidiary subject in A-level had just been introduced in A-level. Just like most schools, this development came with numerous challenges, notably lack of computers to conduct ICT lessons. The school had only 3 computers for teaching 120 ICT students. However, in June 2013, the Uganda Communications Commission donated to us a set of 40 computers under the Rural Communications Development Fund (RCDF). With these, we were ready to face the new world of ICT. As Head of ICT, my role was to help the administration, staff and students get the best out of the resources in our possession. I carried out the following interventions that have not only improved staff and student technology skills, but also made Lira Town College a centre of ICT excellence in the region and Uganda.

Open Use of Computers. When I was a student in one of the schools in Lira in early 2000’s, the Computer Lab was always out of bound to schools. So, when I became a teacher, I did not want our students to only look at computers from outside. As HOD, I made the Computer Lab open to students from 8:00 am to 6:00pm from Mondays to Saturdays. With this policy, S.3 to S.6 students would use the Lab up to 4:000pm while S.1-S.2 would access computers after classes, since they had only compulsory subjects. To further consolidate the principle of open access to computers, we created a student leadership position of ICT Prefect, whose role & responsibility was to enable students have access to computers & internet, resolve simple maintenance issues and ensure discipline inside the lab.

ICT Competitions. Since 2013, Lira Town College students have taken part in a number of ICT projects and competitions. We have participated in the Annual Communications Innovations Awards (ACIA), Science & Technology Innovations Challenge (Robotics), Technovation Challenge, Biotechnology Essay Writing Competition. We have also engaged students in projects such as the Africa Code Week, STEM Girls Camp and Gulu Technology Camp, where students learn programming skills and robotics. These activities have made Lira Town College receive numerous awards and recognition & also inspired our students to pursue Science & Technology careers at University.

Use of Opensource software. In order to trim down the costs of ICT resources and tools, we deliberately adopted use of opensource tools available freely on the internet. Ubuntu, WordPress, Google Drive storage are some of the tools we use.

Digitalization of Records. Just like most secondary schools, most of our activities & processes were manual, with staff mostly using books, papers for record keeping. Today, most of our activities are digital, with almost all records stores safely on school computers. These has eased administration, decision making and improved service delivery. Accounts, academic results, discipline records and timetables are all computerized.

Going Online. Although our school website (www.liratowncollege.sc.ug) is currently down due to technical issues, our decision to go online received much applause from the public. With functional website and social media, we have grown our digital followers to tens of thousands. In 2014, we became of the first schools to post our circular letter to parents on social media. We also provide Internet access, including Wi-Fi at least for 2 months each School Term.  We are building a state-of-the-art school blog, which will in part substitute the “website” and does not have issues of paying for the domain name and hosting every year- a sticky issues for our “born before computers” administrators.

E-Learning. We encourage our students & teachers to use and access open & free e-learning tools & websites. We have Kolibri, an offline e-learning tool installed on our computers. We also provide our students & teachers with softcopies of books, past papers. On the internet, our students & teachers access educational websites such as Alison (www.alision.com), Walktrack Edu Platform (www.edu.walktrackuganda), and Passuneb. We also have “CyberSchool”, an offline digital science e-learning application installed on our lab computers and is very popular with younger students.

Using simple interventions like these, schools can benefit a lot from ICT, instead of looking at it as a burden. ICT is a service enabler, allowing us to deliver educational services faster, better and in more innovative ways.

My humble appeal to all teachers in-charge of ICT is that, ICT is not only a subject in class. Besides, there should be reasonable compromise between access to computers and actual use of computers. ICT should be taken as service enabler that helps other subjects & departments achieve the school mission and vision. It is common for teachers to over emphasize the academic aspect & ignore others areas like morality, skills and innovation. As teachers, we should prepare our students for the future, and that future is a one where ICT will play a tremendous role. Teachers should empower students to move beyond mere ICT consumption & into problem solving, creation and innovation. My belief is that we should explore new technologies and approaches that can solve problems in local contexts with both educational and practical goals.