In less than six months, an ITU pioneering project in Nicaragua has provided children at five remote schools with computers, electricity and Internet access. It has also put social and economic development tools in the hands of the communities in which the schools are located. Just to reach these isolated schools proved to be a logistic challenge. In some locations, the project team had to use a helicopter, four-wheel drive vehicles and even carts pulled by oxen to carry materials. They had to ford rivers, cross a large lake by ferry, and climb steep slopes that were thick with mud because of the heavy rains. It was all worthwhile.
Preparing Nicaragua’s plan
There are 8154 primary and secondary schools in the public school system in Nicaragua, and a national school connectivity plan has to take account of the number of children attending those schools, the location of the schools, as well as the availability of Internet access for the schools.
First, a review was carried out of policies and regulations in force in the telecommunications sector in terms of their impact on facilitating Internet access. This was followed by an analysis of the policy and regulatory elements that would enable better provision of connectivity to schools than that offered before the project started.
Based on this analysis and on the situation of the telecommunications sector in Nicaragua, it was recommended that a national school connectivity plan should be implemented in stages. Potential policy approaches that could be adopted at the highest government level might include steps to:
• eliminate value-added tax for Internet service for schools;
• set preferential rates for the educational sector;
• impose conditions on companies before granting or renewing concessions for the use of frequencies, requiring companies to provide Internet service to schools at no cost or at preferential rates;
• promote the reduction of prices for international connectivity for Nicaraguan operators, to be reflected in lower prices for customers;
• auction spectrum that is not in use, on the condition that the licensee provides connectivity to schools at no cost, for the duration of the licence;
• use the proceeds of the Telecommunications Investment Fund (FITEL) to provide Internet services to schools and to finance the purchase of equipment needed to serve this purpose.
Pilot project connects schools as community centres
The pilot project was launched in July 2010, when ITU expert Claudia Gómez Costa travelled into the interior of the country. She spent more than two months there and, in collaboration with government authorities, selected the schools that would be part of the project, carry it through and become community centres. Initially, two schools were to be connected. ITU and TELCOR worked together as a dynamic team, with the result that the project exceeded TELCOR’s expectations. Careful management of project resources and additional resource mobilization enabled ITU to connect three more schools than the two originally planned.
Ms Gómez Costa explains, "The schools to be connected as community centres were all in Rivas department and were selected on the basis of two criteria: their geographical location and the feasibility of Internet access. The aim was that the schools connected using various technologies under the pilot project could then be held up as models for the vast majority of schools in Nicaragua which have not yet been connected to the Internet."
As the technical experts and lead trainers worked alongside teachers, students and parents, and shared journeys, meals, intensive training activities and rest periods, they developed bonds which kept them focused on following through the project. This created a level of energy that drove everyone to move forward and achieve a common goal.
By the end of the project in December 2010, each school was equipped with 20 computers. Of the 100 computers distributed, 60 were provided free of charge by ITU as part of the project and 40 were donated by Intel Corporation. The Claro-Enitel Corporation offered free Internet connectivity for the five schools for one year.
A total of 98 teachers in rural schools were trained in ICT. Each school – acting as a community centre – received four hours of training on site and four hours online, once a week for five weeks. A total of 921 students and 2923 people in the communities where the five schools are located are benefiting from the project.
Commenting on this achievement, Brahima Sanou, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau said: “I’m delighted with the success of this project in Nicaragua, which shows what can be achieved when ITU and its Member States work together to connect schools. We are supporting ITU Member States in a variety of countries to develop National School Connectivity Plans, model schools and school-based community ICT centres. I encourage all ITU Administrations to take the necessary steps to connect their schools by 2015 in line with the goals set by world leaders during the World Summit on the Information Society.”
The Pedro Joaquín Chamorro School is situated 16 kilometres from San Juan del Sur in Genízaro – a rural area with semi-urban characteristics, located beside a paved highway and easy to reach. A fairly conventional 3G connection with a Yagi antenna for signal gain was used for the Pedro Joaquín Chamorro school. The teachers were thrilled when they learned that their school had been selected, and were enthusiastic about undergoing training to ensure that this new resource would be properly managed as a teaching tool.
The school is very close to the community of Torovenado, and together with six other schools constitutes the local rural school district. The teachers at the Pedro Joaquín Chamorro School said that it would be fantastic if teachers at the other schools in the district could be trained as well. This initiative was heartily supported by the Ministry of Education representative because it means that trained teachers from the satellite schools can take their students and their students' parents to the Internet-connected school to gain experience in using the Internet for learning purposes.
Another conventional technology, a canopy antenna installed on top of a water tank, was used for the Fidel González School in Cárdenas, a municipal district in Rivas department near the Costa Rican border on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, 145 kilometres south of Managua. Cárdenas is a rural area with some urban characteristics, and the community is accessible by a paved road. The road passes through a wind farm of 19 turbines generating electricity.
The teachers at the Fidel González School considered that the school's high enrolment and the fact that it offered secondary education, as well as pre-school and primary education, were compelling arguments in favour of an Internet connection and access to ICT for learning purposes. Natalie, a schoolchild, says "We can work on the Internet right here. We will not have to pay extra to get the information we need for schoolwork. It is brilliant!" Also, the community wants to use the new Internet connection to promote tourism and gain access to rural extension programmes.
The Francisca Hernández School is in El Ostional, a tiny fishing village 21 kilometres south of San Juan del Sur. The school is truly the heart of the community. The road to El Ostional is not always passable. When it rains a lot, the road – which is a muddy dirt road built on a base of crushed rock – gets washed out by the overflowing rivers and creeks that cross it. The residents talked to the project team about their fishery and their hope of starting a tourism campaign. Connecting the community was paramount, right from the beginning. Because of the school's remote location, it was decided to use very small aperture terminal (VSAT) technology to provide Internet connection. Teachers said that they had never thought it would be possible to have the Internet in their village. When the schoolchildren were asked whether being able to work on a computer is a good thing, the answer was a resounding "Yes!"
The Andrés Castro School in Tichaná is at the foot of the Maderas volcano at the southern tip of Ometepe island, in the Altagracia municipal district. The school is close the highway that connects Santa Cruz and San Pedro, and together with three other schools along the island's coastline up to Mérida constitutes the local rural school district.
Getting to the school requires taking a ferry from the mainland across Lake Nicaragua to Puerto Moyogalpa on the island, and then travelling the rest of the way by road. Part of the road is very good, but then it becomes extremely rough. During the rainy season, several sections of the road are flooded and only an off-road, four-wheel drive vehicle can make it through. Again, because of the school’s remote location, the Internet connection used VSAT technology.
The teachers immediately saw the benefits of their school having an Internet connection, because it gives their students a chance to move on to secondary school. In the tiny community, the highest level of formal education available is primary school. The mother of one student suggested very shyly that she might get together with other mothers to use the Internet to find ways to improve their plantain crops and market their handicrafts.
The Francisco Morazán School in Panzuaca, Tola, was the fifth school selected, and getting it included in the pilot project was one of the most gratifying aspects of the entire exercise. The rural, scattered community of Panzuaca sits in the middle of the dense Tola jungle, 125 metres above sea level. Starting from the town of Rivas, the capital of Rivas department, Tola can be reached by a paved road. To get from Tola to the school means following a roiling river and walking two hours through the jungle or riding on mule-back. At Panzuaca, school meant pre-school or primary classes held outdoors or under leaking roofs for 30 or so children. There was no electricity and there were no generators, so solar panels had to be installed along with the VSAT technology.
Community groups built the classroom. The Mayor provided the materials, while the community provided the ox-carts needed to transport them. In spite of inclement weather and poor road conditions, doors, posts, bricks and sheets of plywood were all brought to Panzuaca, and within a week the classroom was ready.
The VSAT antenna took seven hours to reach Panzuaca by ox-cart. The entire community helped to install it. Men cut utility poles to support the antenna and dug holes for the guy-wires. Women carried bags of heavy stones up from the river, and one of the ox-carts was used to help brace the antenna during the installation.
By the end of the project, people were already using ICT confidently and successfully. Access to the Internet will certainly contribute to their economic and social development, and will enhance their quality of life. Students are now comfortable using e-mail, chat and videoconferencing, searching for and using information on school subjects (mathematics, languages, science, social studies, art and so on), creating their own blogs, and publishing their own experiences.
José Pablo de la Roca, TELCOR Director of Planning and Development, who was the national focal point of the ITU project, says: “The ‘Connect a School, Connect a Community’ project, executed by the International Telecommunication Union and the regulator TELCOR in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, provided the opportunity for the five beneficiary communities to access information and knowledge, with technology harnessed for productive, social purposes of particular benefit to the youngest generation. The project also made it possible to map out a route for connecting schools at national level, identifying various major challenges such as financing, the need to tighten the ties of collaboration between the public and private sectors, the cultural change in the use of technology, and the importance of developing human capacity at local level.”
On a wider scale, the National School Connectivity Plan developed by the project was well received by TELCOR, which has indicated that it will use the plan as a foundation for providing Internet connectivity for the majority of Nicaraguan public schools. As José Pablo de la Roca says, “The project has taught us valuable lessons, such as the possibility of using different technologies for urban and rural areas in future projects; the need to decentralize technical and teaching assistance at local level, since centralizing assistance makes it impossible to ensure the success of a project like this; and the requirement for public sector institutions to work together based on common objectives, in which respect we can count on a Ministry of Education that takes advantage of ICT to improve education and a regulator committed to making sure that everyone has access to ICT.”
Along with proper training, these school-based community centres equipped with ICT are starting to open up a new world. Web-based activities can be carried out among groups of schools. The community can take advantage of training opportunities, and enjoy the ability to produce local content, promoting the community's own culture. Clearly, the Nicaraguan project could serve as a model for other developing countries.