Taking the First Steps

Year-on-year $64bn is spent on ICT for schooling, but many schools around the world have yet to take their first steps to introducing ICT. Whilst the most advanced schools in the world can take full advantage of ICT, large tracts of the planet still don’t have grid electricity.

Figure 1. Huge areas of the world have no electricity, leave alone Internet and ICT

In 2007, the number of people with PCs passed the one billion mark – still a relatively small portion of the overall world population. The digital divide is still a defining characteristic of our age, and introducing ICT into schools is one way that governments are attempting to tackle this.

When technology is first introduced into schools, it tends to be used to supplement existing operations and processes. Schools begin to see the potential for ICT but operate in a typical “factory” approach with most learning, teaching and operational activities based on paper and students “receiving” their learning from their teachers. Typically it starts with teachers using a single computer with a projector, merely enhancing traditional teaching methods. The focus of computer use is to develop basic skills and students take turns to use the computers in computer labs.

Figure 2. Throughout the world, “computer labs” are considered an important first step


Whilst OLPC was commendable for a number of reasons, the programme has proved that there is a lot more to introducing ICT into schools than simply “dumping” large numbers of laptops into the system. A recent study highlighted the kinds of challenges that need to be addressed in order to take full advantage of ICT in challenging areas.

“What happens when a school located 40km from the nearest town is suddenly burdened with the impossible task of providing power to 300 OLPC laptops?”. One school visited on the study, had only one low-voltage outlet located in the principal’s office… Many off-the-grid schools will not have Internet access either”.

A large scale ICT roll-out assumes high quality administrative processes, but this isn’t always available either – many countries still don’t keep central records of what schools are where, or how many students attended which schools. In some schools, teachers are even held personally responsible for any losses or damages, leading to lack of deployment. Finding trained technicians, familiar with local infrastructure and technology who can install and maintain ICT is often difficult too.

After a deployment of nearly half a million laptops to Peru’s poorest schoolchildren, most children didn’t even bring the devices home. In Peru’s roll-out, children were held responsible for reimbursing the school for any damages, many of which could easily occur during long treks or drives in mountainous terrain. Parents of these children soon asked their children to use the laptops as little as possible, rather than risking losing an entire year’s salary paying for broken devices. Another problem in Peru was lack of literacy. “A large majority of the kids have no idea where keys are located and sometimes don’t even know the letters.” For ICT to be useful, software and keyboards need to be in the local native language.

According to the same study, “the vast majority of teachers only care about one program: PowerPoint. Without training and incentives, the use laptops in the classroom just reinforce old techniques”.

Figure 3. Often ICT introduction will just enhance old techniques

Schools often deploy their first computing equipment for up to 10 years. This means that multiple generations of software need to run on single instances of hardware deployments. Computer technology must therefore be able to handle old content as well as new content – including curriculum materials, multimedia content, as well learning software titles.  Running all that content on a PC is a key challenge. Combine these issues with the various support challenges associated with ageing PC hardware and the result is an environment where the challenges seem to outweigh the benefits.

Schools taking the first steps towards ICT usgage tend to be price sensitive and because of this, cheap devices are widespread and common, e.g. refurbished computers >5 years old. In some cases low cost hardware designed specifically for schooling use processors and other key components that are roughly 5 years behind a new mid-range device.

Power, internet, and air quality are all factors in the deployment of technology solutions into schools. PCs and devices have to ‘just work’ in the face of highly variable power sources – often going down for hours and then spiking up to 10X the voltage levels upon resumption. In addition, internet connectivity to schools may be non-existent or at best highly variable – maybe Dial-up speeds, and only for certain hours a day, week, or month. In addition, internet connectivity could arrive in a non-uniform way such as over a satellite downlink, a DVD update, or an offline cache of static internet content. Air quality can be highly variable also, which in computing terms means there might be significant dust, sand, salt, and moisture build up which can affect a device’s longevity if not properly designed for.

Technical Requirements

Technology for schooling in challenging environments needs to have two key characteristics:

  • Resiliency. Uninterruptable power supply and surge protection are good places to start. At the beginning of a school day all the computers in the school need to start from a last known good state. When a problem arises, logical choices and low-risk options need to be presented to the user.
  • Adaptability. A key requirement is that when the school wants to connect a new client device it should easily detect it on the school network and provide the client with access to all appropriate network services (file storage, printer access, Internet access, etc.). When a school wants to connect an LCD projector, the appliance should recognize and pre-configure this device so that it is truly plug-and-play without the user having to know what resolution it should be set at or the make or model number.  If a school has a lab with ageing PC hardware and software the option to turn that PC into a thin client will help to extend the value of the school’s existing investment and limit exposure to future technical frustrations of dealing with older configurations. As new form factors emerge, it should be easy for them to be assimilated into the school network.

Students need straightforward user experiences such as easy storage and access of their files, and straightforward ways to log-in and store and retrieve their work. Even at the most basic levels, students like to personalise their PC experience to create a greater sense of ownership.

Teachers are focused on achieving a teaching objective and have little time for experiment and discovery. They need tools that require little training to understand and use, and resilient devices that when support is required it can be applied with “one-click” – e.g. easy restore, reset student PC, etc.

ICT decision makers at municipality, state or country level will want to be able to show an impact on learning outcomes – ideally during their term in office – from their investments in ICT. They will want to be able to increase economic opportunity by increasing academic achievement, building ICT skills and enabling access to online information to “bridge the digital divide”. Total cost of ownership will be a key factor in making these decisions.

Adoption of technology will not happen at scale anywhere without local suppliers, system builders, system integrators (SIs) and independent software vendors (ISVs). In rural towns and villages, these are likely to be “small shops” and may be responsible for a full 360 degree service – deploying, training and supporting the school. Suppliers need systems that don’t require extensive additional training to sell, customise and deploy. Flexibility for what devices can connect to network allows local system builders to offer “system + devices” packages.



In 1999, Sugata Mitra installed a computer connected to the Internet in a wall in a slum area in India and found that children below age 13 learned to use and surf the Internet without even knowing English. They taught themselves to use the mouse, learned many games and programs like Microsoft Paint, searched Hindi Web sites, and even removed viruses from files. Many were completely illiterate and could not understand word patterns or pronunciation; others had reading problems and low test scores in schools. Nevertheless, they could “read” the names of applications and explain their functions, even when their position on the screen was changed. They also learned many English words heard from the computer’s speakers. Children found solutions in groups and taught each other.

This kind of computer needs to be in a safe public place that the children associate with safety, free time, and play. Children in the “Hole in the Wall” project self-organise their learning. They develop computer literacy, Maths and English skills, improve their social values and get better at collaborating.

These results are replicable in many different parts of the world where “Hole in the Wall” experiments have been carried out, and “learning stations” can be provided in countries like India at an all-in cost of around $0.03 per child per day.

Another study conducted in low-income and rural areas of India found that students who had free computer access at public kiosks performed better on science and math tests than students without such access – Inamdar, P. and Kulkarni, A. (2007).

Mobile Classrooms

In rural areas from Cyprus to Tunisia to India and even in the United States, busses and vans are frequently used to provide mobile ICT classroom facilities. For example, The Commonwealth Youth Programme Technology Empowerment Centre on Wheels (CYPTEC) enables students in villages in India to acquire ICT skills and become more employable. CYTPEC uses a van fitted with several desktop computers, mobile internet, and sound systems – all powered by a generator.

A typical mobile classroom will be equipped with the around 10 workstations, appropriate furniture, a server, physical and virtual security, broadband satellite/Wi-Fi/3G, audio-visual, videoconference equipment and off-grid power generation – and ensure that people with disabilities can use the facilities.

In a particularly innovative solution, the time used to take children back-and-fore to school in busses is used for learning. In rural Arkansas school buses shuttle some students for over two hours a day, so Hector School District has teamed up with Vanderbilt University to make the buses into “mobile classrooms”. One school bus has received mounted television screens that show math and science programs to students. Seats are equipped with headphones for the children to use.

A few years ago, literacy rates in the Western Cape in South Africa needed boosting. The Western Cape has 2000 schools, almost all of which are difficult to get to and many have no electricity. There are few teachers so teaching children to read and write is extremely difficult. The solution here is a mobile unit, a 4 wheel drive and a teacher trained to take children/adults through an intensive reading programme using voice recognition and basic literacy software on the laptops.

First School PCs


A good starting point for permanent ICT facilities in schools is a single PC in a shared space with a projector, screen and printer. A first step towards teachers exploiting the power of technology includes activities such as using a PC and printer to produce worksheets, and using the PC and a data projector to present learning content. Having soft copies of documents means that teachers are easily able to save and reuse resources, thereby saving time. In this model teachers have educational tools with immediate value, and this provides a foundation to grow the value of ICT investments. This scenario enables teacher-led activities using multimedia and educational content via an LCD projector where students are recipients of content (simulations, video clips, ppts, DVDs, etc.). Content can be delivered with or without access to the Internet through media-stored and cached Web-content.

Sharing applications is a good way to get maximum value from PCs. Using Mouse Mischief, approximately 5-25 students, each with his or her own mouse, can answer multiple choice questions or draw on a shared screen. Sample lessons can be found here.

In the first stages of implementing computers in schools, it’s critical that at least one computer is put to administrative use. This should be used for student and teacher records, funding, staff pay, course records, equipment inventory and operational purposes. Teacher’s time can be better used when replacing paper-based methods with electronic communication. Tasks such as basic record keeping, issuing standard letters and communications, and timetabling all become a lot easier when using ICT.

Computer Lab


Typically, a first step to providing classes of students with access will start with a “lab”. Decisions need to be made about arranging worktables, for example, U or L shapes allow group interaction. An “island” arrangement with two PCs on each side of a table works well and encourages students to share information. Students will typically use computers primarily for research – web, cached content, DVD – and productivity (e.g. word processing and spreadsheets). Computer labs need a server to enable:

  • File/print/back-up/restore
  • Teacher-driven classroom management & orchestration of client PCs
  • Labs to easily grow/upgrade with a range of different kinds of clients
  • Access to learning content

Making the computers available to the wider community when not being used by students has many benefits. A local pool of skills, knowledge and interest in ICT can be developed, and small charges for training can be made, helping to meet costs. To deliver this service to the community, schools need to provide secure access. PCs have high value, so physical and software security is also usually required – for example “Kensington® Locks”, burglar bars on windows, padlocked doors, biometrics, access controlled areas, storage units for laptops and other mobile technologies. Disablement and recovery security tools, and hard-disk encryption such as bit locker should also be used.

Building blocks


In many parts of the world, the electricity supply to schools is a major issue, but there are a range of technologies that can address this. The main options for off-grid power solutions are solar power, diesel/biofuel generators, wind power, hydrogen fuel cell, moped and stove.

Figure 4. Solar panels in a school in South Africa

Of these, solar is an increasingly popular option, especially as the price of diesel fuel continues to rise, with companies such as Inveneo delivering solar based solutions. In a UNHCR deployment in a refugee camp, for which Microsoft provided the computing solution, electricity is provided through NAPS Universal Power Packs. One NAPS Power Pack provides power for an infrastructure module with server, printer, wireless router, and projector or teacher work station. Other NAPS Power Packs power 4 workstations, and these can be added to the network in groups.

No schooling system wants to waste electricity so several considerations need to be made:

  • Form factors matter. Even without adding a monitor, a typical desktop computer can consume at a minimum more than 3x the power that a laptop consumes. The extra electricity used by desktops tends to dissipate as heat, which in turn requires more power in the form of air conditioning to remove.
  • The age and price of the computer matter too. Typically cheaper and older desktop computers will consume more electricity than newer, better quality laptops.
  • The operating system. For example, Windows 7 was designed to be the most energy efficient operating system available and used in conjunction with the right hardware can deliver considerable savings, even on older hardware.

Internet Access

Figure 6. Wi-Fi in a school in South Africa

Where providing electricity is a challenge, providing Internet access can be even more so. For areas not able to get broadband/wired access, there are many Internet access solutions available, the key ones being:


This is one of the simplest and oldest forms of Internet access and uses a normal phone line to connect a computer to an Internet Service Provider. Its relatively inexpensive, and widely availability where phone lines are present, but it’s also the slowest form of access with a maximum speed of 56Kbps. Another problem is that in schools which have only one phone line, others cannot use the phone while the computer is connected to the Internet.


Cellular-based access requires a cell phone network that offers 3G or CDMA 2000 data and voice services. A cellular modem is required to connect a computer or computer network to the Internet via a cell phone provider. Data services charge according to the length of time you are connected to the network and the amount of data transmitted and/or received. Access speeds range from 56Kbps to over 500Kbps. This speed depends on the type of service available, the strength of the cell signal, the distance from the nearest cell transceiver, and local physical environment factors. The advantage of cellular networks are that they are widely available, but relative costs and fluctuating speeds mean that it’s not the best option for always-on, shared access, and high volumes of data.


Satellite access enables Internet access in rural and remote areas where copper wire and fibre based options are not available. This option requires installation of a satellite dish and receiver which is then connected to the Internet router. Speeds range from 64Kbps to 5Mbps uploading and 128Kbps to 11Mbps downloading. Because upload times are faster than download times, ‘latency’ (i.e. the time that it takes from mouse click to seeing content in the browser) is long. Satellite connections can also be affected by rain and dust storms. Whilst its available almost everywhere, a satellite link must be within the “line of sight” of transmitting satellites.

Wi-Fi, WiMax

These two forms of wireless Internet access are usually available in larger towns and cities. These can be used for the delivery of a service to a specific customer or to provide access across an entire city. Wi-Fi can provide “point-to-point” access to locations up to 30 Km away, but this demands clear-line-of-sight between the transceiver and the location it is serving, a directional antenna and wireless receiver. WiMax, which is less commonly available, only requires a WiMax receiver.


Regardless of what internet access model is used, caching can allow users to experience less of a delay when their PC requests data from the network. For example, Windows 7 BranchCache caches data locally, enabling a better user experience.


There is a huge temptation to buy cheap and low-impact devices, but a golden rule is to understand that you generally get what you pay for. For example, colour inkjet printers are usually the least expensive to buy but often have the highest per page printing costs. Same applies to computers – cheap computers are cheap for a reason and will probably end up costing more in the longer run through having to maintain sub-standard components and higher electricity consumption. As discussed, the best approach is laptops for which a typical entry-level specification is 3GHz (clock) speed, 500GB Hard Drive (HDD) with 2GB RAM.

There’s also a temptation to buy devices other than PCs, including some ‘slate’ devices which have been designed primarily for content consumption. As discussed in detail in the “Learning Software 2.0” article, enabling children to create content is far more important than just enabling them to consume it, so laptops have a far higher potential return on investment.

Projectors and screens are also essential hardware, and one clever solution from South Africa – the compujector – combines a computer and a projector in one device – see http://www.astralab.co.za

Wireless routers should be purchased with built in security, Virtual Private Network (VPN), Firewall, and Ethernet capabilities.

It’s important to consider cabinets for securely storing and charging laptops too. Sometimes called “Classroom on Wheels”, these enable computers to be taken to different parts of the school. Lapsafe, is one leading manufacture worth checking out.

Network Management

With power, internet access, security and the right kind of facilities in place, the next challenge is to manage the devices so they are used effectively. This means controlling how the computers are used – creating and managing accounts; sharing files and learning materials; installing applications; monitoring and managing usage and hardware; protecting computers from viruses etc.

Figure 7. Windows Mulitpoint Server – controlling a mix of client computers

Windows Multipoint Server 2011 provides a solution which enables one computer to be used by up to 10 users, each with their own monitor, keyboard and mouse. This approach lowers the total cost of ownership by 66% compared to a traditional PC deployment, which typically uses a model that requires separate servers to enable file and hardware sharing, and computer management. WMS 2011 also enables teachers to easily control a classroom network, including networked client devices such as laptops. This was put to great effect in Haiti where, following the recent earthquake there, computer labs were hastily assembled with off-grid power solutions to deliver learning services.


At this stage, training is about two key things – acquiring basic computing concepts and learning new pedagogic methods. Microsoft Digital Literacy helps students learn and assess their understanding of basic computing concepts and acquire 21st Century skills; and training for teachers in new pedagogic methods, which organisations such as Education Impact can provide .


The main building blocks for introducing ICT into schools are as follows:

Figure 8. Key building blocks for taking the first steps

Who owns the computer makes a lot of difference. This decision narrows the access option to 1:1 – one device per student. If students get to take them home, the need for secure storage and charging diminishes – on the assumption that the computers can be used throughout the school. This in turn leads to decisions about pedagogy – will usage be restricted to a single room, or will students use the devices from lesson to lesson?

Figure 9. Different access options

Finally, decisions about lab layout are important too. Here the options range from “traditional” to “collaborative”.

Figure 10. Traditional classroom layout

Figure 11. Collaborative classroom layout

Is it worth the effort?

Introducing ICT into schools for the first time is costly and time-consuming. In Queensland Australia, 20 preparatory steps are taken before laptops are introduced into schools. First-time ICT introduction into any organisation is a non-trivial task.

According to the World Bank, much of the rationale for using ICT to benefit education has focused on its potential for bringing about changes in the teaching-learning paradigm. In practice, however, ICT is most often used to support existing teaching and learning practices with new and expensive tools.

But the World Bank goes on to say “consensus seems to argue that the introduction and use of ICT in education can be a useful tool to help promote and enable educational reform; ICT is both an important motivational tool for learning, and can promote greater efficiencies in education systems and practices”. With $2.4trn/year spent on schooling, with some systems just 7% effective – YES! it simply has to be worth taking these first steps.


Thanks to Nasha Fitter and Rob Bayuk.

3 thoughts on “Taking the First Steps

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