Traveling classroom bridges digital divide in Benin
School was out, but on an afternoon in rural Benin, 11-year-old Ambroise rushed to a tree-shaded parking lot, his day’s learning not yet done.
Parked beneath the cola trees was a lorry trailer loaded with computers — the kind of technology that few students in the West African country had ever seen, much less touched.
Designed by BloLab, a non profit group based in Benin’s largest city Cotonou, the 13-meter trailer is powered by 12 solar panels and equipped with enough laptops to give rural students a chance to familiarize themselves with computers, which most families cannot afford.
“When the teacher told us that we’d start having computer class again, I quickly finished my work because I was so happy,” said Ambroise, from eastern Benin’s Avrankou district.
In his class of 48, only four pupils had even touched a computer before. Ambroise had used one at a photocopy shop, while the other three had a sibling who owned one.
In Benin, the digital divide is not just a concept but a reality, said BloLab founder Medard Agbayazon. “In the towns, many people have technology, there are cybercafes. But in villages it is rare to find a computer or a smartphone,” he said.
Benin’s Internet penetration rate is just 42.2 percent, the Regulatory Authority for Electronic and Postal Communication said in a report last year.
Among these, almost everyone (96 percent) used a mobile phone for accessing the web.
These are the conditions which spawned the idea for a mobile classroom furnished with desks as well as fans to ward off the tropical heat.
BloLab pays to rent a cab to tow the trailer, which was donated by Swiss-based charity African Puzzle.
The classroom, which has visited two communities since last August, stays in one place for a month at a time, providing five 2-hour computer skills classes per week, free of charge.
It is a drop in the ocean for Avrankou, which has a population of 128,000 scattered around 59 villages served by 88 primary schools.
“The idea isn’t to make computer scientists, but just to make children want to use digital technology. It’s a tool that can solve real problems in everyday life,” Agbayazon said.
As one group of pupils practices using a word processor on the trailer’s laptops, another works in a corner of the town hall, learning to build computers in jerrycans with recycled components from obsolete machines or donated by businesses and charities in Cotonou.
The students are already familiar with terms like “motherboard,” “hard drive” and “power supply” from a previous lesson.
One of two trainers, Raoul Letchede, shows the kids the components they will use to assemble a makeshift computer in a 25-liter yellow plastic container.
These home-fashioned machines must be hooked up to a computer screen to work. “This lesson familiarizes them with the inside of a computer, demystifies how it works and shows them that they can make their own even without much money,” Letchede said.
One rule of the mobile classroom is that all the software used must be free to the public. “We have to promote this practice because we don’t have the money here to buy the licences,” said Agbayazon. “We don’t want to encourage children to hack.”
The approach impressed local official Apollinaire Oussou Lio on a recent visit to the class.
“This is an opportunity to no longer be a slave to software from the big multinationals,” Lio said, adding he would himself like to be more computer savvy. “I’d also like to be trained,” he said, citing a wish to learn to use geo-location to better preserve the surrounding forests.
Teacher Guillaume Gnonlonfoun is happy for his students. The school where he works has no computer, and he himself first used one at university.
Many of Gnonlonfoun’s colleagues have never used a PC, and the BloLab class is open to them as well.
“These days, nothing can be done without digital technology,” said Gnonlonfoun. “So that we don’t end up being the illiterates of this millennium, it is essential that we have equipment.”
But until real computers arrive in the community, pupils and teachers will have no option but to build their own.