INTERVIEW: Rwanda’s education system to go digital in June – Microsoft official

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Warren La Fleur speaks during an interview with The New Times. / Nadege Imbabazi

The 21st century labour market requires students to graduate from school when they are computer literate enough to find work while providing services demanded by current consumers.

Achieving that goal requires digitising the education system and Rwanda is doing just that, thanks to the country’s partnership with the multinational technology company Microsoft.

Warren La Fleur, Microsoft’s regional education industry manager for West, East, Central Africa and Indian Ocean Islands, explains the concept in an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Eugene Kwibuka.

Below are excerpts:

You are working as Microsoft’s regional education industry manager for West, East, Central Africa and Indian Ocean Islands. Could you tell us what that entails?

Microsoft actually has a number of industries that we focus on within the public sector and one of those industries is education. Part of the work that we do is to help the education industry digitally transform.

So, our conversations with policy makers, teachers, faculty, and staff members is really about how they can apply digital technologies to empower their teachers and faculty to create new learning experiences for students and to transform education with digital technologies. That’s what we do.

That might be helpful or up-to-date these days since we are moving towards a digital world. Isn’t it?

Absolutely, I think that the world is really at an inflection point where we are seeing these broad scale uses of digital technologies being applied to significantly change the way industries operate.

For example, if you can think of the way governments engage with their citizens, digital technology is now being applied to significantly transform the way these interactions are conducted.

They are really focused on about two or three areas; how do you make those interactions a lot more personalised and how do you make them more efficient so better government services could be delivered.

In the case of education, better quality of education could be delivered, modernised curriculum could be enabled and of course relevant education could then be imparted to the citizens of the country.

Tell us about Microsoft’s partnership with the Government of Rwanda in the area of education. How is it working?

It’s very exciting. The journey of digitally transforming education involves four areas. It involves empowering students with digital tools, practices, and technologies so they can actively participate in their own learning.

We advocate the notion of ‘anywhere any time learning’. You can imagine a student sitting on a bus or going home to their grandparents, why can’t we create an environment where that learning or acquiring new knowledge can happen anywhere they are? Digital technologies, connected devices enable those things to happen.

The second area we focus on is teachers. How do we empower teachers to become even better teachers? Constructing very immersive ways of delivering and communicating new ideas and stimulating students to self-discover rather than the traditional way where teachers stand in front of a class and sort of become the master of the universe.

We are empowering teachers to introduce these new innovative and immersive learning experiences for students that grab your attention and make students want to learn rather than reluctantly going into learning and acquiring knowledge.

Then the other area is about institutions themselves. How can you make institutions more productive and efficient using digital technologies? The last area is about learning itself. What are some of the new pedagogies that you are going to apply to stimulate relevant 21st century skills that can support economic emergency of a country like Rwanda? So, we are working across all those four areas.

So, how do you do that? Do you distribute computers, do you bring people to train people, do you bring software and internet; how do you implement the plans?

It’s a little bit of all of that. As Microsoft we work through partners and we create an environment where partners can support in delivering end point devices such as computers to students.

As an example in Rwanda, we have a partner called Positivo. They are manufacturing devices in Rwanda and the delivery of those devices to students to enable anywhere anytime learning that wouldn’t be their role.

For teachers we have partnerships with not so local companies that facilitate standardised teaching, training, and capacity development for teachers and then of course we work with the ministry and policymakers on reforming and reversing their policies and procedures such that it’s a lot more modern and reflects the reality of living in the 21st century.

Ultimately, what we are trying to do is to build a platform that can help the ministry and teachers, and students in Rwanda really connect and engage in new ways such that both the cost of delivering education and the benefits of education could actually be optimised.

But for the computers, do you invest in buying the computers and then distributing them to students? How does it work?

I think that the government has a programme for rolling out computers to students. Our role as Microsoft as you know we are in the software and services business. Our role is to support the government in making those computers as affordable as possible.

We have different mechanisms that we use to facilitate that. We have a long term partnership with the Ministry of Education to impact the affordability of the devices so that more devices can be made available to the students.

So, you invest strategically working with manufacturers so that the price of devices can go down but you don’t give direct funds towards buying the devices?

As you can imagine, Africa has a number of countries and if you are to go and invest into buying computers for every student in Africa then that wouldn’t probably be affordable. But here is where the opportunity lies; I think that if we think about all of the components of what the price of a computer entails and we can focus on controlling several of those components, let’s say the cost of the operating system as an example or the design of the device and how we can reduce the cost of some of the components of the device, then perhaps that could be an even greater value that Microsoft can provide.

So, how are you doing that in Rwanda?

For the operating system on some of the devices here in Rwanda, we are making investments on reducing the cost of the operating system by about 99 per cent so that it becomes a lot more affordable for students to get a world class, modern device that can drive immersive anywhere anytime learning.

I understand you are working with Positivo but we also here in Rwanda have a larger computer delivery programme called One-Laptop-per-Child, are you also involved with it?

We are involved across a broad range of areas. You can imagine about this platform I was telling you about. Imagine this platform now has digital content that all the students across Rwanda, irrespective of which device they have, can have access to it.

So, the notion of you having digital content residing centrally in a space where students, whether the device they have is a laptop or a phone, can have access to this content that can stimulate new ideas and allow them to explore knowledge in fundamentally different ways.

It’s going to be very hard for ordinary people to understand what you are doing because it sounds sophisticated and the person benefiting wouldn’t know exactly who is helping. Isn’t it?

Yes, they use a computer but they wouldn’t know what is happening behind the scenes. But you want to think about three areas. Think about the device. The investments we are making are to support the device affordability for students.

Secondly, you recall that when you were a student you needed to have content whether it’s books, videos, Google, Wikipedia, and so on. That content requires a structured approach to making it available and structuring or what we call curating that content and making it available to students a platform is required to facilitate that.

We are working to support the creation of this platform that will make the content easily available to students. The third area is of course working with teachers to help them have new ways of teaching and learning.

So, education is a complex business and the digital transformation of education requires a lot of work in all of these areas.

Now, how much have you invested in this programme? Or is it the government here giving you money? How do we quantify this?

There is always this question of what is the number? How much of this is Microsoft investing? But if you can think about these partnerships that are smart in their design, that are really focused on creating value in a variety of different ways, how much would you say is the cost of delivering content to 3.2 million students in Rwanda?

If we can build a platform that has been able to digitise all the content that is used within the education system that every student can then have access to, how much of a value would that be?

So, those are the kinds of areas that we are thinking about. Making smart investments to provide not only technical know-how but importantly creating the environment through which significant value can then be transferred.

But shouldn’t the government here be contributing in terms of giving money towards your services?

Well, governments will actually apply their funds in the best ways that they think are necessary. As an example, we are talking about how can we enable anywhere anytime learning? One of the key pieces is that you can have this platform built and hosted in the cloud.

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School children use laptops donated to them under ‘One lap top per child’ programme. / File

You have an end-point device like a computer being used by a child where there is Wi-Fi connection that connects the two and other different bits. So, if we can dance it to the government and say hey, how about you now taking your funding and applying it to some of the connectivity that is used that can enable anywhere anytime learning?

Suddenly you can see that this partnership really brings value for everyone. The students can learn from anywhere, they can connect with any device; the government can invest in Wi-Fi networks that can enable entrepreneurship in a variety of not only student related matters but a variety of new ideas.

And of course Microsoft can support and supply this platform and provide capacities to teachers so they can contribute to this content in new different ways.

So, you are not asking money from the government for the services you are providing?

Well, in every relationship there is a commercial transaction. In our relationship with the Government of Rwanda we think of this as being us demonstrating what’s possible and the government applying its resources in smart ways to realise that at scale.

Our intention is to make interventions and investments and to support the government and the people of Rwanda in ways that can allow them to maximise the returns from the limited resources they have.

When did your partnership with the Government of Rwanda begin?

It started in 2014. We are sort of in our third year and you will probably soon start hearing about all the students getting access to email and all the students getting access to a digital identity that will allow this anywhere anytime learning.

So, they will get access to their emails without having to connect to the internet?

There you go. So, imagine there is an opportunity where students can now connect to the internet at any time and at any place that is possible just because they have a digital identity. So, because you now have an identity, just like you have an email address, you will not only use your laptop at work to connect to the internet, but might also think about using your phone and you might think about coming to a hotel.

Wherever there is internet students can now go and congregate and access education resources through their digital identity.

Tell us about the smart classrooms project that your organisation is spearheading in Rwanda…

It’s very exciting. The notion is about applying new digital technologies in new and different ways to transform the way knowledge is acquired by students. The concept of the smart classroom is to create a space where you have devices, internet, new digital content, a modern curriculum, e-books, and new ways of assessing students.

All of these things combined create new ways of communicating and collaborating between students and all of these things combined create new immersive ways of learning and teaching.

That is what a smart classroom is all about.

How many smart classrooms have you already set up in Rwanda?

Right now the work is focused on building the platform elements such as the digital content, the training of teachers, and the provision of devises into schools through working with different partners.

The next big step will be bringing all the required things together; new trained teachers, new devices in schools, and the internet that is required, etc., etc. So, we are currently at the start of this partnership and we actually have a team in Rwanda right now that’s working on the design of some of the emails and digital identities for students.

We have already deployed 29000 digital identities for students at the University of Rwanda and we are currently in discussions with the Rwanda Education Board about deploying 3.2 million identities for the students across the entire primary and secondary education system.

We are also focusing on students in the polytechnics to enable them with this very same identity so that they can enable this new personalised way of learning.

What are your target audience or target classrooms, what levels?

For a start, this is going to roll out in the smart classrooms but our ambition is to reach the entire student population in Rwanda whether it’s in primary and secondary schools as well as the tertiary level.

So, when is there going to be some sort of launch for the smart classrooms to start working in Rwanda?

I would say that before the end of the current financial year you will have smart classrooms in Rwanda where this new way of teaching with digital identity will certainly be in place.

What does it take to succeed in doing what you are doing?

It first takes leadership. It takes a willing and receptive ministry and a willing government who is first of all interested in creating the next generation of students equipped with the knowledge and capabilities to support the transmission of Rwanda.

Leadership is super important but I think the second thing is about capacity development. How do you create the right capacity within teachers, within the directors, within the administrators of education such that they can understand what this could mean for them? The third thing that is required is for willing students.

That’s probably the simpler part because students will always want to explore new ideas and do things differently. Investments and partnerships are also needed along with working together and collaboration.

Are there any challenges in the process that you are facing right now?

People are always reluctant to explore new things. That’s probably the first challenge that we will face and part of what we are trying to do is to help teachers understand the benefits of this new approach so they can support and enable it to happen.

Then there are of course challenges of infrastructure; connectivity may not all be there tomorrow or in two months when we say it will be the first classroom. There are also challenges of capacity such as whether there are enough teachers, engineers, and technicians to drive this.

But I think that working in partnerships these challenges can actually be overcome.

What opportunities are there for local entrepreneurs to contribute in this project?

The opportunities are not only in the area of ensuring that we create a new ecosystem of content creation. You can imagine as a small business owner you now have an opportunity to say, can I contribute in some way towards creating this digital content?

As a former teacher how can I use the knowledge that I have as a former teacher to contribute to this digital content creation ecosystem? It doesn’t exist. You have digital content in many languages but I would argue that there is probably need for us to think about how to do the same in Kinyarwanda.

Can you explain the opportunities in simple terms when it comes to creating this digital ecosystem?

This is a brand new ecosystem that needs to be developed and it creates a variety of opportunities for a number of new players. Think about digital animation for example. It can be a fantastic opportunity when you think about using it to teach different topics such as Geography, Mathematics, and a number of other subjects.

Digital animation can be a fantastic learning resource and local entrepreneurs can think about animating some of the things and use them as supplementary material to support the education industry.

Just to have an idea of where Rwanda is going with this, can you tell us where these things have worked somewhere else?

The leading countries of the world in education are Finland, Singapore, and South Korea. If you look at the way education is delivered in Singapore, it’s personalised. If you look at the way the curriculum is structured in Finland, it’s very different.

And if you look at the way students learn in South Korea, it’s very advanced, it’s about devices, it’s about self-discovery for knowledge and it’s about new ways of assessing students, etc. etc.

So, there is an opportunity for Rwanda with these interventions to learn and share practices with these countries. But there are a number of countries in Africa that are also starting to see elements of this taking hold.

An example is Botswana where they are thinking about digital textbooks to support even the distribution of textbooks. If you are to distribute digital textbooks and it’s a file you send in an email and everybody gets it at the same time just imagine how radically different that is from packing books in a truck and move them across the country.

There is a time and efficiency benefits that digital provides. Countries like Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and of course Kenya next door are seeing a lot of interest in digital transmission and using devices in primary schools to focus on introducing new ways of learning. So, it’s happening in Africa as well and I think Rwanda has an opportunity to lead this over the next few years.

Any message to our readers about what all of this means for Rwanda and what Rwandans need to do to make this project a success?

We would like all of the parents, all of the grandparents, the uncles and the aunties, and importantly the students to embrace this new change. We would like the parents to support the efforts of the ministry in this digital transformation of education because at the end of the day what is hoped is that through these interventions the quality of education could be improved and work opportunities for students graduating from universities can be diversified and through their work they can support the government in the transformation of Rwanda.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw