February 27, 2017

Using Open Source to Empower Students in Tanzania


Powering Potential Inc. provides schools in Tanzania with solar-powered computers. (Image courtesy of PPI.)

Powering Potential Inc. (PPI) aims to enhance education opportunities for students in Tanzania with the help of the Raspberry Pi and open source technology.

“I believe technology is a vital part of the modern human experience. It enlightens. It ties us together. It broadens our horizons and teaches us what we can be. I believe everyone deserves access to these resources,” says Janice Lathen, Founding Director and President of PPI.

The project’s three main technology goals are:

  • Providing access to offline digital educational resources

  • Providing schools with technology infrastructure (computers and solar power) so that they can offer the national curriculum of Information and Computer Studies

  • Offering technology training

In their efforts to achieve these goals, PPI also promotes the values of cooperation and community. We spoke with Lathen to learn more.

Linux.com: Please tell our readers about the Powering Potential program. What inspired you?

Janice Lathen: I founded Powering Potential Inc. (PPI) in 2006. That was the year I visited Tanzania for the first time. During a photo safari vacation, our driver stopped at a rural school called Banjika Secondary. When I greeted them in Swahili, they responded with incredible warmth and enthusiasm. I was amazed to see how dedicated the Tanzanian children were to their education, in spite of having so little. Textbooks were scarce, and some classes didn't even have enough desks for all the students. When I got home I started the work of founding Powering Potential.

PPI distributes Raspberry Pi computers and offline digital libraries to rural Tanzanian schools. These resources help them to attain improved educational outcomes and, ideally, to pursue meaningful careers that eventually help raise the country's standard of living.

Linux.com: What's the current scope of the organization? How many students do you reach?

Lathen: We have solar-powered Raspberry Pi computer labs deployed in 29 co-ed public secondary schools spread across 11 different districts. These labs serve a combined student body of more than 10,000, which is only a fraction of Tanzania's school-aged children. We're always planning our next expansion.

The Tanzanian Ministry of Education has shown interest in our work, and at the request of the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education we submitted a proposal to expand our program to 54 schools in nine districts. Onward and upward!

Linux.com: How are you using the Raspberry Pi? What open source software are you using, and how?

Lathen: We use the Raspberry Pi systems as both clients and servers, and run them off a direct current supply provided by a self-contained solar power system. We use one Raspberry Pi for the offline digital library (RACHEL from World Possible), one Pi for a file server, and one for a Google coder. Our computer lab project also includes the Pi-oneer, which is a Raspberry Pi loaded with the offline digital library attached to a mobile projector.

We run Raspbian on all of our systems, which is a Debian-based open-source OS optimized for the Raspberry Pi. We also use LibreOffice and Scratch, which is great for students to learn basic programming. The teachers at the schools use these resources to teach the national ICT curriculum, which is important since many Tanzanian schools lack the capacity to do this. Many of these chronically underfunded public schools will try to teach computer skills by reading from a textbook. This is like teaching someone to draw without a pencil. It's as effective as you'd expect. Just recently, however, 3,100 students have enrolled in ICT courses because their school has a Powering Potential computer lab and can now offer the ICT curriculum to their students.

Linux.com: What educational programs you currently have in place?

Lathen: Our work comprises two programs: Computer Lab (Phase 1 and Phase 2) and the Pi-oneer. The Phase 1 Lab is a small-scale solar-powered lab with five clients and three servers (RACHEL, file server, and Google coder). The Phase 2 installation expands upon Phase 1, adding 15 Raspberry Pi clients and more solar infrastructure. And the Pi-oneer is a Raspberry Pi, loaded with the RACHEL offline digital library, hooked up to a mobile projector.

The RACHEL digital library, provided free of charge by World Possible, has been invaluable. It include Wikipedia articles, videos from Khan Academy, e-books from Project Gutenberg, medical reference books, educational apps, and much more. World Possible is doing amazing work in education development.

Linux.com: How can people get involved?

Lathen: If you appreciate our work, please visit our website and make a donation. That's the simplest way to make an immediate and measurable difference. If you know of a foundation, corporation or individual donor who would be interested in helping us expand, please connect us. You could also work to spread awareness about the living conditions in developing nations. Talk openly about the problems you see in the world. I believe people are essentially good and when the public sees how things are, they will rally together to make a difference.

Linux.com: What else would you like to share about Powering Potential?

Lathen: As you can tell from our name we are all about empowering the Tanzanians. Toward that end we recently established an independent organization in Tanzania to continue on with our work. We are now thinking about expanding to other countries.

Powering Potential's mission statement is to "Use technology to enhance education and stimulate the imagination of students in Tanzania, while respecting and incorporating the values of the local culture — especially cooperation over competition, community over the individual, modesty over pride, and spirituality over materiality." I think Americans could learn a lot from the Tanzanian way of life. They've taught me more than I could ever hope to teach them.

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