September 24, 2008

Italian LUG turns Pakistani school into educational model

Author: Marco Fioretti

The students of a missionary school in Pakistan, from first graders to graduates, have become enthusiastic Edubuntu users thanks to the cooperation between their administrator and an Italian LUG.

Padre (Father) Aldino Amato is an Italian missionary who has been working for 25 years in the schools of the Rosary Christian Hospital, a nonprofit charitable institution in the village of Rehmpur, near to the city of Okara in the Pakistani province of Punjab. In 2006, during a holiday in Italy, a friend suggested Amato publish in an Italian missionary newletter a request for all the things his schools needed but couldn't find easily in Pakistan. The first item on that list was computers. A newsletter reader pointed Amato to Golem (Gruppo Operativo Linux EMpoli), an Italian Linux user group (LUG) founded in 2000 in Empoli, a Tuscan town about 30 kilometers west of Florence.

Golem is particularly active in the "trashware" sector; it collects and fixes thrown-away computers and gives them away, after installing Linux of course, to schools, nonprofit organizations, and other users. In 2004 Golem sent a few PCs to a school in Somalia and, later, others to schools in Benin and Cameroon.

When Amato discovered this, he immediately wrote to Golem:

I have more than 2,000 students from kindergarden to senior high and only one computer. I'd need at least 50 more, since Pakistani school regulations state that computer training should be at least 40 minutes every day. Can you help me? I'd really like to help my students learn new technologies.

No problem, answered Golem member Maurizio Pertici. In a few months the LUG managed to put together and ship to Rehmpur 43 computers complete with mouse, keyboard, and monitor, plus one eight-port hub, one modem, and four speakers. With the exception of a few machines where a hardware issue prevented it, Golem installed Edubuntu on them all.

Simply putting the machines together didn't end the task. Every PC shipped to Rehmpur had a unique hardware configuration, being a collage of recycled pieces, and there would be nobody in the field with enough Linux experience to fix even the slightest issue, so the Golem guys tested thoroughly that every set of computer, mouse, keyboard, and monitor was working properly before packing it. They also preconfigured the users and network interfaces in such a way to reduce to the absolute minimum the technical work necessary in Pakistan.

Several characteristics of free software held in great esteem in western countries are pretty worthless in most of the rest of the world, when they don't almost become problems. Year-long uptimes don't matter when a PC can't be powered on, in the best case, for more than 60 minutes in a row, nor does security. Using computers only for very short periods and being almost always offline is also an excellent antivirus technique. Easy and automatic software update procedures via yum or apt-get lose almost all their appeal.

Nevertheless, as you can see by the photograph here of ninth grade students learning Linux, and from the other pictures on the Golem Web site, the computer lab is up and running. The only "hardware" problem the students had was getting used to Italian keyboards, since they use the English alphabet. The first feedback from Padre Amato to Pertici was, "The computers are doing great! It really feels like a miracle! My students are jumping out of their skin for the joy of being able to use so many computers almost every day."

This summer, a year and a half after the arrival of the computers, Amato confirmed to me that it still looks like a miracle:

I had dreamed so many times that some day the indigent students of my schools could learn to use computers, and finally this isn't a dream anymore. Today, even the children of the first five grades answer without hesitation when you ask them how a computer works and love to use all the educational software for their age included in Edubuntu.

Amato has been able to hire a technician to teach computer education to ninth and tenth graders and maintain the school's software and the hardware. More computers should arrive from Italy this fall; Padre Amato's hope is that it will be possible to set up at least some of them for about 40 blind students, ideally with something similar to the Open Book system.

A major impact

Many European and North American schools take computer labs for granted, as they do electricity. In places like Rehmpur, however, the impact of a computer lab is bigger and deeper. Computers are cool tools for helping students get a good education and eventually a good job -- but that's not the main reason why Amato is so grateful to Golem for its help.

What makes him happiest is feeling the self-confidence and sense of empowerment that access to the computers gives to all his students. In Pakistan, he explained, the word "English" isn't used only to specify a nationality or language: due to the history of this contry, "English" may also be used to mean "superlative, of such a high quality that only the elites can afford it."

He says most students in developing countries see computers only on TV, billboards, or magazine pictures. Thanks to this lab, the schools of Rosary Christian Hospital have joined the ranks of what people in the province call advanced or pilot schools. When parents coming from distant villages to pick up their children find them sitting in front of a computer, Amato says, "They're amazed and sometimes whisper to themselves, 'This really is an English School!'"

Of course, jobs like these are never finished. After the successes in Padre Amato's schools, all the other priests in the area have repeatedly asked him to help find computers for their schools, hospitals, and other local charitable institutions. If you can help, please contact Padre Amato by email or send him a letter at Rosary Christian Hospital - Rehmpur 6/4.I, Okara, Pakistan.

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