Metropolia: A SunEdu solar powered learning environment for Tanzania

3/11/2014
As part of Tekes' Groove – Growth from Renewables programme, the SunEdu project at Helsinki's Metropolia University of Applied Science is developing a cost-effective learning environment for use in the rural areas of Tanzania. The learning environment allows teaching materials to be shared via a mobile network. The solar powered learning environment is designed to function as a support mechanism for school-based learning, especially in areas with poor electricity supply infrastructure.

The aim of the SunEdu project, which began in 2012, was to create a modern learning environment through which to distribute up-to-date teaching materials across rural Tanzania in a cost-effective and low-effort way. Tanzania was selected as the project site thanks to Finland's long-term history of development cooperation and owing to the pre-existence of local contacts. The poorly developed electricity infrastructure in rural Tanzania also offered the ideal environment for the project's test phase.

The project field researchers began looking into the schooling and teaching methods in Tanzania in January 2013. The researchers familiarised themselves with the local learning environment by interviewing teachers, students, and the students' parents in their homes and in five schools, all in the Iringa Region.

"Right from the beginning, we wanted to include the end users in the development of our concepting for the learning environment so that we could produce content that would be relevant to them and meet the needs of the user environment" says SunEdu Project Manager and Industrial Designer Emma-Sofie Kukkonen.

Using the fieldwork data, the researchers continued to work on the concept for the learning environment in preparation for the pilot phase in autumn 2013. The concept was then piloted at the Kigonzili school in the Iringa region, where the fifth grade children from ten families were provided with a prototype version of a solar powered eReader device, designed to help them with their school work.

For the purposes of the pilot phase, the eReader was initially loaded with school text books: this content was later supplemented with weekly international and local news, learning material regarding agriculture, and other learning material deemed to be relevant as a result of the initial project interviews. The content updates were carried out by the teacher. The teacher first uploaded the material to the cloud service and then used the Bluetooth connection on the smartphone he or she had been provided with to download it to the eReaders. The eReader and smartphone were both recharged by the solar panels. The students and parents participating in the project kept user diaries that detailed their experiences and observations of using the devices, the learning materials, and teaching.

"The project was warmly received by the families, especially as school books were usually too expensive for them. This was the first time that many of the school children had been able to use school books" Kukkonen says.

Feedback for product development

The primary funder for the SunEdu project was Tekes – the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation. Tekes also provided two coordinators who served on the project streering group, offering valuable advice and tips for realising a project in a multicultural setting. Kukkonen is also thankful to the Tekes Groove – Growth from Renewables programme for its broad network of contacts.

In addition to Helsinki's Metropolia University of Applied Science, manufacturer of solar panels Suntrica and eReader supplier Leia Media were also actively involved in realising the project. Andamana and Sibesonke also provided the project with their expertise. The local contacts needed in Tanzania were found in cooperation with the TANZICT project operated by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Both the Finnish ministry and its Tanzanian counterpart have followed the project's progress with interest.

"Thanks to the interviews carried out in the pilot school and the homes of the families, as well as the feedback from the students and parents participating in the project, the solar panel and eReader companies also benefited in relation to their product development" notes Kukkonen.

According to Kukkonen, the most important lesson learned in the project, from the perspective of industrial design, was the need to pay attention to cultural differences when developing the learning environment.

"When we talk about exporting education from Finland, we can develop a framework but we cannot export ready-made solutions that suit other cultures. The content must stem from the needs of the local people and the training must be developed in cooperation with the local decision makers and end users" Kukkonen remarks.

"The learning environment has now been tested once in practice, but it's not yet completely ready; it still needs further development."

The SunEdu project concludes in March 2014 and the project group is now considering the next steps, with interest rising among development agencies regarding the commercialisation of the concept.

Further information

Emma-Sofie Kukkonen
tel. +358 40 662 3515
emma-Sofie.kukkonen (at) metropolia.fi

Author: Pohjoisranta


Sanna Nuutila

 

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