Winter 2004-2005

Owerri Digital Village Teaching Young People to Use Technology to Address Concrete Realities
by Njideka Harry

The Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) knows that technology is a means to a sustainable livelihood and that rural people become more interested in the application of technology when there is clear evidence that it can be used to solve concrete and immediate realities in their communities. Since 2000, Y f T, has worked to provide technology access and training to many of eastern Nigeria's most disadvantaged youth by providing them with technology, leadership and entrepreneurship resources at the Owerri Digital Village. Eastern Nigeria ranks as one of the poorest regions in Nigeria in terms of communications infrastructure, rural development and technology. In the late sixties, this region was traumatized by the Biafran war where over two million people, including small children, died of disease and starvation.

Students at the Owerri Digital Village in Nigeria
Students at the Owerri Digital Village in Nigeria
The Owerri Digital Village is a paradigm community technology and learning center, the first of its kind in West Africa, serving rural people between ages 8 and 25. Many of these young people come from low-income farming communities, are unemployed, and in some cases have low educational achievement. The Owerri Digital Village is an extended learning model bridging the technology, gender, education and community divides. YTF programs are focused on youth as they are quick learners, community catalysts, and have the longest productivity horizon; YTF has designed technology programs to improve the economic, educational and social status of program participants.

YTF partners with other like-minded organizations to develop technology programs that are experiential in nature and designed to increase problem solving, critical thinking and communication skills. In January 2003, YTF developed a partnership with theTexas-based John C. Ford Program, the Global Education Initiative (GEI) project to implement the Young Scientists and Engineers Tele-Academy at the Owerri Digital Village, a program that utilizes open and distance learning [ODL] methodologies to connect rural Nigerian youth with their digital peers in community technology centers in South Africa, the United States, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The program uses a low-bandwidth web-collaboration platform, Learnlinc, to produce live video, voice and data sharing between youth and educators, scientists, engineers and business professionals who serve as mentors to the participants.

The Young Scientists and Engineers Tele-Academy addresses two of the eight pandemic issues addressed in the United Nations millennium development goals: reducing the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The program equips young people with the technology and communication skills they need to be advocates on these issues. Less family income spent on treating HIV/AIDS and water borne diseases means more money spent on education of the children in the family, for instance. Fewer members of a family being sick will lead to a more productive society that raises the overall standard of living for the community.

Chinyere Mbachu, Program Manager at the Owerri Digital Village, explained, "the most effective method to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and diseases brought about by unclean water is through community awareness and education. Distance learning programs are particularly effective since they would bring state-of-the-art research to communities that are suffering more from a lack of knowledge rather than a shortage of drugs." The program uses a blended-learning methodology that incorporates online training with onsite education. Distance learning experts in science and technology team-teach with onsite instructors, thereby increasing knowledge transfer and multicultural understanding of the participants.

During the 12-week program, youth are involved in computer and Internet training, online education, science research and group collaboration exercises. Through a combination of one or more of these activities, youth participants coordinate advocacy and focus group meetings with health professionals, analyze and collate qualitative and quantitative data, conduct online research on the global and economic impact of the diseases, and create research and development plans on the topics of HIV/AIDS and water sanitation.

"Our goal is to make technology interesting to the users by helping them to use technology to research, document and disseminate information about issues that are important to them," stated Elochukwu Ukwandu, a program manager at the Owerri Digital Village. The Young Scientists and Engineers Tele-Academy adopts a
virtual business owner format for training. The youth role-play being board members of a research and development firm hired by the World Health Organization to develop measures to curb the spread of these diseases in developing countries. They elect officers, decide on which students will address various sections of the R&D plan, and use simple technology applications including Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint to document the information. The students present their plans to an international
panel of judges selected from global businesses and international organizations at the end of the training session. The program helps them to develop research skills and acumen while inculcating the self-confidence, communication, and collaboration skills needed to compete in today's 21st century.

To date, over 120 youth have participated in the Young Scientists and Engineers Tele-Academy at the Owerri Digital Village. This is a new paradigm - it is no longer just about learning how to use technology applications but how information technology can provide a bridge between cultures, groom global citizens, and create new ways of learning and teaching that effectively serve more of the world's children.


Njideka Ugwuegbu Harry is Executive Director of the Youth for Technology Foundation and a member of the CTCNet Board of Directors.

Comments

It is a courageous feat to take technology to places where such basics as power and water are erratic. Ms. Harry has taken a bold step to the future and like the Pied Piper, her move is commendable enough to inspire other young educators and entrepreneurs to truly make a difference in the developing world.

Posted by: Frances Pearl Cash at January 26, 2005 11:01 PM
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