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Ugandan Students Advance Digital Literacy - photo by Martin Dee
Juliet Tembe, a UBC Education PhD graduate, introduces computers to teachers in rural Uganda. - photo by Bonny Norton

UBC Reports | Vol. 55 | No. 4 | Apr. 2, 2009

Ugandan Students Advance Digital Literacy

By Sean Sullivan

In 2008, Sam Andema made a difficult decision: Saying goodbye to his wife and two young children, he left his native Uganda for a master’s program at UBC that he hopes will allow him to help revolutionize digital literacy in East Africa.

He’s now part of an ambitious project in the Faculty of Education that’s helping spread technological training in East Africa while developing new strategies for Canadian educators.

“Uganda is on the move to development,” said Andema. “The country has articulated its vision and mission to become a knowledge-based society, and one of the tools to achieve that is modern technology.”

Professors Bonny Norton and Maureen Kendrick of the UBC Department of Language and Literacy Education have undertaken research in Uganda over the past six years.

One of the goals of their program is to train highly qualified people in East African countries, leading to a new generation with the skills to access, understand, evaluate and create information using digital technology.

“We don’t just parachute into places, take a few pictures, do a few interviews and leave,” Norton said. “We’ve established a very strong network because people see we want sustainability.” This network includes a virtual network, with UBC PhD student Lauryn Oates as webmaster, available online at www.renafrica.org.

“In conversations with teacher educators, we ask: What challenges do they face? How can we help them overcome their challenges? That becomes a foundation for our work,” Kendrick said.

The research program pairs theoretical work in learning, development and education with hands-on work in rural communities. From the researchers, one message is clear: understanding technology is key to literacy in the 21st century.

“Definitions of literacy are rapidly changing globally,” Kendrick said. “What it means to be literate now has everything to do with digital technology. Whether you’re in rural Uganda or whether you’re in Vancouver, there’s a global conversation that people want to be a part of.”

The eGranary Digital Library is one important example. Hard drives stocked with tens of thousands of books, journals and reference websites such as Wikipedia connect to a local area network and provide a self-contained “Internet in a box” in areas without web access. It’s an effort to “democraticize learning,” said Norton.

“People are learning the skills of searching and browsing, developing those initial talents so as technology becomes more accessible, the transition to that knowledge-based economy is easier,” she said.

Another project, conducted last month by UBC Education PhD graduate Juliet Tembe, will train rural teachers – some of whom have never seen a computer – in the basics of using a computer and analyzing information from online resources. Like Andema, Tembe is a Ugandan who studied at UBC.

The projects are all part of helping Uganda in its goal to become a regional leader in digital literacy, Andema said.

“The trickledown effect allows the students to leave school with the ability to access information, to process information and to articulate their own ideas and knowledge,” he said.

The partnerships also allow B.C. educators to link with classrooms in East Africa and learn from post-graduate students like Andema.

As the number of refugee students from places like Rwanda, Somalia, and Afghanistan grows, Canadian teachers want to learn methods that are familiar to the students, said Prof. Margaret Early, who recently joined the research team.

“It’s not a one-way street,” she said. “Teachers here are really desperate to adapt their teaching strategies. We can’t take Western notions and expect them to just work. We have to collaborate with teachers to develop new pedagogies.”

The East African program is still facing many challenges: a country’s poverty, frequent power outages and limited Internet access can pose problems for the most basic training. As well, cultural and social traditions mean teachers, mostly women, have limited time to pursue outside training.

“Many don’t have time to concentrate on professional projects because they have to make ends meet,” Andema said. “They have to survive.”

With plans to spend the upcoming summer at home with family, Andema sees his graduate studies at UBC as his chance to help lead the development of digital literacy in his home country. “When the opportunity came, I couldn’t just let it pass by,” he said. “It was the opportunity I had been yearning for.”

Juliet Tembe, a UBC Education PhD graduate, introduces computers to teachers in rural Uganda.

Historical student yearbook collection available online

UBC Archives, in partnership with Alumni Affairs and the Alma Mater Society, has digitized and now provides online access to approximately 11,500 pages of the university’s student yearbook from 1916 to 1966.

Published initially as the Annual (1915-1928) and then Totem (1929-1966), the yearbook provides an important historical resource featuring photographs and information about graduating students, sports teams, student clubs and organizations, social events, governance bodies and fraternities and sororities.

Unfortunately, as the university’s student population grew so too did the size of the publication, and the associated production costs and demand for the yearbook decreased until it ceased publication after the 1966 edition. Some individual faculties continue to produce separate student yearbooks.

Project coordinator and university archivist Chris Hives said, “The development of this digital resource will support general UBC historical research and, more particularly, provide a unique student perspective on the evolution of the institution. “These publications may also help older UBC alumni reconnect with the institution they knew and the colleagues they remember.”

This project is part of the Archives’ ongoing objective to digitize and provide access to a variety of key sources of historical information about the university.

This new electronic resource can be accessed at: cowichan.library.ubc.ca/archives/?db=yearbooks

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Last reviewed 21-Apr-2009

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