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Interactive classrooms spread their wings

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The Ulwazi Project, aimed at creating virtual classrooms in South African schools, is entering a new expansion phase. 

Project director Ron Beyers of the Meraka Institute at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), will soon initiate a research component using SMART’s Bridgit conferencing software that allows a quick, easy and effective way to share voice, video and data over the Internet.
“Research is needed into the virtual classroom and Bridgit will increase the effectiveness of teaching and learning. This will enable us to look at e-education in a broader perspective,” says Beyers.
The original project was initiated in 2004 in association with St Alban’s College and has subsequently been adopted by the Meraka Institute. SMART Board interactive whiteboards were a major component of the infrastructure from its inception. Five schools in the Pretoria area of South Africa’s Gauteng province were linked by Motorola’s broadband Canopy radio connections to enable virtual interactive collaborative lessons using SMART technologies.
The project has now entered its second phase with the inclusion of 10 Dinaledi schools in a geographic area called the Mpumalanga Radio Corridor, which spreads to the north-eastern borders of South Africa. The last of these schools to be connected was in the town of Middleburg at the end of April 2008.
This expanding radio network installed by Motorola stretches over a distance of 400 km with the last being a single hop over 180kms from Bushbuck Ridge to Lamahasha, a NEPAD e-School close to the Swaziland Mozambique border. The primary purpose of the network will be to link the schools in Bronkhorstspruit, Witbank and Middleburg to the original Ulwazi network in the Tshwane area.
The aim is to supply all the Ulwazi schools with SMART Board interactive whiteboards as an essential component of the interactive, online education process. Other technology in the mix includes five-channel sound card speakers, webcams, microphones and video conferencing software.
Beyers says the original Ulwazi Project was established as a virtual classroom but this is now expanding to become more of a community communications resource.
“By providing the technology we can empower not only the learners, but also the communities in which their families live. Rural clinics and business hubs can be connected to the network to assist with e-health and entrepreneurial services. There are many opportunities for social and community initiatives to use the technology installed at these schools.”
Each of the Ulwazi schools is a point-of-presence (POP), offering basic Internet connectivity to the closed network and, says Beyers, this means the communities can be empowered to maintain their own radio networks to support a variety of initiatives that empower people living and working in the area through deployment of mesh technologies from Wireless Africa.
He says that the interactive whiteboards are no longer the main focus, as they were in the pilot project, but they laid foundations for opening up the possibilities for the development of a broad range of digitally-powered initiatives..
Initially the project was used to ‘web conference’ interactive on-line lessons between schools that encouraged participation by learners. This enabled schools to share scarce skilled resources. Learners and teachers were provided with access to information and top educators.
What started out as a simple experiment in using connectivity to overcome a transport problem for learners has evolved into a project with key elements of promoting a social transformation process in rural communities, says Beyers.
SMART Technologies’ CEO Nancy Knowlton says that Ulwazi’s use of Bridgit conferencing software will provide the company with valuable feedback on its effectiveness over geographically dispersed communities. “Bridgit is an affordable, flexible solution for collaborating across distances and SMART is committed to meeting that need with powerful, easy-to-use software.”