Education and training programs on the African continent have two recurring challenges: lack of textbooks or educational resources and lack of internet. The University of Alabama at Birmingham Sparkman Center for Global Health partnered with developers in Zambia and Ethiopia to develop a software solution, SparkEd, in response to these challenges.
“We looked for alternative solutions to provide educational resources for students in these two countries, but found they were not effective,” said Dr. Craig Wilson, professor and interim chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the University of Alabama School of Public Health. “Our students even collected textbooks to take to Africa, but they were both heavy and expensive to transport. We began looking for alternative modes of delivery. The new software is cost-effective and practical in delivering educational materials to an area with limited resources, like Zambia and Ethiopia, and potentially parts of rural Alabama.”
[Photo: Dr. Craig Wilson]
Dr. Wilson started working with the University of Zambia in 2007, focusing on e-learning and the eGranary approach, which led to his collaboration with Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University (AAU) in 2013. Together, they identified similar approaches to installing software and hardware, addressing the need to deliver basic science education. The e-learning and videoconferencing solution, developed in Birmingham, delivered educational materials to multiple new medical schools in Ethiopia that lacked instructors. The installations also addressed a mandated increase intake of 275 students at AAU without an increase in teaching facilities and faculty.
In 2015, extensive discussions with the eGranary developer led to the pursuit of a different delivery software that would allow loading of local content and textbooks, and could be organized around specific curriculum and programs. Working models of the software were initially developed by the Hacker’s Guild, a group of Zambian programmers supported by the UAB Sparkman Center. The programmers were sent to Ethiopia in early 2016 to train Ethiopian programmers at SupEd. The software was used by the Hacker’s Guild to deliver a program for nurse anesthetists in Kenya starting in late 2016. The software was developed so it could also be used on any hardware platform — including tablets — that could connect to local servers using Wi-Fi, and thus an intranet could be used independently. The software will be released initially as an open-source resource to allow for rapid dissemination and use for development of local resources.
The software is designed for easily organizing and delivering any educational content in an internet-like format for use in areas with no, poor or expensive internet connectivity. Grade-specific content is delivered on individual tablets, and the supplementary materials are available on local servers at the schools. Servers can be updated with SIM card connections, thus circumventing the need for internet. Medical and veterinary training programs are being developed for basic science education, which could be disseminated globally.
“Interest in the use of this software has been expressed for educational programs at many levels in other African countries where it has been demonstrated,” Dr. Wilson said. “Science, technology, engineering and math education programs in Birmingham and after-school programs in the Black Belt could benefit from the software, and efforts are in place to begin deployment of programs locally.”