Bringing IT into Education in Papua New Guinea

Our Trusts Partnerships Officer, Sion Jones, has recently returned from Papua New Guinea where he visited a number of projects to report on how IT was being used in schools. Having recently written up a project overview, we thought we’d share some of his insights on ICT use within the country and the schools he visited…

Recently I was able to visit a project that was started a year ago in the Western Highlands province of Papua New Guinea. Deploying 100 refurbished PCs to a primary and secondary school, the project faced a number of challenges in order to establish strong examples of the role IT can play in children’s education.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is roughly double the size of the UK, but has a population of only 7 million. Mountainous terrain and a lack of infrastructure means travelling between the main towns is largely done by air. The country is incredibly culturally diverse, with over 850 native languages – a fact that almost every Papua New Guinean is proud of and mentions at every opportunity. Around 80% of the population live in rural areas, with subsistence farming their primary activity. Social relationships are built through the ‘wantok’ system whereby individuals build strong social bonds based on family relationship, community ties or perhaps a common language, establishing an obligation to help your fellow ‘wantok’ when in need.


Abundant natural gas is becoming a key export, but investment in energy infrastructure is also driving up costs across the economy, making life for ordinary Papua New Guineans increasingly difficult. Prices are also high due to the lack of infrastructure, meaning transporting products and goods into or around the country is very expensive. Food, accommodation and transport costs are comparable to, if not more expensive, than the UK.

Whilst enjoying lifestyles enriched with unparalleled cultural diversity, a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, strong family units and social relationships, many Papua New Guineans are income poor, with over half of the population living on less than US$2 (Purchasing Power Parity) a day. Families struggle to pay education fees, selling any surplus home-grown produce in the local market to generate income, with the government only contributing around a third of school budgets.

Security is also a concern when travelling and operating in PNG. Tribal violence occasionally flares up, car-jackings and other forms of crime are common. Despite this, the ‘wantok’ system provided a significant level of security, without which it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for me to travel around the country.

Looking at education, there is significant untapped potential amongst students who show a strong eagerness to learn, but often go to schools with poor infrastructure and a lack of resources. School budgets are limited by parents’ ability to contribute fees making donor support for significant improvements to facilities and resources necessary. Most schools don’t have any computers, and the cost of purchasing new machines locally is prohibitively high.

Working with Local Partners

In this project, we worked with the Melanesia Education Development Foundation (MEDF). Established in 2000, MEDF work to improve education in PNG by providing, among other things, a scholarship and sponsorship program to support students from low income families in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as providing textbooks and library books, school uniforms, computers and other resources to schools. They also operate Peace Training Programs which work at a community level to address and overcome social issues and tribal tensions within PNG.

MEDF’s capacity to reach remote communities at an appropriate level is illustrative of their experience and expertise within the country. They draw heavily on voluntary support and good will, having established a network of associates and supporters in key positions of community influence across the country in order to facilitate the delivery and implementation of their numerous projects. This less formal network structure can present challenges but is also vital to being able to operate effectively within PNG.

Kudjip Primary School

The first school I visited was Kudjip Primary School, located in a rural area in the Western Highlands. Surrounded by a population of 40,000, many parents earn a modest income from the local tea plantation. Many of the students’ parents sold excess produce in the small market outside the school. The school had received 50 refurbished computers at the start of the year, but it had taken a few months to prepare the classroom and hire a teacher. There are now 2 IT teachers at the school, however there is a shortage in the country as a whole.

On completion of their studies, students receive a certificate in IT which only one other school in the region provides. With 900 students, the school also receives children from a number of feeder schools in surrounding communities who come to study grades 7 and 8.

The time I spent with the teachers was inspiring. Clearly dedicated to the education of their students, the teachers emphasised the value and significance of having the ability to introduce their children to IT, and the impact it will have on their lives in the future. Ms Tukne, a teacher of 19 years at Kudjip, spoke of how the school was living a dream, having hoped for so long they could have a computer lab for their children. She explained that seeing their students leaving the school with a certificate in IT was a massive achievement for their school. Such sentiments were echoed by other teachers and students.

Mt Hagen Secondary School

The second school I visited was Mt. Hagen Secondary School, located near the centre of the small town of Mt Hagen. 75% of the students families were local subsistence farmers and were unable to pay all of the students fees on time, and so the school worked with a challenging budget. With a student population of 1,370, the school was very happy to receive 50 refurbished PCs in addition to the existing computer lab which contained computers donated by AusAID in 1998. The new computers funded by BFSS meant the school would now be able to extend IT education to grades 9 and 10. The school currently had 2 IT teachers and were planning on hiring another shortly.

One of the key resources available at Mt Hagen Secondary School is IT teacher, Mr Dave Ogles. An expatriate from the UK, Mr Ogles has been teaching in PNG for over 20 years and taught both mathematics and ICT at the school. His insights and honesty regarding the role of ICT in education in PNG were invaluable.

The school was conducting in-service training sessions for teachers, with most being very enthusiastic and moving towards using IT in a number of different subject lessons. Mathematics was a key subject where the school was already using IT in teaching and saw strong potential thanks to a wealth of online resources and the value of displaying graphs and other illustrations on screen. Similarly to observations recently made in Kenya, the presence of a projector was seen as vital in being able to communicate ideas and concepts effectively to the class, as well as helping the teacher to manage and control the students.

Mt Hagen Secondary School displayed significant commitment and innovation in expanding the use of IT in terms of both teaching computer skills and delivering other lessons. There is a lot of potential for the school to become a centre of excellence for such teaching, delivering improvements to education that would be at the forefront of IT use in Papua New Guinea.

Conclusion

The introduction of IT into education is in its very early stages in PNG and the project will act as an example to local schools, politicians and key stake-holders regarding the potential of using computers to teach. Mt Hagen Secondary School is particularly committed and well placed to establish itself as a centre of excellence for IT supported education. The school’s focus on training teachers as well as students, along with its objective of eventually teaching all classes using IT and digital whiteboards makes it an innovative role model for other schools and IT in education initiatives.

There is no doubt that IT can play a significant role in strengthening the provision of education in PNG, and this project is successfully playing a part in that process. Continued support to expand IT in education in PNG will release the potential of students to develop their IT skills and of teachers to innovate in the teaching of all subjects.

Thanks to British Airways for providing the flights to enable this trip to take place!

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