Ebola speeds up educators' embrace of tech in Sierra Leone, Liberia

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The deadly Ebola outbreak has sparked some creative thinking among academic institutions and private education initiatives determined to reach out to students who have been hunkering down for months in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Faced with a raging epidemic, the University of Sierra Leone plans to upload lecture notes on its website, send learning material through email and engage students through social media platforms like Whatsapp and Facebook. The 2014/2015 session, which should have begun Oct. 1, was postponed due to the Ebola outbreak.

Sierra Leone is one of the countries worst hit by the disease, which has already claimed over 5,000 lives in West Africa. Just last week, Sierra Leone recorded 435 new confirmed cases of Ebola and 110 confirmed deaths.

“Education is a business and our students are our clients so we must do everything to satisfy them,” said Ekundayo Thompson, vice chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone. “We want to reach them so when we come back anytime soon, we will not start from a deficit position,” Thompson told a news conference last week.

The University comprises three constituent colleges, Fourah Bay College, the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences and the Institute of Public Administration and Management. The university also plans to provide hard copies of lecture notes on CDs and to transmit radio broadcasts.

Thompson said that the school chose to embrace e-learning because it cannot determine when normal classes will resume.

While the move has not been publicly criticized, a human rights lawyer, Rashid Dumbuya, said the educational system in Sierra Leone should already have been structured for an e-learning environment.

“The University of Sierra Leone needs to embrace e-learning. That’s the way to go in the 21st century,” Dumbuya noted via Facebook. “The school should hire an international IT expert to create a Virtual Learning Environment where announcements and materials will be posted to students in the University.”

In a similar vein, the Rumie nonprofit education initiative plans to get educational material to kids in Liberia, where schools have been closed indefinitely since July. Close to 3,000 people have died of Ebola in Liberia, more than in any other country.

Rumie is leaning on donations through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to fund extra efforts to send low-cost tablets to kids and families, in the belief that each tablet could help as many as 10 kids. Rumie produces $50 tablets loaded with educational games and textbooks for underprivileged children in emerging markets. It has been working with a local partner in Liberia, Camp for Peace.

“Our target was 200 devices in 37 days, but so far we’ve raised money for over 300 devices in less than a week,” Rumie’s founder, Tariq Fancy, said in email. “The devices give children affordable, portable access to learning materials for their age level while they cannot attend school because it’s closed.”

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