Nenad Tomić is a life scientist who recently served as a volunteer Academic Officer at P.A.Y. Namibia – Physically Active Youth – teaching natural sciences, mathematics, English and German. The programme, now in its tenth year, is based in the Windhoek township of Katutura, whose name, meaning “the place where we do not want to live”, dates back to the apartheid-era forced resettlement of the black population of Old Location, now the suburb of Hochland Park. P.A.Y. focuses on the healthy development of young people in low-income communities, both academically and physically, and has recently secured a donation of 20 PCs to set up an eLearning lab. The eLearning Africa News Service caught up with Nenad, to ask him about his work in Katutura, and the state of eLearning in Namibia.
Interview by Alasdair MacKinnon
First, tell me more about Katutura – from your own perspective.
With its homes made of corrugated metal scraps, and thousands of people eking out a living by selling fruit and meat with tufts of hair still on it, Katutura appears to embody Namibia’s structural inequality. A fleeting visit is likely to confirm the widely held stereotype of the township as a locus of crime and volatility. One of the first things I read at the reception desk of my hostel upon arrival was an admonition not to go to Katutura, as it is a particularly dangerous place for white visitors. Contradicting the counsel, my travel companion and went for a long stroll down all the way to Soweto market. Roaming around the township, engaging in random encounters, we did get a sense of its violent history. But I was nonetheless impressed with this highly dynamic place bustling with youth energy. A couple of weeks later I returned to work for nearly 6 months at a youth centre. I got to experience that unmistakable sense of community which you don’t get in Klein Windhoek, where people live apart behind electric fences and guard dogs. I don’t mean to romanticise Katutura: its problems are grave and they run deep. However, there is a sense of solidarity, solidarity of an inclusive kind, and blind to racial distinctions.
What education challenges does Katutura face?
During apartheid, substandard education known as Bantu education was all that was available in Katutura. Since then the Namibian curriculum has improved, the textbooks are now coming fresh off the Cambridge University Press, but the standard of teaching is still poor. The average pass rate in a Katutura school is still 37% while the rate in a town school is over 90%. Poverty is another challenge, and all the factors that are coupled with it: hunger, poor health, high dropout rates, early pregnancies, overcrowded housing and poor support structures for youth in the communities. P.A.Y operates to provide what could be classified as parental services: nurturing children holistically and bringing out the best in them. A main difficulty for us is the fluctuating number of interns/volunteers throughout the semester, which makes organising continuous after-school teaching difficult: this is exactly where eLearning comes in as a possible strategic solution.
You have spoken to me previously of a “vast potential of intellectual and creative drive in the youth of Katutura” – how does this show itself?
In my capacity as an academic officer at Physically Active Youth after school programme at the Multi-Purpose Youth Centre in Katutura, I had the chance to engage the learners on a daily basis, holistically, as a friend, counsellor, in various cultural activities and community projects. Every Friday life skills training is given, aiming is to foster critical thinking on the role of youth in society. That’s when you really get to see just how bright and inventive those kids really can be when given the opportunity. The moment you give them a break from all the formalities of classical schoolwork, their brains open up and flourish. I’ve witnessed this many times in our after school programme. More often than not, learners whose grades indicated an average or barely passing knowledge would come up with brilliant answers or an original perspective of a fundamental problem, scientific or social.
Tell me about how you started to implement eLearning at P.A.Y..
eLearning at P.A.Y. is a pilot initiative still very much in its infancy. It started off in March 2012 following a visit by Ms. Kumbi Short, then advisor for ICT to the Minister of Education, and Mr. Wilfred Kuria from Xnet Alliance, to the P.A.Y. centre in Katutura. They offered us help in equipping P.A.Y. with a computer lab and internet access. It took a while before we were able to bring in the necessary infrastructure which, for a start, consists of 20 laptops, meant to replace the existing network of haphazardly assembled and half-functioning PCs.
What ICTs and media do you use in teaching?
For the time being, we use laptops and Skype conferencing. We foresee the usage of virtual classrooms as soon as we improve internet connection – the same speed-bump that has hampered previous attempts to bring eLearning to Namibian schools.
What problems has ICT solved, and what benefits does it bring?
From the participants’ point of view, the use of ICT technologies enables (a) development of computer and Internet skills that are transferable to other facets of learner’s lives and (b) facilitation of learning because of the broader perspectives through input from learners themselves – often they can explain things to each other better than instructors!
Are there any disadvantages to eLearning?
As Rita Pierson has forcefully said on a recent TED Talks Conversation, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Mutatis mutandis, kids don’t learn from online tutors they don’t like. In other words, we must not forget about the essential roles tutors retain in any eLearning endeavour. If eLearning is to actualize the potential it has and play the role we all hope for in the global education, eLearning moderators still need to find a way to connect to learners on a personal, human level.
How do you imagine P.A.Y. developing in the long- and short term?
The P.A.Y. programme has a long-standing ambition to expand into other regions of Namibia. Our current work has proved extremely valuable for the community in terms of providing a stable framework for continuous after-school activities. We wish to replicate this model across Namibia’s remaining 12 regions and tap into a vast reservoir of creativity that is rendered passive by poverty.
In the short term, we wish to consolidate our eLearning programme: to make use of the online forum that we have just set up as part of our new website, to open gmail accounts for each participant and create a virtual P.A.Y. community where children would collaborate, write blogs and record podcasts on various campaigns P.A.Y. regularly undertakes.
How can eLearning in Namibia be improved?
A lot has been said about the need to improve eLearning infrastructure in Namibia. However, merely dumping laptops and PCs onto schools that are unable to use them won’t change anything in itself. Teachers need to know how to make the best use of the equipment without forgetting the basics, that is to say, make teaching fun and salient, structured and participatory, experiential and experimental, and deliver it in a way that engages and empowers the youth, and connects to them on a human level. eLearning can facilitate this process immensely but cannot substitute it. What P.A.Y. shows is the importance, the usefulness and the vast potential of home-grown volunteering and locally driven, community-oriented initiatives.
Physically Active Youth is one of a number of Namibian social learning initiatives whose work the eLearning Africa News Service is proud to be able to showcase. The example set by P.A.Y. in taking on the challenges posed by poverty, and implementing eLearning not for its own sake, but to improve the lives of disadvantaged children through teaching programmes that suit their needs, is of value to educators in Africa and around the world. Information on other Namibian social learning initiatives can be found elsewhere on our site – and of course, many other experts on eLearning, youth programmes, and providing education opportunities for all, will be speaking at the upcoming eLearning Africa Conference in Windhoek, Namibia, May 29th to 31st. Jameson Mbale of the University of Namibia will speak at a session entitled “Initiatives that Empower Youth” about a case study on equipping rural schools in his country with PCs, and Bjorn Wideow of NBIC FabLab Namibia will report on his experiences of setting up a FabLab as part of the “How Fab are Labs in a Mobile Era?” session. To view the entire programme, click here.