What’s it all about?
In December 2016, People in IT Director Donna Comerford lead an ambitious project to run Raspberry Jams in three places across the Fijian Islands. The adventure was funded with a lot of help from Barclays Digital Eagles and a host of important and generous donors via a crowd-funding initiative. Donna, Janine and Tulai worked for seven weeks delivering successful events with lots of local help and always alongside the Ministry of Education and other Fijian agencies. Having family connections and government links ensured the project aligned with what’s beginning to happen in the country.
Our initial challenge
The Ministry of Education are now developing a digital education strategy, but for now, there’s little creative digital education happening in Fiji and not much in the way of learning and playing with coding. 3G and 4G penetration appears good in the islands, but wired broadband and public wifi is not common. Availability of these things really affects how digital education can take place. Mostly, young people use mobiles for web access, and there’s little sense that youngsters know how to get under the hood of the machine and hack new tools and games.
We saw an opportunity for informal Raspberry Jams; this is Raspberry Pi learning activity, working with basic Pi setups, using TV screens (plenty of these in Fiji), mice, keyboards and so on, rather than trying to mimic desktop or laptop learning configurations. We also proposed an exploration of the provision of Raspberry Pi to villages with limited electricity via solar energy and use of car batteries to drive things along. We also hoped to explore providing wider access to computing for more children, young people and other learners via a ‘maker box’ or toolkit and learning/training resources.
Here’s what happened – Donna’s story:
Each of our three sessions followed a similar format to get over the lack of power in some of the village centres. First of all, I picked one of the children and said, “Right, I’d like you to volunteer to be a little robot for me. And everybody, you need to give him instruction on how to get over there, to pick up a box. This is what basic programming is. You must give instructions for the program to be able to do anything.” So everybody then started shouting, Yep!
So I said, “walk forward five steps.” And then I said, “he needs to turn around a little bit. If you remember your maths, and you remember your degrees, tell him how many degrees he needs to turn and which way.” And this was because I think playing out for real helps to understand exactly what a program is, and why you need to do it in a certain way. You need to give the robot enough instructions to pick up the box.
For our next step, I’d already passed round the Raspberry Pis around, so people could touch and feel and look at them closely. I asked who had the Raspberry Pis, and three hands came up. Great. “Now come up here and plug it all in,” I said. This was quite an important moment, as the children will be looking after the Raspberry Pis once we’ve gone, so they need to have an understanding of how to attach things when we’re not around. So they plugged all the components in, and where it didn’t quite work out, I asked them to turn it around, and look at it again, see if ‘that lump matches that lump over there’ and try plugging it in again.
When we’d got everything working, we opened up Scratch, the MIT-developed coding program, and I explained about how it related to their playing as robots. They have to give Scratch instructions; to go to the blocks of actions, which are colour-coded. I didn’t bother explaining too much about the colours, I just thought, let’s do it, and left it to the young people to explore it and work out what they need for themselves.
And as we started controlling the sprite in the game by dragging instructions across the screen, clicking the green flag to make it go, I was making the connection back to them playing as robots themselves again. The children clicked on the start flag and they saw their robots move, which they were excited by. We went on to programming more moves. What was interesting was that then I saw that some of the younger children hadn’t used mice before. They were learning to use mice as well as learning to program. I found that in at least two of the villages, so on top of learning progamming, it was a really steep learning curve for them.
We ran our first Raspberry Jam at Wainawa village in early December. We found that Beni, the Chief’s son, was already quite up to speed with what we were teaching with Raspberry Pi. We discovered he spends some of his time overseas, and understands the importance of digital learning to the village children as a result of that. It’s really interesting that Chiefs in the islands, within quite a traditional and historical society, still understand technology can, and will, change the lives of people there.
I think it’s because the Chiefs are well educated. Some have done Masters degrees, overseas and in Fiji, and see how important it is for their village children to be aware of how technology could possibly enhance their lives. And we found that the raw material and young talent here is amazing.
Beni’s daughters, the youngest of whom is in Year 7, are absolutely brilliant at Minecraft. Within half an hour or so of finding the Minecraft software, Teema had made a model of a glass-sided building that could exist in the village. She built this beautiful structure, and I can’t imagine what she’ll have done in four weeks time. Ben set the children a digital challenge, asking them to build him a representation of the village in Minecraft by the end of the Christmas holidays.
Running the events involved breaking through one or two barriers, but we kept discovering more and more opportunities, and all sorts of resourceful solutions. In Suvavou, our second venue for a Raspberry Jam, one of the ladies rang the big bell in the village to let people know that they should come to the village hall, because the Chief was in residence.
He was sitting at one end of the hall and we were sitting with our kit to the side and up towards the middle of the hall. We waited for the generator to be started and the televisions to be bought in. The session was the same as Wainawa Village with similar numbers of children and adults, around fifteen or twenty children and parents too. The third Raspberry Jam was led by Janine and Tulai at Veisari Settlement, just after Christmas. Janine and Tulai welcomed fourteen children and six adults at the session.
At each of our venues, internet connections weren’t easy and most of what we did had to take place offline, which is where Raspberry Pi mini-boards really come into their own, as they can run on almost no electricity and have lots of cool tools and software built-in. Believe me, this local, offline capability is incredibly useful when you’re not anywhere near superfast internet.
We got some great feedback at each event. At Wainara, the first event we ran, two hours into the session, one of the little boys (I called him Trouble!) called out loudly in Fijian, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be so terrible when they take these away, when they leave!’ When someone translated, I said in reply, “well actually, these are yours. You get to keep them.” And he was screaming. It was as if he’d won the FA Cup Final by himself. He was beside himself. “Oh my god, I think that’s great!!!’
So, yes, we saw that our three Raspberry Jams had real impact right in front of our eyes. I’m not the kind of person who tears up easily. But this did make me feel really humble and kind of teary. To our crowdfunders Ian Comerford, Lauren @schoolreportwriter, Elaine Tim, Andy Tyrell @Tntcomputing, Christopher Alex McLean, Barclays Innovation @eagle_labs_bri and all our anynomous donors, we are so grateful to you for making this initiative possible.
The children were so excited; at the end of it, Teema, Beni’s eldest daughter, spoke on behalf of the children and said they were so grateful for us coming to their village, spending time, bringing this technology, because they are always at the bottom of the pile. Nobody thinks about rural children when they are rolling things out. They enjoyed the session, they were buzzy, there was lots of noise, they were excited by it, and they were pleased that someone from outside had taken the time to come and bring this technology to them.
So, what’s next? We’re really keen to revisit our villages and make more permanent contacts. Tulai is still in Fiji, staying with family, and preparing the way for more events, before he returns to the UK. We will now explore how we can deliver more coding workshops with Rasberry Pi and our BBC Microbits as well as other technologies in other parts of Fiji. Key to further developments will be assembling and testing some coding resources that can easily be distributed and then used offline in places where broadband hasn’t reached, and we are talking with our governmental and education contacts in Fiji to see how this can be done.