The African Virtual School and e-learning
The African Virtual School, a fairly new e-learning program (based in Sierra Leone and the U.K.) caught my attention after the site recently posted a couple of videos on YouTube. The short, simple, and well-paced videos do an excellent job explaining what the service is and how to sign up. The website is based on the Google Sites platform and consequently is easy to navigate. The program started last Spring, but has gained momentum in the past months with the release of a textbook. AVS seems to understand the shortcomings of traditional schooling (plus the fact that, for various reasons, many students lack the opportunity to earn a certificate) and seeks to provide basic computer, math, and writing skills to anyone with Internet access. Not only is the AVS teaching staff qualified; the educators can also tailor content to local needs. The beauty with virtual schools is that they do not discriminate based on location, age, gender, or employment. Although African Virtual School relies on the Internet to function, lessons can be downloaded or printed for students who do not have an unlimited or a reliable Internet connection.
In an overview of the program, the school explicitly states the challenges faced by an electronic medium. AVS, or any online school for that matter, carries a stigma. Unfortunately, many people do not trust non-traditional learning methods, even if they are proven to work and are perhaps more convenient. As such, the first step of attracting students is awareness. A potential student must understand what a virtual school is and how it functions. Then, the individual must find an Internet access point and somehow develop the elementary skills required to connect to a website. If someone makes it this far, he or she must then manage an electronic payment ($4 per month) in the form of PayPal, Google Checkout, Zap, or bank payment. These steps may seem like child’s play to longtime computer users, but we must take a step back and remember our first time in front of a screen and keyboard.
Ultimately, virtual schools may have to rely on the more ICT-savvy community members to assist potential users in signing up and navigating the system. (AVS understands the daunting task of using a computer for the first time, and even has a video explaining how to create a Word document) It is not easy to bring a society online, and the task is only made harder if the society lacks a grade school education. In this case, word-of-mouth communication will be paramount to enhancing Africa’s ICT skills. Then, it takes a few dollars and an afternoon at a cyber café.
For more information on issues relating to virtual schools, I recommend reading the blog Virtual High School Meanderings.