29 June - 5 July 2000
Issue No. 488
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Link by linkBy Mariz Tadros
At computer classes, public school students are transported from their overcrowded classrooms into clean, air-conditioned, state-of-the-art computer laboratories.
Sometimes the discrepancy between the labs and the surrounding environment is so vast that students are admonished to "Take off your shoes, wash your hands and watch how you handle the equipment." Nevertheless, an increasing number of schools boast such facilities, since the Ministry of Education made access to computers a public prerogative a few years ago.
According to Minister of Education Hussein Kamel Bahaeddin "Egypt has succeeded in introducing [computer] technology to 91 per cent of all schools nationwide." There is a total of 23,125 schools in Egypt that have access to computers, according to Ragab Sharabi, first deputy at the Ministry of Education (MOH), "and all 25,000 schools should be fully covered by next year."
The introduction of computer technology in schools, says Sharabi, includes establishing computer laboratories, setting up Internet connections, linking up with electronic libraries and satellite educational channels, preparing educational material on CD-ROM discs and teleconferencing to link up all the municipalities with the ministry. The most widely publicised initiative, however, has been introducing computers into schools.
"Go visit a small school in the remotest corner of Upper Egypt, you will find a young child using the mouse, playing on the computer," said Sharabi enthusiastically. "We are equipping new generations to take part in the technology revolution."
The Ministry of Education, he explained, has given priority to introducing computers in primary schools, then to preparatory and secondary schools, and by next year, they should all be covered, including the technical schools.
photo: Youssri Aql
While the project has been supported by the World Bank and the European Union, as well as a few multinational corporations, it remains mostly government-funded, said Sharabi. The ministry has been trying to encourage businessmen and NGOs to partake in increasing access to computers. "After all, it is in their interest to have a qualified and computer literate labour force," he asserted. According to the Human Development Report of 1997/98 published by the Institute of National Planning, the share of the private sector in basic education is small, accounting for only eight per cent of total schools, and six per cent of total pupils in the primary and secondary cycles.
Donors and companies have been reluctant to contribute to the project, suggests Jon Hill, a technology expert, because they believe that while the ministry is putting the technology in the schools "they simply do not have the knowledge of what to do with it."
"They have the computers locked up, somebody important comes to visit, they open the laboratory to show off the facilities but then the rooms are locked up again after the official leaves and the children don't get to use them," said Hill.
A principal problem is the insufficient number of qualified teachers. This may be the greatest challenge facing the programme and according to Sharabi, the ministry has been providing training. Hill, for his part, maintains that there is still not enough "properly trained staff." Those trained are not really teaching computer literacy, they are teaching applications, such as word processing and Excel. Nor is it enough for students to have access to computers in schools; it is imperative that computer centres be set up in poor communities where people who cannot afford to own any can have access at any time.
Moreover, it is questionable to what extent students do use computers at school. One teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity said that many students get to use the computer for no more than 45 minutes a week, and even then, because there are not enough computers, each computer is shared by three or four students. It is much worse for students at the preparatory and secondary levels, since they are often allocated the malfunctioning equipment. The maintenance of the equipment, she emphasised, is a real dilemma. Nobody knows whose responsibility it is exactly, and technicians are nowhere to be seen, she said.
As you go up the educational ladder, students themselves do not prioritise learning to use computers, as they race against time to finish the syllabuses for end of year examinations. Hill asserted that since computers have become such an integral part of our lives, it is no longer enough for students to master the three r's (reading, writing and arithmetic). Nevertheless, how to get them to accord computer literacy the same importance is not easy because the difficulty is in introducing formal end of year examinations in computers like in other subjects.
To encourage students to use computers, the Ministry of Education has given orders that all computer rooms be open for use during the summer holidays. "This may be fair and good," said the teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity, but many students have to work during the summer holidays.
According to the HDR 1997/98, drop out rates associated with child labour are high. The report warned that "despite government efforts at allocating increasing budgetary resources to education, it seems that economic hardships may erode past achievements."
The report also estimates that almost 40 per cent of schools are in a dilapidated condition "and deteriorating physical conditions are among other factors that have impacted on the quality of education and its ability to retain students."
If the Ministry of Education wants to release a computer literate labour force, educational experts suggest, addressing the many woes affecting the educational system in a holistic manner is just as important as investing in the latest technology.