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Broadband revolutionizes education on remote Maldives atolls

by Staff Writers
Rashdoo Island, Maldives (AFP) Aug 17, 2007
The standard of education was falling in the Maldives before broadband Internet access brought a quiet online revolution to classrooms in the Indian Ocean atoll nation.

Now Asina Ahmed hooks up to the Internet and uses a smart board with a touch-sensitive screen to liven up a maths class for a group of young Maldivian children on remote Rashdoo Island.

Ahmed invites eight-year-old Aishath Zayba Ismail to count the number of cherries in a fruit basket. Ismail approaches the board, places her hand over the images and glides each cherry across the white board.

With a special pen she scribbles "four cherries" on the screen.

Before the smart board arrived, there was no interactive learning in Rashdoo Island, 37 miles (60 kilometres) west of the capital island Male.

Broadband connectivity across the atolls has enabled interactive learning methods like the smart board to take off, putting the fun back into classrooms and encouraging children's communications skills.

"The smart board has made me a child-friendly teacher. The lessons are e-mailed each day and I can use the Internet to show children little things like how a cherry tree farm looks like, unlike a photograph in a text book," Ahmed said.

Literacy rates in this Indian Ocean archipelago exceed 90 percent, with nearly all children receiving some form of primary education, but the quality of teaching remains low, partly due to the low skills of the teachers themselves.

Home to 300,000 Sunni Muslims, some 70 percent of the population live on islands far from the capital.

The UN Children's Fund UNICEF estimates that more than 30 percent of Maldivian teachers are untrained with many islands having up to 100 pupils per trained primary teacher.

"It's down to basics. Transport is costly making it expensive for children to travel between islands to get a better education and for teachers to upgrade their skills," said UNICEF representative for the Maldives, Ken Maskall.

Basic services are expensive, given the geographic nature of this nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered some 850 kilometres (550 miles) across the equator.

UNICEF estimates that islands with the lowest population still do not have access to secondary school and around 12 islands provide schooling only up to grade five.

"People are so scattered in different little islands that this type of teaching method helps schools and communities to develop," Maskall told AFP during a tour of the island.

UNICEF has spent more than two million dollars to set up broadband-enabled learning centres which will link 20 atolls in the Maldives by the end of this year.

Rashdoo, one of the Maldives' 200 inhabited islands, is among the 11 islands to be connected so far.

"The smart board has brought the world to children's feet," said Rashdoo Island chief Mohamed Shafi, a former teacher himself. "I can sense the frustration of learning is quietly reducing."

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Paris, France (ESA) Jul 27, 2007
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