Access to world class internet content can change fortunes in communities across the nation

By Karen Abrams

Co-founder STEM – Guyana

When our four children were very young, my husband and I had two priorities in educating them.  We wanted them to be educated in a truly diverse and supportive environment and we wanted them to access a quality education. We identified the perfect international school, which was a relatively new institution with students representing more than 100 countries. Fifty per cent of the students attending the school were actually children of parents who sought asylum in the US from war torn countries around the world. Included were elementary school students from Bosnia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Burundi, Burma, Somalia and many other regions of the world struggling with internal conflicts.

The international student population was balanced with fifty per cent of students born in the United States to parents who highly valued diversity or who were immigrants, like we were.  Some would say that the decision to enrol our children in this institution was risky, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions that we could have made. What the school lacked in academic rigor it  made up for in its warm, loving teachers, its extracurricular activities, its positive and supportive environment, its commitment to equality and its focus on teaching children how to work together while embracing their differences. Our children learned some valuable lessons in being educated with an economically and ethnically diverse population of students. The lessons of acceptance, humility, inclusion and respect for all people never left them.

The downside to this institution was that academic rigor was hit or miss depending on the teacher, the classmates and grade level. We supplemented our children’s education using online learning resources. We identified a program called studyisland.com, which provided grade level reinforcement of the performance standards used by all schools in Georgia. We bought the appropriate grade level programs and committed to having them complete their exercises for an hour each night and for a couple of hours each day during the summer. Within six months, our children had moved ahead by a grade level in Math, Science, Language Arts and Social Studies. We purchased another program called brainpop.com and then another called Discovery Education; both programs provided supplemental support. The important contributors to our children’s academic success were a supportive and caring school environment, parental intervention and the quality of the online supplemental support programs.

By the time they moved into middle school they were a grade or more ahead in their core classes.  Today our children are great students  they possess technology skills  and are comfortable using technology to design solutions for social good. Three of our children are doing well in middle and high schools while our oldest daughter is a student at Stanford University, a Startup Investment Partner at Dorm Room Fund, and a technology entrepreneur who has already led her siblings in the development of award winning technology tools.

Technology access can be an effective tool to drive innovation, education and empowerment of communities. However, children getting on the information super highway with no supervision, no charted path or no clear destination will find themselves playing video games, consuming social media or gaining access to previously unimaginable harmful sexual content.  Students who are guided onto a secure information highway with a clear destination will achieve educational success. We affirm the latter for every Guyanese student.

There are numerous free educational websites available. Khanacademy.com provides a range of educational videos that teach beginning and advanced concepts in a multitude of disciplines. While Khanacademy.com initially focused on Math education, it now offers lessons in more than 100 disciplines beneficial to both adults and children.

There is also a multitude of fun and exciting programs to expose students to technology. Free programs like MIT’s Scratch and App Inventor programming allow students from kindergarten through college to create animations, games and mobile apps. The Scratch language and the development environment are designed to be easily learned without previous programming experience. Frustration involved in getting started is minimal because writing a first animation is easy but the more advanced features offer scope for experienced users to write

complex games and animations. Scratch also prepares student for an easy transition to Java programming.

All Guyanese students will soon be invited to join an exciting international MIT Scratch Coding league which will allow them to learn and compete globally, to win fun prizes, to strengthen their problem solving skills, and to teach them programming concepts like sequence, iteration (looping), conditional statements, variables, threads (parallel execution), synchronisation, real-time interaction, boolean logic, random numbers, event handling and user interface design.

Guyanese schools have recently begun offering internet access to students and now have a unique opportunity to ensure that as they make access available, students are guided to rich educational content, they are encouraged to be innovators and problem solvers, they are encouraged to interact with the global community and the ICT environment which they access will be safe and secure for all students.

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