Visually impaired teachers conduct ICT training program in Bhutan

Catherine Kalvenes, Morten Tollefsen, Magne Lunde

MediaLT, Jerikoveien 22, N-1067 Oslo, Norway


Abstract: In 2007 MediaLT began a five year development project in Bhutan, on behalf of the Norwegian Mission, and supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. The main goal was to provide assistive computer technology for visually impaired persons in school and at work.  A two-stage strategy was employed to facilitate the transfer of ICT expertise. In the first stage ICT skills were taught in Norway to a national resource group. In the second stage the resource group implemented ICT training nationwide in the home country. A computer centre was established at The National Institute for the Disabled (NID) in Eastern Bhutan, and a smaller centre in the West, with assistance from MediaLT.  An ICT curriculum for visually impaired in school was developed by the resource group. Two vocational training courses for adult students and employees were successfully completed, at NID in 2009 and at Gelephu in Southern Bhutan in 2010.

1. Introduction

The main goal of this project was to provide visually impaired persons in Bhutan with the same technological possibilities as those found in high income developed countries. During the project primary and secondary school students in the home country were taught how to utilize computer assistive technology. Adult employees and others, who had lost valuable opportunities due to lack of computer knowledge in their daily situation, were also part of the target group. In addition to the provision of adequate technical equipment, it was also necessary to transfer competence, i.e. ICT skills. The main question raised by the project was how best to achieve the facilitation of technical equipment and transfer of expertise.

Our hypothesis was that a two-stage strategy was the most effective way to achieve the main goal of the project. The key principle, on which this strategy is based, is that the Bhutanese themselves are best qualified to establish and implement ICT training in their own country. They have the best knowledge of their country, it’s culture, the people, and how society is structured. Following the transfer of sufficient expertise from Norway, Bhutanese teachers would be able to sustain the main activity of the project.

In line with this strategy an important activity throughout the project was to teach the teachers. At the start of the project, the Bhutanese Ministry of Education selected five teachers who were sent to Norway for an intensive six month ICT training course at MediaLT. After completion of the training in Norway, the computer centre and ICT training programs in Bhutan were built around the resource group, which also participated in setting up the computer centre at The National Institute for the disabled (NID). The management and maintenance of the computer centre would be handed over to the resource group after the project period had ended.

The general school in Bhutan did not yet have an ICT curriculum; hence the curriculum for the visually impaired would provide ICT as a subject before this was available for sighted students. The curriculum would be used as a model when the general ICT curriculum was drawn up by the Department of Education. Early in the project it was necessary to clarify several issues:

With the exception of one blind member of the resource group, the group had little previous experience or knowledge of using computers with assistive technology. It was therefore necessary to start at a very basic level, where the students lacked basic concepts and an understanding of how a visually impaired uses a computer. Previous experience had shown that it is an advantage if introductory teaching is carried out in a situation where equipment and software are already installed.

The training period was solely dedicated to ICT training i.e. the resource group had no other professional responsibilities during their six month stay in Norway which gave them the opportunity to achieve a high level of ICT skills. Adequate skills were important if they were later to teach others and manage and maintain the computer centre at NID. During the training period the various members of the group learned to work well together. The future success of the project would depend on good team structure among group members rather than building up a leadership hierarchy.

Part of the training was to familiarize the resource group with the choice of assistive technology available. This was not possible in Bhutan where such equipment was scarce. In Norway they became familiar with the various assistive devices and software available on the market (also for other groups of disabilities). This competence would be useful when they were later responsible for purchasing equipment themselves.

The ICDL (International Computer Driving Licence) is the most widely recognized vendor independent standard for computer skills. During earlier ICT training for visually impaired in Norway, MediaLT had found that it was possible for visually impaired students to achieve standard ICT certification. ICDL certification with the help of assistive technology was therefore chosen as the basis for the Bhutanese training program.

The teaching and transfer of competence to the resource group was planned to take two years, i.e. half a year in Norway and thereafter in Khaling, Bhutan. After their return to Bhutan, online teaching would be an important element in the follow up strategy, both to assist the resource group with technical problems, and to further develop skills as required, from Norway. Online teaching was used to develop ICT competence and improve teaching standards throughout the project period, and also substituted yearly travel from Norway to Bhutan by MediaLT staff to hold follow up courses.

2. Background

Einar Kippenes has been a central figure throughout the project, and still enjoys wide recognition for his earlier work to establish a school for the blind in Bhutan. Kippenes was engaged as a missionary with the Norwegian Santal Mission and seconded to the KMA mission during the period 1971 to 1982. During this engagement Kippenes established the school for the blind in Khaling, Eastern Bhutan. His Royal Highness Namgyal Wangchuck, at the time Minister for Trade, Industry and Forests in Bhutan, had a personal interest in the school. Later in 1987, the school was taken over by the national authorities. It has since been administered by the Ministry of Education in Bhutan, who expanded the school into the National Institute for Disabled (NID).

Visually impaired were among the first to receive educational assistance in Bhutan. Former students of the school for the blind would later become role models in their country. They had been able to achieve a high level of education and amongst other things, good English skills, which would later enable them to initiate the present ICT project. One of the main initiatives came from a former student at the school, Kuenga Chhoegyel, a teacher at NID. Chhoegyel was among the first blind people in Bhutan to use assistive computer technology and wanted other visually impaired to benefit from this technology. He had maintained contact with Norway, and Norwegian teaching staff at the school, who contacted MediaLT about the possibility of a development project. In 2005 a pilot project to investigate helping visually impaired in Bhutan with assistive computer technology was initiated.

The pilot project commissioned by The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), to investigate the basis for a development project, was conducted during the first half of 2005. Kippenes and Lunde from MediaLT travelled to Bhutan in May 2005. Meetings with the national education authorities were positive. In addition to meetings at departmental level in Thimphu, meetings were also held with the Principal and relevant staff at NID where the computer centre would be located. A letter of intent was signed at this time by the Director, Department of School Education and The Norwegian Mission (NM).

In the summer of 2005, an application to NORAD was made by NM for a five year development project. The scope of the main project was:

To develop the local competence in serving the need of the visually impaired in Bhutan for managing the computer as a useful tool. The target group is students, adult professionals and the drop outs from the educational stream line.

At the beginning of 2006 NORAD granted the application.

3. Project organization

The Ministry of Education, Department of School Education in Thimphu was the authority representing the Royal Government in Bhutan. This department was the signing body for any agreement relating to the running of the project and its completion. Any major changes in the plans and financing were channeled through the Department for its approval or comments.

The Norwegian Mission (NM) was to be the signing body in Norway for any agreement related to the project and its completion. NM was responsible for covering the financial cost of the project through its application to NORAD via The Norwegian Missions in Development office in Oslo.

The National Institute for the Disabled (NID) was the place where the teaching in Bhutan would take place. The Department of School Education is responsible for the running of NID, including the appointment of staff, and covering their salaries. NID was responsible for the building/room facilities for the necessary computer equipment. A steering committee was selected among the NID staff. NID communicated directly with NM and MediaLT with copy to Department of School Education.

MediaLT, on behalf of NM, was the Norwegian consulting company designated to implement the main tasks of transferring knowledge and experience to the resource group, defining the equipment to be purchased and giving advice about local installment and utility.

After funds were granted in 2006 everything seemed to be in order to start the project in the spring of that year. It was not to be so. The Bhutanese authorities wanted this development to be part of their own state budget i.e. the project should be processed by the Finance Ministry and the Education Ministry, as well as the Foreign Ministry. However the signing of the project agreement by the Department of Aid and Debt Management in Thimphu was not carried out according to plan. Progress of the project was brought to a standstill and the resource group could not attend the training course in Norway at the planned time in the summer of 2006. In February 2007 the project agreement between the Department of School Education and NM was eventually signed. The project was able to commence, a year later than originally planned.

The revised Progress Outline was a binding schedule for the progress of the project which might be revised by mutual consent between MediaLT and the Department. Goals and objectives would not be altered. After the initial two year period to transfer competence and set up the computer centres, three years were given for the resource group to develop an ICT curriculum for all classes, start ICT teaching in school, run vocational training courses for adults, , and start the production of audio books. The project would now run until 2011. After project completion, the Department of School Education would act as the authorizing body and NID with its Steering Committee would be responsible for the implementation of ICT education for the disabled, and for running a smaller centre in Western Bhutan.

4. Training the resource group

In May 2007 five teachers from Bhutan arrived in Oslo. Four were teachers at NID and the fifth was an English teacher at a secondary school in Paro in the West. The three male members of the group are themselves visually impaired, two are blind and one is severely visually impaired, the two female members are sighted. Both the visually impaired and the sighted teachers were each provided with a laptop together with the screen reading software JAWS. The two blind members of the group were also provided with a Braille display. These laptops were to be used by the teachers during the six month training period in Norway. The teachers would then take this equipment back to Bhutan. It would be the property of the computer centre, designated for personal use by members of the resource group for their future work in the project.

The ICT training in Norway was on a daily basis throughout the six month period, with four days for ICT classes, and one day a week set aside for excursions to centres of expertise for the disabled, visits to suppliers of assistive technology, and other places of interest.

Two visually impaired members of the group had no previous experience of using a PC; the two sighted teachers had not used assistive technology before. The first week was dedicated to setting up the laptop for each member of the group. The basic principles were taught in a classroom situation. Students were shown how to set up Windows, connect to a network, run updates and install Microsoft Office and antivirus software. They were also shown how to install the screen reader JAWS, and a Braille display. Quite naturally the laptop and screen reader, for example hearing synthetic speech, were still strange to them at this stage. The installation procedures were therefore also demonstrated individually to each student. Each student was given responsibility for his/her equipment from the start of the training period.

At the start of the teaching students were also taught how to use the teaching materials for the ICDL training. Teaching materials were in electronic HTML format, and included adaptations by MediaLT to include techniques for visually impaired users. Exercises and practice tests had also been developed by MediaLT before the arrival of the students. It was important to emphasize the practical use of electronic teaching material at this early stage. The blind members of the group had previously used teaching materials in a Braille paper format.

The students were now ready to learn basic concepts about using a computer together with assistive technology. Module 1 of the ICDL (basic computer concepts) was introduced. At the same time they learnt word processing functions, and screen reading functionality to enable them to read documents. Especially for the two visually impaired students with no previous computer experience, there was a lot to learn. The start phase took longer than anticipated, student progress was variable at first and extra one-to-one teaching was sometimes necessary. It was however already noticeable that the group were working well together as a team. The students with previous computer experience used a lot of time after classes to help their less experienced colleagues.

It was now time to concentrate on the practical use of their equipment. They learnt about customized computer settings, file management, saving documents etc, and put all this into practice. E-mail was also introduced at this stage. Self study and a lot of practical training after classes was essential, and this gave results. By the end of module 2 all students were progressing well and were ready to learn more about screen reader functionality, other assistive technology such as screen magnifiers (MAGIC), scanning and Braille printing. The Internet training covered more than the ICDL module 7. This is a challenging topic for visually impaired and extra time was allowed to learn different strategies for using web pages. Accessibility issues were discussed. Half way into their training period the students were already using their computer equipment to help other visually impaired Bhutanese friends. Their newly acquired knowledge had provided them with new communication channels. Via the internet service Skype, they were already able to share their knowledge.

ICDL modules for Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access were then completed and after five months all the students had successfully completed the ICDL. The final weeks were devoted to web design, skills which would be useful for setting up a home page for NID, and DAISY (production of audio books).

All students were presented with the ICDL diploma at the closing ceremony in October attended by the Norwegian ECDL foundation.

4.1 Online teaching

On their return to Bhutan, follow up training of the resource group was carried out by means of online teaching classes from Norway to four members of the resource group at NID, and one member in Paro. Online classes, combined with teaching material in HTML format which could also be published on our web site, and e-mail correspondence to follow-up questions after classes, proved to be an effective method of distance learning. The fluctuating Internet capacity at NID did not allow us to use the conference system in Skype for a group of four users. Instead we used the MediaLT conference room which required less capacity and worked well for the student group at NID. The fluctuation in Internet capacity did sometimes cause classes to be postponed but all the online teaching courses were completed within the agreed time schedule.

5. Provision of technical equipment and assistive technology in Bhutan

It was important to find a professionally, reliable technical partner in Bhutan. The local technical partner would then follow up the delivery of the computer equipment to the newly established computer centre at NID, and offer technical support and help solve any problems. Ideally MediaLT was looking for a technology vendor who also had an understanding of assistive technology, but since assistive technology was still scarce in Bhutan such a vendor would not be found at this stage. Utah Tech in Thimphu was chosen as the technical partner. MediaLT had an advisory role in the purchasing of the equipment. Consideration had to be given to differences in specification between computer equipment supplied here in the West, and in Asia. It was important to provide computer equipment that would function reliably together with the assistive technology.

JAWS screen reading software, MAGIC screen magnification software and the two Braille displays for the resource group were provided by Freedom Scientific.

In April 2008 Kippenes, and Tollefsen and Flyen from MediaLT travelled to Khaling. Fifteen computers were set up in the new computer room at NID, with JAWS screen reading software and MAGIC screen magnification software, in addition to the standard software (Microsoft Office, anti-virus software, etc). The server, backup and wireless network were also set up. Other equipment included a printer, scanner, and equipment for CD production. A satisfactory Internet connection (1 Mbps) was essential to establish the ICT centre. The best solution, in such mountainous terrain, was determined to be a wireless connection. The installation, equipment and operation of the wireless connection were financed by the project. Power fluctuation was sometimes a problem. Both MediaLT and Utatech were present during the installation. Utatech would then provide technical support for an eighteen month period, and travel to Khaling if there were major problems.

A smaller centre was also established in Paro, as a resource centre for visually impaired adults in Western Bhutan.

Laptops together with assistive software were later provided by the project for all course participants on the three adult vocational training courses run during the project. Course participants would then keep this equipment after successful completion of the course, thus enabling them to further develop and use their newly acquired computer skills in their place of work.

6. Implementation of ICT training in Bhutan

A resource group numbering so few persons might soon become vulnerable if some members of the group were not able to follow up their project obligations on their return to Bhutan. These responsibilities would include:

It was important to clearly define the role and responsibility for each member of the resource group and ensure that sufficient time was allotted so that they could follow up their project obligations. The resource group was expanded in the latter half of the project to include two more teaching staff from NID.

Development of the preliminary ICT curriculum for classes 1 to 8 in school was completed at the work shop held at NID at the beginning of July 2008. This was attended by members of the resource group and the Department of Education who then endorsed the curriculum. Pilot teaching of the ICT curriculum could then begin in August 2008. The curriculum would be evaluated during the course of the next two years teaching period. Handbooks for teaching classes 1 to 8 were to be developed throughout 2009 and 2010. MediaLT maintained an advisory role during all these processes.

The ICT curriculum for the first vocational course for adults was complete by November 2008. Two computer literacy courses for adults, of 28 days duration, were held in January 2009 and 2010. A third is planned for 2011. The first course in 2009 was held at NID. It was attended by ten participants: 8 males and 2 females, 5 blind and 5 with very poor / low vision. The age range was between 22 and 45 years, and participants were college students, school teachers and an office assistant. The second course in 2010 at Gelephu in Southern Bhutan was also attended by 10 participants: 8 male and 2 female, 8 blind and 2 with low vision, aged between 26 and 47 years. Occupations included telephone receptionist, physiotherapist, teacher, counselor, program coordinator and assistant lecturer. Staff from MediaLT were present during both courses. The computer equipment and assistive technology provided for course participants functioned efficiently and reliably throughout the course duration. Technical challenges were solved during this period, and support was provided in a follow up period after the training. To best facilitate teaching, it was found necessary to divide the students into smaller groups. Some course participants had little previous experience of computer technology, whilst other more advanced users were looking to improve specific ICT skills useful in their working situation. Evaluation of the courses by MediaLT and the steering committee at NID, and feedback from students indicated that they were very satisfied with the training they had received.

7. Conclusion

The results of the project so far are very encouraging. The development of an ICT curriculum and implementation of ICT training in Bhutan has shown that the main activity of the project is being sustained by the resource group. The members of the resource group have followed up their project obligations on their return to Bhutan. There has also been a development, not previously anticipated at the start of the project, which is nonetheless very positive for continued success in the future. Two members of the resource group have been transferred from their teaching positions in school to the Department of Education in Thimphu, and have responsibility for Special Education. In this way the project has enabled a visually impaired person to take a key position in the Department of Education and this is already extending the beneficial effects of the project considerably. The potential of providing appropriate education and technology has been demonstrated. The resource group at NID is expanding, and the scope of the activity also increases in this way.

The development of Internet in new areas of the world means that assistive computer technology can now be provided elsewhere, for example in Africa. A challenge so far is that it is difficult to find a Norwegian partner who would be supported by NORAD. The involvement of a technological partner with the relevant expertise is, as the project has so far shown, very necessary. The project also demonstrates how important it is that technology and expertise go hand in hand. If we provide technology without simultaneously transferring expertise, the technology will not be useful. The two stage strategy we have employed in this project transfers both competence and technology, and provides a strong foundation for sustaining the activity after project completion.