PACIFIC ISLANDS FORUM SECRETARIAT



PIFS(04)FEDMA.08

EDUCATION MINISTERS MEETING

Apia, Samoa
28-29 January 2004





AGENDA ITEM 8






STRENGTHENING DISTANCE EDUCATION THROUGH WIRELESS RURAL
NETWORKING IN SOLOMON ISLANDS























This paper was prepared for the Forum Secretariat by Mr David Leeming of the People First
Network in Solomon Islands.
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PACIFIC ISLANDS FORUM SECRETARIAT



PIFS(04)FEDMA.08

EDUCATION MINISTERS MEETING

Apia, Samoa
28-29 January 2004

Summary brief

STRENGTHENING DISTANCE EDUCATION THROUGH WIRELESS RURAL
NETWORKING IN SOLOMON ISLANDS


Purpose

This paper presents a case-study of an ICT initiative in Solomon Islands.

Background

2.
The Forum Basic Education Action Plan noted that the development of information
technology had greatly advanced the infrastructure available for the delivery of all education
services and urged that institutions involved in education services make greater use of this
technology.

3.
The Forum Communications Action Plan also provides a vision: ‘Information and
Communication Technologies for every Pacific Islander’.

Issues

4.
This paper describes an innovative approach to connectivity for remote, rural and
underprivileged communities in Solomon Islands and how it has been applied to deliver education
to remote island communities. The People First Network, or PFnet, was established by UNDP in
2001 but is now organised as a not-for-profit activity. PFnet has piloted a model for sustainable
community-owned rural access based on wireless networking.

5.
The paper also describes the application of the network to distance education. It
demonstrates the utility of the technology and the immediate benefits to students and facilitators,
and outlines a proposed EU-funded program that will build on the lessons learned, led by the
Ministry of Education.

Recommendation

6.
Ministers may wish to consider noting the contents of this paper.

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Strengthening Distance Education through Wireless Rural Networking in
Solomon Islands

David Leeming
People First Network
Rural Development Volunteers Association
P.O. Box 919, Honiara, Solomon Islands
www.peoplefirst.net.sb
leeming@pipolfastaem.gov.sb

Background
1 In a country such as Solomon Islands, which is recovering from ethnic conflict, good
communications are a vital part of rebuilding peace. Furthermore, as 85% of the country's people
live in isolated rural villages on undeveloped outer islands, it is essential to find ways to engage
these disadvantaged poor in the new Information Society. The People First Network (PFnet) [1] is a
project that aims to do just this.

2 PFnet, which has been running since it was established by UNDP in early 2001, aims to
promote and facilitate equitable and sustainable rural development and peace building by enabling
better information sharing and knowledge building among and across communities forming the
Solomon Islands. The project has established a wireless email network based on sustainable
community ownership and is now working with partners to develop applications in many sectors,
including distance education, farmer’s networking, grassroots news, business and market advisory,
consultations on constitutional and policing reform, rights awareness and women’s networking.
Institutionally, the project is now an activity of the Rural Development Volunteers Association
(RDVA) in partnership with the Ministry for Provincial Government and Constituency
Development.

3 Those embracing ICT in the service of development can expect many benefits. In small-island
developing states such as Solomon Islands, however, there are many constraints and challenges to
be faced if ICT is to be introduced widely. Some of these challenges are “hard”; i.e. the geography,
the regional telecommunications market, lack of infrastructure, etc. Others are “soft”, in that they
are related to lack of awareness, training and appropriate guidance and strategy for policy makers.
These problems have been compounded by years of ethnic conflict and economic collapse,
culminating in an Australian-led intervention in June 2003. This paper illustrates some of the
constraints and challenges PFnet faces and highlights an application of the network in distance
education.

Geographic and other constraints on technology
4 Most of the Solomon Islands does not have access to power supplies or telephones.
Mountainous islands, customary land ownership and civil unrest make infrastructure vulnerable to
vandalism, theft and closure due to compensation claims. The high cost of satellite access
prescribes wireless technology as the only practical, affordable solution for rural communities.
However, the distances and terrain make high-speed wireless connection of use in only certain
areas close to urban centres. With these constraints in mind, PFnet has developed a solution
utilising the HF (SW) band, with Pactor-3 modems and solar power. HF systems are very easy to
install and maintain, do not require vulnerable and hard-to-maintain relay sites and do not require
intensive training to operate.


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Figure 1: Appropriate technology for sustainable rural networking in Solomon Islands


5 There are also constraints imposed by the regulatory environment. As in many Pacific
countries, there is a telecommunications monopoly in the Solomon Islands. In a small marketplace
with high costs and a small pool of skilled labour and government capacity to regulate, it may be
more practical for all parties to work in partnerships. Such partnerships could benefit an NGO such
as PFnet through sponsorship and access to telecommunications solutions that would be otherwise
prohibited by the regulations. Furthermore, such a partnership would give the company access new
markets through participation in appropriate donor-funded projects of the government in
partnership with NGOs and the development agencies. We see, therefore, that value is added for
each of the parties involved.

6 Furthermore, we see that such tri-sector partnerships, involving the private sector and NGOs in
government development strategies, are strongly advocated in development circles. For instance the
UNCP ICT Task Force make this point, which is also reiterated in our region in the Tokyo
Declaration of the WSIS. More fundamentally, we see that the Millennium Development Goals ask
us to “develop a global partnership for development” through cooperation with the private sector,
especially to bring the benefits of new technologies such as ICT. In the special circumstances of the
Pacific islands small developing states, it seems likely that such partnerships are essential if we are
to connect the remote rural communities.

ICT and National Development Strategy.
7 Ideally, the incorporation of ICT in policy making should be guided by a national ICT strategy
if the benefits described by UNDP [3] and others are to be enjoyed. In Solomon Islands there is no
such strategy in place, although there is a regional plan and strategy[4] developed by Forum Island
countries. Because of the crosscutting nature of PFnet, the project has particularly noticed the lack
of focus and haphazard way in which ICT is utilised by the government and development partners
alike. Lack of awareness of ICT and it’s potential role in national development, together with lack
of ICT skills seriously hinders the appropriation of these useful new technologies at policy-making
levels. Coming and going of political personalities and public servants who may or may not be
briefed on ICT4D issues has affected the level of support which the project expects from it’s
government partners.

8 A workshop was held for stakeholders in February 2003 to identify, analyse and prioritise
objectives on national issues related to ICT for Development (ICT4D). The workshop built
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consensus and was intended as the first step towards the development of a National ICT Strategy.
Attendees included government workers including a Minister, members of NGOs, the private
sector, donor agencies and civil society organizations.

9 The associated “objectives tree” was then mapped and five major clusters identified, whose
relationship is illustrated in Figure 2. The diagram shows that, if ICT is to be considered and used
to best effect within government policies and development strategy, there is a need to first address
the underlying issues. It does not mean that no policy development can incorporate ICT before
these objectives are realized, but the impacts will be less and more isolated and haphazard in
nature.

Figure 2: Priority ICT4D objectives clusters
Policy
Education/
Training
Affordable
Equipment/
Networking/
Access
Access
Awareness


10 The final report of the workshop has been published [5] and is intended to provide guidance for
policy makers. The workshop also resulted in a steering group, the Solomon Islands ICT Working
Group, being formed to follow up the workshop. The Working Group is to be included in the
regional e-Pacifika program [6], which is building the capacity of regional countries to develop ICT
strategies.

ICT in education in Solomon Islands

11 The strategic objectives clusters in figure 2 clearly show how more ICT content and training is
needed in education, from the standpoint of national development. This defines the focus of the rest
of this paper.

12 There is a lack of baseline data on ICT and Education in the Solomon Islands. This data would
enable better targeting and more effective strategising.

13 A very few schools in urban areas have been building IT strategies and acquiring equipment.
This seems to be more as a result of enlightened school management than official IT strategy. For
instance Betikama Adventist College claims it has an in-house IT strategy in place and have
acquired 10 donated computers. However, they have had problems implementing the strategy due
to lack of support from technicians and inadequately prepared facilities.

14 In rural areas the problems are compounded by lack of basic power and communications, poor
transportation and a shortage of resource materials. The economic consequences of the civil unrest
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has had serious negative effects on the ability of the Ministry of Education to continue financing
overseas post secondary scholarships and Solomon Islands College of Higher Education (SICHE).
The Ministry’s priority is basic education and the magnitude of the problem precludes financing
even that properly. The necessity of finding local solutions to post secondary training becomes
important in this context. In addition distance education, properly resourced and organized, could
assist in reversing the accelerating trend of an increasing number of school ‘push-outs’ and drop-
outs throughout the education system.

15 The situation in tertiary education is mixed. SICHE does not have a computer lab at present.
SICHE suffered greatly during the economic collapse and is now being reviewed for restructuring
under an EU-financed programme. The University of the South Pacific (USP) has a Centre in the
Solomon Islands, and there are plans to open a campus. USP has identified the need to promote and
facilitate more ICT awareness and capacity building for students. The USP Centre is linked to the
USPnet satellite system that offers an Internet link, video conferencing and other facilities.

16 Although at present there is very little or nothing at all on ICT in the school curricula, the
Ministry of Education and the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) are pursuing this. The CDC
has embarked on a Curriculum Reform Programme which will review and develop primary and
secondary school curricula. CDC is studying relevant curriculum documents from other developing
countries to help them develop a national school ICT curriculum. A workshop is planned for 2004
on this topic.

17 Schools, even those that have no computers, are expressing a lot of interest in exposing their
students to ICT. The CDC believes that Government can be compelled to act on some of their
aspirations if CDC can lead the way by introducing an ICT curriculum into the school system.

18 The Solomon Islands ICT Working Group has obtained funding for a Youth Focal Point and
Computer Resource Centre, which will target students who need computers to conduct research and
to learn how to use the ICT.

19 Although this assessment is too superficial to accurately identify the priorities, it seems
apparent that at least the following needs can be stated:

• Formal recognition of the gap in the education curriculum concerning ICT;
• Development of ICT content in the national curricula;
• The Education Ministry should develop an ICT strategy for education;
• Increased computer access for all students;
• Baseline data on ICT penetration in education;
• A physical/virtual access point to facilitate development of ICT in education;
• More official IT support to schools;
• Special attention is needed to connect rural schools to deliver services, provide equipment,
IT support and electronic content that can be distributed cost-effectively by CD-ROM.
• Special attention to the needs of senior students hoping to attend university.

Case study: Delivering education services to rural Solomon Islands by email
20 The People First Network with its growing rural network was ideally positioned to pioneer local
solutions in distance education. This fact was recognised by USP’s Honiara Centre. A project
proposal was successfully submitted to the Pan Asia Networking R&D Grants scheme for 2002,
administered by the Asia Media Information and Communications Centre (AMOC) and the main
sources of funding for the program include UNDP and The International Development Research
Centre (IDRC) of Canada.
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21 This project was implemented by the Rural Development Volunteers Association (RDVA) in
partnership with the USP Honiara Centre fromJune – October 2002, with PFnet facilitating the
networking and providing technical assistance. The project aimed to utilise an existing rural
Internet connection to pilot a distance learning facility in a rural community high school.
Sasamungga Community High School in Choiseul became the country’s first rural community
email facility when it opened in October 2001

22 The project entailed the application of a distance-learning programme especially designed to
integrate with the PFnet facilities. It also contained a research component that measured awareness
of ICT in the community and studied the impacts of the email station. This provided invaluable
baseline data for further expansion of PFnet to all rural areas of the country, and an example of an
application serving the needs of one information stakeholder group (i.e. education users and
providers).
Strategy
23 A computing centre with two laptop computers was opened at the community school close to
the email station. Power was made available from the school’s own solar supply. 19 students were
enrolled into the USP distance-learning program with funding facilitated by the local MP. Over a 2
week period, with backup supervision for a following 6 weeks, all 19 were trained to use the
facility for basic office computing and to communicate with USP, sending assignments for
marking, receiving counseling, tutorials and advice from the course tutors. For this process, two
RDVA volunteers (RDVs) were assigned to the training and supervision of students over the 2
months on site. The RDVs also conducted the research interviews. 10 students were selected to
participate in the distance learning trials.

24 USP Centre was the provider and facilitator of the courses for the Distance Learning trials. The
courses offered were (a) Pre -tertiary English and (b) English. The USP resource persons who
participated included the (a) Course Facilitator, (b) Marker and (c) Technical Resource Person.

25 PFnet trained these three resource persons at USP Centre to use the PFnet email system, and
overcome the limitations of it’s low-bandwidth and lack of full Internet browsing capability (at the
time, the TEK search engine mentioned above was not in use by PFnet). For instance, it was
important to prepare materials before transmission by email, to optimize the file size and avoid
transmission of unnecessary data. PFnet closely monitored the progress of the students, through
reports from the RDV supervisors on site and monitoring reports. A system was agreed which
specified a schedule for the communications between tutor, marker and each student. Each student
was given an allocation for email use.
Research Component
26 A random sample of 120 villagers was selected for a research interview program. Equal
numbers of each age group and gender were included. The main interview concerned experience
and the need for distance education, awareness of computers, email, IT training experience and
needs, and the use of the PFnet email system with perceived benefits. The exit interview was
applied to PFnet email station customers as they exited the facility, and recorded details of their use
of the service.

Evaluation of the Distance Learning Trials
27 Evaluation of the pilot was through focus group meetings held by the RDVs with the students
and other people involved on site following the completion of the USP course module. This was
followed by an evaluation meeting held in Honiara with all project participants present. The
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conclusions and recommendations of the evaluation were then presented to an education
stakeholders’ meeting in Sept 2002, organised by the Ministry of Education.

Evaluation by Participants
28 The detailed evaluation of participants is available in the report to the project’s administering
body AMIC [10]. In summary, the participants agreed that:
• The utility of the technology was successfully demonstrated;
• Remote learning using ICT produced much improved turn-around times over delivery of
courses without the benefit of ICT;
• Participating students’ assignment results were in every case well above the average for all
distance learning students;
• The pilot should be continued and extended within a national program;
• In delivering education through ICT, it is imperative to train all the participating resource
persons;
• The main technological problems that need attention concern the narrow bandwidth of the
HF radio system and access to reference material to support the students.
Evaluation by Education stakeholders
29 A workshop on distance education was held on the 24th September 2002 to present and discuss
findings and results to all the stakeholders [7]. The workshop was organised on behalf of the
Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development Most stakeholders and donors were
represented including the USP Centre, SICHE Distance Education Centre, CDC, the Solomon
Islands Association of Rural Training Centres, the Ministry of Education and the Sasamungga
Community High School. Development partners included the High Commissions of Britain, New
Zealand and Australia, the Embassies of China and Japan, the Resident Delegate of the E.U. and
the E.U. Micro-projects Programme, and Oxfam Solomon Islands. The Ministry of Transport,
Communication and Works were represented as the lead ministry for ICT policy and strategy.

30 It was noted that the civil unrest and economic crisis had serious negative effects on the ability
of the Education Ministry to continue financing overseas post-secondary scholarships and SICHE.
The necessity of finding local solutions for post secondary training becomes important in this
context. In addition, distance education, if properly resourced and organized, could assist in
reversing the accelerating trend of an increasing number of school ‘ push-outs’ and dropouts
throughout the educational system.

31 It was agreed that the Solomon Islands Distance Education Network (SIDEN), which involved
SICHE and USP Centre andwas abandoned in 1999 should be revived using the PFnet technology
as a base. For the present, resources would have to come from donors.

32 The distance trial at Sasamungga was judged successful and could be replicated on a national
scale provided that sufficient financial and material resources were made available. Given current
budget constraints such resources could only come from the donor community. Certain technical
limitations of the equipment such as the lack of direct access to Internet will have to be addressed
eventually but is anticipated this will be solved as more advanced technology becomes accessible
and affordable. It was noted that the turnaround time between student’s work and tutor response
was cut to days rather than up to six weeks with the former correspondence model. Distance
education based upon PFNet Rural Learning Centres should also encompass other media such as
video and radio.

33 The Workshop recommended that a National Coordinating Committee for Distance Education
be established by the Ministry of Education. This would encompass all stakeholders and co-
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ordinate the development of a national program for distance education incorporating the needs of
school leavers, in service training on a multisectoral basis and collaboration with overseas
institutions.

34 The workshop led to PFnet making the following proposals to the Stabex99 Programme
Implementation Unit, who are managing EU funds allocated the Ministry of Education:
• To establish Rural Learning Centres in key community high schools in each province. These
would build on the model used at Sasamungga in the trials and would involve a small LAN
with radio email access, a library, an attached supervisor/trainer and audio and video facilities,
with solar power, and will be connected using VSAT technology in partnership with Solomon
Telekom;
• To build capacity for communications and networking by the provincial education authorities;
• To create an online presence for the Ministry of Education linked to database management
systems and the rural communications network;
• To refurbish the Ministry’s databases and linkage to online management systems, with capacity
building;
• To eventually establish a sponsorship scheme for distance education and overseas tertiary
education in ICT subjects;
• To promote use of ICT in schools through providing computers, competitions and collaborative
learning.

35 One year after these proposals were made, the situation in the country has improved following
an Australian-led intervention that stabilised the government finances and improved law and order.
Under these conditions blocked EU funds allocated to education have been released and will be
available from 2004.

36 The MEHRD, together with the E.U. and New Zealand will start implementing an Education
Sector Investment and Reform Programme (ESIRP) from 2004. This will be developed and
managed by MEHRD with substantial financial and technical input from the development partners.
A total of SBD 330 million has been committed for the first three year planning cycle of ESIRP

37 The EU component will include a three-year pilot project to establish provincial school based
Distance Learning Centres as described above and to utilize PFNet expertise in developing
effective communications for Provincial Education Offices.

38 During 2004 MEHRD will develop a Strategy and Policy for Distance Education in the
Solomons that will encompass the Solomon Islands School of Higher Education, USP Honiara
Extension Centre and all formal and informal learning networks using appropriate and cost
effective technology.
Research Interview Results

39 In summary, the research showed that in the community studied:

• There is a huge demand for formal and non-formal distance education and for ICT training and
access to computers and services. 10% of the sample already had some IT skills/experience,
and two-thirds of the sample or their family members were using the PFnet services. People of
all ages and education backgrounds, but proportionally more well educated and older people,
used the services; but overall only 25% of users in the sample were women. People mainly use
email to contact family and wantoks, mainly those in the capital Honiara, the nearest provincial
9


centres and other places of email facilities. They also contact students overseas and long lost
family

• People also used email to arrange school fees for themselves and family members. Teachers
used it to contact the Ministry of Education and other professional institutions. The distance
learning students used it to communicate with tutors and sending assignments. Some people
used it to order cargo from suppliers. Several village storeowners now make orders by email.
They also used it to order medical supplies.

• The usage data can be compared with the combined data from daily reports sent by the rural
email station operators to PFnet headquarters every working day. These cumulative statistics
are presented on the projects statistics web page (8) and is upgraded monthly.

• The main perceived benefits of the email facility included providing peoplewith affordable and
efficient communications. Many people observed indirect benefits to for example, helping the
hospital make orders for drugs and other supplies. People saw the PFnet as a source of
information and news as well as a means of communications.

• Respondents stated that the email station has benefited the whole community providing access
to current news and information, by reducing the need to travel to town, making it easier to
order supplies, drugs and make emergency calls, and by empowering the community to
participate in public debates and to influence decision makers.

39 The full data from the research is also available in the AMIC paper [10].

Data on sustainability of the community facilities

40 The research project was carried out in the period June to October 2002. Since that time, the email
station usage has continued to grow. PFnet records daily usage data for emails sent from the community
email account and other facilities.

Current research program
41 USP (Suva) is currently leading a F$40K project [9] which takes the described research a step
further. Funded by JICA and implemented in partnership with RDVA and UNDP Fiji, the project
will conduct in depth research on the impacts of the PFnet email system. The project will study five
PFnet email stations with varying characteristics and usage levels, and identify the factors that
affect the uptake of services and appropriation by the community. The results of this project will be
available in early 2004.
42 The justification for this research is very clear. Now that the PFnet project has facilitated the
development of an ICT network in the Solomon Islands, there is a need to examine in detail how
PFNet email stations impact on sustainable rural development for poor Solomon Islanders. Pacific
Island governments have expressed that equal access and deployment of tele-centers is one of the
regional ICT priorities. As such this paper will be a valuable document for all governments and
stakeholders seeking to develop policy to improve the livelihoods of people in rural and remote
areas in Pacific Island countries.
43 On technical sustainability, PFnet has not suffered any major failure in the 27 months since the
first station was established. The system copes well with operators’ technical queries through
support by voice radio and the network of local technical persons who are involved during
deployment.
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Conclusion
44 The rural networking project People First Network has demonstrated that new Internet-based
technologies can provide efficient means of sustainably connecting remote communities. Recent
research has shown that rural communities greatly appreciate the ICT and are feeling the benefits.
Further data on the social impacts and factors affecting the uptake and appropriation of the ICT by
the rural communities will become available after USP’s research programme is completed.

45 The project has also demonstrated to education stakeholders the ability of the network to deliver
distance education. The Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development is now
embarking on a larger EU-funded pilot to develop e-learning centres in rural areas of each province
and introduce ICT more widely within an integrated strategy for education. This is in line with the
priorities agreed by the Forum members, which include human resources development through
distance learning [12]. Furthermore, the need for more ICT content and access in education has
been shown to be central to the development of a national ICT strategy.



Notes and references
[1] People First Network web pages, brochure and PowerPoint presentation,
www.peoplefirst.net.sb
www.peoplefirst.net.sb/downloads/PFnet_Brochure.pdf
www.peoplefirst.net.sb/downloads/PFnet-Primer.zip
[2] TEK search engine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, http://tek.sourceforge.net
[3] UNDP, Digital Opportunity Initiative, www.opt-init.org
[4] Pacific Forum Secretariat,
Pacific Islands ICT Policy and Plan
http://www.forumsec.org.fj/division/DEPD/infra/infrastructure.htm
[5] Stork, E., Leeming, D. and Biliki, R., (2003), Solomons Islands ICT Strategy Workshop Report, Electronic
Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries, Vol 12, Apr 2003
http://www.is.cityu.edu.hk/research/ejisdc/vol12/v12p5.pdf and
www.peoplefirst.net.sb/general/pfnet_stats.htm#WG
[6] UNDP Multi-Country Office in Fiji, e-Pacifika, http://www.undp.org.fj/RAS-99-064.htm
[7] People First Network web pages,
Distance Learning Project and Workshop,
http://www.peoplefirst.net.sb/General/Distance_Learning.htm
[8] People First Network web pages, Statistics Page, http://www.peoplefirst.net.sb/General/PFnet_Stats.htm
[9] Contact Dr. Anand Chand, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji, chand_a@usp.ac.fj
[10] Leeming, D., Education through wireless networking in Solomon Islands, presented to the 12th Annual
Meeting, Asia Media Information and Communications Centre (AMIC), Nov 6-7 2003. Downloadable at
http://www.peoplefirst.net.sb/general/pfnet.htm
[11] WorldSpace Foundation Multimedia Service is the information delivery system for RANET (Radio and
Internet for the Communication of Hydro-Meteorological and Climate-Related Material). WorldSpace
Foundation (WSF) bypasses communication barriers in developing countries to provide education and social
development programs through the cost-efficient use of highly innovative satellite technology. Their mission
is to reach under-served and "unreachable" populations around the world with current, reliable and relevant
information by using appropriate information and communications technologies. www.ranetproject.net,
www.worldspace.org
[12] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Statement to the Asia Pacific regional conference on the WSIS, Tokyo,
January 2003. www.wsis-japan.jp (documents)



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