Remote Education Case Studies: The Satellite Connectivity Play

In many corners of the world, students are getting a better quality of education due to the influence of satellite technology. We explore satellite’s important role connecting students to the materials that enable them to better prepare for the future.

While it may seem like we live in a more complex world, in the area of remote education the projects are becoming much simpler, according to Dave Rehbehn, senior director of international marketing at Hughes Network Systems. “We see more projects where Internet access is being bought to the schools as opposed to more complex interactive distance education projects,” he says.

Rehbehn brings up a recent project in Colombia as an example. “Vive Digital” is an initiative from the Colombian government that seeks to massify Internet access throughout the contry, including schools. “Satellite serves as the access solution for those schools in rural and remote areas,” he adds.

But Colombia is not the only Latin American country using connectivity to enhance its students’ education. Rehbehn also highlights Mexico where the government has an extensive program to bring Internet access into schools and other public facilities.

“We see that education ministries are looking to bringing Internet into schools. Consider Mexico and the Enciclomedia project; that was a really ambitious project to implement electronic white boards in all the schools with cached content, which would provide standardized course materials. For whatever reason this project seems to have been shelved in favor of simply providing students with access to the Internet,” he says.

There are many interesting remote education projects going on in Latin America. In Mexico, a program called “Mexico Conectado” (Connected Mexico) is aimed at reducing the digital divide and increasing the quality of public services. While the program requires substantial public investment, it can help save money in the long run. Monica Aspe, head of the information society office of the Ministry of Communications and Transportation of Mexico, says the main beneficiaries of the program are the schools.

“The agreement is this: the Ministry of Communications and Transportation provides connectivity and the Ministry of Education works on the technology solutions inside the schools. Today we connect around 45,000 public places in Mexico. Approximately 70 percent of these places are schools,” she says. “Our goal is to provide connectivity to all the public places in Mexico by 2018. This goal includes all the public schools.”

Aspe is confident this goal can be reached in the timeframe scheduled. She says the Ministry of Communications and Transportation works with regional governments to accelerate implementation.

Users of the Internet service provided in rural comunities.Photo courtesy of the Mexican Ministry of Communications and Transportation.

“Today, [the Ministry of Communications and Transportation] has connected 45,000 sites of which 30,000 are in education. Only a year ago, we had half of that, so progress has accelerated significantly. We are moving at great speed and, if we continue like this, we will meet our targets for 2018,” she added.

Aspe believes the program can have numerous benefits for schools. Mexico Conectado allows schools to communicate with the Ministry of Education directly and express their needs and concerns, as well as help with teacher evaluations. “If we don’t have connectivity, all of this is then paper based,” she says. “Therefore, this has the potential of increasing efficiency in terms of being able to make decisions.”

Aspe also highlights how Internet connectivity can help the teachers prepare better class materials, and allow students to get access to rich content. “That helps provide equality in terms of education, regardless of whether children are in urban areas or in remote areas. It is an equalizer,” she adds.

High Throughput Satellites (HTS) could make a big difference to help get connectivity into the rural areas and provide children there the same access as in urban areas. Aspe says the Ministry of Communications and Transportation is open to new technologies that are coming to the market. “Ka-band satellites will come into our thinking. Today, with the satellite capacity we have in our country, the capacity is being used in areas with no terrestrial coverage [where] we get throughput lower than in terrestrial areas,” she says. “What HTS will give us is access to other types of applications in our satellite network. It will help us in terms of improving operations as well as providing better content to local servers. Right now, we can’t have children on the Internet as there is not enough throughput, so yes, these satellites will make a difference.”

Colombia has a population of almost 50 million people, and the country has been one of the most progressive in using satellite technologies to improve education. Gilat Satellite Networks has been actively involved with the Colombian Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications to make this happen. Together, they have launched a program called “Vive Digital,” which aims to bring Internet connectivity all across Colombia. The key thrust of the program is installing digital kiosks all across the country. The Vive Digital Kiosks project is now in its second phase, which started in 2012. According to Clara Martinez, CEO of Gilat Colombia, installing these kiosks is not without challenges.

“In some remote areas of Colombia, there are no roads available,” she says, and some times this also means there are no telephony services available, a key condition for the project. So, both selecting the ideal location and then getting to it are challenging tasks. In addition, the project needs to bring in and install all the equipment and furniture. The resources are split between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information, Martinez says.

Once everything is set up, educating the community about how the kiosks work and what benefits they bring becomes the next challenge. “All the teachers and students can get the chance to use all the infrastructure that we have built. After school hours, the kiosk offers the same services to the community. The main problem we have right now is to work with the community and the Principal of the school. We have to train and to manage to present to the community the importance of the Internet kiosk,” she adds.

Vive Digital aims to provide communities of more than 100 people at least one access point to the Internet. “We are focusing on the little towns and villages,” Martinez says. But the project also supports different branches of the Colombian government, such as the Ministry of Education, the national parks, and military bases by providing these services.

The main part of Vive Digital sees the installation of almost 5,000 of these kiosks across the country, of which Gilat operates close to 2,000. But that’s not it — Vive Digital is meant to grow. Martinez says a new agreement has added 18 more months to the project.

While it continues to be a success, the Vive Digital Kiosks project is not the only trailblazer in terms of connectivity. There are other plans going on that also look to reduce the digital divide according to the income level of the communities served, and there is also a plan to install Wi-Fi hotspots in all the major parks of Bogota and other cities so people have free Internet, according to Martinez. “This is one of the next big projects the government is working on. We are expecting an RFP on this in the next month, and they will probably have an agreement at the end of this year,” she added.

India is a hot market for remote education. With a population of more than 1 billion people, and many living away from the urban centers, quality education via satellite is becoming increasingly important. Since 2008, Pearson, a worldwide learning company, has been working with Hughes to reach 100,000 accounting students in India. With about 300 centers across the country to deliver training, the program has progressed significantly over the last few years. In 2008, it was teaching only around 2,000 students but nowadays, that figure is almost 100,000 students — and there are ambitious plans to expand.

“In India, there are a number of different languages, so we are looking to develop programs across India in other languages. We are also planning to introduce more and more data platforms,” says Rajesh Shetty, head of technical operations at Pearson. “We have been totally focused on the Northern part of India, where as now we want to be in the Southern part of India. We want to cover this region more effectively,”

Critically, the program is having a major impact in improving the education of young women who want to pursue a career in accounting. “Since 2008, this model has created tremendous awareness among student fraternity. A lot of students, especially girls, are coming forward who had either no access earlier or had trouble moving to metropolitan areas where good quality teachers were normally available,” he says. “Further through a variable pricing strategy, we are offering the same quality content at lower prices making it affordable to economically backward students based in remote locations.”

The program is growing very fast, with the number of students using the program over the next three years set to double. Shetty highlights the importance of satellite technology for bringing this capability to students in these remote locations. “There is still a long way to go as far as the quality of terrestrial Internet connectivity services to these parts of India,” he added. “Satellite-based remote education plays a vital role in providing quality education at much affordable cost to every student based anywhere in India.”

In Kenya, Avanti Communications is working on a program called Project iMlango with its partners sQuid, a smartcard and digital payments system provider; Whizz Education, an online math tutoring provider; and Camara Education, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) focused on technology. Project iMlango aims to deliver high-speed satellite broadband connectivity to schools in Kenya. Students will benefit from personalized math tuition with a virtual online tutor, alongside digital learning content for literacy and life skills. Teachers get additional support online, and there is also real-time project monitoring and measurement available.

“Project iMlango brings together proven innovative learning initiatives and a blend of technology, on the ground experience, and best practices to provide a transformative opportunity for marginalized girls to develop their learning, build self-esteem, self-confidence and raise aspirations,” says Richard Marett, CEO of Whizz Education. “Reliable Internet access is an integral part of this education program, ensuring we can target remote and rural schools and communities with installation of quality, high-speed satellite broadband.”

According to Matthew O’Connor, COO of Avanti, 1 million children in Kenya do not regularly attend school, marginalized by poverty and distance from these schools. “Project iMlango aims to improve learning outcomes for 25,675 marginalized girls across 195 Kenyan primary schools,” he says. “The end-to-end solution is made possible by a unique combination of satellite broadband and e-commerce technology, supported by interactive educational and IT resources.”

Project iMlango aims to reach its goal of deploying on 195 schools in Kenya by next year. And, according to Ann Muthii, head teacher at local Kenyan school Ruai School there has been significant progress so far. “The IT installation and daily attendance monitoring activity has captured the attention of the students — they are fully engaged with iMlango and are ready for the next phase,” she says. “iMlango brings huge opportunity to all our pupils, and enables us to give our children access to digital learning that until now has just not been possible.”

Marett says one of the most compelling and unique aspects of the program is the ability to measure and benchmark the project’s impact in real time. Data includes daily attendance statistics at the whole school level, as well as measurement of access to the learning platform, and progress of an individual in math capability. “The aim is to demonstrate how such an integrated approach can create a positive and lasting impact on marginalized girls and their communities,” says Marett.

In Thailand, the Ministry of Education is working with Thaicom to provide a better standard of education to rural areas of Thailand. The program started in 2004 with approximately 40,000 schools not connected to the Internet. Now, 30,000 schools are connected via satellite and the other 10,000 are via terrestrial technologies.

Since 2004, Thaicom’s Ipstar satellite has played a vital role to provide the turnkey services to the government for this project. This includes low cost satellite bandwidth, providing user terminals at a low cost, as well as the overall installation and operation of the network.

Primary school students in the Ratchaburi Province of Thailand.Photo courtesy of Thaicom.

According to a source at the Thai Ministry of Education, the turnkey service is a key success to provide Internet connectivity to rural schools. The Ministry of Education is able to deliver updated information, exams and training to these connected rural schools through the Ipstar network, helping reduce the digital divide in Thailand.

The cost of the program, which includes content, production, and maintenance costs, reaches $50 million a year. Using satellite is key to improving the life of all students in rural areas, and the Thai government still considers satellite the most cost effective solution in reducing this digital divide. Ipstar will remain a key part of its strategy going forward, as it aims to make high quality education something that everybody in Thailand can enjoy. VS

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