We’ve met David through the Coursera `How to change the world` course and found that he already did his part! He set up learning centers in Haiti, just a few months after the earthquake in 2010. He stayed there for 3 years and his concept is therefore well refined. Read, enjoy and get in touch if you would like to setup a learning centre yourself!
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1) Let’s start with yourself David – what is your background, why and when have you become interested in social work and specifically the field of education?
When I was a child my mother said that we could do anything we wanted with our lives, that anything was possible. I wondered, if that were true what would be the most useful thing I could do? I always thought in terms of bringing the greatest good to the greatest number of people. I found the answers in improving education and in economic development. I also understood that problems are often at the individual and community level. If we can solve problems for one community then the same solution can be applied to all communities that have the same problem. From this came my interest in developing community projects that are scalable and in finding ways to spread them to other communities, one of these projects is the Social Learning Center.
2) Can you please explain what the learning centers are, how did they start and whom do they target?
The learning centers were started to facilitate social change in communities. They are part of a vision for a comprehensive community economic development program. The base of this program are the centers which provide access to the Internet and to online education. Once in place the centers can also be used to train community volunteers to bring health, education and prosperity programs directly to residents of their communities.
The first centers were started near Leogane, Haiti. I arrived in Haiti in early 2010 as part of a project my aunt had organized to promote the use of solar cookers. Originally, this was planned as a 2 week project, I ended up staying for almost 3 years. We arrived 3 months after the earthquake of January 12, 2010. Leogane had been near the epicenter of the earthquake. Soon after my arrival I realized that assistance was still desperately needed by those displaced from their homes.
My first 3 months in Haiti were a great learning experience. I began working with a local community center and international NGOs to bring aid to those in need while planning longer term projects with the community center. I was able to observe and experience what worked and what did not in programs to help others. I developed a set of core principles and I looked for a way to do things better. This is how the Social Learning Centers project got started.
3) What impact does the learning center have on communities? Do you have any success stories?
The centers provide free Internet access to a group of 30 community volunteers and low cost access to the rest of the community. The volunteers get a good professional work experience. For most, it is their first exposure to a professional work environment. The volunteers receive a certificate after one year of work of which they are very proud.
People are very excited and motivated to have the Internet because it makes them feel that they have caught up to the rest of the world. There is a high interest in IT training, specifically Word, Excel, Power Point and Windows. The centers have partnered with a local IT school that uses the centers for hands-on training and we have provided tutorials installed on the laptops. We were also successful in training a small group of volunteers to provide IT support to the centers themselves.
I stay in touch with many of the volunteers now that I am back in Canada. It is easy now that they have Internet. One of them recently told me that he was uncertain at first about the centers but now realizes how much he has benefited by being a volunteer.
4) What does it take to launch a center?
Volunteers! It is important that there are more qualified volunteers than positions available. A project will struggle if it cannot find enough volunteers or if it cannot find replacements when a position becomes vacant. It is important to conduct a recruitment drive before finalizing any plans to setup a center. As a rule of thumb I found that one third of those who put their names forward ended up being qualified for the position.
The schedule and operation of the centers are designed around the needs of the volunteers. The work sessions must be kept short, the workload light and the tasks as simple as possible. I resisted pressure to add a printer or additional services for example.
Our centers have 12 laptops and operate 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. This scale spreads the fixed operating costs as much as possible. It is possible to have a smaller center or shorter hours but the cost per session would be higher.
There are two volunteers on duty at all times, working 3 hour shifts. Each volunteer averages two shifts a week. This is why we need 30 volunteers for a full scale center. I was originally concerned that 30 volunteers may be too many but it has worked out well. It is actually an opportunity to bring a good work experience to more people and the volunteers use their connections in the community to get people to use the center.
The centers offer members of the community Internet access in fixed 3 hour sessions that correspond to the sessions worked by the volunteers. This reduces and simplifies the work of the volunteers. Although the session length was also a concern initially, we have found that people appreciate the extra time, some have even stayed for two sessions back-to-back.
5) What happens if volunteers cannot commit anymore – is there any continuity?
The centers are completely volunteer run. Three of the most reliable volunteers are chosen to share the responsibility of opening and closing the center. The volunteers are very proud that they are trusted with full responsibility resulting in high motivation.
Once each center is setup a manager is responsible to monitor and maintain the operation of the centers. When a volunteer needs to be replaced the manager will select, train and supervise the new volunteer to get them started. The manager is the only paid employee and they are able to manage 3 centres working full time.
6) What exactly does a volunteer do, what is his role?
The volunteers are responsible for the full operation of the center. This includes registering participants and taking payment, accounting for the cash in the cash box at the beginning and end of each session and filling in the punctuality sheet for the volunteers who arrive to replace them. Teamwork is encouraged in all things. At the shift change all forms and accounting must be cross verified by all 4 volunteers present.
A volunteer must enforce the center rules and uphold the volunteer rules. The centers are operated on the principles of cleanliness, maintenance, order and discipline which ensure the highest standards of professionalism and quality of service.
7) How have you approached the local IT school? What was their initial reaction?
In fact it was the manager of the IT school who approached us. There were no other Internet centres in the community. IT schools often teach theory only without any hands on practise, where there is hand-on practise it is often multiple students per computer. Due to the low cost of our center the IT school could book the whole center and still offer training to students at a reasonable price with one student per laptop.
8) What have you learnt during this project, what challenges have you had to overcome and what are your future plans?
The project was very challenging at times. The problems of how to organize the schedule and operation of the center to allow it to be completely volunteer run was something that had to be developed and refined over time. The most serious problem initially was that volunteers were late or absent far too often. It was uncertain at times if these problems could be overcome but they were. Procedures were put in place to monitor attendance and punctuality and to bring the problem under control.
Now that the centers are working successfully and the volunteer selection, training and operating procedures have been defined, scaling up can begin. I would like to collaborate with and help others to setup centers based on these principals and procedures. I believe there is strong and growing demand for Internet access and online learning.
9) How do you think we could get more people involved in learning centers?
Anyone who is interested to start a volunteer run online learning center or community Internet center is welcome to contact me. Over time I hope that we can develop a communications and collaboration platform that would make it easier to connect, share and support one another in bringing social projects to improve life for our communities.
10) Is there anything you would like to add?
There is much more detail involved in how to start and run a community volunteer based project such as this successfully. If there is enough interest, I would like to make the documents, processes and procedures available to all those who will find them useful.