Project Tawasol: Connecting primary schools in Tunisia to create an Internet-empowered next generation

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is one of the most dynamic regions when it comes to Internet connectivity. Between its youthful population, high rates of growth, and committed engagement by professionals and volunteers from Morocco to Iran, the MENA region presents multiple opportunities for digital development and the proliferation of the Internet. Last year, the Internet Society (ISOC) appointed a veteran Internet professional from the region, Salam Yamout, to direct the newly established Middle East Bureau in Beirut, Lebanon, which cemented ISOC’s commitment to the region.

An example of this commitment includes supporting a community network based in Tunisia called Project Tawasol, which is led by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology (SIGHT) Tunisia Chapter and People Centered Internet. The aim of the project is to connect primary schools across the country to the Internet, and train students to use the Internet through information and communications technology (ICT) skills workshops conducted by youth members of the IEEE.

Tunisia has a long history with the Internet. In 1993, it became the first country in the MENA region to connect, and had a front-and-center position during the so-called Arab Spring almost 20 years later – in part due to the Internet. Thus, the Internet is hardly a new phenomenon in the country. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Internet penetration in Tunisia stood at 46 percent in 2014. Moreover, a predominant majority of the population accesses the Internet through mobile broadband subscriptions, with more than 4.5 million subscriptions to 3G mobile data plans, which far exceeds the number of fixed broadband subscribers – around 500,000, and mainly in cities and coastal areas.

As of 2016, however, only 48 percent of all schools in Tunisia had access to an Internet connection, and not all of these schools are equipped with computer labs with Internet-enabled devices that can train these children with ICT skills and digital media literacy. Thus, many students in Tunisia suffer from three key issues: lack of access to Internet-enabled devices, a lack of training, and disparities in access.

The first problem is compounded by the fact that there are low rates of home broadband connectivity in rural areas, so schools and community anchor institutions are crucial points of contact for connecting to the Internet. Furthermore, while ICT training is introduced at the higher secondary level, at the age of 16, most students are unable to harness the resources the Internet offers to them prior. Training teachers in the latest technology is also very poor, which forms another challenge to digital literacy education in Tunisia. Lastly, rural areas suffer the most from the lack of Internet connectivity. In rural areas, wireless connectivity is restricted to 2G networks, whose coverage is particularly poor in remote areas in the interior regions of Tunisia.

Given the problems facing Tunisian youth, enter two of the project’s founders: Skander Mansouri and Ahmed Selmi. After recognizing the abovementioned problems, they partnered with the IEEE SIGHT Tunisia and San Francisco chapters as well as ISOC to provide students with small Raspberry Pi operated devices with hard disks with relevant content such as Wikipedia pages, TED Talks, and other educational content from the Internet, which are also capable of automatically updating content when connected to Wi-Fi or 3G networks.

In December 2016, the Sadiki School in Tunis was identified as the first “Connected School” for the dissemination of these devices coupled with digital literacy training workshops by members of IEEE SIGHT. With support from the government, the project aims to connect 24 such schools by the end of 2017 – one school in each region within Tunisia, impacting more than 1,000 students. The project focuses on primary schools, with an aim to make the next generation aware of new technologies and information that can be accessed through the Internet. As part of the project, technical talks and digital literacy as well as ICT training workshops are organized by IEEE SIGHT Tunisia. These talks cover interactive sessions that teach students how to build their own websites using drag-and-drop interfaces. Also, when the first workshop was conducted in 2016, 50 percent of the participants were female – a key step in enabling gender parity in Internet access and skills.

During the digital literacy training workshops, students have built their own prototype websites, such as a school blog using HTML, CSS, and modular website building interfaces. The reactions in post-workshop surveys conducted thus far have been tremendously positive as well. “Most students asked us when we will return to provide them with their own devices for development,” Mansouri said.

Project Tawasol’s success highlights three important reasons why supporting digital media literacy and ICT skills are vital to connecting and enabling the next billion Internet users. Providing primary school connectivity is an important enabler of education and opportunities for young students, as it provides access to the vast troves of information that is available on the Internet. Second, education and capacity building is a crucial component of connectivity projects targeting youth. Such education is more successful when conducted in an interactive setting and aimed at achieving an output (such as a website). And third, lowering the cost of devices needed to access the Internet can enable more students at an optimal level, especially in rural areas and for poorer households where affordability is a concern.

Youth are more than merely the future of the Internet; they are the present. This is why it is critical that more youth-centric digital media literacy training expand in the MENA region, and people like Skander and Ahmed as well as projects like Tawasol continue to be supported to help connect and enable, not simply the next generation of Internet users, but the current one.

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1 World Connected
1 World Connected

1 World Connected is a research project that systematically compiles, analyses and disseminates information on connecting the unconnected.