Four years ago in 2010, just as it is now, a World Cup was happening. From here in the US to across the pond in Belgium to an eight hour flight south of there in Rwanda, people gathered around TV sets and radios, excitedly following passes and kicks and fouls and goals.
I know this not because I was one of the watchers, but because I kept seeing the watchers. Much different from my 2006 World Cup experience, I didn’t see them much in the US. Instead, I saw them in Rwanda.
Along with another researcher and two other designers, plus some other folks in our organization, I visited Rwanda for twelve days in 2010. We were there to find out whether or not our users—Rwandan teacher trainers—could use the thing we were building—a website to help them get English-language resources.
Our team was part of a bigger project, the Rwanda Education Commons. REC aimed to help with a lot of problems, but the website I worked on focused on a big one.
How the program came to be
In 2009, a new language policy took effect in Rwanda. It said that all schools in Rwanda would be taught in English. Whatever subject a teacher was teaching (well, other than languages), it would be taught in English.
Teaching algebra? Do it in English.
Teaching ethics? Do it in English.
Teaching French history? Do it in English.
Before this declaration, the official language of schools was French. In 2010 and today, privileged Rwandans tend to be at least bilingual. Most speak Kinyarwanda, the indigenous language, which is related to Swahili. For their second language, most Rwandans will speak either French or English, and many have varying familiarity with the third.
For instance, a driver we had in Rwanda understood English well enough for me to ride with him by myself, but he was too self-conscious of his skill to reply to me much. He would, however, speak animatedly in French to my colleagues.*
The presences of these languages and others like them in Rwanda, and throughout the world, is for the common reason: They were languages of Europeans who colonized these places in the 20th century.
Though government’s decision to switch the schools from French to English included political reasons, it was also strategic. Rwanda is a very small country—just about the size of Maryland—and doesn’t have many natural resources.**
By switching the country to focus on learning English, the Rwandan government moved toward being a technological hub of Africa. Basically, we Americans are lucky, in that most of us end up speaking English without realizing it. English fluency is an invaluable communication tool in today’s world of technology and business.
The problem we aimed to solve
However strategic the change from French to English may be, there was a technical problem. Nearly all of the materials used by students and teachers in the existing schools were in French.
Supplying enough of the right English-language materials to teachers was difficult, if not prohibitive.
Our goal was to efficiently get the right materials to the teachers.
How we decided to solve it
A website made sense.
- Rwanda was in the middle of a huge project to get internet access (“connectivity” as Rwandan teachers called it) to more of its country. Everywhere we drove on our trip, we saw people laying fiber optic cable along the roadways.***
- We could empower the teachers. If a teacher had good materials, they could share them directly with other teachers. If a teacher needed materials, they could ask for help from other teachers.
- We could post any materials that we acquired. Though I was barely aware of the efforts at the time, the REC team acquired and created a library’s worth of documents, including materials for learning how to teach.
For all these reasons and more, the leaders of REC decided on a website. And a couple years later, I joined the team that built and researched it.
Up soon: What I learned about research
Of course, when you’re designing a website for an audience you know, or sort of know, there are still tons of things that could go wrong. Humans are tricky customers, and being human mostly doesn’t help with designing for them.
When our team—a bunch of not-Rwandans—had to design for this particular case, we especially needed to test our hypotheses. And happily for us and the project, we got to do so in person.
Stay tuned for the three-part story about how the research went! I’ll post it by or before July 4, the last day I spent in Rwanda.
PS: For a preview, you can look at this poster, but the new post will be a more complete story.
* My interaction with this driver is a primary reason I decided to learn French. I was frustrated that I couldn’t extend to him the gift of communication that he offered to my colleagues. Though it’s hard to find Kinyarwanda lessons or classes in the US, you can find lots of resources on French. In the meantime, when he drove me to the Kigali airport, we bonded over the music on the radio.
** Their tea and coffee are delicious, and we were delighted by pineapple fields as we traveled through Rwanda’s beautiful hills.
*** An amazing component of REC, one that I witnessed from afar, was getting the right people to talk so that the schools would have access to these spreading cables.