Solar Powered Labs Take Tech-Enabled Learning Off the Grid

According to a recent UNICEF report, there are almost 121 million children worldwide that are not enrolled in school. These children lack access to the facilities, teachers and technology they need to receive a quality education, which is critical to global economic stability and access to opportunity. Research shows that access to technology and devices in the classroom has a highly positive effect on student learning. We believe that education is a human right and that technology can have a dramatic impact on a child’s engagement, so we need to find innovative ways of expanding access to technology-enabled learning environments, especially in remote regions with extremely limited facilities and connectivity.

In many areas around the world, lack of reliable, affordable electricity has been one of the biggest barriers to providing technology access to students, a common theme in a recent Think Tank conversation about Innovation in Teaching and Learning in South Africa hosted by Dell. Some schools cannot keep the lights on and power a classroom simultaneously. This is why we recently announced the expansion of Dell’s solar-powered Learning Labs, a low-cost, energy-efficient mobile classroom developed from a converted shipping container. The solar-powered Learning Lab uses virtualized, cloud-based computing technology to keep each workstation powered with just three to ten watts of energy, as compared with 150 watts for traditional PC workstations and is able to pull the energy it needs from solar panels.

Dell is excited to attend SXSWedu this week where, in addition to hosting a series of conversations on the impact of technology on learning, we’ll also present a #Future15 Session, Unbounded Education Through Solar-Powered Learning, on the expansion of the solar-powered Learning Labs program.

From Pilot to Scale

After successful pilots at the State Senior High School in Lagos and at Students Health and Welfare Centre in Kensington, South Africa, we have expanded solar-powered Learning Labs to Cape Town, Johannesburg and Sedibeng for a total of nine labs that will provide direct technology access to over 3,000 underprivileged students in communities where technology infrastructure is limited.

The story of the Lagos implementation holds many lessons for anyone interested in extending access to technology and education into difficult to reach communities, which is why we are attending SXSWedu to share this model with a global community of innovators and entrepreneurs.

What’s New in Dell Solar-Powered Learning Labs

Based on our learnings from the pilots, we have made several improvements to the design of the labs. The newly upgraded Learning Labs now have increased computing power, moving from Wyse zero to thin clients, in order to further enable children in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects including coding and graphics works. The new labs also have been built with fresh air-cooled servers, a better solution for hotter climates, and Dell has brought in a new partner, Sunpower, to provide solar power for all the labs.

Today, it only takes six solar panels to  power a classroom of 10 thin client stations for an entire day and well into the evening. Additionally, because the technology uses less moving parts than traditional workstations, its active lifespan is rated upwards of nine years compared to three to four of traditional PC workstations. The thin clients connect to the internet through a cellular, WAN or satellite connection and use multipoint server technology so that a teacher can view each student’s work and individually guide their instruction.

Making the World a Little Smaller

Bringing technology and connectivity to these hard-to-reach rural populations of students opens up an entire world of opportunity for them and their peers around the world. Technology allows these students to connect to others in classrooms around the world, bringing about unique areas of collaboration and co-learning. Technology is fundamentally changing the way students learn in and outside of the classroom and we must work to ensure that access to these learning opportunities become equally distributed so that all of society and a global population expected to reach 9.6 billion people can benefit.

Dell solar-powered Learning Labs are made possible by Dell’s Youth Learning program, which seeks to close the learning gap by partnering directly with non-profits to provide innovative technology solutions, charitable donations and expertise to address challenges faced by underprivileged youth around the world where Dell operates.  Our goal, as part of Dell’s 2020 Legacy of Good Plan, is to help 3 million youth directly and support 10 million people indirectly to grow and thrive by 2020.

About the Author: Trisa Thompson

Trisa Thompson is the Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Dell, with responsibility for Dell's global giving and sustainability. Previously at Dell, Trisa served as Vice President, Legal, for the Global Operations, Marketing and Product Groups, and was a member of the Legal Team for 12 years. She was the founding co-chair of the Women's Networking Group, W.I.S.E., at Dell, and also serves on the PRIDE Executive Board. She is also a member of the Global Giving and Sustainability Councils. Trisa joined Dell in June 1998 from the Washington, D.C. office of Seyfarth, Shaw. Trisa was a partner with Seyfarth in its Government Procurement Law practice. She specialized in federal, state, and local procurement law and litigation. She joined Seyfarth directly out of law school in 1986.