Teacher with the tech
For Dana Rensi, it doesn’t matter what country a school is in — she sees every classroom as a place of opportunity.
“To me, education is a way out of poverty, a way to a better life,” says the two-time Fulbright recipient, who retired as Ashland High School’s librarian and media specialist at the end of this school year.
Rensi’s bilingual abilities in English and Spanish are enabling her to take that passion international. At the end of this month, Rensi will return to what she describes as a “school on stilts” in the Iquitos region of the Peruvian Amazon, to work for a month and a half on an ambitious technological project aiming to support students there, many of whom face extreme poverty and low educational attainment.
“This is a very exciting proposal,” she says.
A few years ago Rensi was introduced to the single-board, $35 computer called a Raspberry Pi, which can, among myriad other functions, give students or teachers the ability to connect with an educational server in the absence of internet.
The computer is about the size of a wallet and can be hooked up to a variety of peripheral equipment, such as a monitor or laptop.
The nonprofit for which Rensi is now the Latin American regional director, Powering Potential, partnered with Raspberry Pi to create the Pi-oneer: It’s a kit that includes additional hardware and software, including a solar-powered battery, solar-powered speakers and educational technology from yet another partner organization downloaded to a server.
More than reliable Wi-Fi, perhaps the most important connections behind Rensi’s upcoming return to Belén are those between the organizations, which work in emerging technology, education and regional development.
On her last trip in 2017, Rensi brought eight Raspberry Pis down to the river community, which she says piqued the curiosity of the San Francisco school that many of the local children attend.
By the time this latest project is complete, San Francisco will have 25 Raspberry Pi computers loaded with thousands of open-source educational resources on hundreds of subjects and in three languages.
Rensi will train the school’s approximately 20 teachers to use the hardware to access materials they can then adapt to meet their own curriculum and standards.
Back in Ashland, Rensi shows off the volume of information accessible at her fingertips with her smartphone connected to the Raspberry Pi server.
“Here’s the library of Latin America; I’m going into the children’s section,” she says while navigating on her screen.
“Look at all those books,” she says. No end to the links appears as she scrolls up and down.
The Peru project mirrors a previous Powering Potential effort, which began in Tanzania in 2007. According to information from the nonprofit, 60% of respondents to an impact survey reported continuing their education, and 57% of respondents reported securing employment because of their technology skills.
Beyond those figures, however, much of the literature on Raspberry Pi computers and Powering Potential in developing communities focuses more on that — potential — than on studying long-term impacts on educational achievement.
“We want this data,” Rensi says.
That's where Kolibri, a free software enabling access to vast educational resources, comes in. As students use the hardware provided (called a RACHEL for Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education & Learning), Kolibri will collect data on their behaviors. (clarified)
That includes tracking what materials students access, how quickly they progress and which concepts they struggle with.
Project leaders such as Rensi hope the computer lab and wealth of resources will keep students in school longer and teach them more modern skills.
A 2002 research paper on Latin American education found that children often drop out to work once they reach employable age. Research from the United Nations on the same topic said that rural youth are 16 percentage points more likely to be out of secondary school.
“The only problem for these students and teachers is where they happen to live, a place that doesn’t have access,” Rensi says. “If we can provide this access, then we give them opportunity. We give them education. We give them a chance to better their lives.”
Rensi’s viewpoint on the value of education developed out of personal experience. She was born to teenage parents, she says, and attended 13 schools by the time she graduated from Medford Senior High School in 1975.
“Because I had a quality, free public education, I got to have a good life,” she says. “I got a Pell grant. I went to SOU. People educated me, so I had a career.
“That’s what I hope to give to these kids.”
This story has been updated to clarify what Kolibri is and how it works.