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Can video conferencing technology keep kids in school?

How can video conferencing technology make a difference outside the boardroom? One engineer explains her plan to use it to help at-risk students in rural Tunisia.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Network Evolution: Unusual network locations: How engineers make it work:

In this edition of The Subnet, we chat with Dhia Belhajali, a telecommunications engineer at Tunisia's Tunisie Télécom, where she works as a project manager in the network operator's department of engineering and planning for its transport network.  

Belhajali was also one of 99 women to be selected as a 2015 TechWomen fellow, an initiative headed up by U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program connects women from Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East with professional mentors and "host" companies in their particular field of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Belhajali completed her five-week fellowship at Polycom, where she developed a pilot program for using video conferencing technology to improve educational opportunities for at-risk students at underserved schools in rural Tunisia. 

What are you working on lately at Tunisie Télécom? 

Dhia Belhajai: Currently, I'm the manager of optical fiber projects. My main responsibilities are to study the existing transport network's topology, to identify and measure requirements, and then design solutions to upgrade, expand, secure and optimize our optical fiber network.  

I have two [active] projects. One is a new project to extend our optical fiber network and also to secure it. Another project is to install and implement a new packet microwave system to secure the network and improve its performance. 

What is your biggest challenge these days? 

Belhajai: Besides my work at Tunisie Télécom, I'm also a PhD student at the National School of Engineering of Tunis, where I'm working on [research about] MPSoC, multiprocessor System-on-a-Chip. I'm trying to improve my technology knowledge and to publish articles about my doctoral studies while I work on my project [with local schools].  

Tell us more about your project with TechWomen using video conferencing technology. 

Dhia Belhajali hopes video conferencing technology can reduce dropout ratesDhia Belhajali, Tunisie Télécom

Belhajai: During my mentorship at Polycom, I was working on tele-education because in my country we have many problems related to the education system. Many students, especially in rural regions, are very unmotivated. They feel very worthless and hopeless. Sometimes they drop out of school, and this phenomenon affects mainly rural regions because they feel like there is no equality between rural kids and kids in big cities. That's because students in big cities have access to many activities and clubs like art, science and sports. Most rural students tend to drop out of school and they turn to crime, prostitution and even terrorism. Some of them even commit suicide because they feel so hopeless.  

The rate of literacy in Tunisia remains very high, so when I was mentored at Polycom, I was inspired to implement new technologies in our educational systems in order to reduce all these issues. The solution I found is to use video conferencing in our educational system and launch a center for real-time e-learning in the Tunisian capital, Tunis. This center will connect with Tunisian rural schools. 

I will start with two rural schools, and one or two classes per school. By the end of the year, I will write a report comparing the situation before and after the implementation of the solution. This is in order to convince the government and volunteers to participate in this project and expand it. 

How can video conferencing technology help improve those schools? 

Belhajai: This project will allow rural students to join online, real-time courses and clubs related to their interests. At the same time, we can use this project to offer teachers in rural regions access to knowledge and video trainings wherever they are located so they will be more included in their communities and more engaged.  

Video conferencing is the best solution to prevent child delinquency and, at the same time, to encourage teachers to go work in rural regions.
Dhia BelhajaliTelecommunications engineer, Tunisie Télécom

Belhajai: It will provide interactive distance learning, so students will be more motivated and excited. They will be more collaborative and creative; they will perform better in school; and they will be able to connect with kids across the country and around the world. They also will be able to improve their digital and professional networking skills and competencies needed for employment, active citizenship and personal fulfillment. They will be more active locally, nationally and internationally. They will not feel isolated.  

Video conferencing is the best way to prevent child delinquency, and at the same time, to encourage teachers to go work in rural regions. 

How did you get the idea for this project? 

Belhajai: My father is a teacher, and many years ago he worked in rural school in west Tunisia. In the beginning of the academic year, he noticed that many rural students were very intelligent, but unfortunately they weren't passionate about school. Their results at the end of the first quarter were very bad, so my father and other teachers tried to find solutions for this situation.  

To compensate for the lack of teachers in this school -- because many teachers refuse to go teach in rural regions -- my father and other teachers decided to merge their classes into one classroom. In order to motivate the kids, they launched many clubs. For example, my father launched a club for agricultural activities because he was passionate about agriculture. Other teachers launched classes for sports and art. Then during their free hours, students did many activities; for example, they planted flowers, trees or even vegetables. By the end of the academic year, teachers noticed that these kids had become more collaborative and creative, and they performed better in school.  

My father retired many years ago, and now my brother is a teacher. He always tells me our rural schools, even now, still suffer from a lack of culture and entertainment, as well as the absence of teachers, effective education and family care. All of these gaps have created many issues in the Tunisian educational system. I always believed that the solution to these issues should be similar to what my father did 30 years ago. But this time, we have to take advantage of technological revolution in order to guarantee the sustainability of the solution. So when I was mentored in Polycom, I was inspired to use video conferencing technology in our educational system.  

How did you get interested in IT and networking as a career? 

Belhajai: I have always been passionate about technology and innovation, especially about telecommunications . I believe in the few past years, telecommunications has seen rapid and expansive development. It has become of vital importance in our lives because it facilitates communications between people from different countries and contributes to the cultural exchange. That's why I wanted to become part of this innovative, thrilling and ever-changing industry. That's why I'm a telecom engineer. 

Last question: What's the best advice you've ever received? 

Belhajai: My father always advised me to never give up and work hard to realize my goals. [He taught me] to be ambitious and self-confident, to believe in my capacity to become a successful leader, and to participate in the development of my country and the conception of new, innovative technologies. 

Next Steps

WebRTC has a role in educational settings 

Using video conferencing hardware to create virtual classrooms  

Hosted video conferencing connects multi-site university

This was last published in February 2016

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What opportunities do you see for using video conferencing in educational settings?
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One opportunity to to better highlight diversity by providing a means for students to interact with other students that do not share a common background, whether ethnic, religious, geographic, etc.
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That's an interesting idea and certainly worth the try. I'd love to know how it turns out. As someone who uses video conferencing at work, I find it to be no where as engaging as in-person interactions, so I don't know that it will necessarily work for kids who are already lacking in motivation. 
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This does have potential benefits to help the rural students feel more inclusive, but I think there’s a bigger benefit. I’ve noticed that with conferences that offer an online experience, remote attendees do benefit from the conversation taking place at the conference, but the real benefit comes when the online conversation diverges, and takes it’s own path, resulting in something that better resembles two conferences rather than a single conference. I think that could benefit the rural kids because it could help stimulate the conversations in the rural areas, which could help with the motivation.
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