Hasselt teacher connects refugees in Kenya with the world


Koen Timmers is in the running for the Global Teacher Prize in recognition of his work supporting a refugee camp and of teaching students closer to home about the importance of learning from each other

The world’s a classroom

Koen Timmers is one of 50 educators from around the world in contention for the Global Teacher Prize, and the only Belgian in the running. He has been selected because of his project that allows teachers to connect with children in a Kenyan refugee camp, but this is just one of the innovative initiatives under his belt.

Timmers’ day job is teaching computer science at an adult education college in Heusden-Zolder, north of Hasselt. He specialises in web design, and his pupils are a mix of people studying for pleasure and those in “second-chance” education, looking to get back in to the job market.

He teaches not only about computers, but with computers. “I’m part of a distance-learning project, so my students attend half of the classes at home,” he explains. “I use Skype, I use digital textbooks, and I encourage my students to learn from each other. I try to learn from them as well.”

Chance collaboration

Timmers’ Kenya project is also distance learning, but under quite different circumstances. It began with a chance conversation, via Skype, with a charity worker in the Kakuma refugee camp in the north-west of the country.

Nearly 180,000 people who have fled violence in the region live in the camp, more than half of them children. But with few resources and class sizes running to 150-200 pupils, the camp’s 30 schools struggle to meet demand.

“He asked me to help him increase the level of education in the camp, not just on my own but by bringing in other educators from around the world,” Timmers recalls. “I know these people because I’m in Microsoft’s expert educator community, so I have lots of contacts around the world who are doing great things in their own classrooms.”

By having a Skype call with them – one day with New Zealand, the next with Brazil – we are unlocking their world

- Koen Timmers

The first problem was how to connect these global teachers with the camp, which has unreliable internet service and very few computers. Timmers responded by sending one of his own laptops for a school to use, but its modest speakers were hardly up to the job.

“When I had a Skype call with the students, there were 150 of them looking at my small laptop screen. It was really cool, but also a bit frustrating.”

One of the teachers in the camp had to repeat what Timmers said to the rest of the class, and pass back the children’s comments. Language also proved problematic, with the different varieties of English being used often slowing things down or leading to misunderstandings.

Undaunted, Timmers launched a crowdfunding campaign to buy extra computers, a video projector and a sound system. This has improved things, although lessons remain unconventional. “Once you get used to the concept of chaos, it works pretty well,” he says.

Subjects, such as science and maths, are chosen to fit in with the Kenyan national curriculum. Timmers started out teaching geography and biology, but preparing lessons outside his expertise proved time-consuming, and now he concentrates on co-ordinating the network.

“I managed to find about 100 teachers around the world who were willing to teach the refugees on a daily basis, and I do a lesson of my own once a week,” he says.

Another perspective

And while the teaching is important, the empathy created by the lessons is just as valuable. “The refugees are not allowed to leave the camp, so by having a Skype call with them – one day with New Zealand, the next with Brazil – we are unlocking their world.”

The same goes for students outside Kenya who get involved through their teachers and sometimes prepare lessons for their peers in the camp. “They get another perspective on what it is like to be a refugee and how people in Africa live,” Timmers explains.

Despite its success, the project’s future is uncertain. The internet connection in the camp was maintained by a non-profit organisation, which now has other priorities, so Timmers has been looking for alternatives.

It’s better for students to learn from each other, than just from a book or a teacher instructing them

- Koen Timmers

The organisation that runs the schools is supportive, but has no resources to spare. “They really need computers and funding to pay the energy bills, and we are working very hard to raise that money.”

His lower target is €2,000 to €3,000, which would buy some laptops and keep the internet connection up for six months. “If we had a little more funding, we would be able to buy them solar panels, so we wouldn’t have to pay for fuel on a monthly basis.”

The Global Teacher Prize is worth $1 million (€963,000), which would take the project to a completely different level. “I don’t think I’m going to win the prize,” Timmers says, “but if I did, the money would make it possible to involve all the schools in Kakuma in the project.”

Peer power

The winner of the annual prize will be announced on 19 March. Meanwhile, Timmers has been busy with other online teaching projects, such as Wai Water, which last year connected nine schools on six continents.

“The students had to find out about clean water, spoilage, insufficient water and so on, and we covered a lot of subjects, like geography, biology, history and maths,” he explains.

The students collected information in small groups and presented their results first to others in their classroom and then to others in the network. “I think it’s better for students to learn from each other, from their peers from around the world, than just from a book or a teacher instructing them.”

The solutions the students came up with also surprised Timmers. “I thought they would just use PowerPoint to present their outcomes, but they began to use Minecraft to construct waterfalls and so on. They used Lego, they created stop-motion videos and green-screen movies. It was really fascinating to see which technologies they were using.”

This, he thinks, is the key to teaching technology. “Don’t take a textbook and teach students how to use Word. Give them Word or PowerPoint or Minecraft, and they will find out themselves while working on important things like water.”