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ASU delivers digital libraries to Tonga

SolarSPELL in Micronesia

If you’re Laura Hosman, bringing educational resources to rural areas is what you do.

This week, Hosman is traveling to Tonga, where she and her team will deliver 25 portable, solar-powered, WiFi-ready digital library devices called SolarSPELL – the Solar Powered Educational Learning Library – which is helping to expand access to education and technology in remote places around the world that lack electricity and the internet.

Hosman, an assistant professor at ASU with a joint appointment in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, is traveling with five undergraduate students – four engineering students from the Polytechnic School, one of the five Fulton Schools, and one film student from the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts – as well as Lorrie McAllister, an assistant university librarian at ASU Libraries.

“We’ve been preparing for this trip all semester,” said Hosman. “In addition to bringing digital libraries to Tonga, the visit is meant to conduct research, create hands-on lesson plans and take part in workshops that will focus on building libraries specific to the Pacific Island communities.”

The innovative library device is 100 percent self-reliant: generating its own solar power and Wi-Fi hot spot and using its own tiny computer, called a Raspberry Pi, that functions as a server connecting to library content via smartphone, laptop or iPad.

Because the SolarSPELL website functions as a local digital library – providing thousands of resources in the form of videos, articles, books, lessons and instructional guides – the selection of educational content that is culturally relevant to the community and how the technology is introduced to the community is crucial.

Hosman thus relies on the expertise and local knowledge of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, who are stationed in the remote locations she is trying to reach. Her strong partnership with the Peace Corps has resulted in the delivery of more than 100 SolarSPELL units in Samoa, Vanuatu and Micronesia.

“The Peace Corps has served an essential role in providing access to these digital libraries, as they often understand the needs of the community and local educational environment,” said Hosman.

Peace Corps staff and volunteers in Tonga will be working with Hosman and her students to develop learning objectives around library content as well as sample instructional programming. In addition, Hosman’s partnership with ASU Libraries has also helped to curate SolarSPELL content.

This fall, ASU Libraries hosted its first SolarSPELL Hackathon to support the curation of educational content for schools in Tonga. It was an opportunity for library staff to partner with Hosman and her students to further improve the digital library experience through new content and its improved organization, as well as enhancements to the technology platform. The Hackathon also resulted in discussion of creating lesson plans for teachers to empower students to save and share their cultural and artistic expressions as well as their family heritage.

“It is wonderful to partner with ASU Libraries to help deliver high-quality and specifically curated digital educational resources to teachers and students in areas with severely limited electricity, connectivity and even textbooks,” said Hosman.

McAllister said she is looking forward to engaging with students, educators and librarians in Tonga’s capital city of Nukuʻalofa to help understand their local context and greatest opportunities and challenges.

“This trip will be a valuable lesson in the curation of digital libraries,” McAllister said. “We will be finding out what topics the students of Tonga are interested in discovering and how they see themselves using digital libraries for learning. Dr. Hosman’s work is very exciting in terms of a creative way to expose new audiences to digital library resources and empower people by using libraries as catalysts for learning.”

Hosman, McAllister and the team of ASU students will be traveling Dec. 6-18 with a brief stop in New Zealand at the University of Auckland, where they will take part in a digital storytelling workshop.

The students plan to video-journal their experiences while traveling abroad.

For more information, visit the SolarSPELL website and Facebook page, and read the ASU Now story: No internet, no power, no problem.