Real research: Nabeel Janjua is studying how to teach basic technology skills and digital literacy to impoverished students in Haiti

Nabeel Janjua. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing
Nabeel Janjua. Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing
Nabeel Janjua teaches computer skills to students in Haiti.
Nabeel Janjua teaches computer skills to students in Haiti.

Nabeel Janjua discovered his passion for helping developing countries in 2007 when he returned to his birthplace in Pakistan. Growing up in Northern Virginia, the senior at Virginia Commonwealth University had never seen extreme poverty in that way — witnessing children and parents begging — and it changed his outlook on everything. “It made me grateful for what I have,” he said. And it made him want to help those less fortunate.

At VCU, this passion led him to Manoj Thomas, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Information Systems at the School of Business. Thomas has worked on information and communications technology projects in a number of countries, including Haiti, Nepal and India. “Nabeel was tasked with learning new technologies, and understanding the intricacies of conducting research in a non-English speaking country,” Thomas said.

Janjua, a double major in economics and information systems, didn’t know much about Haiti when he applied for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program fellowship last year other than the stories about the devastating 2010 earthquake. The facts of the impoverished nation startled him — Haiti scores very low on the Human Development Index, which measures average achievement in human development by assessing factors such as life expectancy, education level and standard of living.

Research Weeks

Each spring, VCU shines a spotlight on student research during Research Weeks, a series of events that takes place on both campuses and covers a wide range of disciplines. In honor of Research Weeks, we’re sharing the stories of six undergraduates who’ve had the chance to do meaningful and creative projects thanks to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. See more stories by clicking on links in the “Related stories” section or learn more about the lineup of events for this year’s Research Weeks.

His research involved developing information systems to bring Internet-style learning to Haiti and to help increase digital literacy. “As we’re moving towards the future, technology is getting more and more important,” he said. “They’re stuck in the past. The goal is to get them comfortable with technology.”

There are no textbooks or training manuals for developing technologies in low-income, low-resource settings. Instead, researchers develop frameworks based on published scholarship, and they adopt a systematic approach to addressing the problems. “Nabeel fully grasped this research-oriented approach, and contributed in building low-cost technological solutions, developing survey instruments and analyzing data,” Thomas said.

The project had three components. Janjua designed an Internet-in-a-box, an alternative Internet for students and teachers who don’t have online access; a computer on a stick, a self-contained USB bootable Linux operating system that could be plugged into any laptop; and software tutorials to teach basic technology skills to students.

When he and Thomas visited the town of Hinche, Haiti, in March, they found that the teacher-training school had already set up a multipoint server system, which proved to be an even better foundation for their Internet-in-a-box solution. When implemented on the multipoint server, it allows up to 10 computers at a time to share and use the digital content simultaneously.

There was one setback: Janjua realized that his computer on a stick wouldn’t work due to lack of electricity — nobody uses laptops because there’s nowhere to charge them. “We crossed that idea out and are looking for better methods to implement,” Janjua said.

One crucial missing piece was a consistent teacher to show the students and their teachers how to use the technology, including computer basics such as using a mouse and keyboard.

Janjua dedicated his five-day trip to giving tutorials every day to more than 300 students and teachers in five different schools. He showed them how to use basic Microsoft and Linux programs, including Word, Paint, PowerPoint, Calculator, LibreOffice and TuxMath.

It hit the heart seeing these kids and adults who want to gain an education but lack resources.

“Some kids or adults had never touched a computer in their lives and their faces were in amazement,” he said. “It was a great feeling.”

Post-travel, Janjua is currently analyzing the 300 surveys from the trip to see if the students liked what they did and believe technology could help them if they had more access to it. Next steps involve proposing the data to Google’s Project Loon, a network of balloons designed to connect people in remote locations to the Internet.  

“The skills and knowledge he gains from VCU and UROP sets him up well to make an impact in society,” Thomas said. “He sought solutions that were novel and innovative, and he now understands design science and its relevance to practice.”

Janjua’s impact is already being felt. “In every group, after I finished, someone would stand up and give a speech on how much they appreciated us being there, teaching them the material, and [how they] wished we would stay longer,” he said. “It hit the heart seeing these kids and adults who want to gain an education but lack resources.”