My phone is my jar

My phone is my jar

In April and May, our digital training solution for distance learning finally reached a stage, where Issa, Doug, Lincoln, and Alex were able to launch the first pilot test of The Well training system in Sierra Leone. We can now test its’ full functionality, so we can learn from our end-users and improve the software and hardware accordingly.

Every society has meeting places, where people from all walks of life can interact with each other. In England we have parks, cafés, and pubs that serve as such meeting places. As Christians we have our churches, and in other parts of the world there are meeting places for official and unofficial meetings, where we can discuss important topics or just receive updates on current news. In many villages across Africa a water well is such a meeting place. Since every household needs access to water a well becomes a natural meeting place for all kinds of people. Many important decisions are made around the well.

“Why do you call it The Well?”, this question was asked in Port Loko, one of the seven locations in Sierra Leone where we deployed The Well as part of our pilot test. “Is it an acronym?” The only satisfactory answer to this question is to retell the full story about the Samaritan Woman in John’s Gospel (John 4:1-42), and how Jesus meets her at a well and engages in dialogue with her. This woman came to the well alone during the heat of the day, when it was unlikely for others to be there, probably because she was ashamed of her life and wanted to avoid the gossip. The dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman progresses rapidly and she soon realises that he is no ordinary Jew. He brings real transformation into her life, as he reveals himself to her. She rushes to the village and shares the news with others. They all want to see Jesus and gather around the well. Our digital Well is all about transformation and access to life-giving water. The Well is a digital meeting point, which can be setup in any church or training centre, so people can access the media and training programmes using their mobile phones without any internet access. Our digital solution is purposefully developed to support and enhance the training of grass-root leaders and invite them into deep dialogue with each other and their facilitators.

Smartphones are so widely available throughout the world today and you can find them in almost any village and household. These powerful pockets sized minicomputers are making part of our lives easier, as they help us get “connected.” But they are also known to be distractions that can carry us away from our immediate relations. Our intention behind the design of The Well is to counteract this side-effect and promote real relationships, both with Jesus and with people in our communities who are on a similar journey. Our training methodology is focusing on group studies, interaction, and practical application.

Just like a water well it is important that you have a jar, so you can carry water from the well to your house. In our training solution the individual smartphones become the jar we can use to carry the living water from The Well device to our respective households. We do not need many jars in every household, one jar is enough and can serve many people. The same is true for the smartphones. One phone can facilitate learning for many, and The Well App allows for multiple people to be enrolled through the same phone. This is important when operating in communities where people cannot afford their own phones but need to borrow from each other.

After years of experimenting with software and hardware we have finally launched our first real pilot test in Sierra Leone. Seven churches were chosen based on their location. Some are urban, some semi-urban and some are rural. It is important for us to have this diversity, so we can learn how we can build a digital infrastructure to provide transformative learning to even remote areas. We want to begin this journey in Sierra Leone, so we can analyse test results and improve hardware and software based on the feedback we receive.

It was amazing to finally kick off the project, we have worked on for years, and dreamt about much much longer. Now all our theories and thoughts turn into practical issues when we implement The Well in the different communities. We brought a lot of equipment from the UK, as we also wanted to test the add-on solutions for training such as projectors, monitors, loudspeakers, powerbanks as well as the best solutions to display phones on a larger screen. Everything must be affordable, practical, and robust to work in these environments. We have provided seven different solutions, so we can learn which works best under the circumstances.

We hosted a two-day training with individual follow-up visits to each test location. We have found that three days of training is the minimum if we are going to get the operators properly introduced to the technology as well as the training methodology, which is an integrated part of our solution.

“This training is a hugely monumental milestone in the development of the Relay Trust’s vision of training lay people and clergy across the grassroots in the poorest areas of the world. We praise the Lord for his provision and blessings to enable this vision.”

Doug Ingram, head of logistics and information management

Have we finished The Well? The quick answer is “no.” There is no such thing as finishing The Well. We may have a working product, but it still needs many improvements, and the software needs constant updates to meet the new demands. We have the structure, which can carry the training, and it works, but now we need to focus on the details. We must learn from the testers. They are the real experts, when they are applying the system in the right context and for the intended purpose. This requires a lot of follow-up so we are planning bi-weekly conversations with each operator, chatbot questionnaires (on WhatsApp) and on-the-ground face to face interviews.

It is a great encouragement and a huge relief to have reached this stage of our development. Now we need prayers, so we can take the solution to the next level.

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