Estimating the cost of running a computer lab in The Gambia, 1999 to 2001

This is a twelve year old report on the state of education in 5 high schools in The Gambia that I published when I completed my Peace Corps service. A lot has changed in twelve years.


Computer Lab Case Studies:

Estimating the cost of running a computer lab

Marc Maxson, Peace Corps Volunteer 1999-2001

How did schools enable students to learn about computers?

At the start of the 2000-2001 school year, five different schools in the Banjul area were each posed to offer computer classes to selected students. Each had a computer lab and had identified a teacher who could teach classes. And each needed Peace Corps’ assistance in hammering out a few problems.

In September of 2000, I met with each of the schools to discuss how to start integrating computers into the curriculum. The Principal at each school had a slightly different idea on how to go about teaching some of the students. During the meetings, Principals raised the issue of the limited number of computers available. I also raised the issue of the limited number of people available to teach students. Due to both limitations, we developed a time table for teaching selected students that would work. As a result, schools adopted five slightly different approaches to offering computer classes.

St. Peter’s Technical Training Institute in Lamin had been teaching computer classes to students and the public for at least 3 years. Although in September, 2000 there were two computer teachers available (Mr. Fasuluko and Mrs. Buckman), computer classes for the students appeared to be going nowhere. It was not until December when they were lucky enough to hire Gibril Touray that students started having classes. Gibril started in the second term teaching the Grade 8, 9, and 10 students and covered section 1, 2, and parts of 3 in the Gambia Computer Literacy Syllabus before leaving again in the beginning of the third term. Before leaving he managed to include all of St. Peter’s junior secondary school students in classes as well, so that in all about 640 students were affected.

The school has two computer labs; one of eighteen 386 computers, and one of eleven 486 and Pentium computers. Students attend classes in the morning and can come in for extra practice one hour after school, during a time when the lab is managed by teaching assistants (TAs). In the late afternoon one group of outsiders comes for computer classes taught by Mrs. Buckman to generate income.

When Gibril arrived, he taught 48 periods in an effort to cover all the classes. Now with Gibril gone again, the Computer Department lacks the leadership that Gibril and past Peace Corps Volunteers had provided. The school did not take up the responsibility of creating a time table for the TAs or ensure that classes to students actually commenced. Next year, without the help of a leader like Gibril Touray, this lab will sit unused.

Even the lab’s income generating projects are suffering. When I interviewed Harriet Gomez, the former Computer Lab Manager who has since moved to another school, she said that in 2000 St. Peters provided 50 to 70 members of the public with 4 hours of class time a week, thanks to the TAs. Since 1997, these community classes (est. D400 per term) have generated close to D80,000 for the school. This year, Mrs. Buckman taught less than 15 people and none of the money from classes is available for computer maintenance and repairs as promised. Gibril had been trying to get D1500 for replacement hard drives without success. If the school continues to not provide staff or money, the computer program will simply cease to exist.

I attempted to help by holding classes from December to March to train another group of TAs to replace the group that is leaving. From my interaction, I can say that 38 students from grades 8 through 12 attended at least 2 of 10 classes. Of those, 19 took the TA exam designed by former Volunteer Dexter Reid and none of those people passed at the level of difficulty set by the original exam. Nevertheless, Gibril identified 7 students who should assist the lab next year. If this pool of students is representative of the best students at St. Peters, then teaching is now less effective than in the past, when all 6 TAs passed the test.

Gambia High School in Banjul enrolls over 1500 students in both morning and afternoon shifts. Mr. Carr, the Principal, had been reluctant to introduce computers into the curriculum because he felt that he must ensure that every student gets the opportunity for computer classes. Otherwise, he felt that parents of students who were unable to have computer classes would cause problems for him. He decided against offering classes via a computer club because there would be too many potential members, and he did not think that choosing students based on merit would be fair. So we agreed to hold a lottery with each class and invite the 5 winners to attend classes.

Five students from each of 18 morning classes (90 students total) were invited to have computer classes after school. With the help of two other teachers, we offered hour long classes in groups of ten throughout the week to students who accepted the invitation by paying the D50 lab maintenance fee. However, due to problems beyond our control, few students accepted the offers and paid the fee.

The primary problem was school’s unreliable electricity. In the first term, power was only on in the computer lab 27% of the days I taught classes. Students demanded their money back when they realized the promise of one hour a week was unattainable. To compromise, we changed the maintenance fee from D50 per term to D50 one time only. However, only 14 of the 18 classes even held the lottery as instructed and only 19 of the 70 eligible students paid. These students finished section 2 and parts of section 1 and 3 of the Gambia Computer Literacy syllabus.

St. Joseph’s Senior Secondary School in Banjul teaches about 500 girls. The principal decided that because no qualified teacher existed to teach computer classes, they would instead start a computer club after school and allow students to use computers. Luckily, this year there were two other Peace Corps Volunteers in the area willing to help with the club. So all the students in the school were invited to join the computer education club. In the first term, all of the 45 interested students were able to join. They were divided into five groups and each group was expected to come at a different time during the week. The three Peace Corps Volunteers each chose one day to come and teach their groups of students. In the second term, word about the fun students were having in the computer club spread through the school. Forty-four more students wanted to join, and so we added them to a waiting list. On Wednesday’s I tried to train any teacher that was interested so that this school wouldn’t suffer so much dependency on Peace Corps next year.

This system was quite effective for the following reasons: (1) Teachers were equipped with adequate knowledge of computers and could be relied upon to show up and teach during their allotted time. (2) Electricity was reliable. (3) The administration was extremely supportive of the computer club, in ensuring that access to the lab was available to all teachers during school hours and many students after school. Consequently, this year has fostered a greater understanding of computers among the faculty of St. Joseph’s and enabled about 60 students to achieve some basic understanding of computers (most students will complete the Gambia Computer Literacy Syllabus this year by June).

St. Augustine’s SSS in Banjul teaches about 1000 boys. Charles Mendy, the principal, was eager to start formally introducing computer classes into the curriculum and so we agreed to convert one period of science into a computer class and have those students make up the missed class after school. However, this plan was never followed. I was unable to enact the necessary changes in the time table and the project sat for about two months. After being unable to implement the first plan, I worked directly with a few teachers to start a computer education club just like the one at St. Joseph’s. About 40 students signed up, and I worked directly with Mr. Sabally to design an after school time table for teaching the students. While Mr. Sabally keeps me informed about the club when I visit the school, sources tell me that is in fact a Mr. Mendy (not the Principal) who has taken up the responsibility of teaching all of the students in the computer club. I personally have never trained or worked with Mr. Mendy.

In the second term I honored their request to teach students about the Internet. Since the school had been having problems with Gamtel, I decided to teach an introduction to HTML to a handful of the best computer club students and teachers. From the skills of the students in this class, it is apparent that they are probably not even finished with section 1 of the Gambia Computer Education syllabus. They could not open Wordpad from the Start Menu or Save files. We spent a number of months learning how to do these basic skills, and eventually got to a level where students seemed to understand that documents were stored in different folders and the locations mattered. In summary, I would estimate that 32 students (four groups of 8) completed parts of section 1, 2 and 3 of the Gambia Computer Literacy Syllabus this year.

St. Augustine’s is especially encouraging because this progress was made with a minimum of reliance on Peace Corps Volunteers, suggesting that it is more likely to continue in 2002 than at St. Joseph’s. Teachers taught all the computer classes to the club and I only assisted with maintenance and in some (inadequate) teacher training.

Muslim High School in Banjul teaches about 1000 boys and girls. The principal made efforts to introduce computers in 2000 by inviting a private company to teach in the school. The arrangement fell apart due to financial differences and two teachers were promoted to the lab as full time teachers this year. Abdoulie Sisay and Mr. Touray worked to teach most of the students at the school this year for one hour a week. However, the lab had only 5 working computers at the beginning of the year. Each Thursday I visited the school to train these two in fixing computers, and attempted to work beside them in the rebuilding process. Now they have 10 working computers, up from 5 computers last September. Due to the state of the computers (proprietary IBM PS2’s with no working floppy drives), they taught DOS, typing, and DOS’s EDIT program instead of Windows, Mavis, and MsWorks, but they plan to adopt the Gambia Computer Literacy syllabus next year.

Computer classes at Muslim High are mandatory for all students, and each student pays D55 ($4) a term for computer studies. This year, the school claims it accommodated 388 Grade 10 and 445 Grade 11 students on about 7 computers. They achieved this by splitting the 40 person classes into two groups. Half take PE one week while the others are in the lab (2-3 per computer), and the groups switch the following week. Two full time teachers teach every student for 45 minutes once every two weeks.

The school recently tested the 833 computer students on DOS commands and the ability to open, type, save, and exit, using DOS’s Edit program. Students also had an essay on computer parts, keys, and software/OS characteristics. Abdoulie Sisay says that over 75% of the students passed the exam. Muslim High has demonstrated that it doesn’t take a lot of nice computers to provide all students with basic computer skills.

In addition, the lab taught 20 outsiders for 1 hour twice a week. They paid D1000 to complete classes on DOS, WP5.1, Lotus 1-2-3, Excel, Word, and Database. Sisay informs me that most of the outsiders were able to complete the classes this year.

Banjul Area High Schools Map
Banjul Area High Schools Map

Results: How effective was each approach?

It is simply not enough to describe the work going on at each school – we need to regularly quantify different aspects of computer education in the form of statistics so that it will be easy to identify areas of problems and progress in following years. What follows are facts about each school that will hopefully reflect the effectiveness of each school’s approach.

Teaching Effectiveness

Teaching effectiveness is difficult to quantify, but I think that the number of students involved and the amount of time in class measure the impact computer instruction has on the school. In three of the schools a few students typically received one hour a week of instruction through an after school club. However, at two schools one hour of computers is part of the time table for all students.

Table 1: Teaching Effectiveness

SchoolNumber of Students receiving 1 hr instruction per weekLevel of Computer Literacy Completed (see Gambia Computer Literacy Syllabus)*Percent of Student Body Affected

St. Peter’s6401, 2, 3 (parts)66% of SSS 100% of JSS

Gambia High School191b, 2, 3 (parts)1%

St. Joseph’s601b, 2, 312%

St. Augustine’s401b, 2 (parts), 3 (parts)8%

Muslim High School833 (get 45 mins every 2 weeks)1a (parts),1b (parts), 2 (parts), 3 (parts)66%

* Level 1a: Introduction and History of Computers; Level 1b: Handling Computers; Level 2: Typing 10-20 WPM; Level 3: Word processing

Table 2: Parts of Gambia Computer Literacy Syllabus Covered

School History (1.a.) and Concepts (1.b.2) Parts of a Computer (1.b.1.) Windows (1.b.2.) (1.b.3.) Use of Mouse (1.b.3.) Typing Skills (2) Word Processing (3)
St. Peter’s Grades 8,9,10 X X X X X /
St. Peter’s Grades 7, 11 X X X /
Gambia High School Club X X X X
St. Joseph’s X X X X X
St. Augustine’s X X X / /
Muslim High School / X / / / /

“X”means that the topic was fully covered; “/” means it was partially covered.


Most of the development projects I have witnessed in my two years in the Gambia have dealt with improving resources. Table 3 compares the current resources of the five schools whom I assisted. Most schools have at least 10 computers and a knowledgeable teacher, but the labs are certainly not utilized to their potential (except Muslim High). Computer labs are not used during school hours because the teachers and students are in other classes. If only schools had full time computer teachers, the resources would be tapped.

Additionally, there is untapped knowledge in the minds of those students and teachers that have learned about computers. Experienced students can assist others in situations where teachers are too busy to personally run classes.

Table 3: Computer Resources in Schools

SchoolNumber of working Computers in April, 2001 (not including administrative): Win 3.1 vs. Win9xEstimated number of Hours per week that computer lab is in use.Number of Teachers capable of computer instruction.Internet Capabil-ities*

St. Peter’s1811503T,M

Gambia High School5644

St. Joseph’s01161T,M,FREE

St. Augustine’s2683T,M,FREE

Muslim High School82402T,M,ISP

* T: Telephone line available in lab; M: Modem present; FREE: Internet Service Provider that is free for one year; ISP: Internet Service available but schools cover all costs.


If computers are ever to become a regular part of schooling, there must be an annual budget for it. No school can sustain any project without financial support from DOSE , its students, or another organization. Hence determining how much it will cost to run a computer lab for students in a school is an important but unanswered question. I attempted to gather information on how much was spent this year, but those records are lacking. Table 4 shows the expenses that must be considered when evaluating the cost of running a computer lab. I was unable to gather actual utility costs for the labs, but I estimate that schools spend 1000-2000 a month on utilities for the whole school. However, schools vary. The amount spent on maintenance at each school is based on the purchases of which I am aware.

The greatest cost facing a computer program is the salary of the teachers. Full time computer teachers will have to be paid out of lab fees until the DOSE provides this money. Note that schools that have hired a full time computer teacher are the same ones that successfully integrated computers into the curriculum. Those that rely on volunteer teachers have affected 12% of the students at best.

Table 4: Costs

School Average Monthly Utility Cost (guesses) Money Spent on Maint-enance this year (estimate) Number of Paid Computer Teachers Average time spent on Internet per month (mins) based on Feb – March 2001

St. Peter’s D(1000-2000)D(500)3 (6 volunteers#)0

Gambia High School D(1000-2000)D(1000)*0 (3 volunteers)0

St. Joseph’s D(1000-2000)D(500)0 (3 volunteers)100

St. Augustine’s D(1000-2000)D(1000)0 (2 volunteers)330

Muslim High School D(1000-2000)D(500)*22580

* Money for repairs/upgrades come from fees for using lab. In all other cases, each repair requires writing to the school board for money.

# TAs volunteer in the lab.

The second greatest cost is the Internet. No organization has been successful in making it permanently free. Therefore, in 2002 these schools will have to closely monitor their Internet use or lose it. Most schools that have Internet access have lost it at least once. An outstanding bill of D1780 at St. Peter’s still prevents use. The telephone costs at Muslim High School for the dedicated Internet line are listed in Table 5.

Table 5: Telephone Charges at Muslim HS

Period Cost
Previous Arrears (before December 2000) D1160.09
December 2000 D105.89
January 2001 never received
February 2001 D716.08 (includes Jan and Feb)

Note: The cost for March and April were not available at the time of this report, and the February bill includes January, so no estimate of the cost per hour can be made.

How is the Internet Used?

The Internet is often considered to be a top priority in school labs. GambiaHELP, DOSE, and the schools have worked to make Internet access a reality, and it has already been put to use at three of the five schools. But before we congratulate ourselves on our success, it would be prudent to see how the Internet is being used. I mean, after all, if the school has Internet access but students don’t use it, or it is not economically feasible, or people are misusing it, then it is not an improvement at all.

In order to learn what end to which the Internet would truly be applied, I installed network monitoring software on every computer with a modem in each of the three schools. I was able to do this before even a single call was ever made from St. Josephs or St. Augustine, allowing me to capture a complete history of this lab’s use. Table 6 below compares the number of calls and total amount of time spent on the Internet for each of the three schools for the period of February 7 to April 18, 2001.

Table 6. How Internet was used in selected schools from February 7 to April 18, 2001

School Total Time on Internet during same period (hours : minutes) Idle Time (percent) as an average of all calls over 1 minute Number of calls over one minute during same period

St. Peter’s 0:00 n/a 0

Gambia High School 0:00 n/a 0

St. Joseph’s Computer Lab 2:12 50.4 %7

St. Joseph’s Office Email Computer 1:24 58.3 %25

St. Augustine’s 10:28 51.8% 26

Muslim High School 85:37§ 62.5% 181

Sampling error for total time connected is less than 5 minutes except in the case of MHS.

§ Muslim High school’s records are missing for Feb 9-13, Feb 23-Mar 10. Most of these days fell during the Tabaski break when schools were closed. This sampling error means that this value is actually lower than the true value by an estimated 3-5 hours.

Idle Time

One useful statistic of Internet use is the Idle time. Idle time is the percentage of each call that was spent staring at the computer while it neither sent nor received data. It is a measure of waste: any time you are on the Internet but are not sending or receiving information you are squandering the school’s resources. Unlike America, the telephone company charges for each minute that the line is engaged. Hence I want to encourage all schools to use software that minimizes the time spent on the Internet while still providing access to the same amount of information. It is possible to send email and and access web pages without remaining on the Internet.

Believe it or not, of the 85 hours Muslim High spent on the Internet, 53 hours were spent neither receiving nor sending information.

The following is a list of explicit guidelines that, if followed by schools, could reduce the monthly cost of Internet from D1000 to D300 in my estimate. No one is worried about Internet costs yet, but file this in the back of the memory because it is just a problem I can guarantee schools will have in 2002 when the free Internet offer ends.

Cost Cutting Guidelines

  • It is 100 times cheaper to send an email using POP3 mail instead of HOTMAIL. This way you type your message on the computer while not using the Internet.
  • Frequently revisited websites can be downloaded to the computer using Teleport pro. This is especially good for popular resources and news, such as International Herald Tribune (
  • Listening to music, viewing movies, and chatting, are much cheaper if they are replaced by Interactive CDs and email.
  • Never, ever, should schools feel entitled to access pornography using the school’s equipment. (Images are expensive to download relative to text.)

Consider Figure 1, a histogram of the number of calls falling into different categories based on idle time. Category 1 (Idle 1-25% of the call) are probably calls to download software. Category 2 and 3 could be a variety of things, including a call to send and receive email using POP3 (If you still don’t know what POP3 is, it uses Eurdora/Outlook/Netscape-mail/ Foxmail to send composed message and read new messages offline.) Category 4 is most likely a call in which a single person wrote his email online using Hotmail.

Bear in mind that although Idle time is wasteful, it cannot be totally eliminated. It should be minimized by following the guidelines listed above.

The network monitoring software also logged some other interesting statistics. The call failure rate was around 33%. This means that one third of calls failed to access the Internet due to busy signals or network errors. The average modem connection speed was around 28.8 kbps despite both Gamtel and the computer having hardware capable of 44kbps. The most often visited sites for each of the three schools are the following:

St. Joseph’sedit.yahoostormloader



St. Augustine’saltavistanetscape











All the sites that have “f132” or a similar number in their name are hotmail login sites. I think the same is true for sites beginning with “us”. Sites with yahoo in the name are either Yahoo search pages or Yahoo POP3 email. It is promising to see that the most often visited site in two of the three schools was the POP3 email server. It was disappointing to see that both games and pornography made it into the top ten most frequently visited sites at St. Augustine’s. Internet was used on the computers between 10am and 2pm in both St. Joseph and St. Augustine’s. The computer reports that Internet was used from 10pm to 9am (but not from 11am to 11pm) at Muslim HS – a statistic that I suspect is due to the time being incorrectly set on the computer.

Who uses the Internet

All of the previous statistics say nothing about who is using the Internet. It is difficult to record who uses the Internet. But here are some of my observations:

  • Three POP3 email messages were sent from St. Joseph’s to Armitage SSS by students with the help of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Three Armitage students later replied to the letters. Hopefully this Internet pen pal practice will continue in the future.
  • A handful of students and teachers at Muslim SSS pay to get on the Internet, just like a Cyber Café. (D10 per hour)
  • About a dozen teachers regularly check their shared POP3 email account from the Office computer in St. Joseph’s. About 40-60 emails have been either sent or received from this account.
  • Adam Burns held a 1 hour class about the Internet at St. Joseph’s on April 24th, 2001 for 10 students.


I would like to see many of the approaches from this year continue in the future. School Computer Clubs are effective at providing computer classes to those who want it most. Schools that pay a full time teacher are more likely to successfully incorporate computers into the curriculum, a long term goal of DOSE, WAEC, the World Bank, and GambiaHELP. However, there are a few specific problems that must be addressed for computers in these schools to continue:

Gambia High School must put a new roof on their computer lab before the rainy season. Covering computers with garbage bags and stepping over the puddles of water on the floor is an electrical hazard. The computers will not endure another year of it!

Gambia High School must also pay to connect the computer lab to the current coming from the Administrative block (which has continuous power) (estimated cost: D10,000). Having power 27% of a term is too infrequent for computer classes. Computer education at both Gambia High and Muslim High suffer from unreliable power.

St. Peter’s must make money that the computer labs generate available for purchasing replacement parts, or one day there will be no more working computers. In addition, it is strongly recommended that St. Peters hire additional qualified computer teachers, because 48 periods is too much for one teacher.

Additionally, all schools should have at least one permanent full-time computer teacher if they are serious about computer education. If the money is not available from DOSE, then add a reasonable special fee to the cost of school tuition for those wanting to take computer classes as an optional elective. Students who are serious about pursuing computers as a career will pay.

I encourage all schools to continue existing computer programs and also to adopt the draft version of The Gambia Computer Literacy Syllabus in 2001. This Gambia-specific document outlines what a teacher can expect to cover in a year of computer classes with only one hour per week of class time. In March of 2001 computer teachers from all across the country met to debate every part of the syllabus. Thus this syllabus is a product of a consensus of many of the teachers currently teaching computers.

To assist schools in adopting this syllabus, Peace Corps is sending a packet containing the syllabus, a new Gambia-specific manual for students and teachers which follows the syllabus, and a CD of educational software which also follows the syllabus.

I hope that all these materials will be used.

As this is my final document to NGOs, Gambian schools, and DOSE, I would like to thank all those who voluntarily aided the cause of computer literacy in The Gambia. I can think of many teachers who have collaborated and freely given their time to students. I am confident that the progress made in the area of computer education demonstrates the philosophy that Peace Corps is an agency working to leave the knowledge, responsibility, and ownership in the hands of other people. It is only through training people that projects continue. Although I am leaving The Gambia after two years, I am confident that my efforts will continue through those with whom I worked.
Peace Corps Consultant to Banjul Area Schools.
Marc Maxson

Postscript (12 years later)

This narrative paints a clear and accurate picture of the state of computer education in The Gambia in 2001. I suspect there are millions of such reports floating around, unused. I spend my time building tools to gleam more from these narratives and reconnect the dots in the richest form of evaluation we have – narratives. I hope that this one-off report and thousands more like it can be combined to yield some real learning.

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