Computer lab break-in

Last week we received the unfortunate news that one of the computer labs we helped set up in Mekelle in Nov 2009 was broken into. Just over 20 computer terminals were taken, but fortunately none of the (LCD) monitors were also taken. Given that the terminals are relatively small, so easily portable, we had thought there was a risk of one or two going astray, especially given that thefts of portable electronic devices (laptops etc) happen at all universities and all organisations around the world.

We’re not sure if the thief (or thieves) realise that without being connected to a server to boot up from, the devices are pretty much useless and there’s going to be an extremely limited market for reselling such stolen devices in Ethiopia. So it’s a small consolation that the thief/thieves are unlikely to profit from the robbery.

It’s far more disappointing they have taken the opportunity for the students to fully use the lab, now being down to half the original number of terminals. However, most students are in the run up to their exams over the coming weeks, followed by the semester break, so they won’t be accessing the lab as much as during the rest of the semester.

This gives a few weeks to get the lab back up and running fully before the start of the next semester (probably in first weeks of March) and we very quickly managed to put plans together for how we can replace the missing terminals. We’re hoping to (at least temporarily) replace some of the missing terminals with refurbished PCs, we’d already been testing this over the past few months, so just means that we will deploy them sooner than expected. We’re also checking the costs of having some (SunRay) terminals we had in the US shipped over as replacements for those which have gone missing.

So, despite the setback, the lab should be back up and running within a couple of weeks.

Rapid developments in Mekelle

We’re still in the process of planning out our training programme for our next visit to Ethiopia in a few weeks time. At only 3 weeks it’s going to be my shortest visit to Ethiopia, so sure it will be a very busy time, given what we’re hoping to get done in the time there. For a week in Addis, we’ll be starting our basic certification course for elearning teams from some of the other universities in Ethiopia, we’re just waiting to get confirmation of how many are going to attend. Then we’ll have 2 weeks in Mekelle, for the final face to face workshops for the certification we started in October plus starting a new cohort for the advanced training.

There’s still some way to go before Mekelle University is ready to start delivering the course by themselves. Although they’re keen on expanding the training to include other colleges, it’s not sustainable for Jaime and I to continue to deliver the training over and over.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had lots of good news from the Technology Institute. Florida, one of the lecturers from the Computer Science department, has taken over as head of ICT and elearning. They’ve managed to take on another team member for the elearning team, plus lab attendants are due to start work this week for maintaining the computer labs. They’re in the process of getting a new computer lab (of almost 70 refurbished PCs network booting from the OpenSolaris server) up and running, so will be great to see this up and running, although we have a few concerns as to whether the server will have the power/capacity to deliver sessions to this many extra terminals.

Health Sciences College have also been busy, installing network connected PCs and projectors in almost 20 lecture rooms.

With all these changes, I’m looking forward to getting back to Mekelle, if only for a very short time. At just less than 4 months, this is also the longest break I’ve had away from Mekelle since I started working there back in September 2008.

Building University eLearning Capacity

Elearning team officeIn early 2009 Digital Campus started working with Mekelle University to help develop their elearning capacity. At the time, a few teachers from the Business College and Computer Science department had received training in how to create online course content and activities, but few students were really using online activities as a day to day part of their course. Given the rapid expansion of the university, the ability to deliver some course content and activities through blended learning, reducing the dependence on face to face lectures and improving the teaching quality, is a priority for the university.

Developing elearning skills

Key Facts

The Digital Campus team began a project to deliver the Certificate in Online Education to groups of teachers from the Engineering and Health Sciences Colleges, with a key aim being to create a team of elearning experts able to deliver the certification to their colleagues. The project focused on integrating blended learning activities into courses, rather than creating content for distance education, given that students generally have little internet access outside the university. The elearning training was given in parallel with a project to improve student computer access, after all, what use is putting courses online if students have no means to access them.

Initial training

The first group of tutors were trained between November 2009 and June 2010 with 20 tutors completing the first level of the certification. The training consisted of 3 face to face workshops in November, February and May, with tutors studying online between the face to face sessions to develop their courses. Tutors delivered their courses online during the second semester of 2009/10, an important aspect of the certification is that tutors are actively involved in giving online activities and content. In our experience, training is too often given in a theoretical atmosphere, subsequently, skills learned aren’t put into practice.

Elearning training participantsThe tutors on the programme were all willing volunteers, receiving no extra payment or other incentives, apart from the recognition of being awarded the certification. Our experience from the first presentation of the course reinforced our belief that although the training could, in theory, be given wholly online, a blended approach works far better. During the online periods there was a noticeable lower level of activity in the training. Entirely understandable, given the other workloads and priorities of the tutors.

Current Status

The second presentation of the first level began in October 2010 running until March 2011, with face to face workshops in October 2010 and March 2011. Concurrently we began the first presentation of an advanced certification, for those who had completed the first level, with participants expected to be more self supporting (although the course still has face to face workshops and is facilitated for the online parts).

The next step is to continue to work with the elearning support staff, increasing their range of elearning skills and supporting their development of the University’s elearning programme, working towards the goal of the elearning team directly delivering the certification.

Improving Student Computer Access

Students using new computer labOne of the limiting factors in the success of the elearning training is the availability of open access computer labs for students. Most computer labs, although using relatively recent hardware and operating systems, have few PCs fully functional. Many are crippled due to viruses or broken hardware or many aren’t connected to the network. Most labs have restricted opening hours or no open access at all and are only used as teaching labs.

A network-centric model

Key Facts

  • 2 new computer labs
  • over 80 open access terminals
  • further 70 terminals available soon

To help ensure the success of the elearning programme, Digital Campus set about thinking how computer terminal access for students could be vastly improved and how a cost effective, maintainable and hyper scalable computer architecture could be delivered. For us, the most obvious solution was to use thin client technology with open source software, this has a number of distinct advantages over traditional PC labs:

  • Centralised IT management – with little or no software on the client terminals, the computing capacity and management is focussed within shared, robust, redundant servers in the MU data centres, where all the software configuration and data is stored and maintained
  • More efficient and cost effective use of hardware – with horizontal scaling, old servers can be built into the server cluster to increase capacity. PCs past their useful life for running the latest operating systems can be repurposed to become network booting thin client terminals.
  • Identity management – users have one username and password giving access to the same desktop environment, applications and data which ever terminal they use to log into, even if the terminal is on another campus. So no more sharing of PC admin accounts, or moving files around using flash disks, CDs etc. Centralised user data storage also enables reliable backups to be taken.
  • No software license lock-in – using only open source software, avoids licences costs. Open source software is also far less susceptible to viruses.

This network-centric design isn’t without drawbacks, although a smaller IT support team is required, they need a higher skillset to ensure effective server and network management. Whereas in traditional PC lab environments, the availability and maintenance tasks of desktop PCs is distributed (and often times falls into the hands of the end-user), with network-centric architectures, the lab thin-client functionality depends entirely on the network and server availability maintained by the university ICT staff.

Assessing thin client technologies

The Digital Campus pilot, in designing a network-centric architecture for Mekelle University ,explored several varieties of thin client technologies: Sun Ray ultra-thin clients (mostly used, some devices up to 10 years old), PXE bootable PC’s with a linux kernel for remote desktop access, Sun Ray access client software on recycled PC’s, and LTSP linux stations with recycled PCs. We’re still in the process of assessing which is the most appropriate as a long-term solution.
Installing a new networkAlthough some new hardware was required (mainly the servers) and donated by the project, the majority of the budget is devoted staff training and capacity building with tutors and ICT staff, with the expectation being that existing hardware is reused and the university factors in the cost of new/replacement hardware into it’s existing budgets.

In November 2009, we opened two new computer labs, one for the Technology Institute (39 terminals) at the main university campus and another at the Health Sciences colleges campus (42 terminals). These are supported by 2 OpenSolaris servers, one on each campus to provide failover capabilities. our experiences so far show that these labs have far higher availability than any of the traditional PC labs.

Next steps

The Technology Institute is now in the process of creating a new thin client computer lab with 70 terminals reusing old PC hardware, Digital Campus is supporting the implementation of this, providing training, advice and support. We are also continuing to support the research and development of the appropriate server software and configuration needed to create a hyper-scalable network-centric architecture for the university.

Data Collection using Smart Phones

InterviewGathering data from remote locations can be very time consuming, using paper based collection methods may mean it takes a long time for the data to reach those who are going to use or analyse it. Collecting accurate medical and epidemiological data is essential to get a true picture of the health of the inhabitants for resource planning and research. With the growth in availability and decline in cost of smartphones, these seem an ideal technology to help to improve the accuracy of data collected and vastly reduce the time taken for the data to reach those who need it.

Interviewing rural health workers

Key Facts

  • 64 rural health workers interviewed
  • Symbian and Android smartphones tested
  • better than expected GPRS coverage

Digital Campus is testing a variety of technologies for the collection of public health data to help determine which may be most suitable for application in the field. Working with PhD students in maternal health care an initial study to discover the possible challenges and options for using mobile technologies has already been completed. Over 39 health posts in 3 districts of Tigray (northern Ethiopian) were visited to interview the Health Extension Workers (HEWs) based there.

They were interviewed to try to determine their knowledge, training and experience in maternal health with a view to identifying any gaps in their knowledge and designing a programme to help fill these. Additionally, and crucially if a technology based solution is to be implemented, information regarding their technology experience and the infrastructure facilities (such as mobile reception and electricity access) was collected.

Fast and accurate data dissemination

All the data collected during the interviews was recorded on a smartphone using a questionnaire created using the episurveyor web application (a propietary but nice platform so far). Using the client software (installed on the actual phone), responses to the survey are recorded on the phone, as soon as an area with GPRS signal is reached, the data is automatically uploaded to the EpiSurveyor server, making it available to anyone (with the right permissions) around the world. Each record uploaded is automatically time and location (with GPS) stamped, making it possible it pinpoint exactly where and when the interview took place.

Rural health postOne of our initial concerns was that the GPRS coverage would be limited, perhaps only to large towns/cities, but in fact almost all the Health Posts had good GPRS coverage, even those where the villages didn’t have reliable electricity provision. Only a handful of very remote posts had no mobile coverage at all.

We used Symbian and Android based smartphones to collect the data, but in fact the EpiSurveyor client software will run on almost any java enabled phone. We are also currently setting up a more sophisticated platform based on the Sana community-based development MIT project, with the intention of developing it as a more powerful open-source mobile health platform , that will allow us not only to gather epidemiological data, but to use it for electronic clinical records, telediagnostic applications, decision support systems and posgraduate training

We are in the process of writing a detailed technical paper, describing in more detail the survey results and technology used, along with the main challenges and possible solutions to using smartphone technologies in this environment.

Next steps

Over the coming months we will provide a small group of Health Extension Workers with smartphones to determine what (if any) issues and challenges they face in using these and also to gain a clearer picture of how this technology could be used to improve their skills, training, data collection and reporting methods. Once the results from this pre-implementation phase are known, we will be in a position to design a larger scale programme.

Open Educational Resources

What is OER?

As I mentioned in previous posts, OER is defined as digitized educational materials offered freely and openly for use and re-use in teaching, learning and research.

OER challenges

Using OER in education presents some important challenges:

  • Globalization of the knowledge societies, related to the rise of knowledge-intensive societies and the demand for skilled population.
  • Challenges to education systems: extend reach of education, improve quality and flexibility.

Could the technology help?

The developments of new technical solutions, the increasing connectivity, the growing numbers of low-cost devices and the rising of open digital content create the infrastructure to facilitate knowledge sharing in a global context with social, economic and cultural differences.

OER: an academic and cultural challenge

The explosive increase of OER reinforces the tradition of the altruist academic sharing. Initiatives like MIT OpenCourseWare, the UNESCO actions, the OpenCourseWare Consortium movement, and others initiatives opened a wide debate about OER implications, about their advantages and disadvantages in educational systems in different parts of the world.

OER and the cultural context

OER content that is useful in a cultural, academic and economic development is not always applicable in a different context.
When a university is considering the use of open content in the development of their subjects, must carefully consider the relevance and implications of implementing OER and imagine the prospects for participation in the OER movement as institution.
The participation of the universities in this movement implies to go beyond its role like users of open contents to an active role to share the didactic materials developed by its teachers. This step raises important challenges; to develop pedagogical and technical skills between the teachers to develop to interactive contents and methods of quality control.

Interesting views

Catherine Ngugi’s interview, project director of OER Africa, offers interesting views:

  • Some resources created elsewhere, might not be culturally appropriate, or relevant to the other place.
  • Connectivity is one of the practical challenges.
  • An important point is availability of free licences, with permission for free use.
  • The support from university management is crucial.
  • The notion of open learning is an incentive for academics, but they need to know how to do it.
  • The partnership with other universities is a key issue.

For more detail, read the Catherine Ngugi’s interview (

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