The thin client solution we currently have running in Mekelle is based on using OpenSolaris and we have a variety of terminals – a mixture of SunRay 1′s, SunRay 2′s and Nortech clients. Using sun ray session server, the sunray terminals are performing well, but when we have the labs full of students, the Nortech terminals are significantly less responsive. There are a number of possible reasons for this, the protocols used, the network amongst others. There is a huge range of other configurations and technologies we could use to provide a robust and scalable thin client architecture.
I’ve spent a few days this week in Barcelona with Cast-Info investigating their Desktop4All solution, which we’re looking to trial as an alternative to the OpenSolaris setup we currently have. Goitom, one of the phds students from Mekelle will spend the next few weeks based in the Cast-Info offices, learning how to install and set up the server system used for Desktop4All, with a view to installing this when back in Mekelle in a couple of months.
Desktop4All, based on Linux, is a set of integrated open source applications. It’s likely to produce a similar end result to the solution that we already have running with OpenSolaris, but the main advantage for us will be in the support and documentation available as a reference. Testing out Desktop4All will give us the opportunity to collaborate in the development and to investigate whether we get similar types of issues arising as we have had with OpenSolaris.
When we started the Digital Campus project, I think there was some concern over whether the students would need much training in how to use a non-Windows operating system, given that much (all?) of their previous experience of using computers/pcs was with Windows (usually XP). This has turned out not to be the case, given that many students have had limited time to become locked in Windows, we’ve found few issues with students being unable to navigate the interface or use applications. I suspect we don’t always give the students credit for their ability to adapt to new interfaces and systems (especially judging by how quickly they find their way to webmail, youtube and facebook).
I spent my final week in Mekelle helping to run student induction sessions for the Health Sciences college. We now have around 600 students registered on elearning courses (from both Technology Institute and Health Sciences College), with over a third of these having completed our initial student survey – so we should be able to get some good information about their expectations and previous computing experiences.
As always, my last few days in Mekelle were very hectic – my workload seems to increase as I get nearer to my departure date! But we have now got over 20 classrooms in the Health Sciences College connected up to the network, with projectors and computers, so teachers no longer have to carry their laptops to be able to give a presentation, plus they have access to the internet within the classroom. Currently these computers are running on Windows, but we’ll change this so they boot across the network and act as thin client machines.
I was also helping to advise the Technology institute on how they can massively increase their computing infrastructure using the thin client model. They have many 100′s of old monitors to make use of. There is a long way to go to get this set up, especially as the institute needs to staff and train an ICT team/department.
We still have some issue regarding the fact that the labs we have aren’t able to cope with the number of students wanting to use them. I’m getting a lot of requests to allocate specific times for classes, but I’m being quite firm that the labs should remain open access, rather than becoming a substitute for the lack of maintenance in the departmental computer labs.
Am now trying to have a bit of time off in the UK (without getting bogged down in emails about the labs, training etc!), before heading to Spain to work at Alcala Uni for a few months.
This week has been extremely varied and busy. On Monday I started off by helping with the student induction sessions for the Technology Institute students. Mesi and Berihu (the elearning team in the institute) are now able to run the inductions themselves, so I don’t need to get involved with these any more. So in less than 3 weeks, we have gone from training the teachers in how to get their courses online to having students enrolled on the online courses they have created.
Then on Tuesday I gave a couple of presentations about the Digital Campus project and Open Educational Resources to the languages department. Andrew and Elinor from Clarity were back in Ethiopia to run some training for their English language improvement software, so my presentations were to help inform the languages department about how they may want to use elearning in their teaching.
I spent Wednesday morning helping to interview 13 people for 3 lab attendants posts to look after one of our computer labs and to work in shifts so the lab can be open 24 hours a day. The interviews were extremely short – only 5-10 mins each and the candidates had the choice of whether to speak in Amharic or English, so in the end there was only one candidate I could give an opinions on as they had answered the whole interview in English. Although I couldn’t understand every word, I could tell that the level of training at some of the private colleges was a little suspect (many had their IT diplomas from private colleges in Mekelle). For example, in response to my question about what they would do if a student had a problem with their password, over half replied that they’d use password cracker software (or at least I heard the words ‘password cracker software’ in their Amharic response).
Later in the afternoon I travelled up to Wukro again to accompany Mahmud (another of the phd students at Alcala) on some of his research field work. He’s looking for particular types of parasites in children, so is going out to rural schools and doing blood, urine and stool tests on a subset of the students.
On Thursday we headed out to Sherafo school (about 30 mins drive off the main road from Agula) to complete the testing he’d started there the day before. Our lab was set up in the model classroom at the school and whilst Mahmud was interviewing the children and their parents, I was helping the rest of the team weigh and measure the children – improving my Tigriyan numbers at the same time. I’m not sure how much a disruption my presence at the school was, most of the children spent a long time staring at me.
I was also looking at whether the cameras on the smart phones were going to be good enough to take photos of the microscope slides, so they could be attached to other questionnaire/interview data being recorded on the phone application. The unfortunately predictable answer was no – the only way we could get even halfway recognisable photos was to use a proper digital camera with macro setting.
On Friday morning I caught the bus back to Mekelle and was up at the Arid campus by just after 9am. I went to look at the refurbished PC lab that’s still being built. The furniture was just being installed, but there’s no sign yet of the network or electrical work that we’ve been waiting quite some time for. Although the tables use a similar design to those I had made for the other lab, I wonder how long the new tables will actually last. The sliding keyboard shelves feel like they’ll break quite easily.
In more positive news, over at Ayder campus in the afternoon, I arrived to find that all 22 classrooms were now networked. The college dean had asked for this to be done only about 2 weeks ago. Each classroom also has a projector and an old desktop computer. So next week all we need to do is get the computer configured to boot from our server and all the classrooms can have internet and other computing facilities.
I’m now going to have a relaxing weekend
I have spent the past 4 days visiting rural Health Posts with my colleague Araya. His phd is looking at the gaps of the Health Extension Workers (HEWs), specifically related to maternal health. Once the gaps are known, the next stage will be to design a programme to fill the hole in knowledge/skills, possibly using technology to help deliver the training.
Altogether he’ll interview 150 HEWs at over 100 Health Posts in 3 districts in Tigray. Over the 4 days I’ve been out with him, he managed to interview 18 HEWs at 14 health posts. Each day has been long – leaving Wukro around 7 am and not returning until after 7pm, so 12 hours to conduct about 5 interviews, each interview lasting about an hour or more.
I’ve been helping with the technology support and will be helping look at what could be appropriate to use in this context. Not all the concerns I mentioned in my earlier post have been realised.
The GPRS coverage has been far better than I’d expected, out of the 13 posts we visited, only one had no mobile or GPRS coverage. A couple had patchy coverage – but it was working for some of the time during our approx 2 hour visits. This is really positive from the point of view of the technology we might like to use in the future.
However, none of the posts had an electricity supply. A couple had electricity poles running very close to the building, but they weren’t connected up. In most cases there wasn’t any electricity supply to the village at all.
My phone battery got to be a real problem for me, despite having wireless and bluetooth turned off, I found that battery was only lasting for about 8-9 hours. I was using the GPS quite a lot, but even on the first couple of days when I was only briefly turning the GPS on (to get the coordinates for the posts), this only gave me a couple of extra hours battery life.
All except one of the HEWs we met had a mobile phone. The reason for the one exception was that she worked at the post with no mobile coverage, so she’d given her phone to a relative. Which for me than raised the question of how they charge the phones given there’s limited power supply. The answer to this was that they must travel to the town to charge their phones (this could be a 2-3 hour walk), or they send the phones with someone else going to town.
The HEWs have very limited English (although much better than my Tigrinya), so delivery of any training materials must be in either Amharic or Tigrinya to have any chance of being effective. One of Araya’s questions is about their use of text messaging, many don’t use text messaging simply because they don’t know the latin alphabet well enough.
What I’ve seen over the past few days is only a small proportion of all the posts that Araya will eventually be covering, but it’s likely that the further interviews will reinforce what we’ve already found out – rather than raising any new issues or significantly altering the results to date.
Over the coming months (after some more of the interview have been conducted), we’d like to get the results from the technology aspects written up into a paper.
I recently became the owner of an unlocked HTC Dream smartphone (running Android 1.6). Smart phones are still quite a rarity in Mekelle (and I’d guess in much of the rest of Ethiopia), so despite this not being the most recent model, everyone who sees me using it asks me to have a look & play around. I have seen a few people with Nokia E71 phones, but when you look closer they’re actually Nokla E71′s (yes, that’s Nokia with an L instead of an i).
In a couple of days I will be heading out to some rural areas with a colleague doing his doctorate in public health. He’s testing different smartphones and applications for data collection whilst he’s interviewing Health Extension Workers (HEWs). I’m joining him to see what some of the issues are with using these types of phones and applications in this context, with a view to spending some time over the coming months seeing how these devices may be used to deliver training.
I’ve only really been using the phone for the past week or so and there are a couple of areas where I can already see we may run into problems.
Firstly, the battery life. With my usage, not particularly heavy, the battery usually only lasts just over a day. Given that we’ll be using these devices for data collection, then they’re likely to be having heavy use in areas with little or no mains power. We are testing out some small solar power chargers.
Secondly, the GPRS coverage. GPRS is not used widely here and coverage in extremely patchy (even in large city like Mekelle) and it’s not yet been rolled out to other more rural areas (or even large towns). Sim cards need to be specifically enabled to use GPRS – it’s not turned on by default. The applications we’re testing out (EpiSurveyor and Sana) will both allow data to stored until an area with coverage is reached, but unless the user visits Mekelle on a regular basis then the data will never get uploaded.
I’m sure that improvements in the phones and the phone network infrastructure will eventually make both of my concerns invalid – it’s just a question of when they will be addressed.
The other questions and areas I’d like to look at include:
1) How easy is inputting the data on such a small screen? Might a tablet or netbook PC be more appropriate? Perhaps they’ll work well for short, relatively simple surveys, but not for others?
2) Do any of the HEW’s already have java enabled phones? If so, this would enable them to use the EpiSurveyor application without any new phones.
3) Do any of the phones support input using ge’ez (the alphabet used for Amharic and Tigrinian)? I can’t see how to input these characters on my phone (if anyone knows how I’d be pleased to hear from you), but I can display the characters.
4) How long do the phones take to get a GPS signal? For each record input we can automatically attach the location coordinates – but I’ve noticed that sometimes the phones can take a long time getting a GPS fix. With the power issues it’s unlikely they’d want to leave the GPS on all the time.
5) Would they really be used? Getting reliable data in these areas (even just for the number of births/deaths) is extremely difficult – reporting processes are often unreliable or just not used. Using these phones could help with gathering this info – but obviously only if they are used.
5) What are the other uses for the phones? E.g. providing remote diagnostic support, clinical support, training content/activities or reference, or perhaps for fun/social activities.
Plus I’m sure many other questions and possibilities will arise over the coming days.
This listing is part of the Free to Learn Guide (look in the Table of Contents: Index of OER Resources)
This guide describe Open Educational Resources (OER) as a cost-efficient method of improving the quality of teaching and learning while at the same time reducing costs imposed on students related to the purchase of expensive commercial textbooks and learning materials.