I was just having a look at the statistics for the Mekelle Uni Moodle and am very pleased to see how much the site has increased in usage over the last year. Great to see students making up a large proportion of the hits. Last year we were seeing more hits from teachers, probably due to their course development and issues with lab opening. The drop is hits during February and March this year is likely due to three factors: (a) one of the labs being closed following theft of some terminals, (b) end of semester exams and (c) subsequent inter-semester break. I hope the site usage continues to increase.
Last night we presented the Certificate in Online Education to another 20 teachers from Technology Institute and Health Sciences. Over the past week we’ve been verifying that everyone has completed the assignments and other requirements. We’re still learning about the best way to deliver the course to get active participation especially when we’re not present in Mekelle. Before coming to back to Mekelle we were a little worried that few teachers had completed any of the assignments or their courses. But actually most had completed what was asked of them, just that we didn’t know – either they’d started to develop a different course to the one they’d first told us about, or they’d created the required activities, but not submitted the links to notify us.
Most of the teachers are now moving onto the advanced course which we started this week. We’re not starting a new basic course this semester, as we’d really like the elearning team to deliver this themselves with our support from a distance, rather than Jaime and I continually running the workshops.
Has been a fun couple of weeks in Mekelle, but hard work and much more to do, as ever. I have a few other blog articles to finish writing and get posted up, so hope to do this over the next few days. With such a short visit, I didn’t get the time to catchup with everyone I wanted to, but hopefully I’ll be back again in May/June time for a slightly longer visit.
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.
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.
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.