Archive for November 2008

Parcel Post

I’ve been keeping the Ethiopian postal service busy – 3 parcels have arrived in 2 days. Firstly Chris Pegler very kindly sent me a copy of her and Allison Littlejohn’s book, ‘Preparing for blended elearning’ – probably should’ve arranged to have my blended learning workshop after I’ve had time to read it!

I’ve received five 8Gb DVDs, from Jenny and Richard on the OpenLearn team, containing all the current OpenLearn course content – so I’m very grateful to them for this! I’m hoping that I’ll be able promote our Moodle server by offering access to some of the OpenLearn courses and it’ll encourage staff and students to visit the site.

Finally a parcel from my parents arrived, containing a random selection of items (all of which I’d asked them to send)… new (decent) toothbrush, wooden fish slice (we can only find metal ones here which would wreck our non-stick pan), more cds/dvds (software, radio shows etc) and a bar of dark chocolate 🙂

I had to collect two of these parcels from the main post office in town. Well, I say in town, it’s actually stuck in some residential suburb, so a slightly odd location. Luckily I hadn’t left it too long to collect these as there’s a 1 birr per day per parcel ‘storage charge’ even for small parcels and the only way of avoiding the charge is by going to the post office the same day the parcels arrive, rather than waiting until the slip of paper arrives to tell you a parcel is waiting. I heard about someone being informed of a parcel 6 months after it had actually arrived and being charged 6 months storage fee!!

Workshop No. 1

Quite relieved to have my first workshop delivered and out of the way. How did it go? Well, I’m not really sure!

The workshop content was the concepts behind blended learning, something I’ve never taught before. My main aim was to get across the fact that blended and elearning was far more than just putting content (course manuals) up on a website. 10 people attended, mainly lecturers from the computer science dept and they all seemed to take an active part in the activities I had planned, all were happy to give their thoughts when I asked questions and to share the results from their group activities.

The final activity didn’t go quite as I’d expected, which may be more to do with my explanation of the activity than anything else. What I wanted people to do was design an online learning activity for their students, which would be very specific for one of their courses. However the results were somewhat vaguer than I’d expected, and were more along the lines of ‘I’d use some online exercises, quizzes and forums’. So looking in the right direction, but not quite what I’d meant.

The main piece of feedback I’ve had is that it wasn’t practical enough, although to me the point of the workshop was just to get the concepts across and I was wary of repeating the Moodle training Wondwossen and Irene previously gave some of th attendees. Maybe I need to be more careful about people’s expectations next time and perhaps arrange for a follow up practical workshop. Perhaps my final activity would have worked better if it’d been followed up with a practical session using Moodle to create the learning activity.

In all I was pleased that (a) people had turned up at all and (b) they took part in the activities – plus it was a small enough group (of people I know anyway from the dept) for me to ‘test’ the workshop on, I’ve had some useful feedback, so I’ll be much happier next time it’s run with a bigger group.

Open, closed or ajar?

Reading the recent discussions (here, here and here) regarding how much the OU ought to be promoting open source software (OSS), reminded me of discussions I’ve had here in Ethiopia about how much we (as IT volunteers) ought to be promoting OSS.

The arguments for and against the use of Windows and other proprietary software in each of these discussions are very similar. On the one hand, there’s the ‘Windows is standard’ argument (in one sense of the word standard) and that’s what everyone else uses, so that’s what I want to use. On the other, there’s the ‘free’ argument, and just because Windows is on so-many percent of PCs, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use OSS. I realise I’m probably using the terms ‘Windows’ and ‘proprietary software’ interchangeably.

I feel quite stuck in the middle regarding all this (sat on the fence would be an alternative description!). In an ideal world, yes, everyone would use OSS, but I don’t think it’s practical to be so black and white. Here in Ethiopia, people generally want to learn about MS Windows and MS Office (including Publisher & FrontPage) as that’s what ‘everybody’ else uses and, more importantly, is what employers will be looking for. From the discussions I’ve had the only practical pro-OSS argument, that isn’t an academic/theoretical one in their eyes, is the fact they’re far less likely to suffer from viruses. Licensing costs aren’t really a factor taken into consideration where software piracy isn’t exactly unheard of. Even with this very strong argument (only last week the ex-dean from our faculty lost most of his documents to a virus), the people I’ve spoken to, although enthusiastic, don’t yet feel comfortable or confident enough to jump to using non-MS software.

I’ve heard similar sentiments from UK friends who work in MS-only environments, perhaps not believing that OSS would be as stable, secure, robust and reliable (!) as something you pay good money for.

In the computer science dept here, a few staff use Ubuntu and other OSS operating systems, but they’re the exception. I’m attempting to do my ‘promote OSS’ bit by lending people the Ubuntu CD after I’ve reinstalled Windows XP on their laptops (inevitably broken by some Windows virus). There are also signs that things are changing, for example, I know of non-techies who have heard of Ubuntu and are willing to give it a go and the Internet and Web Development course here in the computer science dept this year has shifted in focus from ASP to PHP (although still teaches FrontPage). I’m also hoping that we can change some of our computer lab PCs to be XP/Ubuntu dual boot, so students have the opportunity to get experience in using something other than Windows. At the end of the day I’m not going to force anyone to use any one particular system, I’ll give them the pros and cons of each side and let them make up their own mind, hoping that the no-virus argument will be the one that swings it 😉

On the buses

5am starts each morning aren’t usually my idea of a fun long weekend, but this weekend I’ve been trying out the Ethiopian local bus services.

Mekelle – Abi Adi
Slightly overestimated how long it would take to walk down to Mekelle bus station, so arrived just before its 5:30am opening time. Managed to get the first bus (actually a line taxi) out to Abi Adi, so things were off to a good 6am start, although we didn’t really get out of the town until we’d stopped for bottles of water, pumping the tyres up, getting petrol, collecting a passenger from their house and picking up lengths of hose. About halfway we stopped and I had my breakfast bought for me by one of the other passengers.

Abi Adi – Adwa
Andy and I arrived at Abi Adi bus station just in time to spend 3 hours sat on the bus before setting off. Well, we thought we were leaving at about 6:30, but turned out just to be short tour around town to try and drum up some more customers, before returning to the bus station to sit and wait until the bus filled up. None of the buses here will set off until every seat is full – resulting in some long waits on stationary buses. Although, on the plus side, apparently Ethiopia is one of only 2 African countries outlawing standing up on buses.

After a few more tours of town we got underway at 9:30, passing the college where Andy lives. Four hours after leaving his house we were back to where we started.

Had our only puncture of the weekend on this route, it was one of the double back tyres and I’m fairly sure all that happened was the 2 tyres were swapped over. As we were in a town a small crowd gathered to watch, though more interested in the 2 ferenjis than having the tyre fixed!

Adwa – Axum
A much more respectable start time for this journey. Adwa and Axum are an hour apart, so there’s a regular bus service through the day and had my only lie of the weekend (until 8am!!). We still managed to spend more time sat on the bus at the station than the actual length of the journey.

Axum – Mekelle
Longest journey of the weekend – 8 hours on the back seat on untarmaced road isn’t great fun. Even with little sleep the previous night and bit of a hangover, you’d be lucky to get any more than a few minutes sleep before the bus hit another pothole or swerves/breaks to avoid goats/donkeys/people.

Arrived at the bus station shortly before it opened and the only station we’ve seen the police searching people. Axum is quite near the Eritrean border, so they’re more security-conscious here. We can’t have fitted their ‘terrorist profile’, as we got straight through with no search.

Relatively uneventful journey until Abi Adi, we had stopped for short breaks in a few small towns, when children attempt to sell an unusual selection of snacks. The items on offer were roasted barley (nothing too strange about that), lemons and eggs (raw). The lemons sellers didn’t appear to be doing great business, but I managed to refrain from suggesting they might have better results selling less acidic fruit.

The bus dropped Andy off outside his college, then our ’10 minute’ break in Abi Adi bus station lasted over an hour, presumably to give the priests plenty of time to collect donations. Only a few km outside Abi Adi we stopped again for another hour or so, whilst we attempted to help another which had come off the road. It had only just come of the road and apparently no-one was hurt, but was stuck in the sand/dirt and couldn’t reverse back out. The plan appeared to be to just pull the bus back onto the road using ropes tied to the roof rack. Although a couple of policemen were there, the bus-rescue was quite hap-hazard. After a few attempts at hauling the bus, our bus passengers gave up and we were back on our way back to Mekelle.

On passing the cement factory on the edge of town the conductor started to collect all the tickets back in. I was sat at the back and watched as every passenger handed their tickets back, so I did likewise, only for the conductor to then rip them all up, open the window next to me and throw the confetti out. Next time I’ll hang onto my ticket.

In-between the bus trips we managed to squeeze in a few meals and drinks out with other volunteers. In Axum we saw a few of the tourist sites, the church where the arc of the covenant is allegedly held and the stelae fields – but will save all that for another posting 😉

Caption Competition

Took this photo in Axum on Saturday and sure it’s crying out for a caption:

Answers on a postcard please – or just post a comment below 🙂

OLPC Trial School Visit

I attended my first English lesson in about 20 years this morning when I visited the Maiwayni School in Mekelle to see their trial of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. OLPC trials are being run at a few other schools in Ethiopia, but this is the first in the Tigray region. It’s a model school for the area and has very good facilities for it’s 600+ students and staff.

Around 100 students of grades 6 and 7 were given the XO laptops just over 2 weeks ago. Teachers were given a one day workshop in how to use the laptops and how they can use them in their teaching. Technical support for the laptops is provided by MIT (probably not the one you’re thinking of, but the more local Mekelle Institute of Technology), though so far they’ve had few technical problems. Students can charge the laptops up at home if they have electricity (and the electricy is on), or there are charging facilities at school – unfortunately not solar power (Matt, if you’re after a project, then come over and fix up a solar panel for them!).

I didn’t get chance to talk to the students/teachers/parents to find out what they felt about having the laptops, although the head and deputy head seemed very keen and happy they were chosen to be the trial school.

Before going into the class, the headmaster (Tsegay) gave us chance to have a little play around. At first I found the interface was a little tricky to navigate, but once I’d got the hang of it, it was fine. As well as the games and cut down Wikipedia, all the grade 6 and 7 text books (mainly in Amharic and Tigrinya) have been scanned in and pre-loaded as ebooks. During the English lesson, all the students (around 55 in total) had grade 7 English ebook opened at the right point – I was half expecting most of the children at the back to be playing with the games!

Most of the students seemed to be taking an active part in the lesson, even if it meant having their hand up for a while before the teacher had chance to get to them. The use of the XO laptop in the lesson we observed was restricted to using it as an alternative to a paper textbook – I didn’t get the feeling the lesson would have been much different if all the students had had a paper textbook in front of them. However, it is still very early days for this school and the students have only had the laptops for a couple of weeks to get to grips with them, at least the students here each had a copy of the ebook – unlike many schools where there aren’t enough paper textbooks to go around. Also, it will probably take some time (and more workshops) for the teachers to gain experience in how to make best use of their new IT facilities.

It will be interesting to see how things have changed if I can get to visit the school again in a few months time.

Another address

Finally have a personal PO box number (have been waiting a while to get a lock for the box). It is:

VSO Mail – Alex Little
Mekelle University
PO Box 3060

This one might be a little more reliable than the work PO box I posted up a week or so ago.

Fresh Meat

Had probably the freshed meat I’ve ever eaten on Saturday night. Marcel and I arrived at Thashika’s house about 2 mins after Tserai had slaughtered a goat, he’d just cut it’s throat and was draining the blood ready to skin and gut it. Very interesting to watch, if a touch gory, especially as it’s something I’ve never seen before and (not being vegetarian) am glad, in a strange way, that I have seen it. I didn’t have my camera so you’re lucky there are no accompanying photos on this posting.

Their cat was very excited about it all, and very happy to be given the goats head to play with/eat afterwards. The goat (a kid) had cost 160 birr, about 10 UK pounds, or the equivalent of 8 packets of pringles from the local supermarket. If a good job is made of removing the skin, i.e. intact with no puncture holes from the knife and with the hooves still attached, then the skin can be sold on again for about 30 birr.

I finally feel like a tourist

After being here for nearly 2 months, I’ve finally done something touristy! We headed up to Gheralta to go for a walk up into the hills and to visit a couple of the churches. Gheralta is about a 2 hour drive from Mekelle and a tricky to get to on public transport, so we went in a Red Cross 4×4 which explains the ‘no weapons’ sticker in the window.

The walk up to the churches was really fantastic, very steep uphill all the way – followed all the way by about 20 kids (only one was our actual guide). At the top we attempted to negotiate getting into the churches, but there was some (deliberate?) confusion about the key which they wanted extra money for. The official Tigray Tourist Commision price is 50 birr per ticket, at first the priest wanted to charge extra for the key, which we then refused, and suddenly no-one knew where the key was (it was hanging around the priests neck… hmmm…). Anyway we had a look at the entrances to both Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor. The hobbit-sized entrance to Daniel Korkor is around the other side of the mountain, along a ledge with a 500m drop to one side.

The ledge around to the entrance:

Church door (Although I may be wearing the same clothes I’m wearing in the other photos I’ve posted up – I can assure you that they have been washed):

The view down – if you look very closely you may be able to see the white speck that’s our 4×4 – about 1/3 of the way from left side of photo and just below the road:

Was a shame that we didn’t get into the church, but think it can often be a bit hit and miss as to whether they allow you in or not. Having a Tigrinya speaking guide (not just a 10 year old), probably would have significantly increased our chances – although still not guaranteed if the priest has decided he’s had enough for the day.

Lunch was at the nearby Gheralta Lodge, which, at 70 birr (about 7 USD) for 4 course set menu with a couple of beers, has been the most expensive meal I’ve had in Ethiopia so far.

On the way back we stopped at another rock church (this time one just off the main road, so no long uphill walk), which we were actually allowed to get into, and they didn’t try overcharging either.

It was great to finally get to look inside one of the rock churches and see the sights tourists come to Ethiopia for! This weekend I’m heading over to Axum, a historical town about 7 hours bus trip away from Mekelle, also allegedly home to the arc of the covenant (though only one priest is ever allowed to see it)- so should have some more good pics to post up early next week 🙂

I now have an address!

It’s just my work one, but is fine to send things to – and I’ll be very grateful for anything sent over, cds/dvds/reading material/chocolate etc!

Alex Little
Mekelle University
FBE Campus
Computer Science Department
PO box 451

I’m still in the process of getting a personal PO box, but just waiting for a lock for the box to arrive, so wary about anything being sent there until this is sorted.