Archive for March 2009

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Our department now has a generator, so we can keep working even when the power goes out, although the real reason our department is covered by a generator is because the server room for our campus is in our building.

All of which is good timing as we’re now on scheduled power cuts. Apparently every 5 days the power will be off from 6am until 6 or 9pm and I suspect this will continue until the rainy season starts in June or July. Lets hope that the University gets it’s supply of diesel sorted out – on Friday, with the generator stopped working when the diesel ran out!

I should also hope that at least some of the power generated by the huge new hydroelectric dams ( more info on BBC) is actually kept back to supply Ethiopia, rather than mainly being used for export and associated foreign currency generation.

Reduced to rubble

The small shops near our house shut down and re-open again fairly rapidly, but at least the physical buildings remain. Well, until now… a few days ago I went to buy some bread and bananas at a couple of the shops I’ve been using regularly. Both the shops were well stocked up and neither of the ladies who served gave me any indication that the next day their shops would be reduced to this:

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Almost overnight 2 rows of nearby shops have been completely demolished, and I’ve no idea why or how much notice the shopkeepers had been given to move out.

Hunches confirmed (well, almost!)

A few weeks ago I prepared a survey to find out about students access to computers, their computing skills and what they’d like to see from an online learning system. Due to the (five week!) inter-semester break, I only managed to have these handed out to lecturers to distribute to students last week. In order to increase the completion rate I asked lecturers to hand them out at the end of a class, and get students to complete it there and then.

Today I had the first set of completed surveys returned, other lecturers are going to hand it out next week as apparently not many students turn up during the first week! From the approx 90 second year students, 60 surveys were returned – I reckon that’s quite a good rate of return.

So had quite a fascinating couple of hours this afternoon reading through (and typing up) the responses. I was really pleased how comprehensive the responses were and the fact that almost all students had something to say in the comment sections. However, I am beginning to wonder now just how much data I’m going to end up with to sort through as I still have surveys from another 3 cohorts of computer science students to be returned. I’ve also been thinking about giving a similar survey out to non-computer science students to compare their answers.

Without trying to preempt (although maybe I am!) the final results and analysis of the survey, three things really stood out to me on a quick reading of those already returned:

  1. very few students (maybe less than 10%) have access to a computer outside the department, this includes using internet cafes.
  2. many students complain about lack of access to the computer labs.
  3. students aren’t happy with the number of working PCs available in the labs when the labs are actually open.

Probably no great surprises there, as it’s pretty much what I expected, but will be interesting to see if this is confirmed once all the surveys are returned. I should be able to get a good report written up with all the results.

World’s worst…

Not sure what criteria are being used, or of the appropriateness of using the tagline ‘world’s worst dictator’. From Nazret (visit the site to view the top 10):

Parade, a weekly insert magazine that is distributed with more than 470 Sunday newspapers in the United States, named Ethiopian Prime MInister Meles Zenawi as the World’s 16th Worst Dictator, in its latest annual list of the World’s nastiest dictators. Meles Zenawi has been at the helm of power in Ethiopia since 1991, and prime minister since 1995. The most competitive election in Ethiopia’s modern history took place in 2005, but Meles Zenawi was accused of stealing the election, in which more than 190 people were killed in election related violence.

A former guerrilla leader, Meles shows no signs of sharing power with anyone. In January, his government passed a law forbidding any NGO that receives more than 10% of its budget from abroad from doing human rights work in Ethiopia. Despite Melesโ€™ excesses, the U.S. considers him an important regional ally and continues to train his military.

Isayas Afeworki, his kin in Eritrea, is ranked nastier by the Parade magazine as the 8th worst dictator in the world. Afewerki announced in May 2008 that elections would be postponed for “three or four decades” or longer because they “polarize society.” All forms of media are controlled by the government. At least 10 local journalists remain in prison since their arrests in 2001.

Topping the list is Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe as the World’s Worst Dictator for 2009.

Moodle Book Review

moodle1-9-covershotIn the last few years, I’ve got out of the habit of buying computing books, knowing that generally I’ll only make use of small sections and how quickly they become dated, so have tended to rely on using the internet to look up what I need. Even in cases where I’ve needed to learn something from scratch, I’ve again generally relied on online tutorials/examples.

With this in mind, I was recently asked to review a new book from Packt publishing ‘Moodle 1.9 – ELearning Course Development’ (on Amazon). Well, I say recently, but it was actually a little while ago now, and I’ve only just had chance to have a proper read.

Although aimed at “anyone who wants to make the most of Moodle’s features to produce an interactive online learning experience”, it strikes me as more a reference book for Moodle. With an extensive section (around a quarter of the book) devoted just to the installation and initial setup of a Moodle server, including authentication, security, filters, themes etc , I started to think it was aimed mainly at system administrators, but the remainder of the book is devoted to explanations on how to create courses, add resources and activities – the areas most teachers and course creators would want to know.

Extensive coverage is given to how each of the blocks and activity settings can be used, which, whilst very useful as a reference, may come across as a little intimidating, especially for new Moodlers. Explanations are also given on why you might want to use the activity although I found that it lacked real life examples of good and bad practice. I’m sure many teachers would want to know what others have already tried, whether successfully or not.

Given the fast paced change of most software, Moodle is no exception, I would also have liked to have seen some reference (acknowledgment?) of the features coming in Moodle 2. Perhaps this was deliberately left out so as not to confuse readers, or perhaps Moodle 2 wasn’t in a stable enough form at the time of writing, but this book is likely to date quickly, assuming that Moodle 2 is released according to plan in mid 2009.

There are a couple of other books in the same series, ‘Moodle Teaching Techniques’ and ‘Moodle Administration’ and I’d have really like to have read all three alongside each other, to find out where the differences are, any overlaps and if either of these other books plug the gaps I felt were left open by Elearning Course Development.

In summary, an excellent book if you already know what you want to do with Moodle but aren’t sure how to use the settings to achieve your aims. I’m unlikely to be seen reading this book without also having a PC in front of me with Moodle in my browser.

Deeply Frozen

No – this isn’t a posting about the weather, just about inertia and DeepFreeze.

I’m still trying to get our computer lab open to the general student population (not just those paying for the CISCO training), but keep coming up against resistance from most people in the department. As I’ve probably mentioned numerous times, we have a computer lab set up with networked 20 PCs which has been locked up since my arrival over 6 months ago. The PCs were bought with funding from the DIF elearning project and were specifically for students to use to access the elearning site. Staff and students complain about the lack of access to and number of PCs, but then everytime I suggest we get our lab open I’m met with excuses and resistance – why so?

The reasons I’ve been given are along the lines that there will be too many students trying to use the lab and so will cause problems (no-one has really been able to define for me what these problems might actually be). Yes, there are going to be many students who want to use the lab and we certainly don’t have enough PCs to accommodate them all, but what should we do? Wait until there are enough PCs for all students, then open the labs?

Another reason given is that the Computer Science students don’t have very good PCs in their labs, so we can’t be seen to be allowing non-CS students (i.e. those from Business College) ‘priority’ to good PCs. Despite the fact that the PCs were purchased with money to specifically allow access to Business College students and it doesn’t preclude CS students from also using the lab. It ought to be easy enough to create a schedule whereby each departments’ students have designated access times?

My personal feeling is that the department wants to keep the lab exclusively for the (fee-paying) CISCO students, occasional elearning training course I might give and possibly open the lab to final-year CS students. If this is the case then all the training I’m giving to the Business College staff is totally wasted, none of the undergraduate Business College students have a computer lab they can use to access the materials and activities I’m meant to be encouraging their teachers to put online.

Sorry if this sounds like a rant, but I’m getting quite annoyed about all this, over something which ought to be very simple to arrange.

So, on to the other topic in this post, DeepFreeze. I’ve recently got hold of a copy of this and have been trying it out. Essentially it locks down the PC so anything that a user tries to do to the PC (changing settings, installing programs etc) is lost on the next reboot, and every time the PC is turned on it’s essentially returned to it’s ‘clean’ state. My plan is to get this running on all the DIF lab PCs and show the other lab technicians how they could use it in the hope of reducing the amount of PC maintenance needed.

Second (or third?) thoughts

I keep changing my mind as to how appropriate it is to be trying to run an elearning project here in Ethiopia.

On the one hand, I’m running training sessions for staff in how to set up their courses in Moodle, but then very few of the students have access to computers so staff are understandably reluctant to spend time setting up a course that almost no-one can access. To give you some idea of the limited availability I’m talking about, on the Business Campus we have around 3000 students and 6 computing labs. 2 of these labs are open for postgraduate students only (comprising approx 100 students) and 3 of the labs are only for Computer Science students (approx 300 students). This leaves the final ‘DIF’ lab – this is the lab funded by the elearning project I’m working on – and has approx 20 networked PCs, but due to lack of maintenance and supervisory staff it’s not open to students. This leaves a handful of PCs in the library to be used by 2600 students, approx 1 open access PC per 500 students. Even if I manage to get our DIF lab openly available to students, this only increases availability to approx 1 PC per 100 students. Not an ideal situation to be in when trying to promote the creation of online quizzes & discussion forums!

On the other hand, even small steps forward may be useful. Just getting teachers and students used to the idea of online and blended learning and how they may create or participate in online collaborative activities is a good thing in itself. They may currently only have limited computer access, but this situation is bound to improve, or at least I hope it’s bound to improve! Receiving training and having some experience of participating in and creating online courses now may help prepare teachers and students for the future.

At the moment, I’m on the pessimistic whats-the-point side of the fence, but I am writing this on a Friday afternoon and may well have changed my mind again by Monday morning! Also by Monday morning we may have received the timetable for the new semester. The new semester starts on Monday, it’s now Friday just after lunch and no-one (teachers or students) have any idea of their lesson timetable!

Workshop Week

Following my last posting, I’ve been trying to not think about what may or may not happen 3-6 months in the future, and concentrate on the immediate few days ahead. Although for info there is a possibility that I’ll actually be back in UK July or August – depending on whether any extension is approved and whether there is anything actually happening at the University during the holiday break!

Anyway, back to the last few days… I’m now at the end of a week long series of half-day Moodle training sessions for staff, although it’s not been as intense as first sounds. Monday was a public holiday and the posters for the training sessions had only been approved and distributed to departments after 5pm on the Friday the week before, so given the short notice, I wasn’t too surprised when no-one showed up for either the Tuesday morning or afternoon sessions!

The attendance rate was (fortunately) vastly improved on the Wednesday and Thursday sessions, 35 teachers in all. Although we did have several disruptions, notably due to power cuts of 10-15 mins at a time – at least one power cut per session, it did give us time to go for a coffee in the staff lounge and generally the sessions seemed to go down well.

The main problems occurred at the beginning of the session when I was showing teachers how they could log into the site. I’d been given a list of all Business College staff so I could create their accounts beforehand and give them appropriate permissions. When Ethiopian names are transliterated into Latin script, there can be numerous variations of the same name, so what was on the list I’d been given may not reflect how that individual usually writes their names in Latin characters.

Because of these differences, when I then ask the teachers to log in, it very often fails. I then spend a few mins sorting out their account profile so they can finally log in to the site. This can be very disruptive to the training, as it can be 30-45 mins into the session before everyone has even logged in – it doesn’t get the session off to a good start or give a good impression of the site.

I’ve been having a think about how I can overcome this for future training sessions, but haven’t come up with any suitable solutions. A couple of the options I’ve considered are:

  1. Using a set of generic user accounts ‘teacher01’, etc. This may work better for the training sessions, but when teachers come to log in with their real accounts, if they have problems (and on the evidence of my training at least half will), I won’t be on hand to fix their account details.
  2. Creating the accounts as staff arrive at the training. Attendees don’t usually arrive promptly, so there may be time before the session starts to set up the accounts, ensuring the correct spelling is used. Setting up the accounts and permissions like this can still be time consuming, and although everyone doesn’t arrive on time (usually 20-30 mins late!), they still often come all at once.

If anyone has any other suggestions as to how I might handle this, then please post a comment below ๐Ÿ™‚

6 months on and the economic problems finally catch up with me!

On Saturday it will be 6 months since I first arrived in Ethiopia. Although work-wise I haven’t achieved many of the things I’d hoped to by this point, I’m generally pleased with how work and various projects are progressing. There is plenty more to do and get involved with, so I’m likely to get busier over the coming months. Despite all the advice (warnings?) during pre-departure training and from other, longer serving, volunteers about how slow work can be and how it takes time to get things done, you still somehow think that it’ll be different for you!

So, I’m halfway through my placement and starting to think about what I do next. As I’m feeling that I’ve only just got started with the work here, I looking into extending my placement for a further 6 months. I’ve spoken to my program manager and in theory he’s happy for me to extend – after completing the various forms regarding how my placement objectives are being met and what my objectives would be during the extension.

However, the economic problems may put the brakes on any planned extension. VSO is mainly funded (approx 75% I believe) through UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and so (I assume) receives most of it’s money in sterling. The drop in value of GBP means that VSO may not be able to fund as many placements in the coming months. When I arrived in Sept 1 GBP bought around 18 birr, now it’s only around 14 birr. Apparently, VSO Ethiopia aren’t going to know until July just how many placements will be funded. Consequently, even if I apply now for an extension it won’t be until July when I’ll have the final answer.

To confuse things further, I’m unsure exactly what there will be for me at the Uni during the summer months (July – Sept). Although one of the busiest periods for the University, during summer all lecturers are officially on holiday. Staff then apply to teach on the summer programme and receive extra payment for this work. My work could happily continue through this period, as I’m not tied to specific teaching programmes. But if the staff aren’t around, or rather, are around but aren’t being paid for anything except teaching, they may be reluctant to participate or contribute to the work I’m trying to do. Unless I can get some commitment that staff will be available to support and continue the elearning project, I may be slightly redundant during the summer, unless I can find another project to work on here.

So, currently feeling a bit in limbo about the placement, and my plans to keep my head down here out of the way of the economic problems don’t seem to be working out!

However, I probably shouldn’t complain too much, through a rather circuitous route I’ve been hearing about the situation for one of the VSO volunteers in Eritrea. Based geographically very close, just over the (closed) border to the north, they’re subject to food, water, and fuel shortages, currently having no piped water or kerosene, so only able to water from the well and cook on charcoal.

Horoscopes & Acronyms

Ominously, my ‘weekly business horoscope’ (not that I really believe in such things) in one of the local English langauage newspapers finished with the sentence:

Co-workers will not be willing to work with you and you will have to accomplish projects on your own.

As I’m running training courses later this week and next week the Networking and Elearning Research Team should be getting started, I’m rather hoping this horoscope doesn’t prove to be true!

In proper university project team fashion, I’m trying to find a suitable acronym for the research team, so far I have the rather lame options of 1) NEL – Networking and ELearning or 2) EL-NET – ELearning and NETworking.

Please post any better suggestions below ๐Ÿ™‚