Archive for July 2009

Back to Ethiopia

After nearly 3 months being back in the UK, next week I´m finally heading back to Ethiopia and my VSO placement in Mekelle. So looking forward to getting back, especially because I will be working on a new project building 2 new computer labs for the Engineering and Health Sciences faculties. The labs are being funded by the Spanish government and we´re running a pilot project over the next year to build the labs and initiate a new elearning training programme for both teachers and students.

Other good news is that my VSO placement has been extended for an extra 6 months, my original contract was due to run until Sept ´09 but now I won´t be back until March or April next year – giving you extra time to arrange a trip over to visit!

With this in mind, I´ve now increased my JustGiving fundraising target by 50%, in line with the increase to my contract! All donations to help support the work of VSO in developing countries is very much appreciated 🙂

A month without Google

Seeing myself getting completely locked into using Google products, I thought it might be an interesting experiment to try not to use any Google services for a month. [I’m also still a little annoyed with them for not sorting out the problem I still have with Google Groups].

Perhaps I’ll find some other interesting tools and services, or maybe not, but at least it will push me to explore and look for them, rather than going into default ‘use Google’ mode.

The main Google services I use are search (obviously), mail, reader and alerts. A while ago I was also using docs, but stopped doing so once I’d been in Ethiopia and couldn’t rely on an internet connection. So what are going to be my alternatives?

Search
Not a huge choice here, but then I don’t tend to do very sophisticated searches. Going to give Bing a try, and maybe Wolfram.

I did question whether or not I should exclude myself from using Google for search, after all, then where do I stop – not using YouTube? But I decided it would be good to force myself to try out some other search engines.

GMail
Although I read my mail through my GMail account, it’s usually a forwarded copy from my own domain. I could, with minimal effort switch to the Squirrelmail or Horde mail interfaces provided by my hosting provider. This will work fine in the UK, but back at Mekelle Uni, these interfaces run off non-standard ports, which are blocked by the Uni proxy. So, I’ve installed RoundCube to use instead. It has quite a basic interface like SquirrelMail, but has some Ajax features such as drag and drop. I don’t think I’ll miss GMail labels, but it’ll take some getting use to not having the conversation style layout of messages, to which I’ve now become accustomed.

Google Reader
Again, this wasn’t a huge deal to switch from. I installed Tiny Tiny RSS on my domain and imported the OPML from Google Reader. The functionality is very similar to Google Reader, but it has the advantage that I can choose to cache images from feeds. It may not sound like a huge deal, but it will mean when I’m in Ethiopia that I’ll be able to view the photos and other images from blogspot feeds, which are otherwise blocked in Ethiopia.

Google Alerts
This was the only service where I failed to find an equivalent. There are other alert services (alerts.com, Yahoo alerts and more) but these seem very restrictive and targeted at people wanting updates on news, sports, stocks etc. rather than general web and blog alerts. So, for now, I’ve kept my Google Alerts in place, but I’m very willing to try out other alerting services if anyone can point me in the right direction.

I like the idea of being more in control of the tools and services I’m using, despite the fact that I need to be more self-reliant for backups etc. Having my own domain (and associated email), made it relatively easy to install and run roughly equivalent services without huge upheaval.

Will the reduced (or just changed?) functionality and usability make me miss Google too much? I’ll find out in the next month, or maybe just the next couple of days.

Can cloud computing work in Ethiopia?

With all the recent talk about Google Chrome OS and Microsoft office on the web, putting cloud computing back in the technology headlines, I recently read a less well publicised Microsoft story in the Seattle Times:

As U.S. companies begin exploring cloud computing this year, a school system on the other side of the globe has already leapt into the cloud. Ethiopia is rolling out 250,000 laptops to schoolteachers all over the country, all running on Microsoft’s platform called Azure.

The project, as described in the article, seems to overlook 2 huge issues, as do most of the people who have left comments on the article.

Firstly, the internet infrastructure in Ethiopia is just not robust, widespread or reliable enough for teachers to just connect up their shiny new laptops to some data centre in the US. Take for example Abi Adi, a town of around 20000 people, about 3 hours drive from where I’ve been working in Mekelle. A colleague, working in the teacher training college there, tried to get a couple of new phone lines installed to give extra (dial-up) internet access, but was told that all the lines for the town had already been allocated and no more would be available until new lines were installed, but no immediate plans were in place to increase the number of lines available.

And many Ethiopian towns and villages are far less well connected than Abi Adi.

There are obviously other options to delivering internet access through copper or fibre networks, such as through VSAT or the mobile phone network. But again to get these installed, or made reliable for the proposed project, would be a massive (and costly) undertaking in it’s own right.

Secondly, there’s no mention of the training and support that would be need to be given to teachers. The support infrastructure would need to be huge, who is going to fix the machines when they (almost inevitably) get a virus, or overheat after being choked with dust?

My experience of the One Laptop Per Child project shows that the training and support given to teachers and students is absolutely crucial to the success of the project – in much the same way it will be to this new project.

So, do I think cloud computing could work for Ethiopian teachers? Certainly not currently.

It’s not that I don’t like the idea of what they’re trying to do here, but just very wary that it’s yet another white elephant project which sounds good and gets them in the headlines. The money could be far better spent working with ETC (Ethiopia’s sole telecoms company) to improve the general internet infrastructure, and training teachers to work better with the technology already available to them. Only then might Ethiopia be able to take advantage of the possibilities afforded by cloud computing.

Recruiting Mentors

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been getting involved in a new elearning project at Mekelle Uni. We’ve got funding to build 2 new computer labs for the Health Science and Engineering faculties. I will be returning to Mekelle at the beginning of August, to assist with setting up the labs.

The pilot project, involving 10 tutors (5 from each of Health Sciences and Engineering faculties) and 200 students, will run for the coming academic year. In the next few months we’ll be setting up the labs and providing general elearning training to the tutors. In addition we’d like to offer mentoring to the tutors, giving them a broader range of experiences and advice as they develop their skills in using electronic resources in their teaching.

So… we’re looking to recruit some volunteer mentors, especially those with experience in teaching any aspect of health science or engineering. Given the low tutor numbers, we’re only looking for a time commitment of a few hours per month. So if you, or you know of someone, who would be interested then please get in touch with me.

We’d be very grateful for any assistance, if you would like more information about the project or what the mentoring involves, then just drop me a line.

Fourth Plinth

img_0205Have had quite a busy last couple of weeks, hence the lack of postings, so time for bit of a catch up…

Firstly a weekend up in London and heading over to the Kingsnorth protest for the day on the Saturday, though all very peaceful & sedate compared to some of the other protests there. (photos).

Then one of my friends who I met in Ethiopia managed to get herself onto the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square last Thursday lunchtime to protest against female genital mutilation. She’d only got on at short notice, so a few of use who’d been in Ethiopia together helped out painting t shirts and buying essential equipment (fake blood, string etc). I got plenty of photos, but Julia also managed to get a mention in the slightly more widely read publications of the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday.

Finally, I’ve also had several meetings so start off a new elearning project at Mekelle University. The Spanish government (with University of Alcala, Madrid and Lund University, Sweden) are funding a pilot project building 2 new computer labs for the health science and engineering departments. I’ve been asked to manage some of the technical aspects of the project. Rather than building 2 new labs with Windows PCs, servers etc, we’ll be testing out using Sun Ray terminals instead. This should allow the IT dept to make better use of their existing servers, ad reduce the amount of time spent rebuilding and fixing virus-ridden Windows machines. But, there’s a lot to be done and organise if we’re to be ready for the start of the next semester in October.

Still no firm return date for me going back to Mekelle, but fingers crossed it will be soon!