Archive for October 2009

Orientation workshop

IMG_0929On Wednesday last week (21st Oct) we held the introductory workshop for the Digital Campus elearning project (project website). All seemed to go well, but we still have some difficulties with the schedule and tutor selection. The problem is that we’re looking for staff who will be available to train fellow staff next year (i.e. they won’t be leaving for masters at the end of this year) and these tend to be more senior staff who already have high workloads. Those staff who do have the time (generally the new staff who graduated with their first degree last year) are highly likely to leave at the end of this academic year. Bit of a catch-22 in knowing what to do for the best. The amount of training required for the certification is also going to be difficult to fit into the coming semester. Approximately 20 days will be needed which, ideally, needs to be completed by the end of the first semester, less than 3 months away and unsurprisingly the teachers will be spending much of their time teaching.

25 years on

As I’m sure many of you will be aware, it is 25 years since the reports of famine in Ethiopia appeared on the BBC. But a quarter of a century later (and who knows how many millions in aid) there are new reports about potential famine in these same areas affected all those years ago. The BBC has recently broadcast from Mekelle about the situation (here and here), and Oxfam are again raising money to try to prevent famine occurring again across east Africa. There’s also a report on the Guardian website about the impact of the images sent back from Ethiopia 25 years ago.

From my point of view, working at the Uni in a well-off regional capital, I see little or no sign of the food shortages which are being reported back in the UK. I’m certainly not saying that problems don’t exist, I know that I’m in a privileged position, given my location, job and income – but for me, it’s hard to know how bad the situation is, or is becoming. It’s also likely to be affecting more remote rural areas far worse than where I’m based. There are no reports in the local media about the situation (in either the local language or English language newspapers), so my main sources of information about the problems are from outside Ethiopia, usually BBC & UK newspaper websites or from those I know who work with medical organisations/NGOs and spend more time out in the rural areas. As far as I’m aware the situation at the moment is certainly just about potential famine, and the number of people needing extra food aid (on top of the food aid normally given out) is 6.2 million – which is actually the same as last year.

Since coming to Ethiopia last year, I’ve always been wary about bringing up the subject of the 1984/85 famine. Most people I meet or work with are under 30 and so either weren’t born or were extremely young at the time. Also, those Ethiopians who have been abroad say that all anybody else in the world seems to know about Ethiopia is famine and long distance running and I don’t want to perpetuate the feeling that that’s all anyone knows or cares about Ethiopia.

Yesterday, Martin and I met up with Mike Wooldridge, the BBC journalist who has been sending back the recent reports, but was also one of the reporters here in Ethiopia reporting on the 1984/85 famine. He’s an ex VSO volunteer and his daughter was a VSO volunteer at the Teacher Training College here in Mekelle a few years ago. It was really interesting getting the chance to meet Mike, finding out about the changes that have taken place in Mekelle and Ethiopia generally over the last 25 years and also being able to show him around the University to demonstrate the work that VSO is currently doing.

Receiving goods

Boxes of monitors

Boxes of monitors

Yesterday the monitors, keyboards and mice I’d ordered last week arrived. In order to get them accepted by the store, all the items needed to be checked that they met the specification and also that they work. The items have just spent 2 days in the back of a truck from Addis, so there was a chance that some had broken route.

Checking the monitors worked was quite a time consuming affair, especially after the store manager told me that the electricity was ‘slow today’. I soon found out what she actually meant – that the electricity wasn’t running at the normal voltage. I returned later in the afternoon to find the electricity had resumed it’s normal speed.

Fortunately the only problem was that the monitors were supplied with a 3 round pin plug, rather than two pin – the shop which supplied them happily took them back and exchanged them, although I had to get a gate pass – signed and stamped by both my line manager and the stores manager to be allowed to take the incorrect items off the campus and return with the correct ones – all of which is quite time consuming.

Now I’m waiting to get a ‘receiving voucher’ from the store to prove that the equipment really was delivered – especially important for Alcala Uni who are providing the funding and I’m sure will want to know that their money hasn’t just disappeared!

What I did find a little odd was that in the store was a small boat and Yamaha outboard motor, given there are few streams, let alone rivers or lakes around here, I’m not sure exactly what this is for. I later found out that it’s for the agriculture dept – although I’m still unclear in which body of water it ever gets used.

Testing the keyboards

Testing the keyboards

Report into Student Computer Access

A few months ago (March 09) I surveyed all the computer science students to find out about their access to computers, how much they used the University computers, whether they had access to a computer outside those provided by the department, their skills in completing basic computing tasks and whether they felt elearning/online activities would be helpful in their studies.

After a delay of far too long, I’ve finally now had chance to write up the results – I can already think of ways that the survey could have been improved – re-wording of questions etc – so it may not be wonderfully scientific, but it does give an indication of the some of the issues involved. The full report (pdf) can be downloaded, but while you’re waiting for that to download here is the summary (all comments/feedback welcome):

In March 2009 all of the students in the computer science department were asked to complete a survey
relating to their access to computers, basic computing skills and attitudes towards elearning and online
activities. 64% of students (227) responded to the survey.
The key findings from the survey were:

  • 19% have access to a computer outside the computer science department
  • 21% never access the internet
  • 52% found access to a computer was a major problem or not possible at all
  • The main access difficulties expressed include: lack of computers, computer labs not open
    often enough and lack of or slow internet connection
  • Low levels of basic computing skills
  • 84% feel that online activities would be quite or very useful additions to their studies

From these key findings a number of recommendations can be made to improve the computing
facilities for students:

  1. Review of the computer lab set­up and configuration
  2. Increase in lab opening times
  3. Increase number of computers available
  4. Increase internet capacity
  5. Basic computer skills training
  6. Require courses to use the elearning system

The results from this survey can be used as a baseline for future surveys to measure the impact of
initiatives to improve student computer access (such as replacement or new computers and labs) and
whether the recommendations have had the desired effect.

It should be noted that since some of these recommendations were written (back in April), work has already begun in ordering new computers for the student computer labs and in requesting increased bandwidth from ETC.

Electrical Failure

IMG_0927As well as the power supply failing on our server last week, we also had a power supply failure with our kettle at home. The smell of melting plastic and sparks gave us a clue all wasn’t well.

Workshop Preparation

IMG_0929On Wednesday we will be holding the orientation workshop for the Digital Campus project, so there is much to be getting on with in preparation for this. The workshop is just to introduce the selected teachers to the training course, answer their queries and, most importantly, arrange the schedule for the training over the coming semester.

All seems to be progressing well, with a few minor hiccups. We had some banner made and put up around the campuses to promote the workshop (see photo). I also wanted to get the syllabus/brochure colour copied, but then I found out how much this was going to cost – 25 copies of 12 page brochure at 5 birr per page – makes 1500 birr (approx 150 USD), so not exactly good use of money.

Speaking of money, a transfer arrived into my bank from Alcala Uni, so I’m now able to purchase the monitors, keyboards etc and also pay the first installment for the tables we’re having made. Understandably, the university was a little wary about transferring money into a personal bank account of some random person in Africa – I’ve been told they thought the money may end up with Somalian pirates!

The networking of the lab is almost complete, we just need the electrical work completed so the switches etc can be tested properly. We also need to find someone who can sign for the switches from the store and take ongoing responsibility for them – this isn’t as easy as it may first sound. ICT think the colleges should sign and take responsibility, then the colleges think it should be ICT’s job – bit of a catch 22.

We did have a minor disaster this week with one of the servers – a power supply failure. On Wednesday morning it looked as if ETC had completed the work on the DNS server, to make our elearning server available off campus using the domain name. But just as i was checking this, there was a power fluctuation and although the server is plugged into a UPS, the server power supply failed. I was a little unsure that the power supply was the only problem, until we tested with the supply from another (identical) server. It will now be out of action for a long time, until new one can be purchased (imported) – no 24/7 callout cover contracts here. So I’m now in the process of moving the site over to another server so it’s available until the server is fixed.

Fingers crossed that all will go well at the orientation workshop.


When I got into work today many of my colleagues have been commenting about the fact that I was on Ethiopian TV yesterday – it’s from when we were interviewed at the Meskel celebrations in Adigrat a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, not having a TV at home, I missed it completely and it’s unlikely there’ll be a repeat – so will just have to wait for the DVD to be issued 😉

Slightly less high profile, I was asked a few weeks ago to write an article for the Digital Planet blog site about my experiences of living and working in Ethiopia, at the end of last week my article was posted up on their site, you can have a read at: The hidden issues of IT development in Ethiopia.

Other significant developments this week include:

  • Approval of the Mekelle University Elearning Strategy. This was actually much easier than I thought it would be – the strategy is based on a JISC template, geared towards UK universities and other HEIs, but was relatively straightforward for us to adapt for use here.
  • Upgrading of university internet connection – to 10Mb. A proposal is underway to double the speed of the connection – but I’m unsure yet when this is likely to happen. With all the new computer labs being built it will be important to ensure that the internet speed is also increased. The cost of this will be huge, an extra 5Mb will cost 10,000 US dollars per month.
  • Work has now started on the network installation in the new Computer Science building – the same week that students return to lectures for the coming academic year. Unfortunately though, only 12 computers are currently working for the 100 third year students to use. I’ve suggested that one of the labs currently reserved for training is opened up for students to use. A proposal has been made to get nearly 200 new computers for the department, but is will take some time for the purchase of these to be processed and approved – likely to be several months.
  • I’ve been asked to help run a workshop for the University management to persuade then that the university should adopt and open source policy – and that . There’s already been some success in this area, more IT staff are using Ubuntu and also in the Computer Science department.

New Volunteers

Just over a week ago the new intake of volunteers arrived in their placement, so the arrival of Martin, my new housemate has doubled the number of VSO volunteers in Mekelle – ok, Marcel is also still in his placement, but is currently back home in Australia for a break.

So have spent the last week or so trying to introduce Martin to life in Mekelle – seems to be going well so far. We had ‘fun’ last weekend trying to get a wardrobe from the VSO furniture store last weekend. Firstly we’d been given the wrong address, which explained why the keys we’d got didn’t fit. When we got into the store, to be able to remove a wardrobe, almost all the other furniture had to be moved/rearranged first. After we’d finally extracted the wardrobe from the store it wouldn’t fit through the door in the compound gate. No problem you may think – open the gates – but they’d been concreted shut. So after taking the wardrobe to pieces we finally got it out into a pick-up to take back to our house.

This weekend, Mike, one of the new volunteers at Maychew Technical College came to visit us in Mekelle to shop for all those things he can’t buy there. He’s come as a n IT advisor at the college, so I’ve invited him to come and have a look at what we’re doing at the Uni here. Would also be good for me to go and see what they’re up to down in Maychew.

IMG_0916Work has been slowly progressing in the labs – our new Cisco switches have now arrived – after the supplier tried to make a bit of extra money for himself by giving us DLink hubs and assuming we’d either not notice or not know any better. The electrical works still needs to be finished in the lab before we can test the new network. I’ve had to ask them to redo some of the work to align the sockets on the wall – the photo shows the current state. Although it may feel a little petty to complain about things like this, my feeling is that if it’s allowed to pass this time, it sets a precedent of what is acceptable quality, when actually it takes very little effort to get right in the first place.

The Computer Science department is still in the process of moving, but there’s not a hope of everything being ready for the new semester which starts next week. Although the new dept still has no network installed and is unlikely to do so for several weeks (and be connected to the rest of the campus network), I arranged to run some training for the lab technicians last Thursday. So half an hour after we were meant to have started, no one had appeared. Whilst on the phone to the department head, one of the technicians arrived. The others technicians weren’t going to be able to come, so I thought I’d continue anyway. We then found that the only lab we had a key for didn’t have any electricity supply to the sockets. The lights were on, but the electrical work hadn’t been finished. I then abandoned the training – maybe more will turn up next time.

I did however make some progress in other areas. I’ve been trying to get ETC to put a record in their DNS database for our e-learning website – but have had little luck being put through to the right person. On Thursday afternoon, Habtom (assistant head of ICT dept) and I went to see the head of ETC in Tigray. So, on Friday afternoon we finally managed to get the correct phone number for the head of the DNS servers in Addis, and we’re making progress. Originally, in Mekelle, they wanted to charge us 1000 birr for the entry, despite my explanation that it was only a subdomain we wanted not, a full new domain. Fortunately the, more technically aware, person in Addis isn’t going to charge us this and even suggested that he’d help us get our own public DNS server set up at the Uni here. So Friday ended with some good news – just need to make sure I follow it up this week.