Archive for December 2009

My 2nd Christmas in Ethiopia

A belated Happy Christmas to everyone!

Despite being quite a long way from the cold snowy weather in the UK, we still managed a reasonable attempt at a (vaguely) traditional Christmas. This year we invited people over to our house for dinner, drinks and games. A few volunteers from nearby (well, Mike had a 2 day bus trip to reach us) towns and other friends and colleagues from Mekelle joined us. Everyone contributed to the food and drink, Mike (a different one) made some great roast beef and Daan and Anita brought roast potatoes and lots more, then we had meat and veggie chillis plus veggie curry. Our drink of choice was mulled wine – it’s one of the only ways to make the local wine drinkable, and dessert was a selection of cake, panna cotta, jelly and angel delight.

After a bloated afternoon we were ready to play a few games in the evening. Pass the parcel was first, though no-one seemed too keen on the forfeits we’d put in between some of layers. Then we played the chocolate game (the one where you roll a die, if you get a 6 you put on hat, gloves and scarf then eat as much chocolate with knife and fork as you can before someone else rolls a 6), our improvised die may have accounted for the high number of sixes that came up.

So in true Christmas fashion, two days later we’re still working our way through the leftover food and drink.

roast beef and potatoes

roast beef and potatoes

Mike, Martin and Mike

Mike, Martin and Mike




Attempting to fix servers

IMG_1437We’re still having a few problems with the server over at Ayder (Health Sciences) Campus. It’s made more problematic by the fact that the contractors digging up one of the nearby roads cut through the fiber cable linking Ayder to the main campus. So not only is there no internet at Ayder, there is no network connection to the Moodle server to allow staff there to be uploading their courses and activities.

On Friday and Monday I spent several hours (about 7 or 8 in total) on Skype to Eduardo in Barcelona who is helping us to get the server fixed. Things are made a little easier by the fact we have 2 identical servers, alpha and bravo. Alpha is (generally) running fine at Arid campus and bravo is the broken server at Ayder, so the plan was to make a copy of alpha onto one of the spare disks, modify it slightly (name, IP address etc) then use this to fix bravo.

The clone had already been made – to one of the 4 physical disks in the machine. All I needed to to do was switch the disks around to test the clone, then take the cloned disk to Ayder. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the cloned disk to work and on Friday it took Eduardo and I a little while to figure out what the problem was. It turned out that the way the disks were numbered on the server label:


didn’t actually match how the were referred to by the operating system, so rather then switching the disk in positions 0 and 2, we should have been doing 0 and 1.

Finally we got this issue resolved and the disk ready to take to Ayder, plus a few other backup options that Eduardo had come up with in case this disk didn’t solve the problem.

On Monday, I took the disk over to Ayder, got on Skype, and spent a few hours messaging Eduardo (and a little later Mike) and we managed to get the server booting up correctly. In the end we managed to fix the problem without needing to use the disk we’d had the confusion over on Friday.

But unfortunately all is not quite finished. The terminals at Ayder aren’t yet connecting to the properly. So next job is to get that resolved.

All of which means that we still haven’t been able to get the lab open for students to use, but hoping to be open properly in the next week or so. Still much more work to be done, so will keep us all busy for the coming weeks I’m sure.

Leaving so soon?

Despite the fact I’ve been really busy recently and have got a lot of work done, it still only feels like 5 minutes since I arrived in Ethiopia, yet I only have around 3 months left on my contract. The fact that I’ll be leaving soon was made more pronounced by my attendance at the VSO Leavers Workshop in Addis earlier this week. I’ve just over 3 months to go until my end of service, but I’m sure this time will fly past, so I need to start making preparations for what I do once I come back, jobs, house & catching up with everyone.

Out of around 12 people on the workshop I’d seen most people before, but only knew a couple by name, so felt very strange that I’d been here for over a year now and I still don’t know all the volunteers. The distance and remoteness of some placements, plus the fact I rarely visit Addis probably explains this.

Now that people at work realise I’m leaving, suddenly I’m told, “you can’t leave, we need you to do X, Y or Z”, despite that fact they could have asked me to do X, Y or Z at any point over the last 15 months rather than wait until now! I’m still unsure how sustainable my work here has been, as I’m here all the time it’s very easy for people to not take responsibility to do things for themselves. I still find that I spend much of my time chasing people to do simple tasks.

Anyway, best get back to X, Y or Z…

Approaches to eLearning in Ethiopia

Last week, Oliver and Haileleul from the Engineering Capacity Building Program (ECBP) in Addis came to visit our elearning project in Mekelle. They are working for the elearning development program for ECBP, setting up eCompetence Centres at other universities in Ethiopia and are looking to develop a similar program in Mekelle without duplicating the Digital Campus project work.

All seemed to go very well and we’re currently in the process of writing a proposal for the training of more staff to become elearning experts, to be presented to the University management in the very near future.

Their most successful program so far seems to be at Adama University, where the Engineering College has been turned into an independent Institute of Technology. The (German) director and senior management have really focused on improving student computer access, by setting up 600 terminals open 24/7.

The ECBP approach taken to develop elearning course content/materials is slightly different to our approach with Digital Campus. We are training teachers to set up and upload their own courses and teaching materials, with the support from pedagogical department, whereas the eCompetence Centres allow teachers to take their materials to the centre. The centre staff then do much of the content development and uploading for the teacher. There is good reason for this difference, the ECBP approach has a stronger focus on multimedia content, whereas we’re looking at much more basic content uploading and activity creation. Expecting all staff to have the facilities, skills and time to produce multimedia content is simply unrealistic.

There are pros and cons of each approach. Sending your content off to a centre for transformation into online activities can increase the technological complexity of the activities or content developed (e.g. multimedia or flash animations), increase quality (questionably) and consistency between courses. Also it is easier to set deadlines for course production. However I have concerns that staff then have no sense of ownership of the online materials related to their course, for example, that regular updates are made and that staff participate in and monitor forum discussions. It may mean staff then don’t consider it to be part of their jobs to be involved with the online aspect. I have to ad that the ECBP approach does have the teachers working with the elearning team – it’s not a case of the teachers dropping off the materials and walking away from any further involvement.

Training teacher to produce their own online content and activities means that you can have a smaller team supporting the elearning development, providing advice and training but not the ‘doing’ and this woul dhelp to reduce the direct cost to the university. We hope it would also motivate the teachers to encourage their students to use the materials and activities if the teachers have gone to the effort of creating them. The danger is that teachers won’t have the time or skills, or it will be considered to be more work force upon them by management. Maintaining a baseline level of quality and consistency between courses may be difficult.

So, which do you think is the better approach? Or should there be a mixture between the two?

I hope that I’ll get the opportunity to visit Adama university early in the new year, with some staff from Mekelle, as I believe there will be a lot we can learn from their experiences. I think that the success of their program may be mainly due to the efforts put into providing 24/7 open access computer labs to students, something that’s yet to be achieved on anything but a very small scale at Mekelle.

Mobile Internet in Ethiopia with CDMA on Ubuntu

Ethiopian Telecoms Company (ETC) started to provide a pre-paid mobile internet service several months ago, though as I (usually) have a good connection at work, I’ve never really considered purchasing a dongle and setting up an account for myself. However, my housemate Martin, with not having a computer, let alone internet connection through work, recently set himself up with CDMA.

The dongle comes with a driver/installation CD for Windows, so this morning I thought I’d have a go getting it set up on my laptop running Ubuntu 9.04. Getting it all set up proved to be much more straightforward than I had anticipated. Here’s what I needed to do:

1. Install wvdial (I have Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook remix, so if you have the normal desktop version this step may not be necessary): sudo apt-get install wvdial

2. Plug the CDMA dongle into a USB port

3. At the terminal enter: sudo wvdialconf

4. Then enter: sudo gedit /etc/wvdial.conf

5. In the text editor change the block that reads:

; Phone =
; Password =
; Username =

to be:

Phone = #777
Password = etc
Username = etc

Then save and close the editor. Note that the username and password should be in lower case.

6. At the terminal enter: sudo wvdial

7. Without closing the terminal open the browser and you should be connected.

Now that it’s working I have the opportunity to spend huge amounts of money using the internet whilst at home. I’m not sure of the exact tariff, but given our usage so far it seems to be around 0.5 birr per minute (approx 2p).

Going Places

One of the photos I took in Axum last year received a ‘highly commended’ award (top 10 from nearly 300) in the VSO Going Places photo competition.

Andy, one of the VSOs here last year submitted the photo for me – hence why his name appears as the credit 😉 – and was taken when both of us were on a trip to Axum.

On another note, work has got a little less hectic the last few days, although still plenty to do, we’ve had a few issues with both of the new computer labs to get fixed. At one lab a power surge broke one of the switches in the daisy chain of switches that connects the lab to the data centre. At the other repeated power failures and subsequent unexpected & abrupt server shutdowns have caused files to become corrupted. The server is protected by UPS, but this doesn’t always last long enough for the power and the monitoring or auto (clean) shutdown isn’t yet set up. Will get a longer work related blog posting up int he next week or so.

Debre Damo

IMG_1305For the weekend after the training week the university lent us a driver and car to head over to Axum, so I could show Mike and Jaime some of the tourist attractions in Tigray. On Saturday morning we drove over to Axum and spent the afternoon seeing a few of the sights there – although I’ve now been several times, I’m still not a very good guide and have to make up most of the history (though I’m sure this is what most of the local guides do too!)

On Sunday morning we set off relatively early to go to the Debre Damo monastery, famous for being only accessible by climbing up a 20 metre rope and for only allowing male visitors, women (and female animals) are banned from the monastery and neighbouring village.

We arrived shortly after 2 coaches had arrived from Addis for a funeral. One of their relatives had asked to be buried at Debre Damo, but as the ceremony was at the monastery all the women who had come had to sit around at the base to wait to be driven back to Addis. Everything needed by the village (of around 400 people), including food, is hauled up by rope, so we can only assume this was also the way the body had been taken up. Though fortunately we’d arrived too late to see this.

When it came to our turn for climbing up, we were given the option of having a safety rope, although many of the locals just climb straight up. The impression given by the safety rope is that several people are a the top pulling you up, or a winch. However actually arriving at the top, you find it’s an old priest and couple of small children using a leather rope, thin and stitched together in places, which is preventing a fall. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for the return trip, which must be done by the same route.

There is a video of my descent, I’ll post the YouTube link soon, in the meantime, here are a few pictures:

Debre Damo from a distance

Debre Damo from a distance

View out over to Eritrea

View out over to Eritrea

Tsega, our driver

Tsega, our driver

With no safety rope

With no safety rope