Archive for January 2010

Rollercoaster week

The last week or so has seen lots of ups and downs, though overall the balance is more up than down! On both of the last Saturday mornings I ran training sessions for tutors. I was expecting these to be a bit of a nightmare, I’d already had trouble getting all the user accounts working correctly, plus I wasn’t really sure how many people would turn up. In the end around 10 tutors attended each week so was very pleased with this outcome – it could very easily have been that no-one or only one or two attend. Not knowing who was coming beforehand or what level they’d got to made things a little tricky for planning the sessions, but went well in the tutorial-style we used. Some are already creating quizzes and other activities for their students, whereas with some other tutors, they hadn’t attended the training week in November, so we were starting at the beginning.

Last Sunday morning (just over a week ago) we had some visitors from the Ministry of Education, so I explained our elearning projects and showed them the labs – unfortunately (as always seems to be the case) a power outage, in one of the buildings holding the switches connecting the terminals to the data centre, prevented me from showing the terminals in use.

The downsides this week have been the fact that it was uncertain for a while as to whether we’d be able to run the second full week of training for the tutors, as the visitors from Alcala may not have had time to prepare. If they weren’t coming this would have made extra work for me, as I still would have needed to run some extra training to ensure the tutors were set up and ready for delivering courses int the second semester. With all the other tasks I have to do (in the now 8 weeks remaining – not that I’m counting) this would have been too much and I’d have been very disappointed if they had canceled, or delayed until June.

Also a laptop went missing from our office over the previous weekend. A student had left it with one of my office colleagues to fix, but without going into all the detail here (and I’m not totally sure about exactly what happened), he ended up being locked up at the police station for 2 days and has to pay 12,000 birr (over 1000 USD) until the laptop is found. Previously our office was used a lot by other staff to get internet access and to get their laptops fixed, but now all this will stop and the locks are being replaced.

This week we finally made progress on fixing up many of the user accounts that weren’t working, plus getting the server at Ayder campus working again. There were lots of different odd problems with the users accounts, but most re fixed now (just a few odd problems to resolve still). But getting the server fixed was great news (especially at the end of a Friday afternoon). this means we can now get the lab open again and into use. Though now the students are having exams, then they’ll have a 2 week break, so they may not be around much for anther 3-4 weeks. The lab at Ayder now has curtains up, and new carpet is ready to be put in. The curtains seem to match the rest of the room, but I suspect this is more by accident than design.

Anyway it was a good end to a very fraught week, so hoping I don’t have any more weeks like this one.

Monkey business

Campus baboonsOn campus there is a small family of baboons, I’m not really sure where they came from. Although they’re native to Ethiopia, there aren’t any wild ones in this region, so I suspect they’re escaped/released ex-pets, perhaps from one of the amusement parks in town (one used to have a hyaena pit, now turned into a arcade games room).

The campus baboons spend quite a lot of time in the area near my office, out on the first floor balcony, but they often have to be chased off to stop them pulling apart the noticeboards. The other day we heard a lot of crashing noise from outside – it was the young baboon playing with broken glass, then throwing it onto the tin roof below. Very fortunately, and despite licking the edge of the broken glass, the baboons managed to avoid cutting themselves, or anyone else.

Moodle training content

In a bit of a contradiction, project progress has been fairly slow the last couple of weeks yet I have been as busy as ever. We still have number of issues to resolve for us to be able to move forward. Firstly the course content for the training and workshops. It’s been hard for us to get the time to write the Moodle training course material from scratch, so we’ve now made the decision to buy a license for the MoodleBites for Teachers training course. Purchasing the license means that we can install the materials on our own Moodle server and gives us much more flexibility than paying for individuals to take the course online and in a specified time period.

There are actually far more materials, covering more aspects of Moodle, in more detail, than we really require for giving to our tutors. So we’ll need to spend some time adapting the materials to take out the sections we don’t want or need to cover at the moment. But having all the materials means that those who are interested in learning further have the option to do so. As time is passing very quickly and it won’t be long before I head back to the UK we need to try and make sure that the tutors can follow the training with only remote assistance. I’m a little skeptical that this will work, so am hoping that I can cover as much as possible before I leave.

We’re also still a little disappointed with the amount of materials that have been uploaded by the tutors, to make the project successful we need to demonstrate much more. I’ve been given many reasons as to why people haven’t been able to upload, either they don’t have the materials yet as they’ll write them as they deliver the course next semester, they don’t know what course they’ll be delivering next semester, or simply that they haven’t had time. All of these excuses are a little disappointing as we were very clear when we were giving the introduction and face to face week in October and November that we’d need people to be working on their second semester courses and that they’d need a day per week to commit. The only one that was raised as an issue at then was the time commitment necessary.

Another issue that has been taking up much of my time is getting the user accounts working correctly. Many of the user accounts on the server simply don’t work, and the process of creating new accounts has, in my mind, far too many steps and so is far too error prone. I figured out what the problem was with many accounts, simply the ownership of the home directory was wrong, so these were easy to fix. But there are still a handful of accounts that I just can’t figure out why there is problem. Am hoping that Mike will get chance to look into this in the next few days.

Although we may be having problems with delivering the workshop training materials, if we get the accounts working properly for students then we can start to have an impact. The lab at Arid is now open, Elfu, one of the IT experts in the Engineering College, has moved her desk into the lab, so the lab can be open all during the normal working week and she’s making sure all the terminals are up and running. For the second semester, we’ve had agreement that the students will have responsibility for the key for opening the lab, so they’ll be able to use it as much as they like outside the normal working hours.

VSO is recruiting IT volunteers!

Just before Christmas I was contacted by VSO asking if they could use my blog to help recruit more IT volunteers. Little did I know that this blog would be the main focus of this campaign! You can find the homepage for the campaign at

If you’ve arrived here from the VSO website, then I hope you find my blog useful and I hope the postings of my experiences here encourage you to apply to be an IT volunteer too :-). If you’re thinking of applying and would like to know more about my experience as VSO volunteer, please feel free to contact me, by either posting a comment below or emailing me directly at

Ethiopian Christmas

After the previous two long weekends for Christmas and New Year, we now have a third for Orthodox Christmas. Officially only Thursday 7th was a public holiday, but many people have taken Friday as holiday too. My second Christmas in less than two weeks was a fairly quiet affair, visiting my colleague Samrawit and her family for lunch, drinks and cake.

Road Building and Re-routing

For the last month the main road near our house going down into the city centre has been in a state of turmoil. At the beginning of December it was a reasonably well maintained tarmacked road, then, one night, the diggers moved in. Day by day more and more tarmac, earth and rocks have been moved, bulldozered and steamrollered. The road is the process of becoming what appears to be a 6-lane motorway and probably explains the demolition of the roadside houses and shops last year. I’ve been reliably informed that the reason for the roadworks is the 35th anniversary of the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) sometime in February. The TPLF headquarters are at the end of our road and the road-widening is to allow for the planned parade/show. Rumours are that the Ethiopian prime minister is going to be attending.

With the road closed, all traffic, from cars, taxis and bajajs up to buses and articulated trucks have been diverted down the narrow, dusty side roads. It has also meant that our university service bus stop has moved and what used to be a regular easy-to-find service has now turned into a daily game of bus stop hide-and-seek. The bus may or may not stop at the same place it did yesterday or the day before that. Additionally, even if it did stop in the same place two days running, it may stop at completely different times. Not even my Ethiopian colleagues really seem to know where and when the bus will stop.

Once in a blue moon

Happy New Year! (Although in the Ethiopian calendar it’s still 2002, 2010 won’t be reached until Sept 2017)

We celebrated with meal out with some friends from work, letting some fireworks off in the street a little early as our friends children were getting tired and needed to go to bed. We were little concerned to start with about letting fireworks off in the street, we were quite near the military communications facility, plus all week there’s been the Ethio-Sudan Joint Border Commission Conference, so there’s been a high police and security presence in town with all the visiting ministers and Sudanese Ambassador. We didn’t think that some loud explosions late at night in the centre of town would go down very well, but we had been reassured that all would be fine and fortunately it was.

Setting off fireworks
After the fireworks, we celebrated midnight at a local bar with a flaming sambuka and despite Thashika’s best efforts at burning the place down after dropping hers on the floor, we had a fun night. Not a single attempt at singing Auld Lang Syne was made.

One the way home, with the blue moon I got a few decent photos of our house and street just lit by moonlight. But the photos look a lot brighter on my camera screen than they do on my laptop screen… see how this looks on your screen:

If anyone feel like a challenge, work out when the next blue moon will be in the Ethiopian calendar. The Ethiopian calendar starts on 12 Sept with 12 months of exactly 30 days each, then a month of 5 or 6 days depending on whether it’s a leap year or not. Post your answers below.