Archive for May 2010

Digital Campus presentation

Here is the presentation I gave at the eLearning Africa conference last week. The photos on each slide are all pictures I’ve taken over the course of the project so far, since August 2009.

elearning Africa conference – day 3

Giraffes at Chaminuka Game Reserve

Another really good day at the conference, most of the presentations and discussions I attended today revolved around the use of open source software. There are some particular issues with using open source software in Africa, for example the fact that although there is huge amount of help available to support people when trying to implement software, much of the help and documentation is online only – which can make it difficult to access. In one of the presentations some of the audience were still a little sceptical about how you can get something for free – surely there is a catch?

Late in the afternoon, I gave my presentation about the Digital Campus project. All went well and I was really pleased with the response and how many people had questions about the project. I finally met more people from Ethiopia, the Head of ICT from Jimma University and the Curriculum Expert and Pedagogical Editor from the Ethiopia Civil Service College in Addis. I’ve also been approached about setting up some study/tutor partnerships with universities in UK and Canada, so the tutors and students in Mekelle can pair up with tutors and students abroad to share teaching and learning experiences.

Overall the conference has been well worth attending, it’s the first conference I’ve been to for a long time and differs somewhat from the much more technical and programming focussed conferences and workshops I used to attend whilst at the OU. Now need to make sure I get another presentation accepted for the eLearning Africa 2011 in Tanzania.

Saturday was a day free for me, so after being at the conference much of the week, I headed out to a game reserve (Chaminuka) about 30km from Lusaka and had a relaxing day there, by coincidence I met several other people there who had also attended the conference – but we managed to avoid talking too much work.

elearning Africa conference – day 2

Dancers at the opening plenary

Brief run down of the sessions I’ve been to today…

Opening plenary
Conference was officially opened by the Vice President of Zambia and other opening speeches, including the Anglican Bishop of Gambia talking about the use of Facebook and Twitter – not something I was expecting.

Implementing and Sharing Open Source Repositories
With all the JISC conferences and meetings I’ve been to over the previous few years, I thought (hoped) I’d heard the last
about learning object repositories and metadata, but apparently not. The main question for me that came out of this session was the fact that much of the talk seems to be about how institutions can push out their OER content, but little about how to encourage people to make use of the available content, or evaluating how much this content is really used.

Research Networks on ICT4D
For me this was the most interesting session of the day – possibly because it broke away from the normal series of powerpoint presentations and was more of a discussion forum. Tim Unwin (Royal Holloway Uni, London) had several interesting points to make:

  1. Most ICT4D project fail as they aren’t based on a real demand or need from Africans themselves, rather they are driven by outside (EU/US) organisations
  2. Technology providers see Africa as a market to make money from. This is shown by the number of technology vendors present in the exhibition area, looking to sell their solutions
  3. The quality of journal papers and research from African universities is very poor and this isn’t a technological or funding issue.

On the last point Jophus Anamuah-Mensah (TESSA project, Ghana) talked about the fact that African researchers seem to have lost a lot of the collaborative culture which previously used to exist.

Improving Mobile Learning Environments
At the conference there are many presentations and sessions about mobile learning. Much talk is made of the fact that so many people in Africa have a mobile phone and that they are cheap. Unfortunately this still isn’t the case in Ethiopia, where mobile ownership appears to be noticeably lower than other African countries. Many of the projects presented make big assumptions about the type of devices that students have access to, for example, owning internet & java enabled mobiles. From my very unscientific assessment, I would put student mobile ownership at Mekelle Uni at less that 30% and these tend to be only basic/entry-level voice/SMS enabled phones (I ought to include this as part of our student surveys/questionnaires once I return to Mekelle next week).

I’ve also heard about a couple of project integrating Moodle and SMS, but both of these seem to rely on either a subscription service, or with good cooperation from the telecoms provider, something we’re unlikely to be able to make use of in Mekelle.

General Comments

  • Ethiopia appears to be very under-represented here, so far I’ve only met one other person coming from an Ethiopian organisation. If you are from Ethiopia and you’re here then please get in touch.
  • I’ve caught up with many ex-colleagues from the OU (UK) – showing what a small world it is.
  • I now have plenty of leads and technologies to follow up on and investigate, plus many ideas for possible projects and/or collaborations.

eLearning Africa conference – day 1

Auditorium at the Mulungushi Conference Centre

After 24 hours travel (London – Addis – Harare – Lusaka), yesterday afternoon I arrived in Lusaka, Zambia for the eLearning Africa conference, where I’ll be presenting the Digital Campus project later this week. The conference starts properly tomorrow and today I attended one of the pre-conference workshops, on policies for successful elearning programmes.

My impressions so far have been very good, having Ethiopia as the only other sub-Saharan Africa country that I’ve visited, Lusaka couldn’t be more different to Addis, everything appears much more up together and organised. The roads and traffic seem far less chaotic, lined with advertisements for various mobile operators. We were even given free sim cards when we were waiting for our baggage – such a contrast to Ethiopia when getting a sim card is quite a tedious process and certainly not cheap.

The conference is huge, but show how small the world is when one of the first people I met here is a PhD student at the OU Business School. I’m going to have a tricky job of deciding which presentations to go to, as there are 10 parallel sessions. The contrast with Ethiopia is made even more pronounced talking to some of the other participants from other African countries where they seem to be much further down the road than Ethiopia in terms of elearning implementation and technologies.

Assuming the wireless stays up and running well I hope I’ll be blogging regularly. For anyone reading this who is at the conference, my presentation is on Friday afternoon (track 56A1).

Voluntary web development

Earlier this week I spent a few days working Cambridge doing some volunteer web development work for Aptivate. They are in the process of developing a new low bandwidth site for CDAC (Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities), this particular site is aimed at the victims of the Haiti earthquake and is to help ensure that aid and relief agencies are able to communicate well with local communities as they rebuild their lives. The site isn’t yet finalised, so can’t put the url up yet, but will do so once it’s ready.

As an aside, OpenLearn now has a course on “Using Voluntary work to get ahead in the job market“.

Much of the past couple of weeks have been spent making sure I’m ready to head off again to Ethiopia to work on the Digital Campus project. En route, I’m going to the eLearning Africa conference in Zambia, where I’m giving a presentation next Friday. Looking forward to getting back to Mekelle to see how everything it going there, seems like quite a lot of progress is still being made. My plan whilst I’m there is to help support the phd students and the ICT team, but also planning how the project can progress into the next academic year.

Hopefully I’ll be back blogging a bit more regularly over the coming few weeks!

Barcamp Ethiopia

Hopefully I’ll be around in Ethiopia in September later this year so I can attend ‘Barcamp Ethiopia‘.

Running my own OpenStreetMap server

UK map generated on my OSM server

UK map generated on my OSM server

After using OpenStreetMap in a fairly limited way for the past year or so, essentially just to upload data/tracks from wandering around Ethiopia, I thought I’d have a closer look, especially as a possible replacement for Google Maps which I was using a lot whilst at the OU.

Firstly I looked at how I could use OSM and the OpenLayers API as an alternative for the map in my Online Users Map – which certainly looks feasible. So I’m now thinking about making this an option in the block settings, as shouldn’t be too much work to provide the option.

I also set up my own open street map server (instructions for installing on Ubuntu Lucid Lynx). Although quite a long process everything worked well first time with no errors. I didn’t download the entire 8Gb+ OSM dataset to generate my tiles, rather I just selected a much smaller area of detailed data (using extracts from GeoFabrik and CloudMade). This avoided the potential ’30 hours or longer’ process of importing the world into my database – the whole dataset for Ethiopia took less than 30 seconds to import.

The only part where I ran into a problem was at the very end when I wanted to generate all the tiles. When I ran ./generate_tiles.py I kept getting an error telling me that osm-local.xml didn’t exist. Fortunately this was quite an easy fix, I just needed to edit ~/bin/mapnik/generate_tiles.py to point to ~/bin/mapnik/osm.xml instead, then all ran fine (generating 55Mb+ of png images).

I could then create an alias in my Apache to point to my generated tiles and create a slippy map using OpenLayer and the tiles generated on my desktop.

I still have a lot to learn about all this, especially with what can be done with Mapnik for generating tiles (and the python script necessary to achieve it) and using OpenLayers as a replacement for Google Maps API – but all going well so far 🙂

Bandwidth measurement

For a project which I may be working on in the near future, I need to think about how I can measure user’s bandwidth. Although there are many tools available for doing this already (such as speedtest.net and many others), these generally all require java or a recent version of flash to be installed. Plus they appear mainly geared towards testing a broadband connection, rather than a dial up (or other slow type of connection). I’d like to avoid creating a program that needs to be installed on a users machine as I need to keep it as simple as possible.

My current thinking, avoiding any installation and as little effort as possible on the users part, is to use a simple webpage with a small piece of AJAX to download a file of fixed (known) size and just use javascript to calculate how long it takes to retrieve. I realise that there are obvious drawbacks to this approach:

  • hard to measure latency
  • accuracy of javascript timer
  • other processes running on the machine
  • proxy or caching servers getting in the way

However, I don’t need something extremely accurate, just something that is easy to use and gives a reasonable approximation of a users bandwidth (which will be dependent on a huge number of factors anyway, such as time of day, no of other users etc), is it 2kbps, 20kbps or 200kbps?

To get a better idea of the usual speed of a users connection, I can attempt to download several files of different sizes (from different servers), and take averages.

Is there anything I’m missing that would make this a really bad way to approach this? Or would it produce results so inaccurate they’d be useless?