Archive for June 2010

School Visits

Visiting a school near Wukro

Yesterday, I had a visit out to Wukro, to meet some the heads from the local health bureaus and visit some schools in the area. Two of the PhD students from Mekelle have projects in this area, looking at prevalence of parasites in children and how this may be reduced. We’re investigating using phones and GPS to collect the survey data, and have it automatically sent to a server (via GPRS) when the data collector comes into a mobile reception area. We’re also looking at how learning materials and/or diagnostic tools could be made available electronically (again using phones) to the Health Extension Workers.

We visited two schools, both a fairly short distance (10-15km) from the main Mekelle to Adigrat road, but both feeling quite remote. Both were primary schools with around 1000 pupils each – but neither had access to clean water and one had no electricity – although both did have mobile phone reception.

Getting connected to GPRS ought to be relatively straightforward, however the SIM card needs to be GPRS enabled first. It’s free to enable, but isn’t automatic. We went to the ETC office in Mekelle to ask them to do this, but for some reason currently it can’t be enabled for Tigray mobile numbers (0914xxxxxx), I then asked them to enable my Addis mobile number (0910xxxxxx), but was then told it can only be enabled in Addis. So we’re a little stuck, being unable to test the GPRS availability on any of the phones that we have between us. The good news is that SIM cards are now much cheaper – 85 birr each (with 15 birr credit included), compared to the 360+ birr I paid less than a couple of years ago.

The past month has flown by, feels as if I’ve only be back for 5 minutes. I’m generally very happy with the progress we’ve made on the project over the past year. Looking forward to coming back again in September again to see how everything has moved on again.

Comparing netbooks

On returning from Ethiopia (the second time – at Easter), my little Asus Eee PC 701 was really starting to show signs of wear – after heavy use for the previous 2 years, the trackpad buttons had started to go, plus the space bar was getting far less than responsive. So just before I returned I ordered a new Asus Eee 1008HA which arrived a day or so after I arrived back in the UK. The increased screen size, disk size and slightly larger keyboard have all been great, but there have been a few things that I’m not so keen on:

  1. the USB ports are too far recessed for some of my devices (notably the CDMA mobile internet dongle) to be properly inserted, so I end up using a small USB hub or extension lead. Plus there are only 2 USB ports
  2. It feels a little too fragile. The 701 was chunkier and so felt more solid, with this I feel I should be wrapping it in cotton wool before I put it in my bag. The monitor adapter (the VGA dongle) and network port, plus the covers for the USB and headphone sockets, all feel as if they’ll break easily.
  3. There’s not an easy way to upgrade the RAM. I had seen a video on YouTube on how you can open it up, but it’s not just a case of unscrewing a panel and popping in a new stick of RAM.

The reason I’d bought another Asus Eee was because of my experience with the first and I’d basically bought the 1008HA without having seeing one for real. Although I’ve not had any issues with the new machine in the nearly 3 months I’ve owned it, it only feels like a matter of time 🙁

Ethiopian TV presentation

Student being interviewed for ETV

This morning we had another visit from the Ministry of Education, coming to find out about our Digital Campus elearning project. They’ve had quite a punishing schedule over the past few days – not helped by a mix up which left them with 1 day to complete a 2 day car journey. Nonetheless, they seemed very enthusiastic and keen to learn about our project, looking at how similar programmes and technologies could be introduced at other Ethiopian Universities.

Unexpectedly (for me), our visitors were accompanied by a reporter and journalist from ETV, so I had to provide an impromptu presentation to camera about our project, which I’m expecting to be broadcast nationwide sometime over the next few days. I hope I gave a better performance than England did last night against Algeria! I think the appearance of the TV team surprised the students working in the lab, but a couple of them were happy to be interviewed, so really pleased they’ve been able to get feedback and opinions from the students too.

Serving two masters

In the past, I’ve worked on quite a number of research projects developing prototype software and web applications, where, due to the nature of the project (pilot/prototype/research) you never quite get the time to invest in making these systems as robust, well structured or documented as you’d like. Yet at the same time, a tension starts when there is a push to get these systems used in the real world, and they become to be treated as production level systems. No, it’s not quite that black and white, research projects need some real world testing to prove their worth and production systems will never be perfect.

With our new thin client labs and OpenSolaris server I feel we have a similar tension. On one side, these labs were a facility for us to try out new ICT policy and infrastructure for the university, for example, disabling flash devices, using university mail accounts, amongst many others. Yet at the same time, our lab is the only functioning lab available in the Engineering College. A review yesterday by the ECBP team, found that there was only one other lab (approx 30 PCs) which was functional and had relatively modern PCs (less than 5 years old) – but this lab isn’t yet networked (it’s in the computer science building – which, almost a year after being occupied by the department, still hasn’t been networked except recently for some of the staff offices). So there are 40 networked terminals available for a student population of over 2000. That’s a ratio of 1 terminal to 50 students in a college teaching engineering, technology and computing.

So we have a question of priorities, do we stick with the research goals and risk the labs not being usable due to the decision we’ve made (but then have something interesting to write up), or do we focus on providing students with a lab they are able to use effortlessly?

For me, it’s an easy decision to make. We must focus on providing a robust and reliable lab (contrary to the other labs) for the students to benefit from and not worry about the fact that they’re sharing passwords, using webmail rather than university mail accounts and the like. This doesn’t contradict some of the bigger research aspects we wanted to look into (e.g. demonstrating we can create a more robust and scalable architecture than the usual PC labs), but does mean that we very quickly needed to make compromises (such as allowing the use of flash drives) we didn’t want to have to make so soon.

The dog ate my homework

Have been hearing a few critical comments from some staff regarding the Certificate in Online Education and it’s content. Apparently some staff feel that learning about some of the techniques that we have been showing them is beneath them, or they already know how to perform these functions (for example use of graphics editing software). In my mind it’s just another excuse not to participate in the training. It also shows that they aren’t coming to the training with an open mind and consider that elearning is simply a technical issue, rather than a way of truly improving the quality of their course content and activities. I’m quite sure that some staff are capable of using some of the software, but in order to give them a certificate they need to prove is to us by actually demonstrating their skills with the courses they deliver to students.

Unfortunately, it still seems far too common here for staff to receive a lot of training, but never follow the training up by implementing what they have learned.

There are a wide variety of other reasons (excuses) I’ve heard as to why staff haven’t participated in the training, but there are few I believe as anything other than excuses.

More positively, except for the England v USA result, I’ve now found a few good places to watch the world cup matches. Apparently some students here have requested alterations to their exam timetables so they are able to watch all the games. I don’t think they received a particularly sympathetic response!

Otherwise, another busy week, spending much of the time with the new Institute of Technology (officially the Tigray Institute of Technology, but this results in an unfortunate acronym!), working on an action plan for the implementation of elearning into the new institute. They certainly seem to have more commitment than we received from the rest of the university over the past year. But hope that the Institute will be able to set a good example of how changes can be made in the rest of the university.

A team of staff (Joern, Selamawit, Haileleul and Oliver) from ECBP on.e arrived yesterday to begin working with the Institute and the new elearning team here. We’re planning how we can integrate our two separate training programmes for staff (elearning team and the tutors) and assisting with planning the technical/ICT infrastructure required.


Finally has been great to see the new computer labs in full use. On Tuesday I went over to the lab at Ayder, to find it not only open, but full of students (all 45 terminals in use), so this was very pleasing to see. The only downside was that students were almost exclusively using Facebook (except for the girl looking at the wikipedia page on Enrique Iglesias) rather than anything to do with the courses our tutor have produced.

I suspect that this is only to be expected, students rarely get to use a computer so the first thing they want to do is check their emails and facebook status. I still can’t really figure out exactly what the appeal is of spending so much time on facebook – but maybe that’s just me. There is talk at the university of blocking facebook and some of the other social networking sites simply because of the bandwidth they consume, but then last year there was also talk of doing the same with some webmail services (specifically Yahoo).

The use of the labs in this way isn’t really too concerning for the project – as least it demonstrates the demand is there and better than the labs being empty or locked. Surely students can’t spend 24/7 on facebook (or can they?) and eventually perhaps they’ll move onto something more constructive? Or do we need to get the course content and learning activities into facebook?

We have noticed that many students are sharing accounts/passwords – giving them to their friends. Seems there’s little we can do about this apart from trying to educate students that their documents and work are at risk of being deleted/copied etc if they give out their account details. Or we introduce fingerprint or iris scanning!

Over the past couple of days I’ve been started the training programme for the three new elearning staff, all going well so far. They’ll receive some training from ECBP (Engineering Capacity Building Programme, Ethiopia, funded by GTZ) so we’re looking at ways in which we can coordinate the Digital Campus training programme with theirs.

Our internet connection has been quite poor since I returned – off for 2 days last week then another 2 full days this week. There is an incredible difference in the number of students in the labs between when the internet is on and when it’s off.

Am now trying to decide where the best place will be to watch the England match on Saturday, choice is basically between either the Axum hotel (free entry but expensive drinks), or a DSTV house (very cheap entry and better atmosphere, but no drinks!)

Return to Ethiopia

Havana Club, Mekelle

Have now been back in Mekelle for a few days – I arrived on Monday evening, and got back into life here amazingly quickly when I think how strange it all seemed when I first arrived in Sept 2008.

I’m staying back at my old house, even have my old room back for the next month. Meeting up with everyone again has been great, it feels as if I’ve been away for such a long time, even though it’s only been around 2 months and I had expected more changes, but then I guess things don’t change here that quickly. The road that had been dug up near the house is still unfinished, in fact in an even worse state than before. Almost everyone has mentioned how fat I’ve become being back in the UK, but with the amount of eating out I’ve been doing the past few days seems unlikely I’ll lose any weight whilst here

I got straight back into work at the Uni on Tuesday morning, Jaime had been here for the week before I’d arrived and we’re ran the third of our face to face training weeks with our tutors. On Friday evening we had another meal out at the Axum hotel and had a short presentation of the tutors certificates (Basic Certificate in Online Education, accredited by Alcala University).

My to-do list for this visit seems to be getting longer by the minute, there are still a large number of technical and management issues that we need to get resolved. There is still confusion over who is responsible for the opening of one of the labs and there needs to be better coordination and management from the university. At the moment it seems that no-one at the university has overall responsibility.

On the plus side, the Engineering College (now an independent Institute of Technology), has employed 3 new staff as elearning specialists, so I will spend some time training them over the coming weeks. As they’re part of the IoT rather than the university generally, we can’t get them to support the Health Sciences college. So I can see a big divide opening between the IoT and the rest of the university in elearning infrastructure, capacity and capability.

I can see my time here flying past, I’ve already been here a week and only have 3 left, so will be back in the UK before I know it!