Archive for October 2010

A is for Axe

Teaching the English alphabet at Sherafo Primary School

This week has been extremely varied and busy. On Monday I started off by helping with the student induction sessions for the Technology Institute students. Mesi and Berihu (the elearning team in the institute) are now able to run the inductions themselves, so I don’t need to get involved with these any more. So in less than 3 weeks, we have gone from training the teachers in how to get their courses online to having students enrolled on the online courses they have created.

Student inductions

Then on Tuesday I gave a couple of presentations about the Digital Campus project and Open Educational Resources to the languages department. Andrew and Elinor from Clarity were back in Ethiopia to run some training for their English language improvement software, so my presentations were to help inform the languages department about how they may want to use elearning in their teaching.

I spent Wednesday morning helping to interview 13 people for 3 lab attendants posts to look after one of our computer labs and to work in shifts so the lab can be open 24 hours a day. The interviews were extremely short – only 5-10 mins each and the candidates had the choice of whether to speak in Amharic or English, so in the end there was only one candidate I could give an opinions on as they had answered the whole interview in English. Although I couldn’t understand every word, I could tell that the level of training at some of the private colleges was a little suspect (many had their IT diplomas from private colleges in Mekelle). For example, in response to my question about what they would do if a student had a problem with their password, over half replied that they’d use password cracker software (or at least I heard the words ‘password cracker software’ in their Amharic response).

Later in the afternoon I travelled up to Wukro again to accompany Mahmud (another of the phd students at Alcala) on some of his research field work. He’s looking for particular types of parasites in children, so is going out to rural schools and doing blood, urine and stool tests on a subset of the students.

On Thursday we headed out to Sherafo school (about 30 mins drive off the main road from Agula) to complete the testing he’d started there the day before. Our lab was set up in the model classroom at the school and whilst Mahmud was interviewing the children and their parents, I was helping the rest of the team weigh and measure the children – improving my Tigriyan numbers at the same time. I’m not sure how much a disruption my presence at the school was, most of the children spent a long time staring at me.

I was also looking at whether the cameras on the smart phones were going to be good enough to take photos of the microscope slides, so they could be attached to other questionnaire/interview data being recorded on the phone application. The unfortunately predictable answer was no – the only way we could get even halfway recognisable photos was to use a proper digital camera with macro setting.

On Friday morning I caught the bus back to Mekelle and was up at the Arid campus by just after 9am. I went to look at the refurbished PC lab that’s still being built. The furniture was just being installed, but there’s no sign yet of the network or electrical work that we’ve been waiting quite some time for. Although the tables use a similar design to those I had made for the other lab, I wonder how long the new tables will actually last. The sliding keyboard shelves feel like they’ll break quite easily.

In more positive news, over at Ayder campus in the afternoon, I arrived to find that all 22 classrooms were now networked. The college dean had asked for this to be done only about 2 weeks ago. Each classroom also has a projector and an old desktop computer. So next week all we need to do is get the computer configured to boot from our server and all the classrooms can have internet and other computing facilities.

I’m now going to have a relaxing weekend 😉

Visiting Rural Health Posts

I have spent the past 4 days visiting rural Health Posts with my colleague Araya. His phd is looking at the gaps of the Health Extension Workers (HEWs), specifically related to maternal health. Once the gaps are known, the next stage will be to design a programme to fill the hole in knowledge/skills, possibly using technology to help deliver the training.

Altogether he’ll interview 150 HEWs at over 100 Health Posts in 3 districts in Tigray. Over the 4 days I’ve been out with him, he managed to interview 18 HEWs at 14 health posts. Each day has been long – leaving Wukro around 7 am and not returning until after 7pm, so 12 hours to conduct about 5 interviews, each interview lasting about an hour or more.

I’ve been helping with the technology support and will be helping look at what could be appropriate to use in this context. Not all the concerns I mentioned in my earlier post have been realised.

The GPRS coverage has been far better than I’d expected, out of the 13 posts we visited, only one had no mobile or GPRS coverage. A couple had patchy coverage – but it was working for some of the time during our approx 2 hour visits. This is really positive from the point of view of the technology we might like to use in the future.

However, none of the posts had an electricity supply. A couple had electricity poles running very close to the building, but they weren’t connected up. In most cases there wasn’t any electricity supply to the village at all.

My phone battery got to be a real problem for me, despite having wireless and bluetooth turned off, I found that battery was only lasting for about 8-9 hours. I was using the GPS quite a lot, but even on the first couple of days when I was only briefly turning the GPS on (to get the coordinates for the posts), this only gave me a couple of extra hours battery life.

All except one of the HEWs we met had a mobile phone. The reason for the one exception was that she worked at the post with no mobile coverage, so she’d given her phone to a relative. Which for me than raised the question of how they charge the phones given there’s limited power supply. The answer to this was that they must travel to the town to charge their phones (this could be a 2-3 hour walk), or they send the phones with someone else going to town.

The HEWs have very limited English (although much better than my Tigrinya), so delivery of any training materials must be in either Amharic or Tigrinya to have any chance of being effective. One of Araya’s questions is about their use of text messaging, many don’t use text messaging simply because they don’t know the latin alphabet well enough.


What I’ve seen over the past few days is only a small proportion of all the posts that Araya will eventually be covering, but it’s likely that the further interviews will reinforce what we’ve already found out – rather than raising any new issues or significantly altering the results to date.

Over the coming months (after some more of the interview have been conducted), we’d like to get the results from the technology aspects written up into a paper.

Using smart phones for health research in rural areas

I recently became the owner of an unlocked HTC Dream smartphone (running Android 1.6). Smart phones are still quite a rarity in Mekelle (and I’d guess in much of the rest of Ethiopia), so despite this not being the most recent model, everyone who sees me using it asks me to have a look & play around. I have seen a few people with Nokia E71 phones, but when you look closer they’re actually Nokla E71’s (yes, that’s Nokia with an L instead of an i).

In a couple of days I will be heading out to some rural areas with a colleague doing his doctorate in public health. He’s testing different smartphones and applications for data collection whilst he’s interviewing Health Extension Workers (HEWs). I’m joining him to see what some of the issues are with using these types of phones and applications in this context, with a view to spending some time over the coming months seeing how these devices may be used to deliver training.

I’ve only really been using the phone for the past week or so and there are a couple of areas where I can already see we may run into problems.

Firstly, the battery life. With my usage, not particularly heavy, the battery usually only lasts just over a day. Given that we’ll be using these devices for data collection, then they’re likely to be having heavy use in areas with little or no mains power. We are testing out some small solar power chargers.

Secondly, the GPRS coverage. GPRS is not used widely here and coverage in extremely patchy (even in large city like Mekelle) and it’s not yet been rolled out to other more rural areas (or even large towns). Sim cards need to be specifically enabled to use GPRS – it’s not turned on by default. The applications we’re testing out (EpiSurveyor and Sana) will both allow data to stored until an area with coverage is reached, but unless the user visits Mekelle on a regular basis then the data will never get uploaded.

I’m sure that improvements in the phones and the phone network infrastructure will eventually make both of my concerns invalid – it’s just a question of when they will be addressed.

The other questions and areas I’d like to look at include:

1) How easy is inputting the data on such a small screen? Might a tablet or netbook PC be more appropriate? Perhaps they’ll work well for short, relatively simple surveys, but not for others?
2) Do any of the HEW’s already have java enabled phones? If so, this would enable them to use the EpiSurveyor application without any new phones.
3) Do any of the phones support input using ge’ez (the alphabet used for Amharic and Tigrinian)? I can’t see how to input these characters on my phone (if anyone knows how I’d be pleased to hear from you), but I can display the characters.
4) How long do the phones take to get a GPS signal? For each record input we can automatically attach the location coordinates – but I’ve noticed that sometimes the phones can take a long time getting a GPS fix. With the power issues it’s unlikely they’d want to leave the GPS on all the time.
5) Would they really be used? Getting reliable data in these areas (even just for the number of births/deaths) is extremely difficult – reporting processes are often unreliable or just not used. Using these phones could help with gathering this info – but obviously only if they are used.
5) What are the other uses for the phones? E.g. providing remote diagnostic support, clinical support, training content/activities or reference, or perhaps for fun/social activities.

Plus I’m sure many other questions and possibilities will arise over the coming days.

Abi Adi & Abba Yohanni Church

Abba Yohanni rock church (just visible halfway up the rock face)

This weekend, Martin, Jaime, Stefan (French engineer from the wind farm project) and I went over to stay at the new lodge in Abi Adi, the Maylomin Botanical Garden Lodge. It’s still in the process of opening – they only have 9 beds so far in 5 separate lodges, built in a traditional south Ethiopian style. They’ve got big plans for the rest of the lodge, new lodge buildings in other Ethiopian building styles, plus plans for a swimming pool and even an airport – but I suspect this is a little way off yet.

Maylomin Botanical Garden Lodge

On Saturday early evening, Welday, the lodge manager, took us for a walk though the mountains to see the sunset, then arrive at the Maylomin cafe (other side of town where Andy and Crissy had a barbecue and party for the college staff back in November 2008).

Sunset over Abi Adi

On Sunday morning, with the two new VSO volunteers at the teacher training college, we took a trip out to visit Abba Yohanni rock church. Set midway up a rock face, it’s just about accessible by a step climb on the western side, followed by walk through tunnels carved into the rock, ending with a tiptoe along a narrow ledge with a steep drop, to access the church.

Drinking tilla

End of tunnel and ledge to access church

Despite 2 flat tyres and camel trains blocking the road on the way back, it was great to get out and about for the weekend – especially to visit some places I’ve either not been before or haven’t been for a long time.

Camel traffic jam

Training our second group of elearning tutors

Class of October 2010

Today Jaime and I finished the introductory face to face training week for our second cohort of candidates for our Basic Certificate in Online Education.

Almost 30 staff from Health Sciences and Technology Colleges completed the training, but this is just their first step towards certification. They still need to complete 9 assignments over the coming semester and another face to face training session at the end of the semester as well as attending peer-supported tutorial and workshop sessions throughout the semester.

We have been really impressed with the candidates, especially given the amount of information, assignments and new concepts we have bombarded them with over the last week. The ongoing training and support will give them the time to consolidate what they have started this week and gain practical experience in creating online activities.

All the candidates have a course outline uploaded to the university Moodle server and are ready to start delivering content and activities to their students over the coming semester.

Given our experience in presenting this certification from last year, we have been able to improve the programme of activities, as well as shortening the certification period from a whole academic year to a single semester.

Electrical Storm

A couple of nights ago there was an electrical storm just on the other side of the city. Well, we assumed it was an electrical storm, it went on for over an hour with flashes of light every 10-15 seconds, but it also happened to be behind the university, right above the Northern Command military headquarters and airstrip.

Project Expansion

Over the last week, as well as preparing for next weeks delivery of our Basic Certificate in Online Education to nearly 50 new staff, I’ve also been looking at ways in which we can extend the project. Possibilities we’re investigating include offering the certification to staff at other Ethiopian universities, testing the thin client infrastructure at another organisation and taking thin clients attached to a data projectors/whiteboards into the classroom.

Getting the network into the classroom would allow us to help close the gap between the classroom teaching and the online activities – currently they are very separate, but if students can see the Moodle content/activities in the classroom, they’re more likely to realise they can access this content and more in the computer labs. It also gives us the possibility to test out whiteboards and other technologies.

The labs we installed last November are still working well, only a few of the terminals aren’t working and these are almost all due to poor network or power connection, rather than the terminals themselves. We still have a few issues regarding getting the labs open outside normal working hours. The Health Sciences lab is well used as it’s always open during the normal working day, but we still have to work on extending these hours and also make sure we can get the Technology Institute lab open.

Mike and Elfu in the new lab

In the Technology Institute, as well as ordering several hundred new PCs (not yet all purchased/distributed) they are building a new thin client lab on a similar model to our existing lab. This lab is reusing old PCs as thin clients – with the new PCs arriving there should be plenty of old PCs available for use. It’s a huge room, space for 60 terminals. All the furniture is being produced by the university’s workshop and I was pleased to see that they are using my design for the hexagonal tables which we have in the other labs.

[Our labs need some better names – any suggestions welcome :-)]

Metalwork for new tables

We begin delivery of the elearning training again on Monday and we have had a lot of interest from staff. Our plan was to deliver to 15-20 staff, but we had over 50 staff asking to join. Only a few who have told us they are leaving for masters soon we’ve had to turn down. I expect that, similar to last year, we’ll have a fairly high drop out rate, but even if half complete we’ll have more than 20 new courses online for student access.

In personal news, I was very pleased to get my first shower in over a week on Friday – the water in our area of town had been completely off. The well near our house was restricting the amount of water anyone could take, despite the best rainy season for 10 years only just ending.