Archive for March 2011

Improving ICT Support and Opportunities in Ethiopia

Over the last few months, we have been looking at ways in which we can move Digital Campus away from being a one-off project and into an ongoing programme. Our focus is now on how we can help improve ICT professionalism, creating more career opportunities and better career paths for those who work in IT.

We have been investigating the various options for this and our plans now revolve around Digital Campus supporting (through a partnership agreement) an ICT company based in Ethiopia to provide quality ICT services. Digital Campus in Europe would stay not-for-profit, but we would like to steer clear of being seen as a charity or donor organisation. Although we’re able to source and provide hardware very close to being free, we would only want this equipment to be used in environments where there is a clear support structure in place. I know far too many donated computer labs either permanently locked up or hardware reduced to doorstops because it simply hasn’t been properly maintained.

Digital Campus Ethiopia (for want of a better name) would initially provide the first line of support, being directly based in the client organisation and Digital Campus Europe would initially provide the second/third line support, but also giving training, work experience and internships, with a view to the Ethiopian based company subsequently taking over this role, building into a viable self-sustaining business. This should help offer a higher level of service quality as well as being able to offer better paid career options to local staff.

The challenges are very high, especially in finding a suitable team of staff (or an existing company) to partner with, as these people will be critical to the success (or otherwise) of the venture. But everyone I’ve spoken to recently seems to see it as the ‘right way’ to go.

I’d be interested to hear thoughts and opinions on this approach.

Lab developments

Although the elearning training went very well, we still have some issues with the lab expansion and opening. Health Sciences is still in the process of recruiting lab attendants to open the lab there, previously they’ve been relying on the goodwill of Tilahun (the ICT team member based at Ayder), but he’s now moved to the main (Arid campus), so opening is rather ad-hoc. The lab at Arid now has 3 lab attendants so should now be open 24×7, although the network connection (between the lab and the data centre) has been quite flaky recently, due to some of the intermediate switches. The other new elearning computer lab at Arid is still under development, as yet the networking and electrical installation isn’t completed, although they were working on it this week. The electrician was surprised that we need over 15kW in this lab to power the 90 refurbished PCs, but seems we will this amount of power given the ratings on back of the old PCs and the CRT monitors.

One of our successes was to improve the boot speed and responsiveness of the refurbished PCs when they boot from the thin client server. The improvement was as a result of some changes to the network switches (they were only operating at half duplex for the ports these machines are attached to), and also to update the protocol used for the display. We’re now using FreeNX, which is proving far quicker than X11. We also tested XRDP which was also very responsive. With X11 the responsiveness to mouse clicks or key presses was so slow as to make the machines almost unusable, now these machines actually appear faster than the SunRay terminals. Much of this is simply my experiences during testing, rather than scientific measurement, and we’ve not yet tested these terminals when the lab and network is under load. So I was very pleased we were able to get the lab in a position where the old PCs would be usable, even with a less than ideal network.

Ruby on Rails developers needed for Ethiopia

Whilst I was in Mekelle Uni I met with a colleague from the Application Development Section. He’s looking for some experienced Ruby on Rails developers who could assist with one of their projects to create a web application, for their student management, finance, procurement and property administration system.

Please contact me for further information and I can explain more and send you contact details.

Certifying another 20 elearning teachers

Last night we presented the Certificate in Online Education to another 20 teachers from Technology Institute and Health Sciences. Over the past week we’ve been verifying that everyone has completed the assignments and other requirements. We’re still learning about the best way to deliver the course to get active participation especially when we’re not present in Mekelle. Before coming to back to Mekelle we were a little worried that few teachers had completed any of the assignments or their courses. But actually most had completed what was asked of them, just that we didn’t know – either they’d started to develop a different course to the one they’d first told us about, or they’d created the required activities, but not submitted the links to notify us.

Most of the teachers are now moving onto the advanced course which we started this week. We’re not starting a new basic course this semester, as we’d really like the elearning team to deliver this themselves with our support from a distance, rather than Jaime and I continually running the workshops.

Has been a fun couple of weeks in Mekelle, but hard work and much more to do, as ever. I have a few other blog articles to finish writing and get posted up, so hope to do this over the next few days. With such a short visit, I didn’t get the time to catchup with everyone I wanted to, but hopefully I’ll be back again in May/June time for a slightly longer visit.

More expensive beer and slower internet…

Last weekend I arrived back in Mekelle after our training week in Addis. Only a few differences to note since I’ve been back, the new road (I’ve been watching League of Gentlemen again) still isn’t finished, a couple of new restaurants have opened and a few have closed. The price capping that was introduced a couple of months ago has affected the availability of some goods quite a lot. For example in one restaurant, because bottled soft drinks are price capped, they now only sell canned soft drinks. St Georges and Dashen beers are capped, but Castell isn’t, so some places now only sell Castell as they can charge what they like for it.

The thin client computer labs are returning to being open. The lab for Technology Institute has been closed since the break in a few weeks ago and has only just this week been passed back to Technology from Security. Some new lab attendants have started this week, so the labs should be running again properly next week. We also hope to get a second lab open and running before the end of next week, but just need to keep our fingers crossed that the switches needed will arrive in the next few days.

The internet connection, both the fiber access at the uni and the CDMA, have been very slow. Generally they are on, but almost so slow as to be unusable. Many people seem to think the change in management of Ethiopia Telecom means staff are uncertain about their jobs so the network isn’t well maintained. An alternative explanation is that they’ve sold too many CDMA sim cards and increased the bandwidth they claim to deliver far above the actual capacity of the network. Either way, it’s disappointing that the connections are now worse than they were less than a year ago.

During my week in Addis I met several people form IT companies who are interested in providing thin client support services, so it’s interesting to see the types of projects they’ve been working on and that cheaper, more reliable computing infrastructure is now becoming more widespread. There is also talk of some thin client devices being assembled here in Ethiopia – actually the device I’ve seen would run either standalone or as a thin client. This would make the thin clients more mainstream, much cheaper and as they could be paid for in local currency, buyers would be supporting the local economy.

This week we continue our elearning training at Mekelle University, we have the final workshops for two training programme we started in October and hope to start a new advanced group. Hoping that everyone is as active and engaged as the participants were in Addis last week.