Posts tagged ‘mekelle university’

Increasing use of elearning at Mekelle Uni

I was just having a look at the statistics for the Mekelle Uni Moodle and am very pleased to see how much the site has increased in usage over the last year. Great to see students making up a large proportion of the hits. Last year we were seeing more hits from teachers, probably due to their course development and issues with lab opening. The drop is hits during February and March this year is likely due to three factors: (a) one of the labs being closed following theft of some terminals, (b) end of semester exams and (c) subsequent inter-semester break. I hope the site usage continues to increase.

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.

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.

Rapid developments in Mekelle

We’re still in the process of planning out our training programme for our next visit to Ethiopia in a few weeks time. At only 3 weeks it’s going to be my shortest visit to Ethiopia, so sure it will be a very busy time, given what we’re hoping to get done in the time there. For a week in Addis, we’ll be starting our basic certification course for elearning teams from some of the other universities in Ethiopia, we’re just waiting to get confirmation of how many are going to attend. Then we’ll have 2 weeks in Mekelle, for the final face to face workshops for the certification we started in October plus starting a new cohort for the advanced training.

There’s still some way to go before Mekelle University is ready to start delivering the course by themselves. Although they’re keen on expanding the training to include other colleges, it’s not sustainable for Jaime and I to continue to deliver the training over and over.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had lots of good news from the Technology Institute. Florida, one of the lecturers from the Computer Science department, has taken over as head of ICT and elearning. They’ve managed to take on another team member for the elearning team, plus lab attendants are due to start work this week for maintaining the computer labs. They’re in the process of getting a new computer lab (of almost 70 refurbished PCs network booting from the OpenSolaris server) up and running, so will be great to see this up and running, although we have a few concerns as to whether the server will have the power/capacity to deliver sessions to this many extra terminals.

Health Sciences College have also been busy, installing network connected PCs and projectors in almost 20 lecture rooms.

With all these changes, I’m looking forward to getting back to Mekelle, if only for a very short time. At just less than 4 months, this is also the longest break I’ve had away from Mekelle since I started working there back in September 2008.

Testing alternative thin-client server solutions

The thin client solution we currently have running in Mekelle is based on using OpenSolaris and we have a variety of terminals – a mixture of SunRay 1’s, SunRay 2’s and Nortech clients. Using sun ray session server, the sunray terminals are performing well, but when we have the labs full of students, the Nortech terminals are significantly less responsive. There are a number of possible reasons for this, the protocols used, the network amongst others. There is a huge range of other configurations and technologies we could use to provide a robust and scalable thin client architecture.

I’ve spent a few days this week in Barcelona with Cast-Info investigating their Desktop4All solution, which we’re looking to trial as an alternative to the OpenSolaris setup we currently have. Goitom, one of the phds students from Mekelle will spend the next few weeks based in the Cast-Info offices, learning how to install and set up the server system used for Desktop4All, with a view to installing this when back in Mekelle in a couple of months.

Desktop4All, based on Linux, is a set of integrated open source applications. It’s likely to produce a similar end result to the solution that we already have running with OpenSolaris, but the main advantage for us will be in the support and documentation available as a reference. Testing out Desktop4All will give us the opportunity to collaborate in the development and to investigate whether we get similar types of issues arising as we have had with OpenSolaris.

When we started the Digital Campus project, I think there was some concern over whether the students would need much training in how to use a non-Windows operating system, given that much (all?) of their previous experience of using computers/pcs was with Windows (usually XP). This has turned out not to be the case, given that many students have had limited time to become locked in Windows, we’ve found few issues with students being unable to navigate the interface or use applications. I suspect we don’t always give the students credit for their ability to adapt to new interfaces and systems (especially judging by how quickly they find their way to webmail, youtube and facebook).

Student Inductions

I spent my final week in Mekelle helping to run student induction sessions for the Health Sciences college. We now have around 600 students registered on elearning courses (from both Technology Institute and Health Sciences College), with over a third of these having completed our initial student survey – so we should be able to get some good information about their expectations and previous computing experiences.

As always, my last few days in Mekelle were very hectic – my workload seems to increase as I get nearer to my departure date! But we have now got over 20 classrooms in the Health Sciences College connected up to the network, with projectors and computers, so teachers no longer have to carry their laptops to be able to give a presentation, plus they have access to the internet within the classroom. Currently these computers are running on Windows, but we’ll change this so they boot across the network and act as thin client machines.

I was also helping to advise the Technology institute on how they can massively increase their computing infrastructure using the thin client model. They have many 100’s of old monitors to make use of. There is a long way to go to get this set up, especially as the institute needs to staff and train an ICT team/department.

We still have some issue regarding the fact that the labs we have aren’t able to cope with the number of students wanting to use them. I’m getting a lot of requests to allocate specific times for classes, but I’m being quite firm that the labs should remain open access, rather than becoming a substitute for the lack of maintenance in the departmental computer labs.

Am now trying to have a bit of time off in the UK (without getting bogged down in emails about the labs, training etc!), before heading to Spain to work at Alcala Uni for a few months.

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.

BarCampEthiopia: Day 2

Habtom giving his presentation

Another good day at the conference, today things seemed a little more organised, it seems that people had got used to the idea of how the event should be running – the sessions ran a little more smoothly (timings and room bookings etc)

Again there was a really wide variety of topics being presented – but I stuck to going to the more techie ones. First session I attended was about OpenStreetMap (OSM) in Ethiopia. Addis is now quite well mapped out, a company (AddisMap) has been putting a lot of effort into getting the city well mapped on OSM and I think they are hoping to make some money from advertising on their site. They’ve been lending GPS units to taxi drivers to help collect all the data. They also wanted to be able to produce (and sell) printed maps, but are being limited as they can’t yet get a license from the Ethiopian Mapping Agency to print maps any larger than A4.

Early in the afternoon I ran a session on Open Educational Resources – I did a demo of how to download some resources from the internet and get them uploaded onto a local Moodle server – fortunately the internet was working well enough for this as I didn’t have much of a backup plan.

Habtom from Mekelle Uni ICT gave a presentation about localisation and globalisation, discussing how localisation was more than just about having software translated into another language. I found the other day that Moodle has been translated into Amharic and Tigrinya, it’s only for Moodle 2 and there are several sections not yet fully translated – but hopefully more progress will be made soon.

The final session I attended was a live video presentation from Michele Suhlmann, a phd student at University of Groningen – so fairly ambitious to run a presentation in this way I thought, but it worked well. She was talking about the research she has been doing on the social and psychological effects of personal laptop schemes. Interestingly her data was based on interviews with the children at the school in Mekelle where they are running the One Laptop per Child project.

In the evening there was a final party and a local band providing the entertainment. The team from ECBP must be really pleased how well the whole event worked out, the variety of sessions and the enthusiasm of everyone who attended. Hope there’ll be another one next year – or even sooner 😉

BarCampEthiopia: Day 1

Introductory Bar Camp session

Just got back to my hotel after a full day at the first Bar Camp to be run in Ethiopia. I flew back to Addis yesterday morning and after catching up on a little sleep, headed over to the venue to help get set up and stayed on for the launch party in the evening – then this morning the real conference started.

Around 300 people attended today, with a really varied range of sessions happening throughout the day – from Google apps programming to participatory community planning and even a yoga session. My colleague, Goitom, from Mekelle Uni, ran a session about network centric computing architectures – covering the research he has been doing into thin-client system and labs. Even though it was much more technial than most of the other sessions, we had a good turnout, with plenty of follow up questions and discussions

Many students from Mekelle Uni managed to attend the conference so was good to see them helping out and getting involved – especially since it was a two day bus trip for them to get here.

'Ishi Beca Ciao' playing at launch party

I ran a session as an overview to our Digital Campus project, similar to the presentation I gave at Elearning Africa in May, all seemed to go well, despite it being at the end of the day and up against a parallel session where a guy from Google was giving away free t shirts!

For tomorrow, I’ve put myself forward to give a presentation about open educational resource, so will now need to get a presentation together to give.