Posts tagged ‘mekelle university’

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!)

Final few days

Today is my last day in work at Mekelle. Feels very strange to be leaving after such a long time, but think I’m ready to go back – for a break at least. Still no running water at home, though I got a shower at a friends house last night. So there are a few things here I won’t miss!

I’ve been really pleased with the progress we’ve managed to make in developing elearning at Mekelle, especially over the last months, though I’m sure I could easily spend another 10 years here and still not get everything done that I’d like. Now I just have a few days in Mekelle getting packed up before flying to Addis for another few more days and back to UK next weekend. My next blog entry will probably be once I’m back in the UK, after I’ve had a bit of time to settle in again. Will be in touch with as many people as possible once I’m back and looking forward to seeing everyone again 🙂


45 signatures from each of the 30+ university departments, plus finance, stores, personnel from all campuses and all in triplicate. That’s all I need for the clearance procedure so I can officially leave the university. Despite still having another 5 weeks left, I’ve heard from others about how unbelievably time-consuming and bureaucratic the clearance procedure here is, so thought I should make start.

I managed to find a secretary who would go round and collect most of the signatures for me (for a small fee), so far I have 30, the remaining signatures needed are for finance, stores etc, so for these I need to sign my computer over to someone else, so I can prove that there isn’t any equipment still in my name and that I don’t owe any department any money.

It looks likely that this will take much of the next week or so to be complete and I’ll be extremely relieved when I finally have everything signed off and finished.

Rollercoaster week

The last week or so has seen lots of ups and downs, though overall the balance is more up than down! On both of the last Saturday mornings I ran training sessions for tutors. I was expecting these to be a bit of a nightmare, I’d already had trouble getting all the user accounts working correctly, plus I wasn’t really sure how many people would turn up. In the end around 10 tutors attended each week so was very pleased with this outcome – it could very easily have been that no-one or only one or two attend. Not knowing who was coming beforehand or what level they’d got to made things a little tricky for planning the sessions, but went well in the tutorial-style we used. Some are already creating quizzes and other activities for their students, whereas with some other tutors, they hadn’t attended the training week in November, so we were starting at the beginning.

Last Sunday morning (just over a week ago) we had some visitors from the Ministry of Education, so I explained our elearning projects and showed them the labs – unfortunately (as always seems to be the case) a power outage, in one of the buildings holding the switches connecting the terminals to the data centre, prevented me from showing the terminals in use.

The downsides this week have been the fact that it was uncertain for a while as to whether we’d be able to run the second full week of training for the tutors, as the visitors from Alcala may not have had time to prepare. If they weren’t coming this would have made extra work for me, as I still would have needed to run some extra training to ensure the tutors were set up and ready for delivering courses int the second semester. With all the other tasks I have to do (in the now 8 weeks remaining – not that I’m counting) this would have been too much and I’d have been very disappointed if they had canceled, or delayed until June.

Also a laptop went missing from our office over the previous weekend. A student had left it with one of my office colleagues to fix, but without going into all the detail here (and I’m not totally sure about exactly what happened), he ended up being locked up at the police station for 2 days and has to pay 12,000 birr (over 1000 USD) until the laptop is found. Previously our office was used a lot by other staff to get internet access and to get their laptops fixed, but now all this will stop and the locks are being replaced.

This week we finally made progress on fixing up many of the user accounts that weren’t working, plus getting the server at Ayder campus working again. There were lots of different odd problems with the users accounts, but most re fixed now (just a few odd problems to resolve still). But getting the server fixed was great news (especially at the end of a Friday afternoon). this means we can now get the lab open again and into use. Though now the students are having exams, then they’ll have a 2 week break, so they may not be around much for anther 3-4 weeks. The lab at Ayder now has curtains up, and new carpet is ready to be put in. The curtains seem to match the rest of the room, but I suspect this is more by accident than design.

Anyway it was a good end to a very fraught week, so hoping I don’t have any more weeks like this one.

Monkey business

Campus baboonsOn campus there is a small family of baboons, I’m not really sure where they came from. Although they’re native to Ethiopia, there aren’t any wild ones in this region, so I suspect they’re escaped/released ex-pets, perhaps from one of the amusement parks in town (one used to have a hyaena pit, now turned into a arcade games room).

The campus baboons spend quite a lot of time in the area near my office, out on the first floor balcony, but they often have to be chased off to stop them pulling apart the noticeboards. The other day we heard a lot of crashing noise from outside – it was the young baboon playing with broken glass, then throwing it onto the tin roof below. Very fortunately, and despite licking the edge of the broken glass, the baboons managed to avoid cutting themselves, or anyone else.

Attempting to fix servers

IMG_1437We’re still having a few problems with the server over at Ayder (Health Sciences) Campus. It’s made more problematic by the fact that the contractors digging up one of the nearby roads cut through the fiber cable linking Ayder to the main campus. So not only is there no internet at Ayder, there is no network connection to the Moodle server to allow staff there to be uploading their courses and activities.

On Friday and Monday I spent several hours (about 7 or 8 in total) on Skype to Eduardo in Barcelona who is helping us to get the server fixed. Things are made a little easier by the fact we have 2 identical servers, alpha and bravo. Alpha is (generally) running fine at Arid campus and bravo is the broken server at Ayder, so the plan was to make a copy of alpha onto one of the spare disks, modify it slightly (name, IP address etc) then use this to fix bravo.

The clone had already been made – to one of the 4 physical disks in the machine. All I needed to to do was switch the disks around to test the clone, then take the cloned disk to Ayder. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the cloned disk to work and on Friday it took Eduardo and I a little while to figure out what the problem was. It turned out that the way the disks were numbered on the server label:


didn’t actually match how the were referred to by the operating system, so rather then switching the disk in positions 0 and 2, we should have been doing 0 and 1.

Finally we got this issue resolved and the disk ready to take to Ayder, plus a few other backup options that Eduardo had come up with in case this disk didn’t solve the problem.

On Monday, I took the disk over to Ayder, got on Skype, and spent a few hours messaging Eduardo (and a little later Mike) and we managed to get the server booting up correctly. In the end we managed to fix the problem without needing to use the disk we’d had the confusion over on Friday.

But unfortunately all is not quite finished. The terminals at Ayder aren’t yet connecting to the properly. So next job is to get that resolved.

All of which means that we still haven’t been able to get the lab open for students to use, but hoping to be open properly in the next week or so. Still much more work to be done, so will keep us all busy for the coming weeks I’m sure.

Approaches to eLearning in Ethiopia

Last week, Oliver and Haileleul from the Engineering Capacity Building Program (ECBP) in Addis came to visit our elearning project in Mekelle. They are working for the elearning development program for ECBP, setting up eCompetence Centres at other universities in Ethiopia and are looking to develop a similar program in Mekelle without duplicating the Digital Campus project work.

All seemed to go very well and we’re currently in the process of writing a proposal for the training of more staff to become elearning experts, to be presented to the University management in the very near future.

Their most successful program so far seems to be at Adama University, where the Engineering College has been turned into an independent Institute of Technology. The (German) director and senior management have really focused on improving student computer access, by setting up 600 terminals open 24/7.

The ECBP approach taken to develop elearning course content/materials is slightly different to our approach with Digital Campus. We are training teachers to set up and upload their own courses and teaching materials, with the support from pedagogical department, whereas the eCompetence Centres allow teachers to take their materials to the centre. The centre staff then do much of the content development and uploading for the teacher. There is good reason for this difference, the ECBP approach has a stronger focus on multimedia content, whereas we’re looking at much more basic content uploading and activity creation. Expecting all staff to have the facilities, skills and time to produce multimedia content is simply unrealistic.

There are pros and cons of each approach. Sending your content off to a centre for transformation into online activities can increase the technological complexity of the activities or content developed (e.g. multimedia or flash animations), increase quality (questionably) and consistency between courses. Also it is easier to set deadlines for course production. However I have concerns that staff then have no sense of ownership of the online materials related to their course, for example, that regular updates are made and that staff participate in and monitor forum discussions. It may mean staff then don’t consider it to be part of their jobs to be involved with the online aspect. I have to ad that the ECBP approach does have the teachers working with the elearning team – it’s not a case of the teachers dropping off the materials and walking away from any further involvement.

Training teacher to produce their own online content and activities means that you can have a smaller team supporting the elearning development, providing advice and training but not the ‘doing’ and this woul dhelp to reduce the direct cost to the university. We hope it would also motivate the teachers to encourage their students to use the materials and activities if the teachers have gone to the effort of creating them. The danger is that teachers won’t have the time or skills, or it will be considered to be more work force upon them by management. Maintaining a baseline level of quality and consistency between courses may be difficult.

So, which do you think is the better approach? Or should there be a mixture between the two?

I hope that I’ll get the opportunity to visit Adama university early in the new year, with some staff from Mekelle, as I believe there will be a lot we can learn from their experiences. I think that the success of their program may be mainly due to the efforts put into providing 24/7 open access computer labs to students, something that’s yet to be achieved on anything but a very small scale at Mekelle.