microsophical reflections – part 2

Winner of SchoolNet’s “Best ICT Quotation of the Month” Award!

August 2005

Mr Sean Nicholson
Industry solutions specialist for education and emerging markets,

“I believe Pathfinder has legs…”


This M$FT Press Release reads:

The surest mark of success came today, when Microsoft’s participation in the programme came to a close, and the company ceded administration of the Pathfinder programme to the Namibian government.

“What’s remarkable about Pathfinder is, first, that it’s a total solution, addressing issues such as training, tools and support,” says Sean Nicholson, industry solutions specialist for education and emerging markets at Microsoft, and the company’s project manager for the African Pathfinder initiative. “Second, we’ve looked at how to make it sustainable and scalable. It’s no problem to run a project in one or two schools. But how about a thousand schools, or ten thousand? How do you make sure that any project you do is still running next year?”

“…I believe Pathfinder has legs and is sustainable in Namibia. The initiative will continue to change and develop here, but it’s not our project anymore, and that is precisely the point.”

Yes, legs indeed! To run away on 🙂

The Namibian Pathfinder project is a good example of misguided international corporate misanthropy, launched by Microsoft in Namibia. Surprisingly, the Pathfinder project continues to get tremendous international publicity as an international ICT development ‘success story’. Marketed directly, and by Microsoft’s preferred international ‘charitable’ channel partner, Digital Pipeline (www.digitalpipeline.com), this publicity stunt is widely seen as Microsoft’s latest strategy to drive Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) and the Creative Commons (in education) out of Namibia, and discourage other African Education Ministries from embracing FLOSS. I think this is a very risky strategy, given the precarious and miniature scale of the venture in Namibia to date.

Consider the facts:

1. The PathFinder project managed to deliver 156 refurbished computers to 13 Namibian schools in two years. At this stage six of the 13 schools are only barely functional – thanks to the efforts of transient summer holiday students from Harvard. The rest have fallen off the Pathfinder map. Two of the six schools have internet access, courtesy of SchoolNet Namibia.

2. The proprietary software bundled with these computers, MS Office and Encarta, was provided at special discounted pricing; the terms and conditions of use, upgrade and renewal remain obscure.

3. Until quite recently, technical support for these schools required an international phone call to a call-centre in Cairo, Egypt (talk about globalisation!!). Microsoft now expects the government of Namibia to take full responsibility for technical support at these schools.

4. To this end, Microsoft assisted the government of Namibia to establish a computer refurbishment workshop at the Windhoek Vocational Training Centre, which expects to recruit ‘junior computer technicians’ for a once-off student fee of N$ 7,000 (US$ 1,077) to gain such skills.

5. Given an apparent desperate shortage of used computers, resulting from the Prince of Wales International Business Leaders Forum (www.digitalpartnership.org) failing to deliver as promised, Microsoft, through Digital Pipelines, now exploits international used computer agencies such as Computer Aid International and Digital Links, which have traditionally tended the needs of CSOs in African countries.

6. In spite of the first Pathfinder disaster, the government of Namibian unwittingly agreed to having Microsoft deploy another 390 refurbished computers to 13 secondary schools, for the exclusive purpose of replacing old typewriting classes with the subjects keyboarding and office administration. In order to replace typewriting with keyboarding and office administration, Microsoft is using proprietary ‘trial’ software which will allow for thin client/server configurations in these 30-computer labs. The Namibian schools will serve as guinea pigs to fine-tune this new software which requires a CDROM to boot the workstations. Little, if any, attention was paid to such issues as furniture, electricity and technical support at the schools thus affected (contrary to the glowing press releases).

“The surest mark of success came today, when Microsoft’s participation in the programme came to a close, and the company ceded administration of the Pathfinder programme to the Namibian government.”

This is the key – “ceding administration” to the Namibian government! I call this “legging it” from a project doomed to failure from the start, and leaving Namibia to take the rap for a fiasco in the making. Microsoft has simply passed the buck to the Government of Namibia. Very few international development projects stay around long enough to experience difficulties, or take any responsibility for the mostly disastrous after-effects of underestimated costs of long-term ICT ownership.

SchoolNet Namibia expects that international development agencies and industry stake holders recognise the importance of a ‘total cost of ownership’ model which ensures long-term internet access, technical maintenance, repair, training and support services to schools provided with ICT equipment. We expect that the ICT task force set up by Ministry of Education will have ample opportunity to review the outcomes of this short-lived lost cause.

We shall need 72,000 computers to reach first world expectations of a 10:1 learner to computer ratio and a 1:1 teacher to computer ration in schools in Namibia. At this stage of ICT development in the Namibian education sector, fewer than 300 schools have any educational ICT integration capacities to speak of. Presently, most of these have FLOSS solutions and Internet access, provided by SchoolNet.

Only some 50 (mostly privileged) schools use Microsoft applications; mostly without Internet access, and with growing concern about the extent to which many such schools have unauthorised copies of Microsoft and other third-party proprietary software.

While on a national per capita school basis (especially if calculated on the basis of electrified schools, n= 950) we probably have the best ICT development progress in education sectors in Africa to date, and more learners and teachers (again on a per capita basis) using the internet than anywhere else in Africa, it still boils down to fewer than 200,000 learners and 8,000 teachers empowered by ICTs in Namibia today. This reality shall clearly remain the substance of SchoolNet Namibia’s agitation today and in the future!

Focusing on schools with secondary grades, SchoolNet has deployed ICT solutions scaled to specifications and priorities set by the national ICT Policy for Education. Such ICT systems typically include a new Pentium IV (Intel-inside) server, between 5 and 20 refurbished thin-client diskless workstations (with new monitors, mice and keyboards) and an Uninterrupted Power Supply. These PCs are installed on SchoolNet’s innovative round tabletops, with network cabling, switch and internet service equipment ensuring that all computers have secure access to server-based software, applications and locally relevant educational content, as well as the Internet. Developed specially for the Namibian education sector by Direq International in collaboration with local and international pedagogues, SchoolNet Namibia’s tailor-made OpenLab solution provides Namibian schools with access to a wide range of educational resources.

The latest release of Direq OpenLab is awesome! Especially with a localised Wikipedia (meeting the demand for a FLOSS reference encyclopaedia),  and some fantastic learner/learning management and examination tools to complement the existing educational resources. Literacy and numeracy applications, as well as an educational playground, provide an interactive resource base for teachers and learners from Grade 1-12. A typing tutor, Open Office suite and the latest Edsnet resources (produced by Namibia’s Institute for Educational Development) has been integrated to provide teachers with local curricular guidelines and syllabus resources. The Gutenberg Project provides access to several thousand popular copyleft textbook and classic literature resources in both text-printable and html formats. The teacher-oriented self-guided IT-literacy training modules (EDN) work without the need to go on the internet (Certification will shortly be available through SchoolNet South Africa and the University of KwaZulu Natal, SA).

Best practices guidelines, activity worksheets and lesson plans, developed by local Peace Corps volunteers and others, are available on our web site inclusive of materials for HIV/AIDS awareness. We also have our very first online local language Oshindonga and Oshikwanyama translation resource materials to add to our growing list of localised online materials.

SchoolNet has established a nation-wide programme to deploy affordable desktop computers running FLOSS to the education sector for home use, at entry level pricing of US$ 380, inclusive of free dial-on-demand internet access for educators. Launched earlier this year, demand for such home computers has increased, putatively linked to exposure to Hai Ti!, SchoolNet’s paper- and web-based comic series ( http://www.schoolnet.na/haiti ).


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