SchoolNet Director’s Report 2006/7

Toward ICT convergence in education; another dark soliloquy or is there room for enlightened dialogue? Director’s Report 2006/7

Olof Hesselmark, my favourite African ICT Futurist (and Realist!), recently wrote:

Personally, I would again emphasize SchoolNet Namibia’s original justification, that computers are great for fun, that their main value is as communication tools, and that they are great sources for news and information in environments where little printed material is available. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not true that when Ministries of Education (assisted by foreign consultants) justify IT expenses, improved educational results are near the top of the list?

I might also, tongue-in-cheek, add “Also sprach Zarathustra” and pause to reflect on the extent to which SchoolNet’s vision has once again been disambiguated by foreign ICT development consultants striving to gain title deed to technocratic respectability in the developing world. What the heck, I’ve always called a spade a spade :-); read my blog!

The Global E-Schools & Communities Initiative (GeSCI) brings home one such example of an unfortunate disambiguation of otherwise progressive ICT development in Namibia. They are not the first, nor will they be the last, such foreign ICT consultancy to receive my criticism!

GeSCI and their short-lived horde of naïve (and fantastically expensive) foreign consultants from Accenture and elsewhere, helped formulate a Ministry of Education ICT Implementation Plan; the outcome of several hundred meetings with stakeholders (including ourselves!) in 2005 and 2006. Regrettably, nearly one year after its launch, with the GeSCI and Accenture consultants long gone, this plan remains effectively unimplemented today. Some N$ 13 million has been spent on this implementation plan, yet not a single school has received a computer as a result of this expenditure, to date.

Purchased at fantastic cost through an opaque government tender process in February 2007, these computers are wearing out their warranty in a government warehouse in Windhoek, waiting for the acceptance, by local government and political stakeholders, of a definitive deployment list of only 40 schools, 20 of which shall be provided with Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) solutions – according to the “master” plan launched in September 2006. At this stage there is no guarantee that SchoolNet will be successful in a newly proposed government quotation tender bid to undertake the deployment of FLOSS to these 20 schools.

At the present rate of implementation, it is highly unlikely that any school (with exception of those privileged or motivated enough to secure external donations or financial assistance) will receive a single new computer in 2007! Secondary schools will shortly return to work on revision and exam time tables in the last term; it is hard to believe that any teacher at these schools will find the time to undertake 80 + hours of obligatory ICT certification training in order to manage these computers for the prescribed curricular use.

As a result of this foreign consultancy-driven fiasco, there are obvious operational consequences for a civil society organization like SchoolNet Namibia. Built on a framework of technology innovations, speedy and flexible reaction to local needs, genuine operational transparency (check our website!) and a vision to empower youth with ICT using FLOSS, Open Content (OC) and Open Access (OA) models of engagement to provide incentive to youth and their educators, SchoolNet can ill-afford to continue carrying the technical support burden of the Ministry of Education’s ICT implementation plan without eventual logistic and financial consideration from the Ministry of Education or alternative revenue streams, locally and internationally.

This said, SchoolNet has the good fortune of Sida funding for one more year. Sida funds designated to help SchoolNet continue to provide ICT support and internet access to schools, while waiting for the Ministry of Education and XNet to deliver within a reasonable period of time, after which SchoolNet Namibia can refocus on driving ICT innovations in education and community, as it has shown the world it’s really good at doing!

Given this generous support to date, what has SchoolNet been doing in the past year?

SchoolNet received 8954 relevant technical support requests via our helpdesk and toll-free number in 2006 and, following the Christmas holidays and a short and un-dramatic rainy season, in the first two months of 2007 (Table 1). It is reassuring to record that only 943 calls (11% of total) were escalated to technical support staff at our regional offices in Ondangwa, Rundu, Gobabis and Windhoek, resulting in 663 site visits to deal with various technical problems not solved on the phone. Some 37% of these calls were related to problems with the internet, and another 32% of calls were related to server-based hardware and software issues. The great majority of site visits (424) were made by SchoolNet staff from our Ondangwa office. This is self-explanatory, given the fact that the majority of SchoolNet-supported schools are found in the Omusati, Oshana, Ohangwena and Oshikoto regions of north-central Namibia. There were 80 requests for trainers in the past year, again mostly from these regions and an improvement on previous years; possibly an indication that our awareness programme through the comic Hai Ti! appears to have had some effect on our educators and school administrators!

Our Annual General Meeting in July saw us celebrate SchoolNet´s seventh anniversary, and in order to document our relatively short, but very intense history, we collaborated in a special publication, “Diatribe”, jointly produced by Andrew Weir, Sarah Taylor and Ted Scott of the College of the Arts’ Media Art Technology Centre at KCAC. As we celebrate our first seven years of existence, it is important to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that will face SchoolNet Namibia in the next years to come. In the past few years we have made various strategic changes to SchoolNet’s operational focus and organisational structure. A number of SchoolNet’s ICT products and services were phased out, delivery strategies were changed and new initiatives, products and services conceptualised and implemented.

These changes were driven by developments within the education and communication sectors, civil society, the nature of our international and local funding, our income generation models, the civil society, public sector and legislative environments in which SchoolNet operates, and expects to operate in the future. Furthermore, ongoing assessment of the relevance of our ICT efforts in response to the challenge of strengthening the ICT capacity of the educational sector, has led us to think hard about long-term and sustainable solutions to our continued engagement with ICT development in Namibia’s education sector.

Web 2.0 = Education 2.0, with the ever-increasing potential of the Internet

Educational transformation occurs when the increasingly familiar Web 2.0 technologies – blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networking and even gaming – are used to revolutionise traditional approaches to education. It is really all about how we use the Web these days. While Web 1.0 was all about one-to-many communication, without much interaction, Web 2.0 is truly participatory; emphasizing collaboration, sharing and community. Learners and teachers should be able to use Web 2.0 technologies to maintain educational resources online, interact with teachers and other learners, view, share and modify multimedia in a converging world of open content and open access on an improved IP network of better and increasingly affordable service- and technology-neutral bandwidth, anywhere, anytime. Great examples include the e-viva project by Ultralab, fanfiction.net and KidsRgreen.org.

Personalised education could be the biggest change in teaching and learning in the next decade. It has the potential to re-engage the interest of thousands of unmotivated teachers, and can provide a highly structured, engaging and interactive approach to each and every child’s learning experience. Schools should serve as centres of empowered collaborative learning with the advent of Web 2.0 tools and resources, and take advantage of personal communication devices which can be “education-enabled”!

SchoolNet has been planning forward with a strong focus on new opportunities through ICT convergence. For example, a Portable Digital Assistant, or PDA, is a hand-held device equipped with computer-like capabilities. Nowadays, PDAs include wireless network connectivity, mobile phones, cameras and a variety of add-on hardware extensions. Handheld portable digital devices can include wireless network connectivity, with extensions such as a mobile phone, bluetooth connections, virtual keyboards, camera and a variety of add-on hardware and software. These handheld mobile-enabled devices are sometime called Pocket PCs, “smartphones”, “wearables” , “communicators” or “mobile multimedia machines”.

Such tools can create an exciting spectrum of educational opportunities. This convergence is the newest technological revolution and, as the number of such devices increases, this technology will become increasingly more affordable for learners and teachers. PDA and mobile phone technology will potentially assist individuals to learn anytime, anywhere, by empowering them to access internet resources, capture, store and manage everyday events such as images and sounds, and communicate and share the material with colleagues, friends and family, anytime, anywhere, throughout the world. Mobile phones and PDAs can enable teachers and learners to share resources and allow learners to ask questions, answer polls, and give feedback; they can be used for delivery of courseware, tests and tutoring; as a tool that supports learners’ enquiries in computer-supported collaborative learning; as personal technologies for lifelong learning, to help improve literacy and numeracy skills.

Capitalising on mobile technologies and the potential of the Internet, both at the individual and broader community level, is an ongoing challenge for SchoolNet’s efforts to bring Namibian schools and other education sector clients into the modern online environment. Moreover, given the reach of the Internet, local schools – learners and teachers – should become active participants in global discussions and debates – and more importantly, influencing the national ICT development agenda. Indeed, the Internet provides a strategic opportunity for the future of SchoolNet as it provides increasingly more efficient ways to channel information about its activities and engages with all its stakeholders – including learners, teachers, donors, government, the private sector, general public and community partners. SchoolNet’s future will be geared towards optimising its activities and resources, and increasing its impact on the ICT uptake in the Namibian education and development sectors.

Providing Affordable and Relevant ICT Solutions – planning forward, strategically!

Building on SchoolNet’s excellent track record of local expertise and innovations (local IS “lekker”!), our emphasis will be on providing a considerably wider range of affordable and relevant ICT solutions to the education sector in partnership with private and public sector ICT service providers through the ICT Alliance of Namibia and the XNet Development Alliance; expanding and integrating our range of educational and information products and services through SchoolNet’s website, and a proposed new Content Management System and Technical Services Database; bringing home and building a local development community around our current FLOSS products OpenLab and other FLOSS distributions based on local demand; enhancing our knowledge of ICT trends and changes in the education sector through ongoing research and participation in international forums such as the Wikimedia Foundation, SchoolNet Africa, FOSSFA and the Commonwealth of Learning; and intensifying our FLOSS, OC and OA advocacy activities and leadership role on such issues in Namibia’s ICT development sector through SchoolNet membership and participation in the ICT Alliance, ICT in Education Steering Committee of the MoE, NETSS and XNet.

Key operational strategies to be implemented and pursued in support of these objectives include a more streamlined organisational structure, with appropriate skills and capacity where required, strategic alignment with other ICT stakeholders such as NETSS and XNet when these eventually do become operational, the integration of activities and resources across development projects such as the UNESCO solar schools project, and even closer cooperation and interaction with a range of NGOs, government and private sector stakeholders. Increasingly, much of SchoolNet’s operational activities will be geared toward building and deploying a skilled human resource to provide decentralized, rural technical support and internet service, with a central hub of FLOSS, OC and OA development, community building, innovation and social activism.

Many of the sustainability issues facing SchoolNet Namibia are also challenges facing similar organisations in other developing countries. This situation presents SchoolNet with exciting opportunities to leverage its expertise in cooperation with other regional NGOs with similar interests and social obligations. To this end, SchoolNet Namibia will co-host a workshop of SchoolNet Africa participants from several African countries in Windhoek in October 2007. Furthermore, the Commonwealth of Learning has invited SchoolNet Namibia to engage in several skills-sharing workshops in small States of the Commonwealth in the Caribbean and Oceania over the next 12 months.

Namibia still faces many challenges associated with the “digital divide”, affecting the development of a knowledge economy. The cost of telecommunications continues to be a major obstacle to transforming Namibia into an information society, and saturation of international bandwidth remains a critical problem in effecting a viable internet service to Namibia’s education sector.

SchoolNet’s active engagement in the formulation of public sector FLOSS policy and appropriate legislation to enable Creative Commons licensing, an Universal Service Fund and the re-delegation of Namibia’s .NA domain administration, is geared to help effect significant change in Namibia’s national ICT policy environment. SchoolNet is frequently criticized for being too loudly vocal in its criticism of government and industrial technocracy; I say, “right on!”, someone’s got to do this!

SchoolNet is at a very important crossroads in its evolution. The first seven years have come and gone. As an ICT development organisation, SchoolNet’s work will continue to attempt to maximize ICT opportunities as well as initiate efforts aimed at the empowerment of youth through ICTs. Many challenges remain in building the organisation, scaling up and expanding its core ICT activities, and adhering to its mission and vision.

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