Interview for The eLearning Africa 2013 Report
Please tell us about your personal journey: what was your most influential formative educational experience as you were growing up?
A truly gifted, knowledgeable and inspiring biology teacher in my last two years of high school.
Why did you find this to be so influential?)
I chose to pursue a career in the natural sciences as a result of this teacher’s enormous enthusiasm to (freely!) share knowledge with her learners. She gave so much more than was required to pass a final matriculation exam, and instilled an incredible sense of urgency to learn so much more than what was simply conventional.
What was it that inspired you to participate in FOSS(FA)?
I’ve always believed that international collaborations such as the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA), founded to empower and support organizations, social movements and individuals in and through the use of free and open source ICTs, can build strategic communities and initiatives which make meaningful contributions to equitable human development and social justice in the face of ulterior political and economic processes. In 2002, it became imperative to have access to a widespread network of African collaborators to support the cost of ICT4E ownership model I was developing in Namibia using Free and Open Software (FOSS) and Open Education Resources (OERs) with Creative Commons (CC) licensing in its infancy; when every commercial vendor of ICTs in Namibia was lazily, and lucratively, promoting a (monoculture) flavour of costly proprietary bloatware for education.
Please tell us how you influenced (the use of) FOSS(FA)
If I did somehow manage to influence my FOSS(FA) collaborators in any way in the past decade, it was to pursue *cost effective*, robust, free and open source software, hardware and information content solutions in all sectors of development. But more to the point, the underlying reason for influencing other decision-makers – including governments, civil society and international funding agencies like Sida, USAID, ADB and several others – to embrace FOSS, OERs and CC licensing was to encourage all these players to embrace a comprehensive, and very stable, assistive technology service solution for an education sector subjected to a wide range of adverse conditions – social, economic, environment, infrastructure – conditional on one common denominator; free access to information using high speed broadband internet.
Can you give us an example of the challenges you have faced in the process of initiating FOSS(FA) and how did you overcome them?
There are several horror stories I can relate (a fail faire would have been a useful platform for this!), having had first-hand experience of well-meaning, internationally-funded FOSS-based ICT4E consultancies transform into nasty mud-slinging fests in Namibia and further afield. In every instance such challenges were created by commercial service providers concerned about losing their monopolistic grip on government tenders for (proprietary) hardware, software and communication services, and even more lucratively, medium- to long-term technical maintenance contracts to support their inflated-cost deployments. While not always successful, my general approach to such larger-scale economic challenges has been to tackle ICT4E on a smallish, localised scale, going back to fundamentals, i.e., *realistic* internet access using robust technologies scaled for *prospective* use by all members of a local community, with simple learning curves supported *locally* by one or (ideally) more members of the same community. At a cost which is readily supportable, even by local corporate philanthropy. On the other hand, conventional ICT4E development by government, World Bank, MCA, ADB and similar agencies, along with their big international corporate allies, at national and even regional scale, will continue to need civil society watchdogs (like myself:-)) to track and criticise results, until eventually they do become transparent in their reporting of overtly ambitious project outcomes.
[Ironically, FOSS has become pervasive in ICT4D, given the dominating volume of FOSS-based mobile technologies being consumed globally]
How do you think ICT can best help build sustainable human development across Africa?
By providing, across the entire scale of human literacy, unambiguous universal access to information. Information which can (mostly) be educational, useful, entertaining and rewarding.
(What are some of the pitfalls to avoid?!)
Any forms of control, censorship or misrepresentation which would be counter-productive in providing such unambiguous universal access to information. This includes any form of commercial advertising with hidden costs of participation.
What do you think is the most significant change that needs to happen in order to tackle the education and training challenges that Africa faces? (kindly provide reasons for your answer)
Given the rapid evolution of diverse forms of assistive technologies, and concomitant devolution of unit cost, the only significant change required is the provision of universal access to free, high speed broadband internet, with the inherent implication that all educational centres will have the infrastructure and electrification to do so. What is a reasonable bandwidth benchmark for African schools? Most ICT4E specialists believe that the definition of ‘high-speed’ broadband for schools should be at least 10 Mbps, with many countries having already set goals of at least 100 Mbps, even 10 Gbps, in the foreseeable future. Regardless of the method used, a realistic school bandwidth benchmark should take into account occasional bursts of traffic, anticipated increases in simultaneous users and new applications that will require additional bandwidth in the near future. So, what is a reasonable bandwidth benchmark for African schools hoping to support a technology-rich learning environment in the next 2-3 years?
An external Internet connection to an ISP of at least 10 Mbps per 1,000 learners/staff (or 10 Kbps per person); and
An internal wide area network at school of at least 100 Mbps per 1,000 learners/staff (or 100 Kbps per person).
These are not impossible goals, while squeezing every last bit of capacity from deficient infrastructure and poor upstream ISP services has become a science. We can use gateways, caching, proxy servers and local mirrors, even large local storage devices for ‘store-and-forward’ content delivery solutions, to maximize Internet bandwidth and traffic shaping, load balancing and content prioritization to help ensure the integrity of the most important internet service requirements at school; all strategies to conserve limited bandwidth, and make the 10 Kbps per person a comfortable standard for our schools in the (very) short term.
What do you consider to be the most transformative, innovative and exciting initiative currently taking place in technologies and education, skills development and lifelong learning and training in Africa?
The rapid expansion and cost-reduction of fibre-based internet bandwidth / connectivity to and in Africa. Combinedwith the reduction in unit-cost and energy demands of innovative, plug-and-play assistive technologies such as wifi-enabled tablets, ultra/netbooks, zero-clients and single-board servers (eg Raspberry PI), smart-phones, shared workspace projection of collaborative free and open source OERs, APIs and APPs in the cloud.
What is the most significant lesson or piece of advice you would share with others seeking to follow in your footsteps?
Readas much as you can! It’s very likely, then, that you won’t be following, but overtaking me instead.
Looking forward to the next 5 years – what do you see on the horizon in terms of influential transitions, technologies and trends that will affect the integration of educational technologies in education, skills development and lifelong learning landscape in Africa?
Even more expansion and cost-reduction of fibre-based internet bandwidth / connectivity to and in Africa. Even more reduction in unit-cost and energy demands of innovative, plug-and-play assistive technologies, with even more locally relevant educational resources in the cloud. Combined with a new wave of highly mobileteachers and learners, capable of using contemporary (often bring your own) assistive technologies, comfortable with rapidly evolving social media, news, crowd sourcing and viral marketing apps, so much the better informed to make educated demands of their political leadership for meaningful change.
What will FOSS(FA) contribute to Africa’s human development over the next five years?
With ever-increasing use of FOSS in (mobile) assistive technologies (with Android presently in the lead, Ubuntu will soon also become one of several competing open source mobile ecosystems), it’s pretty clear that the global FOSS community will continue to contribute significantly to developing free and open source applications and content relevant to human development. As an organisation, FOSSFA should remain a very vocal public forum for transparent dialogue about the merits of an open system for free and open access to information at the level of government. Hopefully with a new wave of social-media savvy decision-makers capable of thinking out of the box about ICT4E&D!
(Some of these thoughts originated from a more expansive view of ICT4E in Namibia –
13 March 2013