Why do so many e-learning conferences elicit so many delusions of adequacy?

I’ve been looking for an opportune moment to respond to the peculiar notion of an ‘Education for All (EFA)’ future in Africa without teachers, thanks to mobile technology.  Which sounds just like another ‘Negropontism’.  Donald Clark has made some biting comments about the ICT4E “bull who brings along his own china shop” – charging in with solutions that are ill-planned, ill-researched and, more often than not, inappropriate. 

I guessed right that this continues to be a trending theme at the latest e-learning conferences of our world – a theme which has been around for as long as there’s been a ‘Monitorial‘ approach to the use of technological aids (read smart kids) in the classroom, but especially pertinent today, given the additional momentum by mobile telecommunication service providers showing off their phenomenal profits.  The Samsung solar-powered classroom-in-a-container ‘gift‘ to Namibia at the recent eLA 2013 conference in Windhoek springs to mind!

(image source: http://bit.ly/12r3Wwf)

I knew there was something wrong with this gift – as it turns out, my whilom philanthrope George, ever larger than life, is BACK!   No longer a regional manager for M$FT, he’s now the main cheese – VP & COO – at Samsung Africa!  And sprouting,  Education is a big part of Samsung’s overall direct investment of around USD10 million a year into Africa,” says Ferreira.  “Our smart education initiatives, part of the smart government initiatives, have seen solar powered internet schools, E-Learning Centres and Smart Schools proliferating.” 

The solar-powered schools are shipping containers converted to smart classrooms.  Well at least SAMSUNG is smartmaking a fantastic profit (see below) on each of these containers sold to a not-so-smart government official.  

The 12-metre renovated shipping container has solar panels installed on the roof that can generate nine hours of electricity a day, powering the electronic equipment inside the classroom  –  a 50-inch electronic board, Internet-enabled Samsung’s Galaxy tablet computers and a server (even Wi-Fi cameras!) – one teacher and 24 students can use the classroom at one time, and the entire curriculum is stored in a central computer server.  Price tag? Only N$1 million!  WOW! 

Let me do a bit of arithmetic in the absence of any datasheets for the Samsung Container:

12 metre 2nd hand shipping container
N$ 25,000*
±50 square metres 7.5kW solar panel array @ ± N$8.00/Watt
N$ 60,000*
12 x 2volt 600AH deep-cycle batteries @ ± N$ 2500
N$ 30,000*
4-6 kVA 24v-230v inverter +solar regulator +fittings
N$ 30,000*
25 x galaxy tablet computers @ ± N$ 8000
N$ 200,000*
50-inch electronic (smart?) board
N$ 30,000*
M$FT server
N$ 25,000*
furniture, trimmings, door, windows
N$ 50,000
renovation, aircon, labour, hidden costs
shipping cost
N$ 30,000
N$ 580,000

* guessed retail pricing

Profit?  At least N$ 320,000   –  SMART business model, George! 

Is there any way of squeezing some real philanthropy out of these obscenely rich profiteers for internet-connected assistive technologies in the classroom,  however far these may be removed from Lancaster’s vision for personal slate technology in the classroom (1778 – 1838)?  Tablets, anyone?

In a recent UNESCO publication Shafika Isaacs writes: “The absence of large-scale roll-outs following the NEPAD eSchools Demonstration Project, and the decline of the Khanya Project, Egypt’s Smart School12 Network, the JEI, SchoolNet Namibia, World Links and SchoolNet Africa illustrate how many ICT in education initiatives were unsustainable in spite of significant financial investments. It may (be) that these initiatives have become anachronistic due to a rapidly emerging mobile revolution that is beginning to change the rules of the game for educational ICT in the region.

  • Have becomeanachronistic
  • Due to a rapidly emerging mobile revolution? 
  • Beginning to change the rules of the game?

That’s one of the more outrageous statements I’ve read about SchoolNet Namibia’s demise. 
Why no reference to South Africa’s Gauteng Online?  Or would that simply be too politically charged given the personalities involved in this particular multi-billion rand fiasco

SchoolNet Namibia’s, and similar NGO ICT4D&E efforts in other developing countries to empower youth and teachers with ICTs, were not misplaced.  Neither in time nor in practice! Rather, many of these projects drove significant systemic ICT4E policy change and were mostly misunderstood by the very governments which adopted these oft-visionary ICT policies.  With exception of a couple of distinctive flaws, Namibia’s strategic ICT4E policy framework, enshrined in Tech!Na, is a good example.    

With SchoolNet Namibia the only exception on the list, the ICT4E roll-outs mentioned were, in practice, exorbitantly costly, commercially-driven proprietary ventures in public private partnerships (PPPs).  SchoolNet Africa did not roll out anything except (mostly) sensible advice.

Sad to say, though, wherever there’s been an innovative effort to embrace effective and affordable long-term total cost of ownership (TCO) models in primary and secondary education sectors using Free/Libre and Open Source software (FLOSS) and Open Educational Resource solutions, to provide internet access to educational resources, they have been marginalised.  

There’s no way that anyone in Namibia’s ministry of education was/is swept up by the “rapidly emerging mobile revolution”!  They’re more likely to have been swept up by greed; greed for political, socio-economic and industrial hegemony. The main reason why the majority of initiatives from this period offer limited evidence of concomitant educational outcomes (and even less evidence of progress toward EFA goals), is because they were undermined by greed. Not only in Namibia but wherever a system of PPPs swept the well-meaning intentions of local ICT4D&E civil society under the mat. 

The phenomenon of heavy-weight industry working closely with government decision-makers under vast bilateral funding mechanisms effectively marginalised small organisations’ capacity to serve grassroots initiatives.  

Will a newly established Civil Society Foundation of Namibia help arrest such pervasive abuse?  I doubt it. 

Some time ago Andrew Clegg wrote, “the Namibian educational system (and that of all other former British colonies) came into being through the English Education Act of 1918. This system of year standards lead to an examination eventually called the School Certificate examination taken at Ordinary and Advanced levels. Success in this exam gave exemption to matriculation examinations set until then by the British Universities. This 1918 system became one of the most successful exports throughout the British Empire. The reason it served the colonies so well was that it was a very cost-effective mechanism for rapidly selecting and educating only the best local people to help the British run their country for them. Those who failed the standards rapidly dropped out and so did not cost anything. It was a perfect system for creating dropouts and thereby saving money.”

Go figure.

To put SchoolNet Namibia (SNET) in this same basket is downright inconsiderate of its well-documented history.  

 It was *never* an objective of SNET to provide ICTs toward “successful educational outcomes”! From the very beginning SNET provided *smart* – practical, affordable and supportable – ICTs to *democratise* access to information – be this educational resources, political enlightenment or entertainment! ICTs were deployed to provide schools, libraries, teacher resource centres and civil society with *internet access*.

An internet access and technology support solution, co-sponsored by SNET and Telecom Namibia, which was supposed to be ‘affordable’ until such time internet access to all schools became FREE.  Free as in beer.  Sadly, this promise, reinforced by Minister of ICT, Joel Kapanda’s media announcement in May 2012, continues to be tainted by monopolistic greed.  

Wayan Vota argues that M$FT vs FOSS debates are a complete waste of time in ICT4E … I still tend to disagree – simply look at the troubles in Kenya.  As I’ve said before – what we continue to see in ICT4E is highly profitable commercial service providers and proprietary technology giants locking middle-management, decision-making, government officials into easily-corruptible systems which are too commercially costly to deploy at the scale we would like them to – to meet even fundamental MDGs in ‘good time’. Vision 2030 will become 2050.

Hence, when I read, in one of Wayan’s blog rolls, “…MegaCom is also giving 1 month free Internet bandwidth (after which Internet access is at standard tariff rates) and plans to roll out computers and Internet to 143 schools in every region of the country.” am I really supposed to say WOW, what an amazingly considerate and generous commitment to ICT4E in 17 of the 1,900+ schools of Kyrgyzstan??  

It would be the same as saying thank you to Frans Ndoroma of Telecom Namibia.  Over my dead body!  

My take is that MegaCom is simply paving its way to secure an even more profitable license agreement to distribute their flavour of mobile service in Kyrgyzstan on the back of this truly mediocre ‘gift’.  Talk about truly stupid middle-management, decision-making, government officials!

1 month free internet bandwidth?? This is ridiculous! I see this as yet one more poorly conceived attempt to create an ‘internet dependency’ with the arrogant expectation that such schools henceforward will pay standard tariff rates for this exciting new resource, never before seen outside some privileged schools in Bishkek? This is plainly another good example of contrived commercial schtik.  Schtik which is all too familiar in Namibia’s telecommunication monopoly.  

A few countries like Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Brazil and (parts of) Spain can be seen as exceptions to this rule, but I can’t think of a single developing country which has managed to overcome mind-numbing and largely outdated cost calculations leveraged by commercial ICT salesmen to “put computers in the classroom”, and move beyond ‘one month of free internet’ ploys – icing on the cake. 

Hence the delays in development, which no amount of innovation will alter until such countries adopt platform neutral ICT acquisition policy, open minds to shifting ICT form factor (including mobile technologies), and then some. 

And this ‘some’ must include reforms which empower, not marginalise, librarians, teachers and learners. And provide FREE and VERY FAST, UNCAPPED, internet access for ALL educational institutions from pre-primary through tertiary. 

And provide open educational resources regardless of the platform and form factor.


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Posted in #namibia, africa, EduNet Namibia, eReader, George Ferreira, Ict4e, M$FT, photovoltaic, Raspberry Pi, samsung, schoolnet, solar power, tablets

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