Cold rain and winter go hand in hand in Silicon Valley. Now that the first big storm of the season is about to arrive many will be making plans to go skiing in the mountains to forget about their daily lives. But they have to be careful about how they get there, the ice on the freeway to Lake Tahoe can be treacherous.
In Namibia, at the opposite end of the world they are trying to ask the question of how to break the ice when introducing computers to schools.
The SchoolNet Namibia project now offers over 200 schools with access to computer based educational resources and intends to expand further. In each lab, diskless workstations are connected to a central server running OpenLab Linux. and its EduPack suite of software specially compiled for Namibian schools. The Edupack contains a disk based version of Wikipedia, the free books of the Gutenberg project and the Namibian school curricula from grades 1 through 12. Many of the labs use solar power and can connected to the Internet through a SchoolNet wireless network connection.
SchoolNet has taken a novel approach to introducing computers to students and teachers before they receive their labs. The Hai Ti! comic books illustrate the use and benefits of the SchoolNet system by using a storyline that addresses many of the apprehensions faced by new users in a very engaging way.
In the first book of the series, SchoolNet’s monitoring system discovers a computer lab that hasn’t been used in some time because the teacher in charge has moved to a new school before the lab became operational. Students simultaneously discover the disused lab and call SchoolNet who quickly dispatches technicians to provide assistance. The technicians show the school how to use the systems. There is some resistance, but by highlighting the features of interest to students and teachers and providing instruction on how to schedule computer time, acceptance becomes widespread. The community becomes involved when they realize they can use email to contact relatives abroad without expensive phone calls. When one of the computers fail during an electrical thunderstorm, SchoolNet comes to the rescue again. Access to the Internet becomes a key factor in the school winning a debate on the controversial topic of cuca shops and their economic and social value to the country.
Key words in the book are highlighted in red which can then be referenced in the glossary at the back. It would be good if the online version of the books had hyperlinks to the glossary terms, but this shouldn’t detract from the overall efforts of the project.
The SchoolNet efforts highlight the fact that computers in schools have the best chances of acceptance when the community at large also has access. But access alone is insufficient, the SchoolNet experience underlines the importance of having content and systems in place that are of interest to the entire community. Without community acceptance, the reception that computers receive will be chilly, much like the winter in Silicon Valley.
Like pandora, when I first read this thread this post I found it interesting, if not thought provoking.
Nation building requires a number of things to be successful:
- A speedy, unintimidated, judicial system with competitvely paid employees.
- A fair electorial system with a constitution that allows all members of the nation to have a voice.
- An efficient beureaucratic system together with financial incentives for business creation and a means to tax profits effectively in a fair manner.
- Government tax revenues need to be invested with the future of the nation in mind with little waste.
Of course these are ideals, and many countries do better at this than others.
SchoolNet is not the silver bullet that will kill the monster, but it is one of many relatively simple first steps that can be taken to change the life of a country's citizens. Efforts like this should be encouraged.