Namibia's open source based SchoolNet project provides computer labs to schools all across the country. Some are in very remote locations that are not traditionally suitable for this type of technology. It has been quite successful and has won many international awards.

SchoolNet was recently mentioned in a post on the forums, and I was interested to learn more. I eventually managed to get in contact Uwe Thiem, SchoolNet's network administrator, who was willing to answer a few questions by email.

His views on the fundamental prerequisites for the successful deployment of technology in education are insightful. Here is the OpenFree exclusive interview.

OF: What is SchoolNet? How does it get funding and equipment?

Uwe: SchoolNet Namibia is an organization not for gain. It's funding mostly comes from donations from Europe, the US and Canada.

OF: How do you plan for, install and support the addition of a new school to the system? What are the usual challenges you face with each new school and how do you overcome them?

Uwe: In collaboration with the Ministry for Education, SchoolNet compiles a list of schools that should be served next. Secondary schools have priority. Other criteria are whether the schools are on our national power grid and have access either to telephone or the wireless WAN Telecom Namibia set up in the north of our country where about 50% of the population lives.

Solar power is an option for very remote schools. Since this is a very expensive solution, computer labs on solar power are an exception.

As for the challenges, there must be a room that is freely accessible by students - the school library, an extra room or some such. When the lab isn't used for formal training/education, students must be able to use the lab on their own.

OF: Why did SchoolNet choose to use the OpenLab Linux distribution?

Uwe: Computer labs for schools aren't primarily about technology but about content, information and educational software. While the core OpenLab distribution fits on one CD, the content distributed to schools is now filling up almost 2 DVDs. OpenLab was more than willing to compile, set up and test the content.

SchoolNet's labs now contain among other things:

A local copy of Project Gutenberg. Since most school libraries are almost non-existent, Project Gutenberg is a means to provide students with literature from all over the world.

A local text-only copy of Wikipedia that amounts to about 16GB installed.

Bandwidth is very expensive in southern Africa in general and in Namibia in particular. The local copy of Wikipedia therefore is invaluable.

Educational comics, educational software about mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, spelling, logic.

OF: What is a typical computer configuration?

Uwe: All SchoolNet labs employ a server/thin client model. It consists of one new P4 server and 10 (in some cases up to 20) thin clients. Thin clients are re-furbished PII or PIII computers. All labs are based on the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP).

OF: Can SchoolNet schools function without permanent Internet access, and if so, how?

Of course it can. Thanks to the local content, there is plenty to do for students even without Internet access.

OF: How do the schools get access to the Internet?

Uwe: Telecom Namibia set up two wireless WANs in Namibia, one in Windhoek and one for the rural areas of northern Namibia. School are connected either through one of the wireless WANs or by telephone lines and modem. SchoolNet managed to negotiate a flat rate for both cases with Telecom. So even schools with modems can connect for a long time without worrying about telephone bills.

OF: What were the challenges in providing this?

Namibia is a large country with vast open spaces and a very low population density. Not all parts of it are on the national power grid or covered by wireless WANs or the telephone grid. So reaching those areas always is a challenge and will remain so for quite a while. When SchoolNet succeeded in convincing Telecom Namibia to donate some of its *national* bandwidth, it became feasible to connect a large number of schools (300+ so far) at an affordable fee.

OF: Before SchoolNet, Namibia's telephone and Internet services were controlled by a monopoly. How did SchoolNet manage to become an alternative ISP and what advice would you give to future educational projects around the world that hope to provide ISP services?

Uwe: Telecom Namibia still has a monopoly for telecommunications. SchoolNet is using their infrastructure. Other commcercial ISPs exist as well and have to use Telecom's national backbone and infrastructure.

OF: The "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) initiative has been getting a lot of coverage in the press recently. What is your opinion of the project?

Uwe: I am speaking for myself here. I don't believe in it. ICTs for education never are about technology only ore primarily. They always are about content. Those laptops are not equipped to store many GB of educational content. So without a network, they are glorified typewriters. How many CVs is a student going to write?

OF: Thanks Uwe. There is a lot of food for thought here.