eLearn Africa Day 2 – First full conference day

Today was a busy day for me at eLearn Africa. I attended the plenary, two parallel sessions, presented a round table, and attended the participant reception. Below are some random thoughts for the day:

Speaker at the opening plenary from Tanzania (Theophilus E. Mlaki) at one point said “If you have sex without knowledge, you die”. He was referring to HIV and how knowledge is the tool necessary to save lives. He spoke about how when the telephone companies provide infrastructure, they don’t teach the locals to maintain it. They say it is “too complicated”. In the model he presented, they were running fibre when they installed the water lines, and they taught local secondary school children how to split the fibre, build the base station, and maintain the routers and hubs. This meant that when things broke down, they could fix it. It also lead to a more knowledgable local community.

Also at the opening Plenary, Father Godfrey Nzamujo spoke about Songhai, a sustainable eco-friendly community that specializes in sustainable agriculture research for West Africa. Scott went out to visit it today while I was at the conference as it is quite close to Cotonou, and soon he will write a blog post about it at Going East. It was very inspiring.

After listening to his inspiring talk yesterday, I decided to attend the networking session with Professor Sugata Mitra. The more I learn about his pedagogical approach, the more I think it will work in teaching teachers how to use iPads to support teaching practice. The stories about his experiences were all rather fascinating. One person asked about power (a huge issue with ICT sustainability in Africa relates to unpredictable and unreliable electricity). Pr Mitra talked about different solutions, but generally recommended that schools in areas where power is unreliable should invest in a pool of no-maintenance batteries to store electricity, that can be charged when the power is available. If the community has not power, then a small gas generator can be used to charge the batteries. One issue with this is that the generator requires gas, and in most cases it is not legal to carry gas in cans on buses. So, if there is no car, there is no way to get the gas to the community. He suggested finding a motorcycle that can drive to the gas, fill its tank, and drive back. Gas could then be siphoned from the tank of the motorcycle to feed the generator. It was a particularly creative solution to the problem.

The next session I attended was around the topic of sustainability. Dr. Gabriel Takyi from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana talked about a Master of Science in renewable energy program that was being offered online. He commented that due to unreliable power, their system had issues with server failures and the need to reset servers after power failures. He estimated that their systems were running about 70% of the time. The irony of having power issues in a program designed to address energy problems was not lost on the participants.

Following Dr. Takyi, Barnabas Sang from the Ministry of Education in Kenya talked about the need to evaluate ICT before investing in it. There are many companies and NGOs trying to provide “solutions” for Africa, however, many of them provide only partial solutions which do not address the total cost of ownership or the total efforts required to make the solutions successful. Without a proper evaluation framework much money and time is wasted. He talked about the need to pilot new technologies for three months in a real world setting in order to gather information about the true cost of ownership. He cautioned that many of the proposal he evaluates do not account for the effort associated with project management and there is a need to outline who will cover the cost that work.

And finally, Joost Dam from VIAfrica talked mostly about what hasn’t worked in the past and how they have changed their business model to allow for more successful interventions. Originally, they would install computers based upon a “need” within schools, however, they found that the systems went unused. The “need” was there, but the “demand” was not. Because it was free, there was not sense of value and no motivation to actually use the equipment provided. In addition, there was not plan for maintaining the devices. The funding agencies (grants) were used to buy equipment, but nothing was in place to ensure that it was useful. In addition, they began by taking donated equipment from the Netherlands and deploying it in Africa. However, this older equipment required much more power than newer equipment and therefore often was not useful (power is one of the largest issues in ICT). Their new business model has them selling refurbished computer equipment within the Netherlands and using the money earned to purchase more appropriate equipment for Africa. In addition, they now employ local staff and deploy equipment with a three year service and support contract. Schools (and businesses) do not get the equipment or service for free, although the costs are still highly subsidized. The fees for the equipment help to determine “need” versus “demand” (those were his words), since everyone has a need, only those with a demand who will actually use the equipment get it. The new model provides educational and employment opportunities for local people, which increases development impact.

My session didn’t go nearly as well as I had hoped. In reality, most countries are not ready for tablets. The technology is still too expensive, and the Internet access is not fast enough. I did however, meet a PhD student from Nigeria who was studying something very similar to me (how to provide teacher professional development to increase adoption of tablet technology). I’ve learned that Nigeria has pretty fast Internet, and that the universities have pretty modern equipment (she had an iPad2). Most of the people attending my session were more interested in seeing a demo of the iPad and learning about tablets in general, rather than the work that I was doing in professional development. So, I think the attendees appreciated the session, but it was not at all what I imagined. And if I known that people wanted to see the capabilities of the device, I would have downloaded more educational apps.

The long day ended with a participant reception and dinner. The entertainment was particularly interesting and fun. I was struck by how unfamiliar the dancing was, and by how vibrantly coloured the costumes were. I have included a picture below, but unfortunately, the area was not well lit and my camera died, so I was limited to my camera phone. There is also a short video clip at Becky’s mobile blog

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