Synergies and Ideas Exchange
SchoolNet Namibia continuously interacted with FLOSS, ICT and education communities in Africa and around the world. Some of these interactions and the exchanges of ideas led to enhancements and innovations in related projects. Some of these are outlined blow..
Namibia was the only country outside of South Africa that managed to purchase a Freedom Toaster, a device capable of writing multiple CDs/DVDs simultaneously after the user has specified a section of distos or other content to be burned. SchoolNet immediately and enthusiastically deployed the toaster into an educational environment, only to discover that it was of little use to the intended users. The laboratories were all thin client-based – no hard drives, no CD-ROM drives etc. The users typically did not have computers at home (even if they did have electricity) and would not afford to buy blank CDs and DVDs.
A more useful toaster (to SchoolNet) would contain (free/libre) learning resources (software and content) which could be selected for burning by different types of users. These could include specialist teachers, subject advisors, cluster centre heads, educators at training colleges, etc. They would be able to come and burn a custom collection of resources for installation on their server(s) back at the school, college, etc. for their learners without the need for internet access.
Pressure from SchoolNet Namibia among others spurred the evolution of the Freedom toaster which now includes some educational material in addition to the GNU/Linux distributions.
People are asking for learning resources, music, literature and games. The possibilities are endless. The Freedom toaster team was considering ways to permit user uploads to make it even more dynamic and community-led. Though this feature was only implemented for remote maintenance by administrative users.
University of the Western Cape: Kewl.NextGen
Libre knowledge and open education activists from Africa were always quick to stress the importance of localisation and empowering people to develop their own locally relevant learning resources. Tools to do this effectively were few and far between.
The UWC developed the learning environment KEWL (Knowledge Environment for Web-based Learning). Its next generation, Kewl.NextGen, is described as “an advanced e-learning system (sometimes referred to as a learning management system, a virtual learning environment) with features similar to common proprietary systems”. It was originally developed for a tertiary education environment but could also be used in schools. Kewl.NextGen was included in the later versions of OpenLab and Edubuntu systems making it possible for schools to develop their own courses, etc.. However, the process proved to be quite complex and required training.
From SchoolNet's point of view, the potential to develop local content was there, educators just had to make the decision to use it and the necessary training could be arranged. In addition to its standard function as a learning management system (LMS), as a product developed in Africa, Kewl.NextGen included some innovations of particular relevance, such as the ability to synchrionise content on widely distributed servers in low band-width situations.
Informal interactions among various initiatives in southern Africa have resulted in exchanges of ideas resulting in mutual enhancements, though tensions were not necessarily released in this process. Examples include Wireless Africa, Digital Doorway, Freedom Toaster (above), tuXlabs, etc.
Teacher and Learner Innovation
It is worth noting that, in general, where schools have discovered the software available and the internet and found how useful they can be, the new experiences generate enthusiasm and a desire to share. Popular software for creating learning resources included GIMP, OpenOffice.org and HTML editors. Some teachers (mostly young recent graduates who can see the limitations of the materials supplied to the schools) uploaded their lesson plans and worksheets.
In general, tools for localisation and learning resource production are somewhat limited. Higher bandwidth and more elegant knowledge sharing systems globally, would relieve initiatives like SchoolNet Namibia from having to pay so much attention to immediate short term issues such as bandwidth exclusion methodologies and localisation of foreign resources, and free them up to focus on embracing libre knowledge and producing and sharing their own resources.
- Samples are available on the SchoolNet web site: http://www.schoolnet.na/resources/wsnamibia.html
- One attempt to address this is the eXe project: http://exelearning.org