The Case of SchoolNet Namibia/Valuation

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As is common in the NGO sector, SchoolNet Namibia has been evaluated and judged on a regular basis, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. In general, the purpose of evaluation is to determine what worked, what didn't and how to improve the process. This section summarises observations, perceptions and comments of various parties assessing SchoolNet Namibia as a basis for reflection and discussion among people driving or learning about ICT in education in Namibia (or ICT4D in any country) in order to improve their processes.


The strong visionary championship on the part of the Director begs the question, “what would happen if Joris were to leave the organisation for some reason?”. When asked (mid 2007), his response included the following (partly reworded for clarity):

I have been out of the system for four months. On the advocacy side, it is amazing how much has not happened. The same voices are heard here and there but no noticeable change has occurred. I have a lot of energy available to tackle some of these things head on, philosophically and based on experience.

Operationally, SchoolNet has continued unabated because it is such a beautiful operational model. It translates into having young people out of school, impossible to educate further because of systemic limitations, usefully employed. These are kids with bright minds that desperately want to gain new skills in ICT that we train up and then deploy as technicians, trainers, local support and trouble shooters around a very stable, amazingly stable, free and open source software and content solution that we developed in southern African. The solution is so stable that we can have a non-engineering type person look after it.

If a system really breaks down at a school, ship it to a local depot, and you will have it fixed in no time flat. In northern Namibia that could be several days. In urban Namibia it can be immediate, a straight swap-out.

We have accelerated access and support mechanisms around technology in the most difficult conditions all over Namibia and keep it going. Without me having anything to do with it.

My role has largely been one of supporting SchoolNet as an organisation to be sustainable in itself. I have become a mixture of glorified fund raiser, lobbyist, social activist and stirrer when necessary. Do we need that today? Maybe, but at a higher level. SchoolNet doesn't need Joris to run it. It has become a very straightforward operational solution.

There are some threats to our existence however. Ideally, we should be sustainable as an open source service provider and ISP. There is some narrow mindedness in government about our role and approach. If the Ministry were to take ownership of ICT and internet service provision in schools, then we would need to be innovative in terms of survival as a civil society organisation. If that means me coming up with innovations that land up in short term projects that are well funded, then we would have to consider downsizing and transferring the volunteer skills base we have developed in the last 8 yrs (with high turnover) to sectors all around, and focus on the projects.

But am I needed for SchoolNet Namibia? I don't think so. I am nolonger a critical player in terms of what we do in Namibia. What we do at the regulatory and policy level, lobbying and advocacy against restricted software and monopolistic behaviour in the telecom industry, is where I still fit in. That's why I sit on the national committee here, on the commission for telecom here, on the ICT Alliance. I spend my day pushing the envelope on issues that are not being addressed fast enough by the agencies that should. That's my role. If that means doing this in Guatamala or in Cameroon, etc., then I'll do so gladly because that's where we need to take these great models that evolved out of SchoolNet and survived in SchoolNet Namibia - to other places where they have nothing.


As early as 2003 when SchoolNet was still on a fairly steep growth curve, the team was stretched, focusing on new installations. Limited organisational capacity was compromising SchoolNet's ability to upgrade existing labs and provide quality support (Ballantyne, 2003, p6)[1].

Connecting Schools

Refer to Connectivity (above).

Recall that the original plan was to internet enable all the 1519 schools in Namibia. This number is now in excess of 1600, and contemporary bandwidth requirements and expectations are significantly higher now on account of the proliferation of multi-media learning resources.

Even in the early years the rate of deployment was lower than planned. For example, in the Sida project, the target of installing 500 school labs was reduced to 300. Reasons for this may have included capacity limitations during the rapid growth phase (above). Ballantyne (2004)[1] offers additional possible reasons, but SchoolNet survived and thrived for several more years with the number of connected schools and other participants peaking at about 500 in 2006.

From then on the the numbers declined as the dispute with XNet and Telecom ensued (see Appendix 3: The Ongoing XNet and Telecom saga ).

“It remains a grim reality that some 806 schools, 50% of Namibia's schools, try to function without electricity and telecommunications!” (see the Epilogue below)

Director's take:

Where is XNet today? The internet 'service' we have provided, at Telecom Namibia's mercy, is a vestige of what was once an excellent virtual private network (VPN) for schools. This VPN was created and generously maintained by our excellent ISP network administrators with the understanding that the Ministry of Education, Telecom Namibia and other stakeholders could eventually take ownership, through XNet, as planned in the strategic stakeholder agreements signed by SchoolNet and other stakeholders through TechNa in September 2006. Since then, SchoolNet largely served as a buffer between increasingly irritated school clients and Telecom Namibia; sheltering XNet, Telecom and Ministry of Education staff from day-to-day technical call-out issues – directly related to the usual spectrum of upstream ISP problems – infrastructure failings, poor signal strength, signal-sector saturation, poor connectivity on archaic Telecom infrastructure, bandwidth saturation, over-subscription, endless routing problems, and a failed billing system. Internet 'connectivity' is provided to schools by Telecom Namibia, exclusively using their infrastructure, and is thus, and has always been, outside of SchoolNet's direct control. Accordingly, Telecom has failed to “connect, upgrade existing internet technologies and services at schools”.

The XNet and Telecom saga highlights the types of things that can go wrong. It is hoped that by telling the story and expressing the frustrations, learners will be able to guard against such eventualities: pre-empt by design and spot the signs before it is too late.

The System Solution

The free software, refurbished thin client solution was clearly cost-effective. OpenLab + LTSP, and its Ubuntu-based successor, ultimately proved to be very stable. The system would reboot perfectly even after a power failure, unless the boot process was punctuated by additional surges etc..

The earlier fat client systems would die miserably after a few of those, and the school's lab. manager would have to arrange professional technical support from Windhoek at a price! (including time, fuel and hotel accommodation when applicable).

In terms of internet connectivity, the SchoolNet solution cost each school N$ 135/month and they could be confident of support regardless of location (e.g. Katima or Carisburg). This rate was not because SchoolNet was heavily subsidised by Sida, but because SchoolNet had carefully worked out the risks of failure and cost implications.

In general, the chances of software failure were minimal, even if one of the school staff with root access tried a few things, system failure was rare. The biggest problem was hardware failure, the risk of which was low for thin client systems.

Solid state drives were investigated for the servers and their robustness demonstrated to amazed Ministry officials as they watched one work perfectly after being thrown across a room.

The power savings of the thin client solution were also significant. One estimate was as high as N$15,000 per year for a school with 20 thin clients.

Empowering Youth

SchoolNet focused predominantly on establishing an ICT infrastructure and a collection of learning resources that would enable the youth to empower themselves with knowledge to enhance their own lives and the well-being of their communities[2]. With the technology available at the time, and given the context (remote, under-resourced and under-served schools with limited ICT experience), SchoolNet's achievements were outstanding and exemplary in terms of establishing the pre-conditions for such self-empowerment through internet access.

The extent to which teachers, learners and communities were able to create new opportunities as a result is difficult to assess. As mentioned previously, there were instances within the schools of teachers using the resources to plan, prepare and deliver lesson plans and contribute content. There were examples of schools finding ways of serving their community and generating income (e.g. internet cafés), and of participants gaining employment on account of their new ICT knowledge and experience. Such anecdotes, although encouraging, do not reveal the extent of the impact.

It was suggested that indicators be developed and used to monitor and assess progress towards the development goal: to “improve the preconditions for education and for the gathering of knowledge and participation in a democracy for the country’s youth through broadened horizons and a higher level of knowledge by using the possibilities of cheap and simple communication that ICT offers.”[1]

In this respect, it was also suggested that SchoolNet offer more advanced and varied ICT and other training beyond the minimum required to serve their immediate needs in setting up labs and training staff and learners to administer them. This could include for example, advanced systems management, elements of ICT management, life skills and entrepreneurship. SchoolNet (and similar initiatives) could also facilitate and enable the schools to reach out and support their surrounding communities through partnerships and (e.g.) events to share knowledge on relevant topics (e.g. health, environment, …) and showcase what is happening with respect to ICT in schools.

SchoolNet might have responded that libre knowledge resources are already available for such courses and activities. Schools and other educational institutions were always free to (and encouraged to) go ahead with such things (with our support if required). At that stage, SchoolNet's focus was on establishing the preconditions.

Nevertheless, feedback suggests that learners in schools as well as young people (as SchoolNet trainees and volunteers) are broadening their horizons, learning new skills, and becoming better at information gathering as a result of the project[1].

Director's take:

It is hard for most people (including funders and education ministry officials) to appreciate how 19 year old out-of-school unemployed youths, with no more than a shoddy grade 10 or 12, can actually support 3 to 4 schools in a little town with our fairly complex ICT solution for access and technology plan.

We employ highly qualified and expensive ICT engineers to maintain our projects

[so how can this be?]

They've got to see it to believe it.

Impact on Educational Achievement

A question often asked is whether having access to computers and the internet in schools has an impact on educational performance. The following summarises comments from the Director when asked (mid 2007, adapted slightly).

There are many anecdotes but nothing quantifiable.

Where there has been internet access, and opportunities to communicate, there has been a greater chance for kids to get into SchoolNet and other programmes.

Over the past 5 years we have had a far greater influx of kids from schools in the bush. Before then, we only had kids from the Polytechnic and the local tertiary education institution popping in and hoping to gain skills and join as volunteers. The increase is directly connected to what we have done in the classrooms. Also, the comic was a great marketing story (it has become a collectors item, re-read and re-read :-), so this effect may not be entirely due to enabling internet access in the schools.

In terms of educational outcomes? It is hard to say whether access to ICTs will positively affect learner performance in Maths, Science, English, etc.

I don't think more than indirectly, by keeping kids out of trouble: spending more time in front of the computer surfing the internet than getting up to mischief [e.g. potentially] breaking into cars and sniffing glue. Sure, not all internet surfing is productive (e.g. time wasting, and kids may stumble on undesirable sites, etc.), but in the end, the overall benefits are social and more broadly enriching than whether some kid's maths grades have improved.

As an analogy, if we shorten the walk to school and add protein to the diet, the child will be less tired and hungry and do better at school. At that level, there is no project out there that unequivocally demonstrates that ICT access enhances “educational achievement”. There will always be other factors.

Open access to SchoolNet content and software, with the skills base to support and maintain the technology provides an opportunity for youth to learn, be empowered, communicate, have fun, satisfy curiosity, socialise, …, part of the process of general social enrichment.

The question could be re-phrased “Do they gain general knowledge, for example from Wikipedia?”

Again, we don't know for sure. Development funding does not take seriously the real value of gathering of appropriate metrics, etc. Hence our focus on ICT infrastructure and deployment.

The key to answering this question is to know how much time is being spent on the internet and what sites are being visited. Although research and evaluation specifically on this was not done, some data is available.

We have a collection of Google terms to use (which we built ourselves). Google wont give us a list of words aggregated by IP addresses (perhaps on account of privacy issues).

We have a series of logs (open for analysis on request) that now have a way to gather the keywords. Data is also available in the form of manual log books kept by schools, and web logs (scripts were written to analyse these logs, or one could use one of the many alternative free software log analysers).

But, does general knowledge improve?

Look at our transparency site[3] and look at web statistics (Appendix 5: Internet Usage Table), where one can check what schools are looking at.

Rose in the library
Monitoring SchoolNet's growth and usage is fascinating. Olof Hesselmark, based in Sweden did some work on this. He has written much on ICT and development in Africa and interpreted a lot on our web site and may have logs of what content was most used in SchoolNet. His idea was to put computers and internet in schools so kids could have fun. One does not need 20 computers in school PC labs. Five computers in the library for example would suffice, serving as an information gathering option which could be coupled with interesting learning activities to get kids excited. The facility should always be open, and doesn't interfere with classes.

Unfortunately, in many rural schools the library is also used for classes, so such a set up was not widely feasible.

SchoolNet pioneered PC Labs in schools which seemed like a good idea at the time. If the primary objective had been to enhance teaching/learning in schools, SchoolNet might have developed a different approach with training on innovative teaching practices. Alternative models have been suggested such as a PC in every classroom + data projector, or a trolley of laptops easily moved from class to class, ..., and later, one laptop per child/ teacher, and now tablet PCs and various mobile devices. These were under consideration along with all the implications such as school policies on mobile phone use, etc..

Related to educational performance is the question of what learners, teachers and others are doing with the resources (i.e. when not surfing the internet).

We don’t know what uses the schools make of the ICTs provided to them. For a first phase, when the aim was to provide connectivity and computers, this was a secondary question. It becomes more important as time goes on.

With a main focus on technical rollout, installation, and support, SchoolNet does not sufficiently address human and institutional factors in schools that often influence how technologies get adopted and used.[1]

Director's take:

Most of the time, people are playing games or surfing the internet. Sites most visited (see Appendix 5: Internet Usage Table for an illustrative snapshot) tend to be local newspapers, webmail and google. A firewall filters 99% of undesirable sites, but otherwise that would probably account for a large chunk of international bandwidth as well.

What may be interesting is to see what are people doing with their time. The internet brings a wider range of opportunities in terms of peer production of learning resources, life-long learning, …, satisfying idle curiosity and wasting time.

Knowing the amount of time spent on the internet, productively or not, we can calculate the percentage of time available for real work/ learning in schools.

The need for rigorous and supported research in this area is indicated

The data ‘base’ on the progress and results of the various activities is incomplete and, when available, it is not easy to access and query. Almost no data seems to be collected in the schools themselves. Much of the data is transactional data – number of dial ups to the ISP, number of schools connected, number of helpdesk calls received, number of trainees, and so on These show how busy, productive and efficient SchoolNet is. Aside, for example, from many testimonial letters from schools concerning their volunteer, there seem to be no qualitative indicators of effectiveness and effects.[1]


As mentioned previously, with a relatively small number of staff for the scale of the organisation's activities, at times SchoolNet struggled to manage the quality of support in the face of an ever increasing demand for internet connectivity and labs as schools learned of the opportunity.

There is a possibility that follow-through and attention to detail may get lost, and we are sometimes slow to respond to requests for technical support from our clients. In addition, our rapid growth means that our existing organisational culture and systems are struggling to monitor activities, inputs and outputs[4].

Suggestions were around SchoolNet establishing more formal, large scale and separately funded initiatives and partnerships around services, support, training and certification. Perhaps along the lines of the XNet agreement, avoiding the pitfalls (which may not apply in these areas). Some lateral thinking would be required to develop a plan which retains the emphasis on local capacity building and community-led innovation.

Policy Impact

As indicated earlier in this case study, on account of its targeted experienced-based advocacy, SchoolNet Namibia has clearly influenced ICT and educational policy making in Namibia and beyond. SchoolNet was actively involved in drafting Namibia’s ICT Policy for Education and was able to ensure a measure of alignment with the Telecommunications Policy and Regulatory Framework (1999) which described a vision of universal access and liberalisation of the telecommunications sector .

SchoolNet's research on wireless technologies accelerated Telecom Namibia's commercial roll-out of WIFI / WIMAX internet solutions, and prompted the first national stakeholder meetings on radio frequency usage and licensing. This led to eventual change in Namibia's communications legislation.

In terms of software and educational materials, SchoolNet's ideal outcome would have been a clear policy mandating free software and open education supported by new legislation. However, recent events indicate that previous success in raising awareness and support in principle did not translate into long term commitment. If anything, the need has intensified to educate citizens to understand the implications and stand up for their rights to a free and inclusive information society.

Enhancing the Model

SchoolNet Namibia drew a lot of attention and comment from within Namibia and internationally. Suggestions for improving the model tended to address execution issues and enhancements for changing times (rather than the model itself). Some of the suggestions were heeded, or were part of the model all along but deserving of reiteration.

Here we reflect on some aspects which are seen as strengths to be reaffirmed, or which have surfaced suggestions for improvement. See Ballantyne (2004)[1] and Okelloe (2005)[5] for the primary sources used for this section.

  1. Pay close attention to the in-school environment and pre-identify any special needs and “red flags”. These may relate to location, infrastructure, staffing and learner-teacher ratios, security, culture, etc.
  2. Incorporate additional in-school costs such as extra time of staff and others to manage the lab., and other issues that may surface as “red flags” above. For example, a school may need extra training for effective management of the lab..
  3. Develop a monitoring and evaluation programme with clear indicators of progress on the ground, outcomes and impact.
  4. Extended such monitoring and evaluation with rigorous and supported research on educational practices, educational outcomes and community impact.
  5. Formalise and extend the training to offer certification and cover such topics as more advanced ICT (systems administration, programming, ...), management, innovative teaching practices with technology, entrepreneurship, community education and life skills.
  6. Emphasise community outreach by encouraging schools to involve out of school youth more (as volunteers) and encourage and enable them to seize the opportunities presented by ICTs. Showcase what is being done and provide opportunities for income generation within the community (e.g. internet café, training, ...).
  7. Establish an Alumni to keep in touch with “graduates” and how they advance on account of their time with SchoolNet.
  8. Apply best practices in terms of leadership and management. This depends to a large extent on the size of the organisation and the dynamics within it. For SchoolNet, with less than 20 staff, suggestions included:
    • Retain a flat structure with the Director leading from the centre rather than the front.
    • Ensure each technical service centre has a dedicated and suitably qualified manager.
    • Appoint or task someone to focus on external communications and promotion to develop and implement public awareness and a local fund raising strategy.
    • Pay attention to operational effectiveness: communication, financial, document and information management. Hold regular team/staff meetings (e.g. “scrums”[6]), structure the work space and location of staff to maximise interaction, ….
  9. Apply the “client as partner” principle with respect to the schools to encourage stronger “engagement” on a more professional level (away from a ‘donor-beneficiary’ relationship).
  10. Explore whether partnerships in training, content or technical services, etc. can be scaled up without compromising the principles of community-led innovation and local capacity building.

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Ballantyne, P. 2004. Evaluation of Swedish Support to SchoolNet Namibia. Report to Sida. Available via Sida publications:
  2. See Libre Communities and Libre declaration which express this as a vision statement.
  3. See and links on the page.
  4. Okello, B. 2005. Empowering youth through internet access : a case study of SchoolNet Namibia. In Nicola Spurr (editor). Mainstreaming ICTs : Africa lives the information society. A handbook for development practitioners. Compiled and edited by Women’sNet and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.
  5. Okello, B. 2005. Empowering youth through internet access : a case study of SchoolNet Namibia. In Nicola Spurr (editor). Mainstreaming ICTs : Africa lives the information society. A handbook for development practitioners. Compiled and edited by Women’sNet and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.
  6. See