SchoolLink 2.0

Johan van Wyk explaining the SchoolLink deployment, Safari Court Hotel WindhoekAlmost two years ago I had a small posting about ‘SchoolLink and the land of the workshops’: for the sake of the Namibian state of education – which many people say is going down every year despite the more money put in (Education receives with 23.6% (US$ 1,15 bn) the biggest share of this year’s budget) – I wish my pessimistic appreciation had been proven wrong and the project had been at least a partial success. But fairy-tales are scare here. The project had been a complete disaster in all the 4-O regions. Now the Ministry makes a second attempt to get things going together with Edupac, the South African supplier of the solution. Last week most of the Directors, numerous seniors education officers, IT staff members and the principals of the schools which are part of the initial roll-out had been in Windhoek for a SchoolLink Project ‘Workshop’. I rather refer to it as an information event: planing done at Head Office, execution in the Regions – as usual. Compared to the first roll out a fundamental (and hopefully match winning) change has been made: the web based software is now centrally hosted in Windhoek. No more vulnerable local (database and web server) installations at school PC’s scattered around the country. Only thing needed is Internet access, a running web browser on the PC and trained staff. Only? Despite the impressive progress the Namibian Telecom has done half of our project schools in the North have Internet coverage up to now. Biggest headache however is the training: the system is quite complicated having the IT (il-)literacy of some of our staff members in mind. With the current roll-out the biggest issues for all IT projects within the Namibian Government, and at the end the training issue, has not been addressed yet: lack of (technical) personnel involved in IT projects. To overcome this problem for the prestigious SchoolLink project it was decided at top-level in Windhoek that education and IT staff members who have been selected to train schools need to devote more than half of their working time for it till February 2013. Failure ahead: either SchoolLink or other duties will be neglected as most of the members of our regional SchoolLink team already cannot deal with their increasing workload. I really hope that my pessimism will be proven wrong this time.

MCA site inspections in Omusati and Oshana

Almost the whole of last week I had been out of the office doing site inspections at 13 schools in the Omusati and Oshana region which will receive new computer laboratories funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) soon. Two technicians from the head office, a technical administrator from the company who will supply the equipment and I had a look at the conditions at every school site which buildings had been recently constructed or renovated. Due to the high water level getting to the school sites had been everything but easy and a lot of bush driving was needed which took its price. The deployment of the equipment will start next month – if the water situation allows it.

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lunch break stories: what rain and a ISDN handset have in common…

junction to Okahao, Oshakati…you don’t expect both of them. Last week the North received some heavy rain and a sharp drop of the temperature after months of drought and heat. Some say that this is already the beginning of the ‘small’ rainy season which usually starts by the end of November. Although happy for the clean, cool air and a whole day without sun it brings back flooding memories from this years rainy season – you still find Oshanas filled with water which is exceptional at this time of the year.Siemens optiPoint 500, DoE ICT office, Outapi
The other surprise came in shape of an Siemens ISDN handset with a working display to our office. Thanks to a new PBX which made one of the few ISDN phones at the reception redundant.
Happy like Xmas: as it is NOT common for a caller within the government to tell the name when calling I always had to play a ‘guess game’. Unfortunately our Director and her Deputy had also been in – due to that I had them on the line several times without realizing it, ouch.

the power of the ink has come to the office

don't underestimate the power of a bit of inkOne on of the first lessons you’ve to learn when entering the Namibian Government service is about stamp & signatures. No matter what kind of paper you intend to sent within the Government (physically; for the paperless office visit this blog again in a century) don’t forget the right stamp and your signature or the signature of a person who is sitting behind a even bigger desk. If you don’t do so your paper will simply be ignored by most of the recipients....the GRN stamp can also be found on different papers, undisclosed location, Directorate of Education, Outapi Rumor has it that this could even lead to a misconduct. Due to the lack of our own (and to spice up the outgoing mail) we used to put the stamp of the Director’s office on our documents. Last Friday I found a small present from our senior accountant on my table. At least on the stamp the ICT function is already there where it should be on the official organizational chart in all thirteen Directorates in the near future: a Division on its own.

insect repellent field trial

100% DEET - leaves mosquito's and the Hilux interior no chanceHigh concentrated DEET based insect repellent do work best (more precise: longer) without a doubt. Unfortunately that comes at a price: besides possible damage to your health the liquid is quite aggressive to plastics. Some pieces of my hiking equipment already has made the experience. A few days ago the center console of the Toyota Hilux took a load of 100% DEET from a leaking bottle. What the stuff, time and the sun have done shows the picture. It is worth to say that the piece of plastic survived 15 years in the Namibian sun before.

Intel comes to the Oshikoto region

During our last trip to the Government Park in Windhoek we were told that two ‘pilot computer laboratories’ sponsored by Bank Windhoek had been installed at schools in the country. One of the labs a few kilometers North of Ondangwa in the Oshikoto region at the Hans Daniel Namuhuya school.
Last week Gery, Jon and Lahja (the technicians from Ohangwena and Oshikoto), Gabes (our ICT education officer), Victor and I visited the school to see how things look in reality.
The Ministry plans to deploy more computer labs to the regions soon. The very same installations as the two pilot sites: basically state of the art Intel Classmate tablet netbooks running Windows 7 together with the Intel Learning Series Classroom Management software package. Besides the thirty netbooks each lab will be equipped with a server (so far idle), an WLAN router/access point, a network printer, a Smart Board and a projector. Who has read previous posts of this blog might guess what’s on the writers mind.

‘We have arrived – the globe is linked’ – but not this week

The landing of the WACS (West Africa Cable System) in Walvis Bay on the 8th of February had been the theme of last months ICT summit. When becoming operational next February it will cut down immediately the latency and hopefully increase the bandwidth for the Namibian Internet end user in the long run.
Since last Wednesday the Telecom ADSL/WiMax network is most of the time ‘down’ in the whole North of the country as the average up- and downstream often drops into a region we had with a 14.4 analog modem two decades ago and package loss occur. I was told by a Telecom manager today that the technicians in Windhoek are still working on the software problem. Vintage plain text email via SMTP still has its right to exists it seems.

19.10.; update: service finally restored in the afternoon

lunch break stories: SLA in Namibia?

the trouble maker: EHI 392/ LAN Module of the STUIn the previous post ‘Linked(in) Outapi’ I’ve mentioned a tiny and costly line which connects our building with the Regional Council. This line provided by the Telecom and ITN had been down from the 5th of September till last week. Almost a month. If everything would run according to the plan we would have sourced all services from the Regional Council network. We’ve reported the issue several times and saw Telecom technicians coming and going. At the end it was only a small module which needed to be replaced. It is hard to say who is to blame for the delay. But before we do have a efficient process in place to deal which such a critical failure we are better off not relying to much on the services at the Regional Council for now.

Open source user acceptance field trial: Edubuntu at the Outapi and Okahao library

usually the camera gets the attention, Outapi community library Open source solutions at schools and within the administration are a mine field since the Namibian Government shut down SchoolNet a few years ago. Their legacy can still be found at many schools where surprisingly some of the OpenLab installations (Linux Terminal Server running on common Desktop PCs + old machines with 64 or 128MB RAM and a PXE NIC) are still in use. Anyway, this will be another post soon.
Although a keen supporter of Open source I am often skeptical when it comes to using it in Namibia. The reason is simply the lack of technical skills. You can barely find someone in the North who is able to handle basic administration tasks on a Windows Server 2003 operating system. Although not always the case Open source infrastructure solutions usually need a deeper knowledge of what you’re dealing with. Such knowledge is not around at all.
Why are both of our community libraries now running Edubuntu? Because it is the only feasible option for now. The two sites would actually not be our responsibility. Due to the fact that the centralized support approach is not working once more and libraries had been down most of time we’ve put them on our list as well. The initial installation consist of common Windows XP machines and a Windows 2003 Server. With poor group policy restrictions, only Microsoft Forefront as anti virus running and the nature of a library in mind (people, thus USB sticks coming and going) it is no surprise that such an installation breaks down within hours.
Our hybrid-solution: the ‘fat clients’ running Edubuntu 11.04, the server still Windows 2003. Users only work on the server via rdesktop if they need access to Microsoft Office applications for ‘professional’ training. For all other things (Internet, playing around etc.) applications which comes with Edubuntu are used.
Besides the stability of the Linux system (no viruses, users can virtually not break down the system) it has another benefit: easier deployment. As mentioned earlier. It is not always more difficult to use an Open Source alternative. All Ubuntu derivatives nowadays are easier to set up than any Windows OS as drivers and applications comes with the distribution DVD. As we are working with images this was not a real criteria. The knockout criteria on our side was simply the issue of licensing: we’re still struggling with an efficient way to access the Microsoft licenses (let alone the ones for a proper anti virus solution) at the head office.
Although the users are quite happy with Edubuntu it is clear that in the long run the Namibian libraries need a standardized keep-it-simply-stupid solution. Up to now every region does more or less its own thing. Some regions are lucky as they have a technical skilled person at sites or even a dedicated Peace Corps volunteer. But most of them are not.
The list of features needed for a library environment are long: user & print management, web filtering and an unattended re-installation process of the client computers. But before going fancy the fundamental issues (lack of technical personnel, training, working support models etc.) needs to be solved. I’ll guess we had that topic before.

Windhoek here we have been again: ICT summit 2011

Regional Council, Ministry of Education and Interteam staff members, WindhoekMy second time at the biggest event for the country’s ICT industry. Thanks to the informal communication channel among the Directorates and Regional Councils which is developing quite well not just technical personal from the 4-O-Region attended the summit this year: Kavango, Hardap and Karas came also aboard. This is the good news. The bad news is that ICT technicians of other Regions still struggle to get the approval by their superiors for such an event. Some were just denied, from one region I’ve heard that the question ‘what is the benefit for the Directorate?’ had been raised. Reasonable question. Omusati Region teamBut after one and half year embedded with the Namibian Government you know that approval/disapproval for a trip or workshop is not just a matter of people understanding the raising importance of ICT and its implications in the regions (in most cases they don’t do). In my book it is also about money: S&T (subsistence & travel allowance). To put it careful: rumor has it that decisions about who is sent to a ‘workshop’ has sometimes more to do with hierarchy than objective criteria. The National Conference on Education which took place in June gives an example: none of the regional technical ICT personal attended the conference. Instead regions sent all their Head of Sections.Victor getting in shape, Windhoek Some of them had virtually nothing to do with any education topic whilst ICT was one key session at the conference. The Government would have been wise to had someone there to crush their ambitious plans when it came to ICT usage (thus infrastructure) at schools. Anyway, what was the benefit of the summit? As last year: you didn’t go for the speeches (although one was really good). It was once more a good opportunity to see people in person and not just chat with them on the phone. After the summit we also managed to talk to some people at the Government Park and I was able to get an exclusive tour at the company which is running the fleet management system for all the 300 cars of the Ministry.