COMPUTING

Mobile solar classrooms to teach IT in rural Uganda

Three solar panels, a battery, ten folding chairs, five tables, fifteen Intel-powered Classmate PCs and two teachers in a small van: This is the basic “equipment” of the Mobile Solar Computer Classroom (MSCC).

It has been a route through rural Uganda for two years now with the purpose of teaching pupils and teachers IT and computer skills.

The initiator is Eric Morrow, founder of Maendeleo Foundation situated in Kampala and Seattle, who wants to bring Maendeleo (the Kiswahili term for progress) to Ugandan students in close cooperation with local experts.

The robust Classmate PCs, powered and designed by Intel, which are run using a 200 Ah Solar Battery, proved to be perfect devices for the local circumstances, which were sometimes rather harsh.

What could be a beneficial educational project for Uganda? How should such a project be designed really to foster children’s development? Personal affiliations with a Ugandan NGO and a strong desire to help were components that aided in blazing the trail for Eric Morrow’s Mobile Solar Computer Classroom (MSCC) Project. Consultations with other NGOs led Morrow, founder of Maendeleo Foundation, to consider how he might bring computers to Ugandan schools – most of which are boarding schools with few technology-savvy teachers and practically no money to spend on technology of any kind. Working with Ugandan development economist Asia Kamukama and experienced relief worker Richard Happy, Morrow sketched out a plan of action. Giving children – and their teachers – a first taste of what it means to work with a computer, was the goal set.

However, the team soon realised that there were many obstacles to overcome. One of the first challenges identified was the near total lack of infrastructure: only five percent of Ugandans have access to electricity and just three percent can afford it. This meant that the solution to be put in place had to be self-powered and self-contained – a need that was met by mounting three 75-watt solar panels on top of an old four-wheel drive. The vehicle was also used to transport a custom-made tent and related equipment – the Mobile Solar Computer Classroom.

As Internet access is unreliable in Uganda, Maendeleo Foundation could not depend on teaching skills with a live Web connection. Instead, the Foundation introduced purpose-built, proprietary training software that provides graduated skills training using cached Web content. This approach enabled continuity in lessons even though the MSCC might only visit a given school once a week.
The local schools very much welcomed the idea of a mobile ICT training camp; however, the initial phase was tough. The low cost, low specification desktops proved to be unfit for the extremes of temperature, dust and durability they faced every day. Morrow had heard about the development of Intel-powered Classmate PCs and believed they might offer a better solution than the PCs used at first. After failing to find a local distributor, he bought several of the units from an online store in the US and had them delivered to Uganda. He found that they indeed offered a steady, reliable design that ran faster than the previous units – and delivered a standard Microsoft Windows XP desktop experience.
The Intel-powered Classmate PCs were also more energy efficient: in one test, the units were run from the solar charged battery with the solar panels covered to prevent recharging. All ten Classmate PCs used in the project ran for over six hours without a problem – and this life could be extended further by using each unit’s individual battery. This meant that the project workers could teach an entire class of students at once, allowing them to reach significantly more students at no additional cost. So far, the staff taught more than 1,300 students, offering each one five hands-on sessions. Over 100 teachers were trained to carry out ICT classes, giving them skills to reinforce and extend their students’ computer knowledge throughout the rest of their education. In addition, Maendeleo Foundation visited several orphanages and community centres.

Maendeleo started in early 2008 with five computers, then in August of 2008 switched to the Intel-powered Classmate PCs. There are currently five people running the operation in Uganda. In the longer term, Morrow hopes that steady and repeated exposure to computer technologies will encourage students to consider careers that might have previously seemed out of reach – including web design and roles in a potential services-outsourcing industry that could eventually expand across Eastern Africa.

A new MSCC is already touring through Uganda. Using funds from the grant Maendeleo recently received from Intel’s Inspire-Empower challenge, the Foundation was able to put together a second MSCC that will serve rural areas in the same way as the original MSCC. With the grant, they have also been able to upgrade the original MSCC that they had (to run with fifteen computers). They are now also in the process of buying land and building an Advanced Training Centre, where they intend to give further individual training during school breaks to students who show potential and interest in working in the ICT industry.

Source: PC Tech

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