5 October 2001

Top Story

Telecentres (or whatever else you might choose to call them) sit in the middle of most efforts to close Africa’s digital divide. Their critics rightly ask what they deliver in terms of benefits for users. Those familiar with them worry about the range of technical resources required to run them. Sheena Lutges reports from the sharp end on both of these issues.

The Kwa-Dukuza area in South Africa consists of over 90 schools educating approximately 60,000 learners. For a number of years the schools in the area had experienced a pass rate of below 50 % in their final matric exams. These poor performances, which made the area one of the worst in the province, could probably be ascribed to under-resourced schools and high learner-teacher ratios. In many instances, teachers have to cope with teaching classes of up to 50 or more learners. The resources that are offered by the Kwa-Dukuza Resource Centre, do not just assist the school-going youth, but open up new learning opportunities to educators, adults, small business entrepreneurs and the unemployed.

Over 60% of current job opportunities require computer literacy at entry levels. Geographic and financial restraints make it impossible for many of the schools in the area to provide their learners with the necessary resources to bridge the gap in the so-called digital divide. The Resource Centre's digital village addresses this major lack of resources through the provision of 30 "state of the art" computers in the Digital Village.

Not only do the computers connect users to the rest of the world via e-mail and the internet, but provide them the opportunity to gain the skills necessary to use interactive educational software, as well as vital business packages like Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. 72 % of the members are scholars and the majority of these scholars are black Africans from the ages of 14­18. They come from the rural areas around Kwa-Dukuza with little basic amenities in the form of electricity or running water. Families are dependent on subsistence farming to generate an income or dependent on state pensions of R 400 ­ R 500 per month. These scholars generally attend schools that are under-resourced with high teacher learner ratios (50:1).

The Centre also has a seminar room, which doubles up as a computer instruction facility. On-site computer facilitators, many of which are volunteers, are available to offer assistance and guidance to interested members. The following computer access is provided:

   Many educators have battled to implement the new Outcomes Based Education system that was implemented by the Education Department. On site assistance has provided educators the opportunity to locate new and exciting lesson plans to enhance teacher delivery.

   Schools have been warned that without stringent accountable records, state subsidies will not be granted. A server-driven financial package allows principals to be accountable for finances and provide the necessary statements required by the education department.

   Individuals may acquire basic computer skills before being allowed to have access to computers in the Digital Village. Most of the lessons are held in Zulu (local African language), also granting members the benefit of understanding concepts in their own language.

Records of members are kept for those using the digital village. Members book in for half hour slots at a time and depending on how full the Centre is a member may re-book for additional time. Our access cards indicate that on an average day anything between 300­400 members make use of the whole Centre. Our records indicate that we maintain up to 3000 members throughout the year. Our statistics also indicate that the Centre maintains a utilization rate of over 80%.

Kwa-Dukuza is a very poor community and many young people are left to their own devices in holiday times, which have resulted in high drug abuse and youth loitering in the streets. With high usage rates we can only assume we are making a difference in that the youth are choosing to come to the Centre and choosing education over being on the streets. Our African learners in particular arrived at the Centre with no or little knowledge of computers and have now progressed to surfing the internet and designing their own web pages. This has also been evident in the high usage rate of Televidoes by many scholars when we first opened in June 2000 to a dramatic drop after 6 months. These scholars attended the computer literacy classes and have now progressed to the Digital Village.

For educators there have been some dramatic advantages in that many schools are expected to present documents to the Department and worksheets for classroom activities, as well as new lesson plans. Many schools do not have the office space to attend to these tasks or the funds available for the purchase of the resources. Some rural school fees are anything between R 50 and R 200 per annum, and still many families cannot afford this fee. For many principals the Centre has provided an administrative tool, for financial accountability, classroom record keeping, and lesson plan support. Further once the materials are developed on the computer, the Centre offers a high volume duplication facility in our Printroom, which is utilised to its fullest in examination times.

In the last part of this article, Sheena Lutges tackles the technical requirements of running a network of this scale and the issues that have arisen.

Networking the computers in the most efficient manner is critical. A proxy server is very important. Many Internet providers cannot guarantee international bandwidth, unless you are prepared to pay very high subscriptions. We currently pay a discounted R 5,100 (excl of vat) for 64 k local and 64 k shared international bandwidth. Many users locate DOT COM sites so the problem is that the internet downloads are very slow. We have had to stop streaming for music as this puts additional pressure on the internet bandwidth.

The workstations that are connected to the server also need to be very stable. We have changed from windows 98 to Microsoft windows professional 2000. We were able to block come functions, as many members were able to access our server and change configurations user names and programmes. The only programmes available under start are logoff, help, documents and programmes. In programmes we have been able to limit the programmes to Microsoft office and the educational CD¹s that are loaded on every computer. We allow "stiffy" disks, but outside CD disks cannot be used in the digital section open to members.

Continuous updates for viruses must be sought ­ again each computer requires an annual license and a huge expense. We have a maintenance contract with a local computer company who helps when the server goes down or new configurations are required. This seems to be the general requirement in IT. We pay for about 10 hours on site and remote (via a modem) support per month. Our troubleshooting is getting better, but in the beginning we had numerous problems since our network had not been configured correctly and we were operating from windows 98.

The Centre also allows for printouts ­ again a huge learning curve. Initially we had members printing out to our front desk printers, but a lot of wastage occurred. Members did not collect the prints and we were only able to identify prints from the internet with computer numbers. We installed NT4 on our front desk computer and defaulted all prints to reception. The prints are paused at reception. The member has to request the print from reception. All non-requested prints get deleted from pause. It certainly helps if staff are trained in basic troubleshooting and server maintenance to assist with basic errors and printing problems.




The response below from Worldspace would not by itself merit attention. However it takes on the case for its own service in terms of the costs of delivery and in so doing provides food for thought.

"Education for all, any time, any where", is a vision for every country which recognizes learning or knowledge as a social and economic activity. The key factor for sustainable development is to provide access to and participation in education at all levels irrespective of the geographical location However, the implementation of "education for all" is a great challenge as it covers diversity of learners, diversity of goals, diversity of conduct. Technology has the potential to extend and enhance the education process.

Distance Education (DE) is broadly defined as the communication between teachers and students who are physically apart and who use technology for the purpose of facilitating and supporting the educational process. An important criterion for distance education is to reach students who cannot or would not be able to physically access a classroom. The delivery systems include print, voice, video and data.The technologies usable for DE include Broadcast TV, Broadband cable, Terrestrial links, Satellite, CD-ROM interactive discs and the Internet.

The advent of the Internet and World Wide Web have sparked off a rapid increase in the electronic delivery of higher education. The Internet shatters barriers of time and space, but the biggest problem is that despite its speed and its reach, is its poor penetration in the developing countries where the telecom infrastructure is either expensive or non-existent. Also in the context of web-based delivery there is the requirement of massive recurrent efforts for content generation. Very few teachers have adequate time for changing their teaching styles altogether for adapting to the new techniques. Except for a few isolated examples of good use of the new technology the overall impact has been minimal. There are high capital and continuous costs in the use of Internet effectively for education in underdeveloped regions, besides the technological challenges in wiring remote areas.

On the other hand broadcast by its inherent nature can reach out to a large audience all at once and is consistent with the traditional concept of learning with one teacher addressing multiple students. Broadcast systems compel the students to earmark time for the class as per a fixed schedule and thus prevent procrastination. If the delivery is from the satellite, it is possible to distribute to learners located widely apart and at remote places. If the delivery is digital, it is further possible to selectively distribute to the chosen receivers controlled by a password. However, video conferencing using satellite link is rather expensive besides placing severe constraints on the infrastructural requirements. In order to achieve the required levels of Quality, Access and Cost that users and providers expect it is therefore necessary that innovative solutions for delivery of distance learning courses be evolved.

An effective large scale network should provide:

   Distance learning that enables students in rural areas to receive the same quality and content of courses as their peers in metropolitan districts

   ngoing instruction of teachers that can be conducted without requiring teachers to travel

   Global connectivity to enrich the learning environment by allowing teachers and students to access leading libraries, access remote information sources (databases), and converse with other students and colleagues

Teachers often achieve an influence far beyond the intellectual knowledge they impart. An ideal tutor can provide exceptional advantages for the learning process. The human voice is a key element in teaching and that brings in a personal touch to the learning exercise. In the audio delivery, it is possible to say things that are not so easily expressed in print or in the electronic media. Besides, there is always an element of novelty that goes with an extempore delivery with all its intonation, phrasing and pacing. For some topics, learning is definitely aided by video, multimedia, computer based learning etc. Though video conveys more information at one stroke than audio, in some cases the power of pictures in a video transmission can distract the learners drawing their attention to aspects that are not central to the topic at hand. Obviously, no one medium ever has all the advantages and one has to look for the most effective combination of media, which makes the particular requirements of topic, audience and cost. A detailed analysis is to be made on the features that are provided by the different technologies and their relevance to the learning process. The costs of delivering using competing/complementary technologies are compared in the tables below.

Graph Issue telecoms 80 1

Graph Issue telecoms 80 2

(All cost figures are in US dollars)

WorldSpace has a data structure, which is very powerful and flexible to handle the multifarious needs for distance education and training. The combination of audio and data is an unique feature which has promising possibilities for Distance Education. One of the important features is the possibility of more than one service components synchronously carried on the same broadcast channel. By exploiting properly the WorldSpace system features, a number of new applications that precisely meet the user demands are feasible. Rather than modifying the user requirements to meet the channel characteristics (as in many other schemes), it is possible to adapt the system features to maximally meet the user requirements.

ŒCombined Live Audio & Slide Show (CLASS) is an entirely new scheme designed for WorldSpace by effectively combining direct audio with supplementary data, both being broadcast from the satellite to the user PC synchronously in the same channel. It is conceived that lectures or panel discussions will be conducted by resource personnel located at their own offices that would be linked to the broadcast up