TAKING FOSS TO THE DISADVANTAGED SOUTH OF EGYPT
Egypt has two major GNU/Linux user groups or LUGs: Eglug and Linux-Egypt, both located in Cairo, the national capital. To spread free software and open source to the disadvantaged south of Egypt, APC member ArabDev is working with two middle schools in the Al Menia governorate and also with the Faculty of Computer Engineering at Menia University.
The project is the first FOSS introduction at the local schools and at Menia University. The project's objective is to establish a core group of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS, also known as Free/Libre and Open Source Software) users in Menia governorate as a local southern Egyptian diffusion point.
To reach this objective ArabDev is training selected teachers, university assistant professors and students on the use of GNU/Linux and FOSS..
The Menia FOSS School Project is being implemented in two middle schools in Abu Korkas district of Menia governorate -- the boys school Salah El Din and the mixed-gender school Adib Wahba..
"Volunteers from Eglug, have been given the training. To date, eight teachers, the regional and local computer supervisors and 25 students have been trained on GNU/Linux and FLOSS use," the Cairo-based ArabDev director Dr Leila Hassanin told APC.
Training has focused on installing the FOSS operating system as a dual boot at the schools PC lags, in addition to the free alternative Open Office, understanding the FOSS desktop, and installing extra software.
The training was met with enthusiasm from teachers, the students and their parents. There were challenges to overcome, though. A main stumbling blocks is the lack of sufficient Arabization of GNU/Linux, some hardware problems and the lack of Internet connectivity at the Salah el Din school.
Yet the lessons learned from FOSS went beyond technicalities. Open source released a new teaching and self-learning outlook. The trained teachers have been encouraged to find more information on the web and to exchange information among each others.
To enable sustainable internet access at the schools, the school directors, parents, teachers and ArabDev are currently working to use the PC labs as summer telecenters.
Once the model is established it can then be adapted to fit into the school year schedule, Hassanin said. The telecenters will provide training, computer and internet use for a nominal fee to the students and the community at large.
Having reliable online access will help the teachers to participate in forums to hone their skills. Offering a dual-boot telecenter and FOSS training courses will diffuse the open source concept locally. While passing on the skills, some pointed to the need of an Arabic interface.
One of the volunteer-trainers noted: "This is always a tricky question, some people demand Arabic and some demand English. We had this debate but all agreed that the children should use Arabized interfaces since that is how they learn Windows."
Once bit by the bug, computing can really be fun. Teachers slowly shed their habit of asking the kids to stop experimenting and just follow the trainers' orders in fear that something will happen to the hardware. The high security of GNU/Linux allows them now to give more learning freedom to their students, as they can't possibly do any permanent damage to the system.
Collaborative work across borders became evident to the trainees through free software and open source. When Annass, a student at Salah el Din, asked about "how and who" made all these programs, trainer Manal showed him a credits screen from one of the programs.
The credits screen is animated and looks a lot like a TV or movie credit screens and lists the hundreds of contributors. That was cause for surprise in itself.
Manal recalls about that incident: "I think it drove home the fact that programmers are normal people and not masters of some secret magical lore more effectively than anything else. It also helps to show how large such a project is. 'Kol dol (All these?)?!' was his comment."
Meanwhile at Menia University, a FOSS Initiative is underway too. A collaboration project with Menia University's Computer Faculty was set up. This project is training 12 graduate assistants from the computer and science faculties in GNU/Linux and FOSS.
Said Hassanin: "Trainees have a solid background in computer science and are given a higher-level open source training than the teachers. The trainees have demanded opening a summer IT club to continue their training."
"The positive thing is the trainees don't get tired. They take the full thing without their attention dropping or asking for breaks or any of the usual stuff. They're definitely hard workers", says Alaa Abdel Fattah from Eglug, the Cairo-based user group.