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How Linux is Changing the Face of Education in Africa

By A.J. Venter

Okay, let's get the formalities out of the way first, so we can get on with what this article is actually about: the FOSS revolution happening in African Educational institutions today.

My name is A.J. (It stands for an unpronounceably long Afrikaans name so just don't ask), and what I do is to develop FOSS solutions for Education. I work as lead developer for a company called DireqLearn. We are South-African in origin, but have offices in several other African countries now. The past two years have been very exciting for us. But this is not about my company, it's an attempt to share what I have learned and seen over this period about what is happening in Africa today: the successes, the failures, and the alteration in mindset we are witnessing.

Two years ago, we started deploying LTSP-based thin-client solutions in schools. As we progressed, we found that there were so many specific setups and enhancements that we were doing over and over again, that we started doing single pre-installed disk images, which we then just dd'd onto the drives for the schools.

This worked for a little while, but it didn't scale up far enough. Our answer was to develop our own distribution that meets the needs of schools specifically. We called it OpenLab. There are a number of other similar projects out there, although as best I am able to ascertain, OpenLab is currently the most advanced project to create a distribution specifically tailored to the needs of the African education market.

But why is education in Africa different from anywhere else? Why not just use K12LTSP and be done with it? Because the first thing you realize if you do this for a while, is that when you put a computer lab into a school in rural Namibia where there is only dirt roads and solar power, the teachers - petrified of damaging this valuable gift, and generally petrified - will lock up the lab, and never open it up again. In direct contrast, put children in front of these computers and they will start exploring, digging, learning - not just about computers; it becomes a means of accessing the wealth of knowledge that is just a google away. A way for a little 8 year old boy who lives essentially in the middle of knowhere [ I don't know if A.J. intended to use this word or if it's a misspelling, but I'm leaving it in just as it is - I like it. - Ben ] to become a citizen of the world.

But you need to overcome the teacher barrier first. That means training teachers until they are comfortable with the technology. Only then will they let the children use them. Only then can you see growth, and learning. I am an African, born and raised, and all too aware that the continent is in shambles (and we do not gain anything by denying that fact.) I know that at least part of the answer is education. It takes a lot more than computers in schools to fix education, but it is a step in the right direction.

FOSS in this world is not just an idea, but a crucial requirement to success, I believe. It's not just about cost, in fact with some of the "education initiatives" a certain huge software developer has launched in Africa, you could well find the costs basically equalling out. It's about at least two other things.

There is a philosophical side to it. Africa cannot proceed into the twenty-first century as just a software consumer, we have a lot of programming talent and potential on this continent, and we want to participate in the global software industry as equals. That means skills development. FOSS is just that, a form of skills development everyone can afford. Universities and colleges are out of the price-league of most Africans by far, but anyone can download and study source-code. By giving more people access to FOSS systems, we improve the market for skills attained on them, we increase the abilities of these people to gain and expand those skills and perhaps most importantly, we keep our markets alive and vibrant with the reality that alternatives exist.

There is also a practical, technical side to it. Thin-client computing doesn't just save money, it actually works much better in educational environments. Suddenly, you are talking about a user-based system, rather than a machine-based system. This means that you can let the children explore and learn without worrying that they'll break the system for everybody else. If a user in a Wind0ws(tm) lab hides the 'My Computer' icon, the teacher has to waste time helping the next user get his system standardized again in order to do the days lesson. This leads to draconian measures - suddenly everyone just follows the rules, there is no personal data, no exploration, no development. LTSP solves this nicely: if a user hides an icon from the desktop, it's hidden on his desktop, no problem. Also for the first time, users can learn to customize desktops to really suit their working style, despite sharing resources. Some people prefer a taskbar at the bottom, some prefer it on the left hand side. Neither is better, each just a matter of preference. The more the computer works like you think, the easier it is to work on. LTSP makes this possible.

Finally FOSS offers one thing that is absolutely crucial to education, and which no other model can compete with. Language support. First language education is proven to be by far the most effective kind. FOSS systems simply have better language support. Anyone can translate open code. The number of African languages for which desktops, spellcheckers, and useful applications are available is increasing almost daily, with the translate.org.za project taking a leading position here, including teaching translation skills to people doing similar work in other countries.

So all this sounds nice, but I said there is a revolution happening, so I need to back that up. Here are just some of the projects which are currently running OpenLab or similar systems, such as K12LTSP and SkoleLinux.

In Nigeria, the Education Tax Fund along with SchoolNet Nigeria has already deployed 35 school sites with LTSP based systems.

In Uganda, a project launched by SchoolNet Uganda has convinced the ministry of education to mandate thin-clients for all future funded school lab roll-outs.

In Namibia a project currently running led by Schoolnet Namibia, will be placing thin-client labs with wireless Internet access into over 200 schools. The largest non-Microsoft based lab roll-out in Africa to date. Schoolnet Namibia aims to eventually put such labs into every school in Namibia.

Apart from the thin-client labs which is the area I am most heavily involved in, there are numerous other projects currently running. The OSSMS project as well as the schooltool project at schooltool.org are working on creating viable school administration software. Currently both are in advanced, stable and usable states. In South-Africa the CSIR also has a number of FOSS education projects under way.

Simply put there is a revolution under way in Africa, education is being revamped and taken to new levels. FOSS, and especially Linux is a key part of this. Will it be successful? Will Africa move out of it's legacy of poverty, disease, corruption and war? Perhaps not, it probably takes a lot more than any given type of software to achieve a social revolution on that scale, but it is not unattainable, and education is a key factor in uplifting any society, and FOSS is changing the face of education in Africa for the better.


Copyright © 2004, A.J. Venter. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 103 of Linux Gazette, June 2004

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