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Schools and computers

When I arrived here in 2006, about the first thing I did was put in applications for the school at Hole in the Wall to become a TuXlab. I have been in the IT industry since 1988 and have a huge amount of experience on everything from routers to servers to financial systems to web and graphic design; but Linux and networking are my forte, and helping the schools seemed like a perfect thing to do with all that expertise. I phoned and emailed and hoped and waited, but after 6 months of that eventually realized I was making zero headway with TuXlabs, and I asked my friend Ant Brookes to please put me in touch with anyone who could help. Ant put me in touch with Bernie Amler, Director of Social Responsibility at Uniforum; and my first call to Bernie lasted about an hour (cell phone rates = ouch!) and was most interesting indeed. Especially as Bernie didn't just want to do one at a time, but as many schools in the region as had power and available space.

Unfortunately, according to the principal of the school here, Kutala Fetu, that turned out to be only 3 schools; all of them Junior Secondaries (not a single Senior Secondary School in the region has got grid power), and we started planning accordingly. As it turned out though, one of the schools, Pato JSS, did not even have power - and despite an application being made to Eskom in March 2007 they STILL do not have power. I have been chasing up with Eskom intermittently, and the last update I had was about 3 months ago when I received an SMS from their support center saying that they had appointed a contractor.

Anyway. Almost all of the teachers at the school here commute from Umtata or Mqanduli), and sadly Kutala Fetu died in a tragic car crash, at the Ngcwanguba junction, at the end of March 2007. I had sent her an SMS about a week before the accident informing her that the school was getting 20 computers, a server and a printer for their computer lab. Her last SMS to me said simply: "God bless you Jeff."

Shortly before the installation I received a call from Mrs. Madlalisa, principal of Madakeni JSS (which has electricity) just outside Coffee Bay, begging to have her school added to the programme. I wanted to move the computers from Pato to Madakeni, but Belinda from Coffee Shack backpackers (who donated the burglar bars to Pato JSS, and have done many other things to help the community) convinced me to wait for the electricity.

The 3 schools were commissioned on the 18'th May 2007 (which happened to be my 42'nd birthday)... and despite the fact that Pato did not have power - going on the assurance by numerous people that there would be power soon - the school was also tricked out with a computer lab. (I've just mailed my contact at Eskom and been informed that the installation should be complete in the first week of September. I just hope she means 2008!) Two more schools had computers installed this year. Coffee Bay Christian School made contact with NetDay directly and submitted their motivation for a lab... and when I heard about it I requested that Madakeni JSS also have a computer lab installed at the same time. Mrs. Madlalisa was ecstatic.

But the thing is, the school computers are not utilized nearly as much as they should be, owing to a lack of applications and a lack of experienced teachers. My great hope is that we get the 5 schools linked to each other with a wireless network. That will allow general, but limited, internet access -by having one server as a firewall, proxy and fetchmail server. It will also be far easier to run a single Drupal and a single Moodle server for all the schools, rather than replicating that functionality and administrative load.

The schools are each prepared to contribute R500 per month for internet connectivity, so a VSAT contract with Telkom becomes feasible. Barely, compared to international bandwidth and caps, but still, even with a school's 50% discount, it's only doable if the schools share.

I spent a few months last year teaching computers at the school here in Hole in the Wall. Just 2 hours twice a week, but I quickly ran out of motivation and left them to typing tutors and tender mercy. Until we get them linked to the internet and Web 2.0 type apps I can't see much point - short of doing typing tutors and basic computer orientation - with which the teachers have enough familiarity to do themselves.

What I envision is network of kids blogging to each other and sharing information on stuff like their Eco Schools projects. They must have email. Full internet email, and not just inter-school. They must have their own data directory. And they must have access to Wikipedia and other reading materials. I have a fond wish that access to comic material will help instill a love of reading. And if all else fails, games are good for developing hand to eye coordination and tactical thinking ability.

Now here's the thing. A sponsor promised us WiFi equipment over a year ago, and I have drawn topology diagrams, gotten quotes, and arranged for permission to use a radio tower between Coffee Bay and Hole in the Wall as a bridge between the villages. And now I'm waiting for the equipment. And waiting. My hope is to setup a volunteer network for students to spend 2 or 3 months at a backpackers, or stay in the community, to spend a couple of hours a day at each of the schools.

More on this anon.

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