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Joris Komen
Executive Director, SchoolNet.na, Windhoek, Namibia

From Global to Local - Experiential considerations in the deployment
of ICTs to disadvantaged rural schools and communties


The belief that classrooms should be equipped with information technologies is based on the untested assertion that such technologies can improve the rate, quality, amount and effectiveness of learning with concomitant improvements in educational outcomes. While such belief is attractive, and is subscribed to by manyinternational development agencies, it requires testable research, and must be weighted against (presently) equivocal arguments which justify stopping investment in ICTs in education. Such testable research, using appropriate metrics to monitor and evaluate the impact of ICTs on education, is still very much in its infancy.

Given this general perspective, most costs for ICT development in Africa and other developing countries are largely carried by international aid agencies on behalf of the "dribs 'n drabs" brigade trying to push back ICT frontiers outside the first world. These sectors impose very short-term total cost of ownership/support models on the educational clients we serve, and leave us, the schoolnets of Africa, to deal with subsequent technology dependencies. That's pretty scary!

It's very difficult, if not impossible, at the present dribs 'n drabs levels of ICT development in Namibia and elsewhere in Africa, to convince Fortune 500 companies to become environmentally conscious, and drive appropriate decommissioning and recycling plans in developing countries for which they would have to share considerable cost.

Organisations such as World Computer Exchange and Computer Aid International are trying to compete in a fierce market place. Economy of scale becomes a real issue, and while we bicker about refurb versus new computers, at the dribs 'n drabs level of things, such well-meaning champions are forced to up their margins to compensate for first-world overheads and highly competitive pricing. This ultimately translates into a bum deal for us, to say the least. Furthermore, it also means that we will continue to get "trick or treat" containers filled with haphazard collections of very old computers wrapped in bubble-plastic at between US$ 57 - 100 per unit.

We must get away from the comfort zone of "donor money" and the dependency on such funding to acquire commodities, even second-hand commodities! Critically, the commodity market comes with an environmental burden - this burden must be shifted to the manufacturers and primary corporate consumers. ICT development champions in the first world must rally to this crucial cause! While we don't need to turn into green anti-fur campaigners, I do believe we urgently need higher level intervention to swing this environmental scenario in our favour. Enter the Global e-Schools and Communities Initiative.

I think this is key to SchoolNet Namibia's long term role as a technology solution provider to the education sector; we must get away from "obsolete" and think second-hand or pre-owned in standardised hybrid technology solutions which comprise affordable mixtures of new server, pre-owned client workstations, new monitors, keyboards and mice bundled with a stable open source software and content platform. And move toward seeing computers as commodities, not luxuries. We should consider making such commodities available at a cost significantly lower than cell-phones - say US$ 75 - 100 per unit, inclusive of local margin to subsidise the overheads of software, local content, technical support, training, internet access and three-year walk-in warranties.

Let's spend development sector aid funding wisely on support, content, training and connectivity - not second-hand commodities! We need significantly more affordable international bandwidth and infrastructure; we need more localised content to deliver on our free and open source software platforms; we need more local geek and IT literate teachers and users to serve the education and health sectors. We need the big shots - IBM and HP-Compaq CEOs to buy into our ICT development package when they next lease 100,000 Pentium IVs to KPMG or Barclay's Bank. We need to get away from being the dribs 'n drabs brigade.

Joris Komen, SchoolNet Namibia www.schoolnet.na joris(at)schoolnet.na

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