WOS 3 / Programm / Panels / Globalisierung der freien Wissenkulturen / Globalisierung II. / Joris Komen / skript
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

While traditionalists may argue against modernist exponents of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education, neither faction will argue against the principle that "the future of our society depends on informed and educated citizens who, while fulfilling their own goals of personal and professional development, contribute to the social, economic and cultural development of their communities and of the country as a whole". Learning is aimed at equipping learners with the knowledge, skills and attitudes to live successful, satisfying and productive lives.

Considered contemporaneously, such principles enshrine a paradigm shift in objective; from education being a goal in its own right to becoming a means to a more efficient and economically competitive work force in the new "knowledge economy". It can be argued that the role of instructional technology and computer-based learning is intertwined with the changing nature of work from a manufacturing-based economy to an information-based economy. Estimates indicate that as many as two-thirds of all new jobs created in the next decade will require some use of computers. Inevitably, training in schools and curriculum requirements will reflect this increased emphasis on computer literacy. Barring some major social or technological disaster, computers, internet, cell phones and an increasing variety of other ICT commodities will continue to prevail as important parts of our lives, our work and eventually our education systems.

The belief that classrooms should be equipped with information technologies is, however, still 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 many international 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!

Indeed, a very limited few organisations in Sweden, Canada, UK, Ireland and Switzerland are honestly trying to drive paradigm shifts in a generally environmentally desensitised economic forum of hire-purchase/lease agreements with major global manufacturers of ICTs (when we talk high-quality branded ICTs). 90% of all corporate ICT consumers in the first world use hire-purchase/lease agreements to acquire new ICTs in depreciation cycle of usually three years. These schemes have obvious income tax relief implications :-). 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.

Strictly speaking, it costs between US$ 45 - 85 to decommission/recycle an old computer in the first world, and this cost should be built into the lease or purchase price. Unfortunately, this practice has not evolved widely yet, and regulations for such conditions proceed at a snail's pace. Notably, some 50% of the USA's electronic waste lands up being shipped to the far east for recycling, without any significant direct cost burden to either manufacturers or consumers. In USA, the largest consumer of ICTs by volume, recycling companies earn about US$ 0.30/kilogram of scrap - @ 30 kilograms for a computer/monitor, this adds up to about US$10 per old computer.

Coupled to this is the lucrative business of reselling end-of-lease (i.e., 3 year old Pentiums) to third party "channel partners". Hewlett Packard has a refurbishment plant in Holland which turns over 25,000 such machines every month! This is where the cost of US$ 100 - 200/refurbished computer comes into play. While the market place for such end-of-lease computers requires some urgent research, I understand that there are some players shipping such pre-owned ICTs to Africa, India, Thailand and China, where, refurbished or otherwise, these second-hand computers are sold with significant margin to consumers faced by local retail prices of US$ 1000+ for "new" computers.

Organisations such as World Computer Exchange and Computer Aid International are trying to compete in this 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.

Proponents of new assembly kit "white box" solutions are therefore correct when talking about such kits costing the same or less than older refurbs. Sure, we can buy new grey P4 assembly kits in Dubia at US$ 200 a pop. But pray tell me, who in the dribs 'n drabs brigade has the buying power to do so in Africa?

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.

We must make very sure we are using a 5-10 year "total cost of ownership/support" model when comparing new tech versus appropriately priced refurbished tech, and pay particular attention to the costs of technical maintenance, training and support in standardised technical solutions comprising hybrid new/refurb technologies.

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.

I argue that second-hand, end-of-lease ICTs with appropriate "stretch" or "take-it-back" lease costs at US$ 30 - 80/unit built in to compensate for a new lease on life in the bona fide educational sector in developing countries, coupled with a transparent long-term commitment to building environmentally-friendly recycling plants in developing countries is the way to go.

For this to happen we need to urgently build capacity in developing countries to provide bona fide refurbishment and technical support centres meeting ISO/ISOTECH or equivalent standards to handle a few million computers annually. Does this sound like delusion of grandeur? No; simply take a look at what's happening in countries like Canada and Colombia. Canada has 65 refurbishment centres which serve the Canadian education sector - exclusively. They presently have capacity to turn over 100s of 1000s of ICTs every year. SchoolNet Canada started well over 10 years ago, with significantly higher overheads than we would ever have in Africa. In the first year they sent out 179 refurbished computers to schools in Canada. Sounds familiar? Yes; we did this in Namibia in our first year of operation, and then some.

Lets wake up to economies of scale. I would like to see SchoolNet grow in technical support capacity to deliver 72,000 refurbs to the Namibian education sector by July 2005. I believe it is possible, given the 75 million boxes dumped annually.

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.

Critically, SchoolNet has achieved an incredible amount. In just over four years, SchoolNet has launched an independent educational Internet Service Provider (ISP), successfully connected around 200 schools to this ISP as well as numerous other educational clients, including libraries, teacher resource centres and non-government agencies, and set up computer laboratories in these schools and in many of the other resource centres. It has also shown how these can be done in rural and disadvantaged areas where there are neither telephone lines nor connections to the power grid.

It has pioneered affordable strategies and solutions for schools. Its models combine low-cost refurbished computers, free and open source operating systems, software applications and educational content, significantly discounted access to the Internet using wireless (spread-spectrum WIFI in the ISM 2.4GHz band) in remote parts of Namibia, and the offer of ICT volunteers to provide basic ICT support and training after set up and installation.

SchoolNet has become a strong voice for ICTs in schools and the education sector. Its wide contacts with key actors in the ICT and education sectors provide it with influence and leverage. Government and other actors have begun to take these issues seriously. Other similar projects are emerging.

SchoolNet has also begun to tackle the lack of ICT skills in Namibia and in Namibian schools. Through mentoring and training, many young people have gained computer-related skills from SchoolNet and they are now starting to benefit by getting jobs. In the schools, the pool of ICT-aware teachers and learners has also grown, and these individuals are starting to use the computers and the Internet in their daily lives and in the classroom.

SchoolNet has become a test bed and demonstrator for innovative technical solutions that challenge more widely used proprietary operating systems, in particular offering alternatives that may be more sustainable over time, given the limited local funding base for ICTs in schools. Also around the issue of affordability, innovative partnerships with Telecom Namibia (XNet), NIED and DireqLearn suggest how all disadvantaged schools can begin to make use of the new ICTs, on terms they can sustainably afford.

The SchoolNet Namibia approach include the following essential characteristics:

… Affordable computers provided to schools; … Affordable connectivity provided to schools; … Anywhere access - solar power and wireless internet for remote schools off the power and telecommunication grids; … Support and maintenance for computers and connectivity in schools; … Training and capacity strengthening - through volunteers and trainees; … Stimulating computer and Internet uses that empower youth and enhance the quality of education; … Executed through partnerships between SchoolNet and other public and private sector entities; … Managed and delivered by a professional organisation; … All, moving towards local financial self-reliance.

The most striking thing about the SchoolNet approach is that it works. In contrast to many other developmental uses of ICTs that stay in a pilot phase, large numbers of schools and other groups are now connected to the Internet and are making use of their computer laboratories.

Another strength is its demonstration effect. Getting the project to work has also allowed various technical solutions to be tried and tested, including for very remote and disadvantaged schools where power and phone lines were not previously available. Beyond the technology, the joint venture ("XNet") with Telecom Namibia offers an innovative institutional approach to connecting all Namibia's schools. All of these examples offer substantial lessons for other countries in Africa and beyond.

In the same vein, SchoolNet is probably the most significant operation using and advocating free and open source systems, standards and solutions in Namibia. Poorly resourced schools are good examples of situations where ICTs need to be robust, easy to use, and above all, affordable. Numerous similar situations exist in other development sectors. From just a learning perspective, this large real life open source trial is important as a way to test many assumptions about how ICTs can be introduced, used, and sustained in resource-poor environments.

This work on open source has also triggered SchoolNet to more deeply explore issues surrounding the costs of ownership of ICTs in schools. SchoolNet's current model is an excellent start as it demonstrates, from a SchoolNet perspective, the typical costs needed to install and support basic ICTs in Namibian schools. This type of model will be a critical resource for Government in the future when they start to determine the scale of local funding that needs to be mobilised to sustain ICTs in schools.

Another strength of the approach is the emphasis on capacity strengthening through training, mentoring, and volunteering. Much has already been accomplished in this area and more results can be expected as training especially is strengthened.

All of these elements add up to a focus on affordability. For cash-strapped schools, it is vitally important that they can afford, in the future as well as now, their ICT infrastructure and applications. It may not be necessary that all components of the approach are low-cost or lowest-cost, so long as they result in acceptable levels of performance that schools can afford, in the longer term. Thus, many 'free' donations, to SchoolNet itself and to schools, have actually turned out to be more costly in the longer term than other products that were purchased. Examples, in a school, are donated computers running old versions of windows operating systems that can't be upgraded or even repaired after a certain period, or whose licenses need to be paid for them to be legal. Examples, in SchoolNet, are donations of different makes and types of second hand computers that each need to be refurbished using different components. It is now cheaper to purchase sets of the same computer than it is to refurbish the so-called 'trick or treat' machines that arrive at no cost.

One important feature of the SchoolNet approach is that it provides generic ICT technologies and tools, as much as possible from an 'open' perspective. Because it does not have specific applications and products to 'sell' or to promote, the schools receive rather neutral platforms on which they can build. This means that schools can use their technical platform to participate in other ventures or projects. Further, other projects, of the government for example, can build on the connectivity and computers provided by SchoolNet for whichever other purposes they seek to promote.

Finally, SchoolNet works with many partners and organisations, mobilising their expertise and resources and generally raising awareness regarding the need for ICTs to be used in schools. Especially in the first years, the list of local people and organisations supporting SchoolNet is impressive. Today, a number of strategic joint ventures or partnerships are building on the synergies between SchoolNet and the other partner. The membership of the SchoolNet Board has been a good mirror of this involvement, with key stakeholders from the public, education and ICT sectors serving on the Board.

In terms of its own sustainability, the primary asset of SchoolNet is the widely felt positive views on what it is doing. The approach has many believers, in Namibia and among donors. Confidence is high. Many feel that SchooolNet has pioneered the wide scale provision of affordable access to computers and the Internet in Namibian schools. Its activities have mobilised others to also get involved. All the people encountered in the mission highlighted the very positive nature of this work. They point to the number of schools, the innovative use of wireless, the work on affordability, and the solar panels bringing ICTs to very remote places. They want to see more.

Yet, SchoolNet has deficiencies - in its abilities to provide sustainable and reliable connectivity, and especially to provide fast and responsive technical support and troubleshooting to an increasing number of effectively dependent clients. In schools, any problems experienced seem to be downplayed because people are so happy to have any service at all. Among others in Namibia, the problems are perceived without being experienced, but are likely to affect their confidence in SchoolNet as a reliable partner providing Internet access and computers to schools. This is why it is so critically important to allow SchoolNet to focus on its core technology support functions and encourage public, private and civil society sector partnerships with critical partners taking on greater responsibility for essential services for which they are aptly and professionally capable. It is in this spirit that the XNet Development Alliance Trust was created to serve internet solutions to the educational, health and development sectors of Namibia.

The XNet Development Alliance Trust was formally established in January 2004, and launched by his excellency, the President of Namibia, Dr Sam Nujoma on 7 April 2004, with the aim to expedite Internet Access and its use to the education, health and development sectors of Namibia, as a key action toward the accelerated development and integration of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Namibia. Like many other developing countries, the development of ICTs is strongly influenced by the capacity (and tolerance) of key line-function public sector ministries and state-owned and mostly monopolistic telecommunications operators and electricity suppliers to embrace ICTs and their integration in a knowledge-based economy.

The Xnet Trust is unique in allowing members from Namibia's civil society, business and public sectors to join and actively contribute to the development of Namibia's knowledge economy, in line with Namibia's national planning Vision 2030's goal of Universal Access for all.

The delivery of effective, state-aided telecommunications infrastructure and affordable Internet connectivity to meet a universal access goal in an open-minded policy environment, was made possible through the vision and efforts of SchoolNet Namibia, a civil society organisation, and Telecom Namibia, the state-owned Telecommunications operator, as founding members of the Xnet Development Alliance Trust.

Under the XNet agreement, Telecom Namibia will take on and support SchoolNet's connectivity roles in relation to schools, installing landlines or wireless solutions, and offering a standard discounted access rate (24/7 internet access) to all schools participating in the SchoolNet scheme, nation-wide. SchoolNet will manage the relations with schools, helping to ensure that schools that have access also have appropriate computers and skills to use them. The existing SchoolNet Internet Service Provider (ISP) will be transferred to the new Xnet Trust. Provision is made to subsidise those schools that cannot afford even the discounted rates, by a cross-subsidy scheme which encourages clients to pay more if they can afford to do so.

The agreement offers the possibility that Namibian schools will have access to reliable and affordable Internet connectivity and technical support in the future, delivered in ways that are sustainable for both provider and customers. For SchoolNet, this will allow the necessary scaling up to be achieved without over-stretching its human resource capacities. It also provides crucial 'buy in' to the schools sector by important (and wealthy) national telecommunications, electricity-supply and ICT industry actors in this arena.

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

[^] top

Creative Commons License
All original works on this website unless otherwise noted are
copyright protected and licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License Germany.