I gave a tech talk at the Google offices in Zurich, Switzerland about the projects as some Google staff were keen to know more about them. Here is a copy of my presentation slides TechTalkAtGoogleZurich (13 Sep 2013)
I hope they’ll provide another perspective on the projects. Much of the information is also available in other blog posts on this site.
The schools have reopened on 2nd September 2013 after the truncated summer break (some schools extended their previous term into August to help the pupils catch up after the Teachers’ strike finished).
In Oyugis our schools liaison person will be visiting each of the 7 schools to meet face-to-face with the teachers to discuss their progress to date and to agree on how to improve the ways the kindles are used to help the teachers and the pupils.
To prepare for these discussions we reviewed all the purchases made to date.
There were 74 items ordered, these include free books, the bible, occasional newspapers, text and reference books, and various novels including various crime novels
Roughly 14 books were directly related to Swahili and/or the Kenyan curriculum
Most of the items seem to be feasibly relevant to the schooling however we’re concerned about some of the seemingly irrelevant purchases, particularly once schools had become more familiar with using the devices.
We aim to help the teachers and the schools to limit the amount of irrelevant items in future. One of the safeguards is the relatively limited funds made available to each Amazon account. When the funds are spent they are spent and the school needs to account for their purchases. Schools who spend wisely are able to buy more relevant books and receive top-ups more easily than schools who’ve spent unwisely. The unwise schools are asked to commit to buying more relevant items before they receive a top-up to their account.
Here is some good news from the local Cognizant team in Bangalore:
“The work at the schools to repair the computers has started well. Within the next 2 weeks, 4 schools would have at least 8-10 computers working (current scenario is that 2 or 3 computers work). These necessitated visits from Cognizant’s network and support team. In most cases, the issue was missing RAM chips. So the team decided to add the RAM chips as well as provide a lock to the CPU cabinet.
We also recently attended a workshop conducted by “IT for Change”, who train teachers in using Edubuntu software. The teachers along with students conducted some activities such as ‘Mapping of school and neighborhood’ and updating the information onto “OpenMaps”. They were trained to use “Freemind” software to create mindmaps. The students with the guidance of the teachers created ‘Photo and Video essays’ during their field visits to the market place, police station, electricity substation etc., The other activities were to collect and tabulate family details (leading to overall Community information) AND ‘Vegetation survey and mapping’. We attended the 2nd day of the 2 day workshop and it was awesome to hear and see the work on the teachers and the students.”
During my visit to Bangalore in July 2013 I managed to visit Yediyur Government school, near Yediyur lake, Jayanagar, with two of Cognizant’s team who help with various schools in the Bangalore area. They’re part of a much larger programme across Cognizant who help support schools across India as part of their corporate social responsibility.
During our visit I was able to see first-hand how the schools used the computers they had and to talk to the teachers. This school had at least ten working computers running a mix of old versions of Microsoft Windows and the free Edubuntu software. Until recently the teachers had received training in how to use Edubuntu as part of their teaching. However, the visits had petered-out for various reasons and the teachers were less confident of using Edubuntu due to lack of practice or familiarity.
Like the other state school I’d visited there were plenty of broken computers and screens. They used to have a 3G connection to the Internet, but large unexplained bills had discouraged the school from using it and the 3G device was missing when we looked for it. As ever, the electricity supply was overstretched and prone to fail. However across Southern India there are news reports of chronic under-capacity of power generation so the school appeared no worse off than many other Electricity customers.
The pupils really enjoyed using the computers, particularly some of the programs provided with Edubuntu and typically sat two or three to a chair and worked collaboratively with the program they were using. The teachers were very supportive of the children and volunteered their time after school to help the children use the computers informally.
After our visit to the school I spent some time with the team from Cognizant and we were able to share experiences and ideas for ways to help the current set of schools and through helping those schools to help those schools help other schools with their computing. We agreed we needed to find scalable ways to help schools support themselves, each other, and ideally for those schools to help schools who weren’t directly supported by either Cognizant or the Fisherman Trust.
We decided there were several ways we could help immediately:
The local network and support team from Cognizant could investigate the problems and causes of faulty equipment. They would fix some of the problems and then help the schools to find ways to fix the other computers where practical.
Reinvigorate the training for the teachers in using Edubuntu. Cognizant volunteers would also help the schools learn how to install Edubuntu so the schools could be more self-reliant and resourceful.
Raj, of the Fisherman Trust would send a couple of copies of the Zoombinis software to the team at Cognizant so they can evaluate it with one or two of the schools they support. We could then consider ways to procure more copies if the software seems to be useful for those schools.
Conversely, the Cognizant team has lots of experience, particularly in installing and configuring Edubuntu that the small team in the Fishermen Trust can apply in the schools they help. We really appreciate their friendly and open advice and expertise.
Here is an initial report from the team at the Fishermen Trust. They installed and commissioned their first school with the Zoombinis software in early August 2013.
“Greetings from The Fishermen Trust. We trust you are doing well.
We arrived at the school today and asked the Headmistress to send the 7th grade students according to their roll number. We taught two batches of four students, with each batch taking different lengths of time to grasp the concepts of the game. We were forced to stop due to a power outage.
We then asked a teacher and the Headmistress to form computer period for the students in which they can try out the game fully. We also selected two boys from the seventh grade who seemed adept in the concepts of the game and showed ability to teach others.”
And here are some photos of the team working with the pupils and with one of their teachers:
It started with an invitation to speak at a conference in Bangalore on Software Testing in July 2013. For various reasons the trip included 2 weekends which I wanted to use wisely. Before the trip I was introduced to Raj, of a small Christian organisation called The Fishermen Trust. His organisation helps various schools around the Bangalore area and in Tamil Nadu state amongst other work.
Ahead of the trip Raj and I had a couple of discussions by Skype and email about some of the challenges these schools face. In terms of technology many of the schools had at least one computer for the children to use, some had over twenty computers in a classroom. However, none of these computers were being used by the pupils. The computers were typically old computers donated or scavenged from corporations, with an old version of Microsoft Windows installed. However they’d not been prepared or commissioned for the schools to use, the teachers lacked the skills, understanding or knowledge of how to use them at all, and in most cases there were major problems with the mains power.
I managed to obtain around 100 copies of an excellent software known as Zoombinis. The Zoombinis is educational software devised as various games. Each game requires thinking skills and presents problems to be solved to ‘save’ small creatures called Zoombinis. There are at least five variations of Zoombinis software, most of our copies are of Zoombinis Mountain Rescue.
We agreed to spend both Saturdays visiting schools so I could get involved first hand and learn as much as practical about ways to help the schools and the pupils. I’ll cover the school visits and the findings in additional blog posts here.
About the Zoombini Games
There are three titles in the Zoombinis series of games. Of these, the Logical Journey was the original title and the best in my view. Several companies acquired the original game and released refreshed versions of the title, sadly their changes did little to improve the product. The newer versions and games are in wider circulation, the original being from 1996 is hard to find these days. The original is the most tolerant in terms of working on a variety of computers.
Here are links to Wikipedia articles about each of the games.
Teachers across Kenya were on strike when the time came to wrap up the pilot project. This meant the schools were closed so the visiting team were unable to see the Kindles in use at the schools. However the teachers kindly found time to meet our volunteer team who had flown from the UK to interview them. Our volunteer team are:
Here is a photo of one of the interviews:
The strike also delayed some of the follow up work for the pilot project in terms of implementing some aspects of the next phase of the project. However, the strike has since finished and I understand the schools will be open for several weeks in August to compensate for the time the schools were closed by the strike.
We will cover the interviews in more detail and the findings of the initial pilot project in additional articles.
We launched another school, Apondo Secondary School, Oyugis as part of the visit of the youth team from Hazlemere Church. They are the seventh school to participate in the project.
They now have 3 Kindles, a 3G WiFi router to connect the Kindles to the Internet, and various sources of power to keep everything up-and-running. The local team in Kenya will provide a suitable 3G SIM card for the WiFi router and help commission the devices.
This is the second of the schools to try using a WiFi router. We hope the router will prove to be reliable and cost-effective. Routers enable the schools to use a wider variety of Kindles and devices and help to reduce the costs of the equipment for schools with 3 or more devices.
When I started this project I naively bought some 3 watt solar panels from a supplier who advertised them as being capable of charging iPhones, and the latest Android smartphones, etc. As the e-readers, the Kindles, require less power than these devices I hoped these panels would be able to easily provide sufficient power to charge the Kindles, even in the UK.
Cutting a long story short, the panels wouldn’t charge the Kindles except occasionally to keep me on-the-hook so I kept going for much longer than I otherwise would or should have done. They didn’t even charge the devices in the peak of the day in Kenya, on the equator. Also their voltage regulators were unreliable, and lost about 1 watt of the 3 watts the panels were claimed to deliver.
To make matters worse, the kindles often froze because the voltage (at around 4v via the regulator) was borderline to trigger the charging circuit which drew current and caused the voltage to drop, then the charging stopped. This allowed the voltage from the panel to increase which restarted the cycle. Eventually these cycles seemed to cause the kindle to freeze.
I discovered Solar panels are considered constant current devices while we want something closer to constant voltage at a given minimum current. Although I considered creating my own homebrew regulators with large capacitors to even out the power delivery, etc. I abandoned the idea as others had tried better solutions and mine was unlikely to work.
Indirectly I was encouraged to try connecting the solar panel, without a voltage regulator to an inexpensive USB battery reserve power device intended to provide portable emergency recharging for mobile phones. Internally their electronics enables them to charge their internal battery @3.6 volts DC while delivering a steady 5V DC output once they’d been sufficiently charged. These devices seemed to do just what I needed for this project and my initial tests are promising. I’ve tried a variety of these portable battery units, including several with integral small solar panels rated at 0.7 watts, which isn’t enough in practice.
I also discovered http://getvolt.dk/en/ an innovative business for concert goers who want to keep their smart phones and iPads, etc. charged beyond the reach of mains power.
Overall, the combination of an external 3 watt solar panel and a smallish USB battery unit seem to be a practical solution for recharging the other electronic devices we’re using, including the Kindles and the 3G WiFi routers.
helping teachers to help each other, and their pupils in Kenya and beyond