Resilience and reducing single-points-of-failure

As an engineer I realise a common risk is to have single points of failure in any system. Therefore, on of the design goals for the project is to reduce the number of single-points-of-failure. In practice this means we are seeking ways to share the knowledge, the support, and how paid content is both selected and paid for.

Our approach of using parallel paths also helps reduce single-points-of-failure.

What did we start with Kindle devices from Amazon?

For practical reasons we started the pilot in Kenya with a mix of the Amazon Kindle devices. These reasons include:

  • They can be used for long periods before they need to be recharged,
  • They have global 3G connectivity bundled with the devices (provided one uses the 3G models, of course),
  • The Amazon Kindle technology and infrastructure are reliable and mature,
  • Vast amounts of material are easily available both online and other material can be added over USB,
  • Accounts can be shared across several devices and can be topped up using gift vouchers,
  • Wish-lists are available so teachers can request material where it can be paid for later on, even by other people abroad. We will cover the topic of wishlists and payments in more detail in another blog post.

We also wanted to start the pilot as soon as practical and to learn during the pilot. We needed to keep the number of variables relatively small, and we did not want to spend months evaluating a vast set of potentially competing technologies.


Parallel Paths

We don’t know what will work yet, and furthermore there may be alternative options that are more effective than our first choice. So we have consciously adopted an approach where we pick and try several things in parallel. This includes technologies, connectivity, content, schools, content distribution, etc. We expect to expand the number of parallel paths during our experiments and pilot projects. However, we also select and support combinations which seem suitable.

Here are some of the parallel paths we are currently evaluating:

  • Devices: we started with 2 devices: The Kindle Keyboard (3rd edition) 3G+Wi-Fi is the main device – we started the pilot with 5 of these. The current Kindle 4 with the 4 way controller, Wi-Fi, (and no touch screen) – we started the pilot with 2 of these.
  • Cases: For the Kindle Keyboards we use the Amazon case that includes a built-in LED light; and for the Kindle 4 we use the Solar-Mio integrated case with solar panel built-in LED light and in-built battery. Although these are expensive, our initial impressions are very positive.
  • Charging: Our devices need power, and to be recharged. We are evaluating solar panels, with and without internal batteries, as well as the standard mains USB chargers. We will cover the solar and other power options in another blog post soon.
  • Connectivity: as mentioned the Kindle Keyboards include 3G, so the teachers can connect directly to the Amazon store, and search Google and Wikipedia without needing Wi-Fi. As the schools don’t have Wi-Fi 3G connectivity provides virtually immediate access to materials for the teachers, even while teaching, etc. However, we also want to evaluate Wi-Fi, and ways to establish rural Wi-Fi for the schools, and the lowest priced Kindle, the Kindle 4, only comes in a Wi-Fi model. So we need to find ways to support these devices in the field as supplies of the older Kindle Keyboard dry up. We will cover connectivity in more detail in another blog post.
  • Content distribution: We are using both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ methods of content distribution. Pull is where the user (a teacher in this case) downloads the content to their eReader. Push is where content is sent to devices. Materials are also copied onto the devices directly from a computer using a USB connection. Services including dropbox are excellent to transfer and share materials over the Internet easily and effectively.
  • Materials: Many of the books in Swahili are published via Longhorn Publishers and available from Amazon. However there are other publishers of potentially suitable eBooks who don’t support the Amazon formats, instead they publish books in the ePub format. We are in discussion with various publishers in Kenya, and the UK, to find useful and relevant materials for the teachers; together with ways to make the material ‘work’ on Kindles, other eReaders, and  Tablet devices.

We are also evaluating Android Tablets and other eReader devices during the pilot period.


Project Background

We launched the first pilot project in February 2013 after I, Julian Harty, visited several schools in the Oyugis area of Western Kenya in October/November 2012. The visit was to see in person some of the school classrooms he had sponsored over recent years. Although the schools were well-organised with friendly and helpful teachers and pupils there were no obvious teaching materials in use, apart from a wall painted as a chalk board (or blackboard as they’re also known) and some sticks of chalk.

However, 3G mobile network coverage, was available at the various schools and my 3G kindle device worked flawlessly. During various discussions with school teachers locally, and some who were also visiting from the UK, the germ of an idea was formed to see if e-readers with some suitable teaching materials might help transform and improve the resources available to the teachers on the ground.

From the outset, the aim has been to encourage and support the teachers, technologists, and publishers in Kenya to participate in the project; and to encourage collaboration and sharing of ideas, experiences, good practices, etc.

Welcome to the Kusaidia Mwalimu web site

Welcome to the Kusaidia Mwalimu web site which is where you can learn about our project to help teachers in Kenya, and beyond, to teach more effectively and with a wider range of material than they typically have available.

The name of the site is Swahili for supporting teachers, as that’s the primary aim at this stage of the project.