Posted by: John Savageau in Untagged on Mar 14, 2010
Educational development and planning highlighted several sessions at Digital Africa 2010 last week in Kampala, Uganda. Delegates from ministries of communications and commercial industry representing most African countries gathered to discuss both the current communications environment in Africa, as well as share best practices and visions for building a better future for Africa.
Justifiably, among nearly all delegates, education in developing parts of Africa held a special sense of urgency. Understanding that achieving a higher standard of education throughout the continent would enable not only the opportunity to build better an environment for economic growth, but also enable the populations to better prepare and respond to disasters and social disruptions, delegates presented several visions of how to deliver better access to academic resources.
Delivering Network Access
One remarkable fact emerged during the course of discussions. In most countries, mobile phone and wireless access were available in nearly all parts of every country. In fact, the host country Uganda noted mobile coverage in 100% of the country, including rural areas.
However, fixed line access was limited to urban areas, and in around half the countries even urban areas were not completely wired. Further discussion related to current and planned implementation of LTE and 4G systems indicated that wireless communications would probably be the best way to meet infrastructure objectives - which is to deliver network access to all regions within all countries in Africa.
Backbone infrastructure, or delivering high capacity fiber to interconnect both international gateways and access points around the country, had even a slightly higher priority, as even existing wireless systems had limited capacity interconnecting towers that would no doubt be overwhelmed with the addition of data or Internet access through the network.
The good news is that in addition to new cables in East Africa such as EASSy (East Africa Submarine Cable System) and SEACOM, several terrestrial fiber systems are either planned or in construction, allowing both coastal countries and interior countries within Africa to participate not only in national infrastructure development, but also gaining much better access to higher performance fiber-based global networks.
While satellite access is available today, bandwidth is limited, and the cost of using satellite much higher than even trans-national fiber systems.
Given the additional fact that international organizations are ready and willing to support African educations development, and the fact wireless access is either currently available or being reinforced and expanded in most African countries, cloud computing may have found a home in the continent's education systems.
We are all pretty familiar with the levels of cloud computing, including Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Software as a Service (SaaS). We are also pretty familiar with data centers and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs).
With a coordinated approach by the education ministries, telecom providers, Internet providers, and data center providers we can build a relatively inexpensive, powerful education infrastructure reaching every child in the country.
Start at the data center. Build a public cloud, with educational courseware as SaaS on top of the infrastructure. Connect the cloud resource to one or more Internet service providers, which in turn are connected to the national Internet Exchange Point. Using the wireless network, then the academic courseware can be pushed to any location within the country through WiMAX, WiFi, EVDO, or any other wireless protocol available.
At the school site, install a wireless access point, small edge router, and several Netbooks or dumb terminals. The students records, courses, and other academic support information is retained at the central SaaS site residing in the cloud infrastructure, and a low cost online education system can be delivered to all children.
Sounds too simple, doesn't it?
Let's consider the following
- In bulk, Netbooks and dumb terminals can be brought below $100/unit
- Individual terminals can be shared by many individual students, as the actual student courses and records are kept in a central (cloud-hosted) location, greatly reducing the cost burden per student
- Most of a national educational or courseware system can be built within a cloud-hosted environment - one major image, many remote accesses
- By the end of 2012 nearly all African countries will have access to a regional, continental, or submarine cable systems, with a major decrease in the cost/Mbps of international bandwidth
- There is international funding available for educational development that will reduce the burden of initial investments in delivering access points to schools
- Network access at the school level further enables students to access international educational resources
The Cost of Not Connecting
UConnect is a privately funded project in Uganda that tries to bring computer training and exposure to students in around 300 schools throughout the country. Their tools are used computers donated and imported from various locations around the world, and courseware is a kludge of eBooks and lessons gathered over several years by the volunteers supporting UConnect.
It is a very altruistic project, and provides a couple thousand Ugandan children a small glimpse into the world of ICT (Information and Communications Technology). Students in Europe at the same level are carrying intelligent phones, accessing social networks as a second nature, and integrating ICT into nearly every aspect of their education and lives. The message - even the good intentions of groups like UConnect are not adequate to bring children in Uganda or Africa into the 21st century. They simply cannot grow and evolve into a knowledge society or economy, and their quality of life will not improve.
Education gives children the intellectual tools needed to build a better country, a more peaceful society, and improve their quality of life by through additional knowledge of everything from better ways to develop agriculture, to qualifying for advanced education and training in foreign countries. More potential for entrepreneurs, more potential for success.
Lack of education results in the greater potential of poverty, violence, inability to respond to natural or man-made disasters, and subsequently the increased potential for regional conflict due to migration of refugees.
Cloud computing can play a major role in delivering education to the continent, and the attendees of Digital Africa 2010 walked away with a renewed enthusiasm and resolve to consider that possibility.