In the battle between ICT Challenges vs. TCinGC Student Consultants, in the match being broadcast live and exclusive from Niue, the score at half-time (end of five weeks) remains 0-0. The game seems to be tight, with none of the two teams being able to take a lead in the early part of the game.
So what does that mean in real context for us? Put in more relevant words, it would simply mean that the challenges with the project have not scared us so much that we cut down on our tasks to be performed. However, we have not been able to really attack these challenges with ease. Every step in a single task seems to bring newer obstacles and hurdles, and our effort has been to tackle them one by one, with utmost patience and reliance on our abilities.
What were these challenges anyways? And what had we planned to do about them?
Challenges: Every IT infrastructure and Information system seems to face some or the other kind of challenges in its day-to-day functioning. Yes, even CMU IT and Google are always looking forward to tackling tough problems they are confronted with everyday. And there always seems to be this scope for improvement and this better solution. The question always is whether the time and resource commitment to the newer solution is justified by its end result. “Measuring end results” sounds a lot easier than it may be. But it is usually believed to come down to end user satisfaction.
The end user to our solutions is the Department of Education and the student community of the school. And as of today, they are not a happy lot of people (when it comes to the IT systems established). As I mentioned before, problems never seem to end in a hunt for an ultimately finer solution. We identified, with the help of our partners, a few key challenges here:
I. The OLPC Project, in general, really depends upon the Internet as a wonderful service to empower young XO users with the ability to access digital resources and learn new things over the time. It also gives them an opportunity to be connected to the world, and be updated at the pace another kid of the same age maybe in a far more technologically advanced part of the world. Remember, the key is access to resources and not access to unbiased high-quality resources. For students in countries where this project is aimed to be implemented in, Wikipedia probably is a desert rose. So, what happens when you cannot guarantee these kids access to a decent speed Internet? The project goes crashing down? Well, although the dependence on Internet would probably risk the project, I would say it depends entirely on how the educational institution tackles the situation. In the Niue case, students’ access to Internet has been a major concern from the very beginning. Both the schools in Niue depended on the Pacific Rural Internet Connectivity System (PACRICS) for their Internet connectivity. On our arrival in Niue, we were told that the bandwidth from these connectivity systems (512Kbps DL / 256kPBS UL) was being shared by not only all students, but also all the staff and administration of the two schools, each having one connection. In fact, even the DoE was sharing the same connection with one of the schools (NPS)! Bam! There goes your bandwidth. So yes, the complaint was that the bandwidth allocated was really small. Also, the connection was unstable and halted at the NHS.
Previously, before the PACRICS system was installed, the DoE and the staff and administration of the two schools were wired up with the Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connection provided to all departments under the government. On installation of the PACRICS, the institutions under the DoE voluntarily opted out of the DSL plans, and moved to PACRICS.
II. Having computing hardware resources is one thing; and using them effectively and wisely is something which cannot be guaranteed by just having it. And this is the reason why there is a lot of emphasis on systems development life cycle (yes, the one introduced in 15-111!). Without going into details of what goes into making a system work, I would just like to note that successful organizations spend a lot of time on management of their information systems after procurement of hardware. In fact, successful one-time installation of hardware cannot usually be expected to sustain its life as a functioning block in the puzzle of the system. In Niue’s case, this is unfortunately what has happened. At the time of the beginning of the pilot project here, the SPC installed XO Server (XS) on a server machine at the NHS. This was aimed to
- Host the Learning Management Software (LMS), Moodle
- Act as a file-sharing server
- Act as a Jabber server (to enable students to Chat with each other across the network)
Apart from the XS at the NHS, both schools have been equipped by an HP server each with Windows Server 2008 (yes, that unstable NOS!) installed to serve as a file-sharing server and also as an MS Profile management server. As of today, the situation is as follows:
- The XS is lying unused in the NHS. Moodle’s installation is easily accessible, but even the most tech-friendly teachers do not know how to access it.
- The hard disk drive of the XS does not have any digital resources. It hosts no e-books, no activities.
- The Windows Server is being used efficiently at the NHS to share files and for students having individual network accounts.
- The administration at the NPS and the DoE, a total of around 13 people, have been allowing an energy-hog equipment (happens to be the server!) in a corner of their room to take up a square-meter without having it to help them share files.
III. Harsh, but true. Let’s face it: The technology has been misused in a large number of cases, and even under-used in many others. This was one major problem we have been confronted with since we have learnt about the project in the previous weeks. Although this calls for a unified action, the following are the reasons for this argument:
- This is the big one, and I guess is troubling everyone deploying XOs. Breakage and damages to laptops have been a real concern. Although the laptops are known to be tough and all that, the keyboards continue to rip-off, the screen continue to crack and the batteries continue to fail etc. Hey, wait a minute! The XO designers aren’t at fault here! This device is still far tougher than anything in this line made until today. Despite efforts to make this gadget as weather-proof and dust-proof, XOs continue to damage every day. That’s because they cannot ever be toddler-use proof if they are to be anything close to a computing device! And no, I am not saying this just because my 3-year-old neighbor deleted my Networking e-book on my XO this morning. In more than 30% of the cases, child owners have failed to prevent their laptop from a non-software XO injury.
- Misuse of the Internet facility. One definitely cannot expect 6-year-olds to be putting Britanica as their homepage and “How Stuff Works?” as their most visited link. They tend to love Flash games and deserve this entertainment at such a young age. But it becomes a problem when that is all they wish to do on their laptops. It gets worse when 150 students want to share the same bandwidth to download this graphic-friendly rich Internet data at the same time, over a not so high bandwidth connection.
- OLPC stands for… One Laptop per Caretaker. Did I get it right? Well, I am sorry, I forgot to mention this is in Niuean and not the regular English version. The DoE has reported that a lot of parents seem to use these laptop very frequently. These are the parents who do not have access otherwise, so it’s understandable. But what is not understandable is parents deciding when their child should take the laptop to school, and when to leave it at home so that their child does not damage it. And well sometimes simply because they wish to take it to their workplace! Yes, I know. A complete defiance of the “Child Ownership” principle.
These challenges call for action. Superman alone can help these people! I wonder if he ever used a computer in his comics! Anyways, we are here for suggesting solutions to these challenges. Read part 2 to know more about we wish to tackle these problems.
P.S. Refer to my previous posts if you are unable to expand the abbreviations in the post