Zim WiFi:Project Chapter

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Wireless Open Source Refurbished computers (W.O.R) project – Low cost Internet connectivity into schools in Zimbabwe

Researchers: Muroro Dziruni (muroro[@]comone.co.zw)
Partner Organisations: World Links Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe Academic Network (Zarnet)
PowerTel – Zimbabwe


Synthesis

The constructs of the rationale for the project is informed by the need to provide low cost Internet connectivity into schools in Zimbabwe, with the purpose of enhancing the teaching and learning experiences in the classroom. It is developed from the understanding that any successful integration of ICTs in education curriculum, has to be built on computer technology that connects to the Internet, creating limitless possibilities for communication, collaboration and accessing the knowledge base that is the World Wide Web. Stand alone computers, that do not provide Internet connection are limited in terms of usefulness and are inappropriate for the technology savvy 21st century learner required in today’s knowledge driven economies.

The problem is that, accessing the Internet using current connectivity solutions is an expensive proposition for a social institution like a school and unless a low cost solution that pulls together affordable technology choices for connectivity; appropriate education and policy provisions, and training is provided for learners and teachers in using the technology, then Internet access will not be a pervasive service in schools, especially in public schools. This reinforces the notion of digital exclusion and deepens the digital divide between schools that have and those that do not. From a national perspective, the opportunity cost of having a cohort of students ‘left behind’ in the digital progression becomes a competitive disadvantage in the long run.

The objective of this project is to demonstrate best practice approaches in school wireless connectivity networking, and to influence policy and practice in the education sector on how ICTs can be mainstreamed and integrated into curriculum by looking at issues related to:

  • Access – what are the available wireless technology connectivity solutions and Internet access choices for schools?
  • Policy – what policy provisions are relevant in creating an enabling environment for ICT in education, focusing on guidelines for low cost wireless connectivity?
  • Training – how can learners and educators be trained in the appropriation of ICTs in the class or a better teaching and learning experience?

The methodological approach of the project has been a hands-on experiential and empirical process, structured around participatory partnership building with service providers and the engagement of the beneficiary schools in the process of technology planning and implementation.

Research Problem

The purpose of the project was to solve a basic problem – connecting schools to the internet using a low cost bundle of technology solutions. Most secondary schools in the Highfields district of Harare had the physical computers in their computer labs, obtained either from self provisioning or from the government of Zimbabwe presidential computer roll out program.

Invariably the proliferation of computer hardware in schools necessitated that guidelines are developed that would inform schools on how to adopt and develop an ICT connectivity technology plan defined by their own context and needs. Unfortunately the majority of schools interviewed in Highfields were not connected to the internet and in most cases the reason was that existing ICT in education policy guidelines did not provide a framework that deals specifically with connectivity options and this policy void made it difficult for schools to pursue a successful connectivity strategy.

The project recognised this gap and sort to provide an affordable first mile and first inch wireless connectivity option. To deliver on this intention required that the project approaches the task on the basis of three interacting themes:

  • Access: An access theme that focused on building a low cost bundle of technology infrastructure that would provide connectivity into schools.
  • Training: A training and capacity building theme that would translate the technology into better teaching and learning in the school.
  • Policy: A policy and influence theme that would target advocacy within the technology policy and education sectors so that appropriate Internet connectivity guidelines can be developed.

Unpacking the access, training and policy issues

  • Questions on access: The connectivity option that was chosen for the first mile was a wireless link using the Industrial Scientific and Medical (ISM) frequency band in the 2.4GHz. The problem with the ISM band is that it is illegal under regulatory provisions in Zimbabwe, to use the frequency for anything other than industrial, scientific or medical applications. The project would work with the regulator in trying to get the inclusion of school connectivity as an acceptable application of the ISM frequency band.
  • Questions on training: Whilst the project would have appeared to be a technology project dealing with connectivity for schools, the outcome of uppermost importance was for an ICT enabled environment for better teaching and learning in schools. This could only be achieved if teachers were trained on how to integrate ICTs within classroom environment. Therefore capacity training of teachers in the use of ICTs is an important project component.
  • Questions on policy: The inclusion of ICTs in Education policy in Zimbabwe is not clear or detailed enough. There are several documents that mention ICTs in some form or other but there is no comprehensive set of guidelines that would inform schools on what they need to be doing with their computers and particularly how to move forward with Internet connectivity. This gap between policy and existing practices can be narrowed if the project could demonstrate and show case an approach that delivers low cost Internet connectivity.


Lessons Learnt (Take away lessons)

Not with standing the challenges that the project has had to deal with on a day to day basis, the takeaway lessons that have emerged from this work are that:

Lesson 1: Define the technology need correctly

Just as any development action should be in response to an identified need, the same is applicable to ICTs in school networking. The proliferation of new technologies for connectivity into schools can easily distract the focus of the initiative into a “technology” driven solution rather than a project about connecting schools for better learning and teaching. Invariably it becomes tempting to assume that the more the technological solution, the better, without considering the true underlying need uppermost in the mind of the users. This leads to solutions that are “nice” to have but place incredible demands in terms human and financial resources on the school without the certainty that it will deliver value in terms of meeting education objectives.

The needs assessment was a fundamental first step in the project design because this process enabled the project to openly discuss the expected costs and benefits of the technologies under consideration, and an informed decision on how to proceed going forward. Just as much as defining the technology is crucial, involving all key stakeholders, particularly the intended users of the technology, in the process of project design through contribution of feedback and recommendations, helped to build understanding and confidence in the proposed technology.

Lesson 2: Firm partnerships assist in effective implementation

Technology focused projects are not without their challenges, particularly when using certain technologies that may require skills that project staff have not used or obtained before. An important lesson that has been learnt is that building technology solutions into existing partnerships, where the need is commonly shared, increases the likelihood of success and can deliver learning effects across the partnerships. Both PowerTel and Zarnet are experts in wireless technologies in Zimbabwe in their own right and their knowledge, skills and access to appropriate assets was invaluable for the project roll out. In instances were the project did not have one particular piece of equipment, the partners were able to locate an alternative from their resources and contribute towards successful implementation.

Lesson 3: Correct project timing, can enhance implementation success

It was fortuitous that the other partners (PowerTel and Zarnet) were also considering similar interventions and the arrival of this project allowed them to channel their resources into this work. In other words the project came just at the right moment because the partners were also in the process of planning for similar school connectivity interventions.

Lesson 4: Gain the support of stakeholders and document expectations

Whether a technology is to be implemented within a new or existing partnership, a pre-requisite for success is to gain the support of all relevant stakeholders. Introduction of a new technology often demands significant financial and human resource investment, and may demand changes to work practices and/or acceptance of an unfamiliar tool. In such situations, it is essential that all those affected have a clear understanding of the purpose of the technology, or it will be a challenge to secure support for investment in, or regular use of, any new system. The project achieved this understanding through signed memorandums of understanding with the partners and the role and responsibilities defined in sufficient detail. It was made very clear to the school that the project would only be able to support the initiative for a period of 12 months ending in December 2007, and beyond that it had to support the investment using its own internal resources, as they have already been doing.

Lesson 5: Be careful with commercial external service providers

It is important to think carefully before embarking on relationships with external technology suppliers. Whilst external suppliers are keen to secure your business and will often offer a preferential rate at the outset, if you are dependant on the provider for technical support be sure to have a clear understanding of the cost and what that support will cover. Equally be sure of their technical competencies and that they will take responsibility for any technical failing. The experience with the commercial technology provider Genesis Systems (PVT) Ltd, who made available the wireless equipment, was disappointing in that they provided a technology solution in the first instance which did not meet the terms required by the project. It cost the project time as a corrective solution was re-considered (Genesis Systems paid for this correction) and this reinforced the notion that external service providers can be driven by their own profit agenda and not necessarily what the client may need.

Lesson 6 – Building capacity to use the technology is key

A new technology innovation will only be useful if it is used. Whilst this may seem an obvious statement, it is important always to remember that technologies are an enabler of education rather than solutions in themselves. It is better education we seek and not better technology. The most important component in the value chain of delivering this education is a teacher who is ICT savvy and able to integrate the technology in curriculum. Equally the learner’s appreciation of technology in their process of learning should be emphasised. Training in the use of the technology is important.

Lesson 7 – Technology must be appropriate

Any technology used must be “appropriate” to the operating conditions. This is true for both the technology design, the resource required to implement it, and its ability to withstand challenging operating conditions. The concept of ‘appropriate technology’ applies equally to digital connectivity technologies. The projects chose to use wireless fidelity (WiFi) technology which is appropriate and low cost. The project could have easily chosen satellite Internet links but this would have been a financial and technological unsustainable option, inappropriate for the object of delivering low cost connectivity.

Lesson 8 – Find a technology champion

The presence of an individual with a particular interest in, and commitment to the technology will help to sustain enthusiasm for the use of new tools. In the projects case the headmaster of Kwayedza School Mr Ruzani provided this champion role and his motivation and enthusiasm kept the project going in instances where the challenges seemed overbearing.

Lesson 9 – Economic challenges influence project implementation

It is common cause that Zimbabwe is going through a prolonged and difficult economic period and invariably this has affected the way the project has rolled out. Without doubt, what could have been achieved in a shorter time frame, took much longer and what should have cost less became more expensive since some of the equipment had to be imported. It has been a challenge indeed. The financial report accompanying this technical report provides a much more contextual understanding of how managing the project has had to cope with the difficult socio-economic conditions.

One particular constraint that presented itself because of the economic fall out was the lack of electricity in the country as a result of load shedding. The electricity supply situation was at best inconsistent and this meant that the project would only be able to go on site when the school had power. It was an arrangement were the head master would send a message that power is available and the project would then get hold of the service providers and partners to go on site. Unfortunately at times, stakeholders could not release themselves from their planned work to rush on site and this invariably introduced time delays - a total of five weeks was lost to power outages.

Recommendations

  • The project makes a case for low cost connectivity into schools using low cost technology options and this solution is particularly appropriate in geophysical locations that do not have any other form of wire line data connections. Whilst this particular implementation was in an urban context, it would be an innovation to implement the same solution in a rural setup. It is the intention of this project to take this next step and secure new funding resources to roll out a rural wireless low cost solution. Clearly the technical and financial support that IDRC has provided hitherto has been invaluable and the project will make an appeal for further support in rolling out the concept in rural schools.
  • The socio-economic discourse and challenges in Zimbabwe cannot be ignored and it is important to give an indication of how it has affected and continues to affect the projects work. It is common cause that the country is going through an unprecedented economic decline – the worst ever recorded in a peace time conditions. At the point of writing this report in Dec 2007, official inflation is at 8000% which to the uninitiated is very difficult to contemplate. The cause for this decline is multiple and invariably the project has had to work in such a difficult situation. A point that any reader who is not from Zimbabwe needs to understand is that despite the contextualisation of our challenges in the international media, there are still people in the country that need and can benefit from external assistance. This project fills that role and has been an island of inspiration, which has resulted in connecting a school to the internet using low cost solutions. The recommendation to IDRC is to continue providing support to project on the ground, despite some of the depressing socio-economic estimates and indicators that come out of Zimbabwe.