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A solar school computer lab at Zwelenqaba Senior Secondary School

Project Description, Participants, Methods

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) a U.S.-based NGO in conjunction with eKhaya ICT has implemented a solar school computer lab at the Zwelenqaba Senior Secondary School in Nkwalini in the former Transkei and much more as you may read below! The main funding source is the US-American Kellogg Foundation. The special focus of this project is on researching the usage of the Internet for innovative methods of establishing rural connectivity and implementing distance learning that can be replicated throughout South Africa in marginalised rural areas (MRAs).

A further focus of the project, which is part of larger research being conducted together with the University of Fort Hare and Rhodes University at five further schools with computer facilities near Dwesa 30km South of Nkwalini, is the design and implementation of sustainable use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in MRAs. We are looking at ways to harness knowledge society tools available on the Internet, to make the installation of the lab itself sustainable. The community in Nkwalini should be able to earn enough revenues through ICTs to sustain the installation. The project itself has budgeted maintenance costs for three years, to give the community time to take over.

In 2008, these two initiatives amalgamated to form the Siyakhula Living Lab, an ICT incubation testbed, which harnesses users to drive ICT innovation. The participatory model of Living Labs is difficult to implement with the naive and semi-literate users present. Usually a training stage is required, before locals can truly own the technology. Even then, usually only a small minority achieves this and has to act as an interface for the rest of the community. Ongoing activities engage the communities and two community coordinator / trainers have been employed. The Siyakhula Living Lab is a member of the European Network of Living Labs (EnoLL) and is supported by COFISA and the Telkom Centres of Excellence at Rhodes University and the University of Fort Hare.

Current state of the project

Solar power: The system has a peak power of 4400W. This is plenty for 10 hours of operation with 25 computers running in the lab. Usage of standard parts secures maintenance through the official regular departmental scheme. In addition, we developed our own maintenance plan with Alan Holder, the technician from the trading store across the road. Alan runs the Trading Store’s combined wind and solar systems and is able to keep monthly tabs on the running of the solar installation as well as taking care of minor glitches that the teachers cannot take care of. Mr. Yankey, the school's Geography teacher and vice-principal, supervises the daily monitoring of voltages. The batteries are housed in a special battery room, which keeps temperatures constant and ensures a lifetime of 12+ years on the batteries alone.

Computer lab: The Dell South Africa Development Fund, who has partnered with SELF at Myeka High School in Kwazulu-Natal in very successful fashion, very kindly donated all necessary computer equipment to the project. These computers are laptops, which are very welcome, as they can be stowed in a safe after use. They can also be integrated into classroom teaching, as they are mobile and have a wireless network link, which obviates wiring of all classrooms with ethernet. Thanks to their own batteries they can even be used in parts of the school that do not have electricity. As suspected, laptops are proving to be more robust in the adverse conditions. The lack of a large fan prevents dust from ruining the electronics, and we have not had a single laptop (out of 35) breakdown for any reason, despite the amount of handling the units have to withstand.

Content: The fact that we have an internet connection opens up a world of opportunity as far as content is concerned. We do also have a donation from LearnThings with multimedia content for children from ages 12-17, which are put to very good use by the learners. A specific and crucial focus of the project and assignment of eKhaya ICT is to engineer a web 2.0 platform awareNet together with the classes, so that a lot of content will in fact come from the learners themselves, especially in conjunction with the nearby networked schools. Internet use is just beginning to take off at the schools. Educators are learning that strict standards as far as bandwidth and traffic usage are concerned have to apply.

Training: There are several training opportunities: LearnThings held workshops for their curriculum standard content. The Department of Education (Curriculum Section) is training all educators in the Eastern Cape to integrate computers into their teaching plan. The department was able to fast-track some of our teachers for this programme. Rhodes University and the University of Fort Hare are also getting involved in this aspect, especially as far as adult and after-hours education is concerned. ITEC from East London held the first two workshops for the teachers in IT-Training.

Internet Connectivity: For Internet connectivity we chose 3G technology (Edge – Vodacom and MTN).

Network with other school networks: Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the project is the possibility of broadband connections to two other experimental school networks in the area. Toward Dwesa, we have a firm commitment to link using experimental WiMAX backhaul capabilities to the above mentioned five school network using WiFi and WiMAX. Radio planning for the terrain has already been carried out and a technical plan has been drawn up by eKhaya ICT. This project will be carried out in 2010. On the other side, Mr. Jeff Brown, a freelance system specialist in Hole-in-the-Wall, has secured some sponsorship and is building a WiFi network among schools that have electricity and computer labs between Zithulele and the coast. Nkwalini has line of sight to Zithulele and so is a logical extension of that network. This proposed network seems to be progressing slowly.

Other Schools that are integrated into the project

The two satellite Junior Secondary Schools (JSS) involved in the program are Bafazi JSS and Kwantshunqe JSS. The Bafazi JSS is also part of the school renovation programme being managed by the Nelson Mandela Institute in East London.The Kwantshunqe JSS is a proactive school, which is setting standards as far as teacher engagement is concerned. Teachers at the schools are included in all training activities. Learners have the opportunity of using the main lab at Zwelenqaba after hours. During school hours, educators are encouraged to allow computer related activities in class to improve motivation and learning potential as well as broadening horizons.

Watch a Video by Mediapix and SELF of the Solar School Computer Project

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