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Solar Computer Lab Opening in Rural Area 1st of August.

This is a press release I wrote in a hurry to publicise our opening. It seems like the turnout will be quite good, despite the late efforts at publicizing it. Nosimo Balindlela is not coming, she just stepped down as Premier of the EC.

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) unveils a new concept lab: a 25 computer laptop laboratory with local video streaming server, wireless mesh network connecting 3 neighbouring schools, peripherals and Internet access, powered by pure solar energy. The laboratory is installed at Zwelenqaba Senior Secondary School in an impoverished remote rural area in South Africa and is being launched on the 1st of August 2008. The project was made possible by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, with additional support from other sponsors including JPMorgan Chase, Dell South Africa Development Fund, Dabba Telecommunication, Learnthings and eKhaya ICT.

Near Nelson Mandela's birthplace of Qunu, an Apartheid legacy still rules everyday life. Families of migrant mine workers lived in rural isolation while the men of the families dug out the precious ore which helped build the country. Today, 14 years after Apartheid, roads are slowly being rebuilt, and grid electricity is slowly being extended to vital hospitals, clinics and schools. Mr. Mandela's 90th birthday proclamation that "poverty has gripped our people", really applies here. What is more, South Africa is experiencing a shortage of electricity as its parastatal power company is failing to meet unprecedented demand. Following rolling brown outs ("load shedding") earlier in the year, the country's power supply is balancing on a thin edge.

The South African Department of education has set itself ambitious goals to have all school leaving learners computer literate by 2012. These goals cannot be met unless the necessary infrastructure is provided to schools. SELF's solar computer laboratory is one way to provide schools with much needed infrastructure, without burdening the electricity grid further. Also it is a model which can easily be applied in the rest of Africa, where grid electricity is almost unknown. SELF decided to use laptops in the laboratory, for several reasons: they have low power consumption, can be safely stored overnight and can be used in classrooms that don't have electricity and thus integrated into any curriculum lessons anywhere in the school. The brand new laptops were donated by the Dell South Africa Development Fund and are equipped with wireless technology, which allows the laptops to access a wireless mesh network. The mesh network shares resources among the three schools that are involved in the project: Zwelenqaba Senior Secondary School, Bafazi Junior Secondary School (JSS) and Kwa'Ntshunqe JSS. The resources shared on the network are multimedia learning tools on a server and Internet access points. Plans exist to extend the network to join other nearby school networks. Resources on the Video-In Knowledge-Out (VIKO) server donated by Dabba Telecommunications include 1500 hours of video tuition and several interactive lessons.

Learnthings has donated digital curriculum content that will enable teachers to teach more effectively by providing stimulating material for learners. This material is part of a corpus developed for the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) e-Schools project. Learnthings has provided and is in the process of providing training for teachers on how to effectively integrate Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), into their teaching. Further a programme for cultural exchange and remote training via Internet is being developed together with the learners at the school by eKhaya ICT. The ultimate goal of this effort, the Eastern Cape Schools Participatory Internet Training (ECSPIRT) programme, is the inclusion of rural learners and communities in the digital society. Cooperation with the Nelson Mandela Institute (responsible for Bafazi JSS) and the Department of Education as well as Rhodes University and the University of Fort Hare are also being started to maximise use of the laboratory through teacher training and technical support. An innovative programme by the Universities is being tested to improve sustainability of the ICT infrastructure in rural areas. All of these activities link into SELF's Solar Integrated Development (SID) Model, which is being developed to help make remote communities self sufficient for all their needs.

Posted: July 27th 2008 09:51

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