21 July 2006

Africa: Donor Support in Eastern Cape e-Learning Programme Encouraged

Geneva — The Eastern Cape e-learning programme is getting encouraging support from various donors in the corporate and non-profit sectors.

Mr. Nygel Jones, the ICT coordinator for the Eastern Cape Province, said that without the generous support from the corporate world, most of the Province's e-learning programmes would be struggling:

"The provincial government has never had any budget set aside for the e-learning programme, so it has been very difficult for us to roll out the programme, however, companies like Microsoft, Vodacom, Engen, the Shuttleworth Foundation and the Swiss Embassy have proved to be very helpful in this regard."

For example, Microsoft have donated software such as the Windows XP (Professional), as well as its word processing package, MS Office Suite (2003) and the indexing software, Encarta, for school libraries in the Province.

Microsoft also provides maintenance back-up and software upgrades:

"They send each participating school bundles of compact discs (CDs) with software upgrades that cost well over R5000 in the market for free," said Mr. Jones.

In addition, teachers in the participating schools are also allowed to install this software on their computers at home so that they can plan their lessons in their own homes.

Jones, however, added that the Department of Education (DOE) has not been able to work out similar arrangements with proprietary anti-virus suppliers, who insist that all their software must be paid for.

The Swiss Embassy in South Africa has also not been left out, where they have provided various schools in the area with 10 personal computers (PCs) each, a photocopier, a fax machine and internet connectivity.

Through the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA)?s initiative, mobile phone operators in the country have been asked to provide at least 5 000 schools throughout the country with internet access. Vodacom has heeded this call and have already identified 3 schools in the Province, which they have gone on to equip with PCs and free 3G wireless internet access.

Meanwhile, the Shuttleworth Foundation and Engen have also been working in conjunction with the Province's Department of Education to launch Tux computer labs in the Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage areas.

"So far 35 of these Tux labs have been launched, and we are looking at launching another 50 by the end of the year," said Mr. Jones.

The labs are run through a powerful server system which provides help, self-repair and back-up services.

The Shuttleworth Foundation has also provided some schools with Open Source Software (OSS), which means that the often poor schools are not burdened with the need to buy proprietary software.

However, Mr. Jones revealed that most teachers so far are more comfortable working within a windows environment as compared to OSS systems like Linux, mainly because of lack of exposure to the latter.

Some schools, on the other hand, have dual systems where both proprietary and OSS software is installed on the same machine.

While acknowledging that the use of free OSS must be encouraged in the e-learning programme, Mr. Jones said that the DOE is still ambivalent in its approach towards this:

"I would say that the government still leans towards proprietary software because while it is preaching the use of OSS, most government departments are still equipped with proprietary software. Even our training programmes and demonstrations are run in MS Windows and other proprietary software environments."

He, however, said that the Eastern Cape Province is ahead of other Provinces in the country in that all departments are slowly being run using OSS. He revealed that all the workstations in the Premier?s office are using OSS. This includes operating systems (Linux), word-processors (Open Office Suite) and internet browsers (Mozilla).

"While OSS is easy to come by, its usage will have to be supported by a huge change management system where everybody concerned will have to go through basic training on how to use it and this may take some time," he said.

Concern has also been raised by the East London District e-learning Advisor Mr. Mark Hensberg, who said that while corporate involvement in the programme was Always welcome, some companies are actually guilty of what he felt was the dumping of outdated computers on schools without the necessary back up and training:

"While we appreciate all the work they are doing, some of these corporate entities dump very old-fashioned computers in schools without maintenance back up plans or training the teachers on their usage, so in the end these become "white elephants."

He argued that there is a need for a coordinated approach to these donations, which means that issues of software upgrades, maintenance and the training of educators have to be addressed first before donating computers.

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