SchoolNet Namibia has developed a computer lab that can be applied to any school in the country, simplifying training and technical support.
Namibia arguably has made the best progress in adopting ICTs for education in Africa today, with more learners and teachers (per capita) using the internet than anywhere else on the continent. But that still means that fewer than 200,000 learners and 8000 teachers in Namibia have access to a computer. To achieve an adequate learner/teacher to computer ratio, Namibian schools will need at least 36,000 computers every three years.
SchoolNet Namibia (SNN) is a nonprofit organization operating a computer refurbishing centre in the outskirts of the capital city, Windhoek. The staff prefer to call it a technical service centre, as it also provides training and gives advice on ICT systems to the education and other development sectors. But the most crucial element of the operation is the technical support it provides to customers which continues for three years after installation. It is still essential for providers of refurbished PCs in Africa to offer this kind of service as sufficient support for local users has yet to be developed, especially in the rural areas. It would be unacceptable for SNN to distribute refurbished computers to customers and then have no further dealings with them, as the computers are effectively useless after the first problem or breakdown.
Since it opened in 2003, SchoolNet’s technical service centre has refurbished thousands of computers and distributed them to schools and other educational clients throughout Namibia. More than 1000 computers were refurbished and delivered in 2004 alone. For SNN the best way of sourcing PCs for refurbishment is to surf the internet and find traders in second-hand computers. From these dealers we can buy PCs for about US$45 per unit, which is much cheaper than the price of $90 per unit charged by some international donor agencies. Also, these agencies often supply ‘trick or treat’ bundles of PCs. This means that a consignment may be made up of variety of brands and models of computer, which has proved unworkable for SNN when trying to set up resource centres.
SNN imports only the computer casings containing the central processing units (CPUs). These are then converted to be used as ‘thin client’ workstations that will be connected to a new server computer. Mice, keyboards and monitors are purchased locally, as are the server computers, which are always new. The server computer also has an external modem so that the casing of the PC does not have to be opened if there is a problem with the modem. Most of the refurbishment work is carried out with the help of hundreds of voluntary unemployed youth, and many more are being trained.
SNN specializes in supplying schools with complete computer laboratories. A typical computer lab includes a new Pentium IV server computer, between 5 and 20 refurbished thin client diskless workstations and an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) unit. The server is loaded with an open-source (Linux) operating system that can access the internet via a modem (dial-up connection) or radio subscriber unit (for wireless connectivity). Other features include an 8-port Ethernet switch, Ethernet cabling, power cabling, extension cords, one five-plug adaptor, a conduit and all relevant software.
The PCs are installed on SchoolNet’s innovative tabletops, called ‘rose tables’. These circular tables are made locally and allow for two to three students to sit at each computer. It is also a safe design because all the cabling goes through the centre of the table, with no need for leads and cables to be spread all over the room. Another benefit of the rose tables is that all PCs can simply be unplugged during the school holidays and whenever the lab is not being used. The equipment can then be stored safely without having to deal with all the cables and leads.
SNN has also established three satellite workshops and training centres around the country to make local training and technical support services more cost-effective and efficient. Since the majority of schools served by SchoolNet are located in rural areas, these centres mean that teachers and learners do not have to travel hundreds of kilometres to the capital to solve their computer problems, thus saving them considerable time and expense.
While SchoolNet Namibia can be very proud of its ICT development efforts to date there is still a need to encourage educators, learners and communities to embrace these ICTs in their lives through education, work and play. Ideally, within the next five years, the level of ownership of home computers in developing countries could be the same as in Northern countries. But that will only be possible if the cost of the technology drops significantly, to a level similar to that of basic mobile phones (US$100), for example. At present there are about 350,000 tech-savvy mobile phone users in Namibia. It would be great if they all had home computers too.