Before we set out on these implementation projects, we spent considerable time researching what has been tried before and spent time in Africa, speaking to potential users, finding out what is important to them, what is needed most (in contrast with what would be nice to have, not not required). Some of the things we found:
- In remote areas, we cannot depend on local IT support being available. Typical school configurations with a local server and wired workstations, although useful for a small number of communities are not feasible either for installation (each location would take several days to weeks to install) or support (they would require support staff to travel to the schools).
- We cannot require local delivery to each location on a regular basis (like supplies, fuel, etc.)
- Remote areas can be very difficult to get to, sometimes requiring delivery via helicopter or boat (in those cases, the weight of the entire system is important)
- Construction methods vary greatly between locations. What we install must work (as far as possible) under existing conditions and not require additional construction. Most schools we have visited have smooth floors and protection from rain, but there are many that only have dirt floors and less than optimal protection from rain.
- Internet access via landlines is not typically available to schools, but 3G wireless is available to most (with the help of a range extender antenna)
- In most parts of Africa, excessive heat will be an issue, especially if electronic products generate significant levels of heat. We address this by selecting equipment for deployment that generates the least heat and completely eliminate the highest heat-creating components (such as inverters in a solar energy solution).
We have spent a considerable amount of time finding ways to decrease the cost/installation without reducing quality of the equipment to be used by students, the quality of the education delivered or the reliability of the system. Some of the steps we’ve taken include
- All software deployed to the classrooms will be available through a country-wide private cloud, including Student Information management and online learning. This allows us to:
- Manage every laptop from a central location,
- Deploy new software, make sure all windows and system updates are performed,
- Monitor the health of notebook computers in classrooms. This is done through our AI-based Dexterity™ product that continually monitors the health of every notebook computer and reports it back to a central location for monitoring and problem remediation
- Store student home directories in a central location, so that their files will be available on any notebook computer in the network (once the student has logged in)
- Continually add to the site’s content without requiring us to send something to each school.
- As part of this project we will deploy all new, standardized equipment that has been ruggedized (a notebook computer can be dropped from 100cm onto a concrete floor without damage, can have a bottle of water poured into it without harm, is dust resistant with keycaps that are not removable). These should last for many years under daily use without requiring maintenance (other than cleaning) or repair.
- All other equipment installed will either be especially modified to meet a rural African environment or will be high-quality so that they will last a long time without needing maintenance or repair.