BY SEMIR SEID | SHABAIT
“We think big but we start small”, are the words of Mr. Samuel Tewelde, the director of ICT and Tele Education in Eritrea Institute of Technology (EIT). Thinking big is what everybody does but what makes the difference is taking the initiative to act, to make sure what you think is applicable on the ground.
The EIT is known for its multiple innovative ideas from the youth. Recently, senior students of computer science and computer engineering were able to innovate a “Low cost, Low power computing system” using a Raspberry Pi (an electronic board having ports and connectivity with whole package of computing system) in their Educational Technology Laboratory(EdTech) assisted by the Eritrea-Finland Cooperation in their final year project.
It is an interesting project with many pilot projects within it. I spent an interesting morning with the director, Mr. Samuel, talking about the details of the project.
The EdTech Lab is conceived as part of ICT4EEDU, the Finnish-Eritrean Cooperation Project. It is established in partnership with the University of Eastern Finland after assessing the shortcomings. The concept of establishing such a lab came from the modern Finish University and gradually contextualized locally.
Same as the modern tech labs in the other nations, the EdTech lab in EIT assists students in the teaching and learning process by developing and presenting technologies. Though it accommodates fewer number of students at a time, it creates a platform for innovative ideas from the educational communities and students. It provides digests, connections and, more importantly it attracts and creates technological education communities locally and from abroad.
The overall task of the EdTech lab is to take an idea, localize and contextualize it to the community. It is basically an innovational project not an invention. The “Low cost, Low power computing system” project launched in November 2015 is expected to be finished by the end of the year.
The Eritrea-Finland Cooperation project, which started in 2015, won over five projects out of the 10 proposed in which two are directed by the EIT ICT center. These two projects are the Digital Library and Library Automation project as well as the ICT for educational development.
The latter project launched is meant to enhance the ICT infrastructure of EIT, improve expert’s performance with a mindset to interconnect other higher education institutions with one effort instead of going on the same projects with each and every institution. The infrastructure will cover much with the application of higher bandwidth. It includes digital library (previously established) for the EIT colleges, local search engine and other educational related services to education communities (students, staff, anyone keen on research).
However, ICT infrastructure cannot be enough on its own; services must accompany it. An upgraded form of digital library, and curriculum fitting course materials are currently accessible. Not only that but to encourage further research, the members came up with installing an E-Granary (a huge educational resource repository).
According to the documents of this repository, it is able to access up to 35 million educational resources that include videos, lectures and e-books which anybody can have access. Moreover, to enable the community to do far more deep research with the resources and ideas people bring in, the senior students developed the “EIT Search Engine” that can provide access to any sort of data people browse in terms of indexes anytime user searches.
Six months before the team officially managed to launch the project. In the meantime, small training sessions were provided to the team by Finish experts to enhance individual performance and the project to its final stage.
The activities conducted in the EdTech lab are the Programming Taughts of Robotics (Main focus of the lab), the low cost, low power computing system project, Efficient Projector making, The Halogram project of students (contextually virtual concept) to enable them observe learning process in virtual manner, Website development, a continuously upgraded local search engine and many pilot projects presented by anyone.
According to Mr. Samuel, the lab is available to accept starting projects and is open to any innovative ideas brought by the community.
Coming back to the project, the director says it is not a replica of what lies in other parts of the world but mainly a contextual application using a Raspberry Pi and available softwares that are required. Further, the senior students came up with the idea of constructing a complete system that includes servers and computers that host educational resources for the whole campus network in a similar manner to the low cost low power one computing system.
The Raspberry Pi, the device that initially became the reason for the next steps of the project, is an electronic board as small as smartphones having ports and other accessories. It can be installed operating systems (OS) such as Windows, Linux and Ubuntu on it, to ensure the needed computer system operate in low power consumption. It hardly takes 10 watts and installing a monitor to it enabled the students to prepare a complete low power computer system with less than 20 watts. That is more or less equivalent to the solar panel powered lights we use in households. The students designed and made a 3D educational model cover for this board using a 3D printer in the EdTech lab.
In order not to limit the project within the EdTech lab and spread it across the country, the team conducts an outreach event for school kids on how tech-education looks like and plans for more. The lab mentors many innovative projects to senior students and anyone interested.
While the ICT department in EIT involves itself in such an ongoing project, it has kept local stakeholders such as the ICT center of the Ministry of Education, the Eritrean Telecommunication, the Asmara Community College and the participating community as a whole. The eventual plan is for people to access any resource wherever they are located. Eritreans residing in diaspora find the initiative taken by the team as a huge step up in the country’s educational progress and always will to forward a helping hand in bringing new educational communities including material and financial support.
Scheduled disseminating events in the near future will help the EdTech lab to officially recognize and publicize itself to its stakeholders and the overall community. The application of the project mainly targets on education and research. Additionally, as part of the pilot projects the members are going for low cost projector (already in demo) beyond setting a complete system, to enable schools in remote areas have the chance to assist their learning processes.
The idea of using the “Low cost Low power computing system” in remote areas opened the door for the introduction of translating the operating systems like Ubuntu into local languages. While translating computer terms, students spent sleepless nights to make this a reality. They were successful in translating into Tigrigna language and the other languages initiatives follows. They were able to translate some 50,000 strings of programming. Translation of this OS will help the educational community familiarize with the technology more easily.
Financial and material support for the project is attracted by the project itself, according to Mr. Samul. Though the ongoing project is anchored with the motive of Low cost, Low power, it does not require much funding. However, the team looks for the vital components to upgrade the project through time.
Further, the team also works on programming Robotics and seeing how these robots function on the ground makes students practically notice what they have been doing. The director says that programming does not have to be limited to high schools, it should inspire younger generations. The director is more optimistic of the three Colleges in EIT to work collaboratively and optimize the EdTech lab to help the teaching and learning process. Thirteen senior students actively participated in the project with a guide from the Finish experts and Mr. Samuel as well as the ICT center in EIT including the Deans of the Colleges and staff sharing their ideas and motivations.
To discover new technological advances, the team arranges travels to Science festivals in Finland and other nations. Mr. Samuel is grateful for the government support in the travel arrangements and no delays to any related requests by the team.
In 2016, the director joined the Science Festival in Finland and noticed kids operate robots. It was quite an inspiring moment for him to make it happen in local context. At the moment the team took some initiatives and demonstrating activities to key students selected from high schools. This is smartly done to inspire them and their peers of such advancements and enable them take the responsibilities by themselves in the future. He also experienced technologies such as the Stick PC (Intel Compute stick) in the festival. Such accessories are very tiny and can establish a complete set of system with low power instead of using more computers and servers.
The strategic plan of the EdTech lab is huge, yet the internet connectivity is what is limiting the project pace. The team leader, Mr. Samuel, believes this issue is temporary and will be solved by adopting high band width in the future. The future plan of the EdTech lab is to create a national educational network, “ERUNET” that will connect and link the higher institutions in Eritrea. Considering the accomplishment of this plan, it will be a huge stepping stone for the country to increase the effort into regional and continental educational networks.
Then, it will be no different to do research projects wherever people are located in the world, since the systems are going to be universal.