A student centre for Mzuzu University

Oct. 6, 2013 by Benjamin Balder Bach

Kicking off our installation trip around the Northern region of Malawi, we setup the first centre at the home campus of our partner, Mzuzu University.

The centre was a wish by the university administration and the ICT Committee to provide better ICT access for students at the university. The need for better ICT access is critical: 3,100 registered students in 2013 and no general access to ICT, except for a minority of students with their own computer. Simply put, the university and its students want better ICT access. This would be a means to provide basic training in ICT usage, but also as a tool to write assignments electronically and have Internet access.

The method to open up a centre of 30 computers to 3,100 students and give equal access was not obvious. We had a lot of dialogue with the current system administration and ICT committee members to arrive at a realistic solution. First of all, there is no digital information system in the administration for registering students, alas a database with student names and IDs was not available, and the centre would not be able to allow for individual student logins. Secondly, the current focus of the system administration staff is to establish a basic local area network and to keep currently running computers healthy and provide support for the staff. To put it in another way, the system administration would not have the resources to be burdened with a new load of computers, and a new system setup.

We managed to deliver a setup that is quite similar to the secondary school centre setups, bringing about a chemistry such that experience from the university's own centre can be deployed at the secondary schools which they should be servicing in the future. The responsibility of equal access would be put on a permanent figure in the computer centre, turning on time-limited sessions for visiting students.

The boring details

The 30 computers are all configured with Edubuntu, installed from a central machine running the usual Ubuntu repository and an offline copy of Wikipedia. The added feature is a script with a user interface, which allows for a manager to log users in and out of each machine. To gain a fairness in access, the manager can manually keep track of individual student bookings, and an automatic timeout will logout the user (student). There are two different sessions available, a short session for internet connectivity (because it's sparse!) and a longer session for offline (and local Wikipedia/Khan) for writing assignments and doing serious research. The remote access is achieved through SSH keys sending commands to control the display manager.

Can we do this again?

The setup seems quite promising. It's not exactly a normal internet café setup since it manages two different accounts which are distinguished by their network configurations, i.e. one is offline and the other is online. It seems worth exploring for further purposes since online connectivity is sparse and needs to be managed somehow, and the Linux platform provides the flexibility to tailor an individual solution.

FAIR signs MOU with Mzuzu University and Northern Education Division of Malawi

Thanks to Innovative Smart Grid Technologies (ISGT) Europe Conference for USB Flash donations

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