NoPC – fresh idea for solving IT challenges in rural schools?

A friend of mine sent a link yesterday to NoPC, which they describe as an educational IT solution which is provided free to schools, universities, public libraries and community centres in the developing world.

If you look at the website or the YouTube video, the solution is definitely very interesting in terms of technology for rural areas: very cheap and robust ($30) thin client central processing unit, extremely low power consumption, cloud-based storage for all educational and user content, connectivity by mobile networks, and the list goes on.

Definitely different approach from the vast number of projects supplying schools with pc or laptop computers, currently largest being the Tanzania 21st Century Basic Education programme (TZ21). Sustaining functioning hardware and internet connectivity is a major issue for all these projects. NoPC (or other similar approaches) probably win on the software and hardware maintenance side, but running a web- or cloud-based operating system would still be a major challenge in rural Tanzania, where 2G/EDGE connections are available for mobile data, if any.

Challenges with mobile data connectivity will likely decrease at a good pace with the infrastructure development. Tanzanian government recently finished the National ICT Backbone, pumping a lot of bandwidth to all regions, and mobile operators are constantly struggling to upgrade the network capacity to keep up with three digit growth in the use of mobile data (129 % in June 2012 by Opera Software). Universal Communication Access Fund (UCAF) is also supporting operators financially to build mobile networks in rural areas where it’s not commercially viable. So even the last mile connectivity will be there some day.

The fundamental changes the cloud-based approach brings to the use of computers and learning in schools is much more interesting. The traditional approach (and the associated training) begins with the assumption that you first need to learn how to use the operating system and productivity applications before you can do anything meaningful, or being able to handle the challenges (like dialogs, errors, logical model) the computer throws at you. You need to be able to understand a file system; where you need to keep copies or backups of your files if the computer breaks down or is lost. For a person who has never used a computer and may not have finished secondary or primary education, the conceptual models that are behind a modern operating system are far from being easy to learn or handle. But are they also unnecessary? In many cases yes, completely.

Almost all of that changes when the web browser becomes the operating system. In the case NoPC (or what RLabs does in their trainings for that matter), Google’s search or service dialog becomes your first contact with the computer. Educational content, different communication tools and personal files are all stored centrally and accessible from any computer or capable mobile device. No need to carry or take care of memory sticks, no value in the central processing unit for theft as it doesn’t function without access to the cloud services, no viruses or updates, again the list goes on.

For me, that’s the real ICT for the next billion and it’s really exciting!

It also provokes a lot of questions:

  • Should we still follow the traditional approach until the ‘technology is ready’ or can we start to change how we introduce and teach ICT to people who are new to it?
  • What can we do with current hardware to reduce the learning curve introduced by the operating systems, separate applications and data models?
  • Are people working in the TZ21-project asking these questions? What are the assumptions they are working with?
  • Is something still keeping this fundamental change from happening as even very few IT professionals use web operating system -based devices like Chromebooks?
  • What does this mean for the teachers in the schools? Would they need to be ‘internet-literate’ instead of computer-literate to teach their students?

What do you think?

– Jukka


PS. Based on the NoPC website, they did 10-day cloud-computing test in 2008 in rural Tanzania at the beginning of the project. Currently they plan to launch the free ad-based distribution of the system in the Caribbean later this year. No plans published for Africa yet. Maybe people at NoPC can share some of their plans if they read this post? Also, big thumbs up on the website and the videos – absolutely fabulous way of communicating what you do! But why so little engagement on your Twitter or Facebook pages?

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