Thursday, August 13, 2009

Son of First Lecture

This afternoon I gave the second part of my lecture on Web technologies. This time introducing PHP and dynamic websites as well as doing a fly-by on databases and MySQL. Covering that much information in four hours was a real challenge and although I think quite a few students got it, more time to let them play hands on would have been really helpful.

By far the biggest challenge with these two lectures was allowing the students to try things out. Although we were in a computer lab, each computer required a 'token' to log in every 30 minutes and even then the connection was flaky. Additionally I was trying to enable them via a free webhost which although excellent, caused problems because of their security systems and all the students coming from the same IP. This made it difficult to really get the students building their own sites, which was the whole goal.

It is clear that the ULK could use a server of its own with student accounts. That combined with a policy allowing all CS students unlimited access to the computer lab seems like a requirement to me. I told the Dean of the department as much when leaving, stressing the importance of actually working with these systems as opposed to book learning. I think he took some of it to heart, but it is clear there is some cultural resistance at work as well.

But all in all, I think the two lectures were super successful. Even more students showed up today compared to yesterday, and I set the ICT club up with a website of their own that they have taken over. Most exciting of all however was that a dozen students went home after yesterday's lecture and set up their own websites, something they had never done before. Hopefully they share their knowledge with the other students as they all get more comfortable.

The whole experience was so rewarding that it really gives me pause. Teaching was so much fun, just seeing the students get excited, making jokes, explaining things to them, just really satisfied me in a way I haven't been in a long time. Perhaps it will pass, but it does make me reconsider my life plans a bit..

In other news I've had some much better traction this week talking to various people about building mobile based systems for health, education and commerce. I talked at length with the Rwandan representative of Voxiva, a DC based company that is very big in such systems in Africa. From that conversation it became clear that the set of problems is HUGE, as is the opportunity to both help and build a business. The other big lesson is that trying to give away services is actually pretty hard. The governments are understandably suspicious of such things because they doubt their long term viability. They are therefore more on the lookout for companies to provide these solutions, bound by a contract to support and maintain the product.

That isn't to say smaller scale systems can't be built independently as I first imagined, but they are less likely to be adopted nationally, and certainly unlikely to get institutional support. I've talked to a couple doctors while here which both see potential uses on their local level where you can figure out what can and will work. So that side of my trip here will likely be a longer term journey, as I hear from those doctors and hear what might be useful to them.

Last week we showed the the student made films at the US embassy, and from that came a dinner 'date' with the ambassador on Tuesday. Sadly I wasn't able to attend as I was preparing for the Wednesday lecture, but apparently he is really excited about using mobile technology to coordinate coffee farmers here in Rwanda in some way. So that is one last opportunity I am trying to chase down, to get a meeting with him to talk further, but not surprisingly he is a hard person to get a hold of.

I leave Rwanda on Sunday to go explore other parts of East Africa for a week. The plan is to do a Safari in Kenya, then hit the coast for a few days. Should be fun.

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