Networks and CD-ROMs Aid Research, Development and Education in Zimbabwe

by TIM BUXTON University of Zimbabwe Harare, Zimbabwe Zimbabwe has sent a number of its citizens to be trained abroad, many of whom are reluctant to return and lose contact with colleagues. It has also seen a steady stream of outside experts coming in, who take months to acclimatize to our culture and to form professional contacts, then leave, taking their store of experience and acquaintance "network" with them. Zimbabwe has shortages of both teachers and up-to-date instructional materials for the tremendous number of students enrolled in its schools. The University of Zimbabwe has scant funds for journal subscriptions and those they can afford are delayed in delivery. Many university staff would like to collaborate with their counterparts in other countries of the region. But mail is slow and unreliable; faxes are garbled, go missing and are expensive in any case; phone discussions are impossible or prohibitively expensive; and travel budgets are extremely limited. A major ingredient in the solutions to all these problems is the use of computer-based information transfer via telephone network links and CD-ROMs. This paper briefly discusses the great promise of these technologies as applied to research, education and development in Zimbabwe. A proposal for rural agencies with e-mail to incorporate rural schools in worldwide education networks is also suggested. E-Mail: Connections & Possibilities Zimbabwe has e-mail-only connections to all surrounding countries -- South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and Zambia -- and others as well. E-mail service is provided by two separate systems. The first is a Fidonet network of Zimbabwean machines comprising MANGO, HEALTHNET and ESANET subnets. MANGO serves Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs); HEALTHNET serves health care workers; and ESANET is an academic network. This countrywide Fidonet is linked to an Internet provider in South Africa via a high-speed 14.4 bps modem dial-up several times per day. The other provider is a UZ Computer Centre link (uucp) to the Internet via Rhodes University in South Africa, generally called Zimbix after the name of the mail machine. Zimbix has direct-access terminals on campus and three dial-in lines as well. Both the Fidonet and Zimbix networks are increasingly used. While the two systems currently can communicate with each other, ironically, only through long-distance telephone calls to South Africa, a direct gateway between them is planned. E-mail has become so important to researchers and students, that it has been suggested that supplying e-mail to returning Zimbabweans (as well as competitive salaries) is the way to lure them away from the foreign countries many currently prefer.1 Increasing numbers of researchers and assistance workers coming to Zimbabwe from other countries are using e-mail to find out about the country, starting their cultural adjustment well before arrival. They also remain in contact with their colleagues in Zimbabwe after they return. UZ Medical Library The University of Zimbabwe's Medical Library serves the Medical and Nursing Science schools at UZ, as well as clinics in rural areas and any medical professional in Zimbabwe who requires its services. The library has, like other African medical libraries, severe underfunding for new books and periodicals. While interlibrary loans with other countries has been possible for some time, one has to know what information is available in order to ask for it. The Carnegie Foundation has supplied the library with computers equipped with CD-ROM drives plus subscriptions to monthly CD issues of Medline and other databases. Now users or librarians can perform Boolean searches for keyword combinations to find suitable articles. In some cases requested articles are forwarded by fax. In other cases, HEALTHNET Fidonet e-mail is used to request articles, which may be returned by fax or e-mail. News feeds, such as AIDS Update and Mednews, also arrive via e-mail; they are printed out and archived on disk for searches. A HEALTHNET/ SatelLife Low Earth Orbit satellite ground station has been set up and tested in Zimbabwe but is not fully operational since its capacity and reliability are far lower than the terrestrial dial-up system now used. Better Care Via HEALTHNET To enable better relay of epidemiological data from rural areas of African countries to the responsible agencies, the Zimbabwe Ministry of Health has sought to extend telecommunications capabilities to as many health care providers nationwide as possible. They have received assistance for their efforts from donor agencies in the U.S., Canada, Denmark and The Netherlands. HEALTHNET provides the link via long-distance calls to Harare. Spreadsheet files with graphics are attached to messages and transferred to computers at the ministry. This is a superb way to stay on top of incipient epidemics of cholera, malaria, etc. and also efficiently allocates scarce resources. While the system seems to work well in this "local" mode, its international potential is also used extensively by health workers. It can allow consultation with, and updates from, colleagues, as well as lessen feelings of isolation that one feels in rural areas of a foreign country. Colleagues with access to online databases can be pressed into service doing searches based on a brief e-mail message. Contact with colleagues also allows one t'easily request quick delivery of the specialty medical items that are impossible to get in Zimbabwe. Global Lab and Global Village Sites Boris Berenfeld has described how TERC of Cambridge, Mass., pioneered the use of telecommunications by students between schools.2 Global Laboratory, a TERC program, promotes student investigations into global climate change and local environmental issues. TERC supplied software, Personal PC Laboratories, modems and training to several schools in Harare. Two of them, St. George's College and Vainona High School, now communicate with other Global Lab schools worldwide. The Global Student Village program, part of the Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network, has provided Price Edward Boys' School with equipment to receive signals from meteorology satellites, and e-mail connections for them to share and discuss findings with other Village schools throughout the U.S. CD-ROM Shareware Widely Used Being involved in IT in Zimbabwe means being a consumer of CD-ROM-based collections of shareware and freeware for DOS and UNIX. Programs available are a "snapshot" of massive archives such as SIMTEL 20 in the U.S. About U.S. $30, they are well indexed for browsing. Educational software and scientific, artistic and entertainment multimedia presentations are available each month on Nautilus CD-ROMs, a subscription-based firm. Finally, Zimbabwe has its own company (Media Technology) that publishes CD-ROMs. The first was Svinga, a multimedia disc about Zimbabwe based on the Encyclopedia Zimbabwe. Media Technology also runs a CD-ROM Lending Club for Macs and IBM PCs. Direct Packet Switch Connections Direct connection of University of Zimbabwe's users to Internet via Zimnet 9600 bps X.25 packet switching will take place in early 1995.3 Students will then be able to perform searches of remote data-bases via direct log-in or perhaps our own gopher server, down- or upload program and data files on Internet archive machines, or access Netnews feeds. St. George's High School in Harare can log-in directly to Global Lab or World Classroom host machines via Ziment's packet-switch system using 2400 bps X.28 protocol. This provides interactive use of remote systems and transfer of binary files. It would be possible, among other things, to send and receive JPEG compressed images from video cameras showing areas where Global Lab research is being done. Zimnet X.25 data charges are quite high. High-volume items such as Netnews feeds may be sent every few days by data cartridge from South Africa for less. Many people use a lower-cost method for direct Internet connection by dialing a South African Internet provider directly at 9600 bps. Long-distance charges are roughly Z$500 per hour (U.S. $1 per minute). Coordination of Regional Networks The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Sub-Saharan Africa Program, in cooperation with the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and others have planned, implemented and supported Fidonet-based networks such as MANGO for some time. However, an AAAS preliminary report indicates many Zimbabweans were not aware of the existence of helpful databases.4 The AAS, UNESCO and the Association of African Universities also are catalyzing regional cooperation with the Africa Informatics Research Project.5 This plan would utilize Informatics Research and Development Centres in higher education institutions, including the University of Zimbabwe, Nairobi University with its Eastern and South African Network, and the African Regional Centre for Information Science at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Hayman describes the four operation modes of the Centres: as a stand-alone vehicle to address local problems; as communications nodes, via networks they would help design and run; as joint-planning groups with other organizations to identify, prioritize and solve regional problems. Other Possibilities "Grateful Med": CD-ROM based resources have their limitations. Medline, for example, has limited nursing references and none to the social science factors so important to health care success. For when medical comprehensiveness is important, direct access to an online database via a powerful machine is necessary. Grateful Med is such a comprehensive online service for Medical and Nursing queries. Direct access through Zimnet would be ideal. Until that is available, Grateful Med DOS-based search software has been successful on a pilot basis to create search queries to submit via e-mail, with retrieval of articles by Lonsome Doc. Local Archives: Important development work is done in Zimbabwe. The Blair Toilet, an ingenious unit that almost totally eliminates fly-borne diseases where it is in widespread use, was invented in Zimbabwe. It is important that knowledge workers in Zim-babwe have easy access to searchable archives of current work in their fields done in country, whether Harare, Mutare or Bulawayo.3 Campus Informa-tion Systems: Students and staff want current information about sporting, cultural and educational events, etc. The university newsletter is always in short supply as paper and printing are expensive. On the campus network, it would be available to all and could be much more comprehensive. Some departmental online newsletters would likely follow. An online University Catalogue, with detailed and regularly updated departmental information on staff, class requirements and syllabi would likewise be very useful. Similarly, a database of people working on campus with addresses, phones, e-mail addresses, positions and interests would be extremely helpful and quite inexpensive. This would serve both researchers coming in from outside Zimbabwe and local residents. One could quickly locate people who have certain interests, be it for collaboration or for skills one lacks, like statistics, Shona or Portuguese. Software developed to create this could be used by other universities in the region. What Benefits Might the Future Bring? I think there is definitely a need in Zimbabwe for schools to begin to go beyond teaching to the 'O'- and 'A-level certificate examinations and let students start to explore the world for themselves. Putting computers in their hands will let them learn what amazing things they can do with these powerful tools, not by rote learning but by exploration and creative thought. Increasing numbers of urban students have computers at home. But what about the over 80% of Zimbabwean children in rural areas, where schools do not have phones, or often even power for computers and communications, even if they could afford them? Must they migrate to already overcrowded cities to have any hope of a more modern education? Nisbet argues that the developing countries that have succeeded economically provided well for their rural areas.1 He notes that land-poor countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan realized that "skill, not land, is the route to wealth. Paradox-ically, one of the best routes to a skill-based society is to put skills and infrastructure into the rural areas, to give them more sophisticated means to production."1 Clearly, access to information, experts and other students via telecommunications would be a great benefit to rural schools, enabling their students to progress as far as talent and determination will take them. Teachers would also get expert help to questions they do not have the resource materials to answer. An Easy Way to Link Rural Schools How can we begin to give rural schools access to the world's knowledge and resources in this way? In the short-term, provide at least some with access to telecommunications. The ultimate needs however, are supplying power, high-quality phone connections and at least one computer to as many rural schools as possible. A number of missions and other NGOs use existing rural phone lines for e-mail via MANGO or Zimbix. In some places they are upgrading poor-quality phone lines with microwave equipment. I suggest that organizations with e-mail offer to coordinate with local schools to relay e-mail to educational networks such as Global Lab, World Classroom, National Geographic Kids or informal contacts with other schools in Zimbabwe. This would give the school, via the organization's facilities, power, use of a phone line, use of a computer, and above all, access to the expertise to make it work. Will Networking Work in Zimbabwe? A Scientific American article, October 1993, entitled "A Digital Fix for the Third World?" cautions that "For all its promise, the allure of skipping over several generations of technology has fallen into disfavor in some circles."6 Problems cited were those resulting from a lack of supporting technology, similar to steel mills incapacitated by lack of transport for ore or finished products; and lack of affordability to masses of people, as in the case of Ghana where installing a phone handset costs more than a year's average salary. Is it therefore useless to try to use computers, telecommunications and networks in Zimbabwe to enhance research education and development work? No; for a number of reasons, networking can thrive in Zimbabwe. Lower Hardware Costs: Costs of computers in Zimbabwe, formerly inflated by tariffs and requirements to pay in "forex" foreign currency, have come down dramatically in the last two years; relaxations of these restrictions were part of an Economic Structural Adjustment Program. Costs for computers used for education or research, on which duty and surcharges can be forgiven, are now very close to costs of computers elsewhere. (PCs for private or business use are subject to 60% import duty, 20% surcharge and 10% sales tax.) A Critical Mass: Hayman stresses the need to "develop a 'critical mass' of hardware, software, expertise, management skill and experience ... achieved when the activity becomes self-sustaining and irreversible."5 We do seem to be reaching a critical mass of knowledge on computers and communications; more people would speed up the process. Zimbabweans returning from education abroad, for example, are already making a difference. Also some of this "critical mass" is information now easily gotten from abroad via e-mail and CD-ROM. One can, for example, easily commit to a university project to develop sellable software for business and industry using a "freeware" package like Linux (a UNIX workalike for PCs); it is well supported by an Internet SIG, and now on CD-ROM (with updates), easy to ship to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe borders South Africa, which has great human resources for the design, configuration and repair of computer networks. As relations between the countries have recently normalized, IT professionals from Johannesburg more commonly travel to Harare for trade shows, consulting or presentations. This will be vital for proper network planning as well as maintenance. The University of Zimbabwe, in its role as a regional Informatics Centre, is poised to catalyze a tremendous bloom of telecommunications by supporting students and staff with access to library and reference materials and participation in worldwide discussions. Finally, it is extremely important to coordinate efforts, avoid duplication of effort and be able to quickly find resource people within the country. What better way to accomplish that than with e-mail and easily accessible computer archives? Tim Buxton is an American science teacher who moved into the field of computing and telecommunications in the early days of micros. For the past two years he has been a consultant in educational computing and communications at the University of Zimbabwe Computer Centre in Harare. E-mail: buxton@zimbix.uz.zw References: 1. Nisbet, Euan G., "Biodiversity, Science and the Dry Season: Some Personal Thoughts as the Zimbabwe Scientific Association Moves Towards Its Centenary," The Zimbabwe Science News, 27(1/3), Jan/March 1993, pp. 7-12. 2. Berenfeld, Boris, "Linking East-West Schools via Telecomputing," T.H.E. Journal, 20(6), Jan. 1993, pp. 59-62. 3. Hapanyengwi, G., Carelse, X. and Buxton, T., "Computer Committee Recommendations on Computers & Networking at the University of Zimbabwe," UZ Computer Committee Document 21/94, 1994. 4. Gimbel, Amy Auerbacher, "Preliminary Report on the AAAS Database Access Survey of African Institutions," Oct. 1993. 5. Hayman, John, "Bridging Higher Education's Technology Gap in Africa," T.H.E. Journal, 20(6), Jan. 1993, pp. 63-68. 6. Stix, Gary and Paul Wallich, "A Digital Fix for the Third World?", Scientific American, 269(4) Oct. 1993, p89. Products mentioned: Nautilus CD, Dublin, Ohio, (800) 637-3472 Linux (Yggdrasil Plug-and-Play Linux); Walnut Creek Software, Concord, Calif., (800) 786-9907 If Not Us, Who? by Lynn Lyndes, Librarian I know a lot of school librarians who are reluctant to jump on the technology bandwagon. Who knows what their trepidations are? Perhaps it is the fear that they don't understand the technology well enough, or an attitude that things should remain the same; maybe they feel they don't "need" technology, that things work fine in their library just the way they are. Too bad. Attitudes like those would never have produced the Dewey Decimal System, the telephone, or much else for that matter. It's time to reach out to the 21st century (only five years away)! It's time to take command of the "information highways," to acknowledge that the Information Age is upon us and it behooves us to understand it, use it and promote it! This is especially true of school librarians. We are the ones who are teaching the leaders of the future. These kids need to know how to access information electronically. If we don't teach them, who will? And wh'ever you answer that question with, it is the wrong person. It is librarians who have always provided information and research findings. It is librarians who have always sought and explored all possibilities to get answers. Now that much (or even most) information is electronic, we librarians have to learn to access this new retrieval system. If we don't, we do a disservice not only to students and teachers, but also to our own profession as well. Librarianship will be held back from transforming itself into what it needs to become in order to survive. Computers are this generation's medium. Kids are drawn to them like a magnet. Once a computer g'es into the library, kids will follow -- and for good reason. Plus, lesson plans and teacher-centered activities are going high-tech. Soon most teachers will be using videodiscs and digitally based information every day in their classrooms. They'll soon need a specialist to help them integrate material effectively. Districts will likewise need people who can provide reviews and information on various products and services, who know how to evaluate information sources. This respon-sibility falls to the librarians. As librarians we should be at the forefront of this new and ever- changing technology, ready and able to provide our patrons with information that will help them decide which videodisc to buy or use, which software can get them the multimedia result they desire, where to find additional help and support on the Internet, etc. This is the Information Age and librarians have always been information providers. It is now time for us to take our profession seriously, to establish ourselves as the pioneers and, more importantly, as leaders of information technology! Lynn Lyndes is a school librarian in a small K-12 district in upstate New York.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.

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