Chief Software Architect
University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa
The African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources (AVOIR) project, initiated by the University of the Western Cape (UWC), is a collaborative effort of several African higher education institutions. It attempts to create educational and business opportunities that contribute towards the development of Africa through Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) development activities. It has taken an existing e-Learning platform application, Knowledge Environment for Web-based Learning (KEWL) that was developed at UWC, and rebuilt it to run on a FOSS platform. The new version of the software, KEWL.NextGen, and then the Chisimba Framework is based entirely on FOSS. An innovative modular architecture is implemented using a model view controller (MVC) design pattern and offers great flexibility to adapt the framework for any purpose. It also has unique features such as the support of offline authoring of content, Active Dynamic Mirroring, and instructional design capabilities.
AVOIR can be seen as an inclusive collaborative network. This means that anyone is welcome to join the network and start contributing to the projects at any time. There are very few stipulations for new members of the network:
1. All code submitted to the project(s) should be GPL licensed
2. All documentation and subsidiary files should be CCBYSA licensed
3. All communications should be open and transparent for the entire network to see
4. Collaboration should be fostered at all times.
It can be said that there are four cornerstones of the AVOIR project. To ensure the success of any AVOIR node, these four cornerstones should be addressed as much as possible in equal amounts.
Collaborating is the process in which individuals or nodes communicate with each other using the Free Software tools at their disposal. This is one key area where all nodes should be quite active in. Collaboration enhances productivity through communication in the classic Free Software development model, where all parties communicate with each other in a peer to peer type asynchronous or synchronous environment, such as can be achieved through the use of developer mailing lists, forums and chat sessions.
Code that is produced through the collaborative development process is checked into a central repository for peer review and approval. This ensures that the entire project is improved iteratively through normal development process at all times, according to institutional needs and requirements. All code is required to be configurable, so that any module can be used in almost any circumstance, as well as offer a number of options to the end user or administrator to modify the module to suit institutional needs.
The AVOIR network consists of:
• Catholic University of Mozambique
• Eduardo Mondlane University (Mozambique)
• Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (Kenya)
• Makarere University (Uganda)
• National University of Rwanda
• Uganda Martyrs University
• University Cheikh Ante Diop (Senegal)
• University of Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania)
• University of Ghana Legon
• University of Jos (Nigeria)
• University of Nairobi (Kenya)
• and the University of the Western Cape (South Africa)
along with some additional partners.
Connecting refers to the process in which AVOIR nodes are able, and encouraged, to create networks external to AVOIR within their own communities and environments. This can be in the form of a small business that offers support for AVOIR products to local businesses, or the marketing of AVOIR products to small businesses around the nodes or the network as a whole.
Implementing refers to the process of deploying AVOIR products within the institutions that have AVOIR nodes embedded in them. This has been greatly realised by the deployment of e-Learning systems throughout the continent, as well as a marked increase in use of the alumni portal system, committee administration system, and many other products built with the framework.
Challenges and successes
AVOIR has had some remarkable challenges to overcome, as well as a number of shining success stories. The most challenging aspect of building the network and maintaining viable communication is bandwidth. Africa has a very limited amount of bandwidth available, and due to the extreme expense of buying the bandwidth, it is a very limiting factor. Bandwidth problems contribute to communication problems, and due to the nature of collaboration, this is a major inhibitor to the success of any network in Africa. Only through additional funding and pressure from the international community can these issues be addressed.
In other areas, AVOIR has been a resounding success. At the University of the Western Cape, the AVOIR products are used on a daily basis, and provide education, support and job opportunities for thousands of students. A dedicated e-Learning team has been formed to support the staff and students, and all University processes are facilitated in some way or another by the tools provided by the overall AVOIR network. This includes, a new student enrollment and management system, committee administration system, faculty web sites and research project sites, as well as collaborative groupware sites that have created many opportunities to the institution as a whole. All of the above have been created and dep-loyed using the toolset (framework) that the AVOIR network has provided.
AVOIR has been a resounding success. At the University of the Western Cape, the AVOIR products are used on a daily basis, and provide education, support and job opportunities for thousands of students. A dedicated e-Learning team has been formed to support the staff and students, and all University processes are facilitated in some way or another by the tools provided by the overall AVOIR network. This includes, a new student enrollment and management system, committee administration system, faculty web sites and research project sites, as well as collaborative groupware sites that have created many opportunities for the institution as a whole.
AVOIR and e-Learning
The first product of the AVOIR network and collaborative network is KEWL.NextGen (KNG). KNG is a full featured e-Learning system and Learning Management System (LMS) that can be quickly and easily deployed on a minimal specification server or desktop machine in a very short period of time.
It has been demonstrated a number of times, that a fully featured and working LMS can be set up and deployed in under 15 minutes by an experienced system administrator. The LMS is written in PHP version 4, and uses a MySQL back end database for storing the data. The application has been written in such a way that the administrator is able to take advantage of distributed or federated file systems, separate database servers and load balancing scenarios where the user load is increased. This makes for an extremely robust application, with much redundancy built into it from the start. It can easily support a user base of up to 14 000 students from a single application server, served by a single database server. The follow on product of KEWL.NextGen is called KEWL3.0.
It has been built on a greatly improved framework called Chisimba, that takes advantage of the object orientated features of PHP version 5 and above.
It can make use of a number of different database back ends, including PostgreSQL, MySQL and a number of proprietary database servers such as MSSQL as well.
This makes for even greater flexibility in installation and deployment on both Free Software based servers using Apache, or Windows based servers using IIS. At the time of writing, most of the e-Learning based modules available in the PHP4 version are available for this platform too, and work is being done on a daily basis throughout the AVOIR network to create new and more exciting
modules for it.
e-Learning tools available for the system make use of many different pedagogies, and include a specific module for instructional design. In this way, the course administrator is not tied to a single specific pedagogy for online teaching and learning, but has the choice to create and deliver courses in the pedagogy of choice for the institution. This creates an extremely flexible and unique environment for the delivery of course materials to students and learners
that is unique amongst online e-Learning systems. Most LMS will focus on a single pedagogical pathway that users are forced to adhere to in order to effectively use the system.
e-Learning is achieved through a number of modules ranging from simple assignment uploads and dictionary look ups to fully fledged survey tools and problem based learning modules. There are a number of summative and assessment tools available to the lecturer, including a large scale multiple choice questionnaire module that regularly facilitates learners in excess of 700 students simultaneously doing the examination at UWC. Other important tools include Rubrics, Wiki, mailing lists, Groupware suite, events calendar and many more (more than 200 modules are available).
e-Learning tools available for the system make use of many different pedagogies, and include a specific module for instructional design. In this way, the course administrator is not tied to a single specific pedagogy for online teaching and learning, but has the choice to create and deliver courses in the pedagogy of choice for the institution.
All in all, the AVOIR products (KEWL.NextGen and Chisimba) make a number of options available to users, administrators, lecturers and students alike. They are robust, well tested and extremely reliable applications and application frameworks that can be used to deploy fully fledged e-Learning or any other conceivable system type within an institution quickly and easily, using minimal hardware and bandwidth to the internet. Every part of the application is abstracted, multilingual and tested in very poor bandwidth conditions to ensure that all of these circumstances are taken into account at all times and that the user is left with a positive experience, no matter what. The code is GPL licensed free software, and is available from http://avoir.uwc.ac.za/ as well as links to supporting mailing lists (both user lists as well as developer lists).
Demonstrations can be arranged, as well as test servers and installations on request.
Recommendations of National Knowledge Commission, India on Higher Education
1. Create many more universities. The higher education system needs a massive expansion of opportunities, to around 1500 universities nationwide, that would enable India to attain a gross enrolment ratio of at least 15 per cent by 2015.
2. Change the system of regulation for higher education. There is a clear need to establish an Inde-pendent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE).
3. Increase public spending and diversify sources of financing. Government support for higher education should increase to at least 1.5 per cent of GDP, out of a total of at least 6 per cent of GDP for education.
4. Establish 50 National Universities. There is need of the creation of 50 National Universities that can provide education of the highest standard.
5. Reform existing universities. Universities should be required to revise or restructure curricula at least once in three years.
6. Restructure undergraduate colleges. A Central Board of Undergraduate Education should be established, along with State Boards of Undergraduate Education, which would set curricula and conduct examinations for undergraduate colleges that choose to be affiliated with them.
7. Promote enhanced quality. It is particularly important to enhance the ICT infrastructure. Websites and webbased services would improve transparency and accountability. A portal on higher education and research would increase interaction and accessibility. A knowledge network would connect all universities and colleges for online open resources.
8. Ensure access for all deserving students.
Source: National Knowledge Commission Report submitted to Government of India