Opening SA’s digital doorway

6 September 2007

The Digital Doorway project, which explores “minimally invasive education” as an alternative means of promoting wide-scale computer literacy, launched a kiosk in the village of eNtshongweni to the west of Durban this week, bringing to more than 150 the number of terminals installed since the programme began.

The first Digital Doorway – a free-standing multimedia computer terminal with a keyboard and a touchpad embedded in a robust kiosk, accessible to the public 24 hours a day – was launched in Cwili village near Kei Mouth in the Eastern Cape’s Libode district in 2002.

The project is a joint initiative of the Department of Science and Technology, the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research and state-owned power utility Eskom.

It seeks to verify results, in the South African context, of research conducted in India, through an initiative called Hole-in-the-Wall, indicating that children can acquire functional computer skills without any formal training – through their own intuition and exploration.

The idea is to provide people in rural and disadvantaged areas with computer equipment, and allow them to experiment and learn with minimal external input.

Speaking in eNtshongweni this week, Science and Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena said the fact that only around 20% of SA’s approximately 30 000 schools had at least one computer was appalling, which was why his department had set aside R48-million to deploy 170 Digital Doorway kiosks countrywide by the end of 2007.

Digital Doorway terminals have been opened in four schools and in the municipality offices in eNtshongweni, which has a population of approximately 8 500 people with about 1 800 households.

“This roll out of the project will give communities in rural and peri-urban areas the opportunity to become computer literate and access information,” Mangena said.

Doorway to information
The Digital Doorway computer terminals house regular word-processing software for typing of letters or messages, and carry mathematics, science, music and language applications, an HIV/Aids presentation, Internet and e-mail access, and entry-level versions of Microsoft Word and Excel.

They are configured to simulate actual computer usage conditions, and include multimedia capabilities to ensure an enriching learning experience for users.

Observations show that the Cwili Digital Doorway is used from as early as 5am until approximately 9.30pm, with groups of six to 10 children, both boys and girls, aged between nine and 15, regularly using the computer.

Within a month of installation, about 60% of the village’s children had already taught each other basic computer functions, including the ability to drag icons, re-arrange windows and open applications.

A number of young adults, mainly males, also use the Cwili kiosk, though they prefer using it in the evenings “after work”, when there are fewer people around and “the kids have finished playing”.

The most popular programmes for the Cwili children have been the educational programmes as well as the music programme, while the older groups prefer the Internet and Word, as well as the music.

CSIR business unit icomtek, which is responsible for the pilot implementation and evaluation of the project, has redesigned the Digital Doorway unit using Open Source software. The server PC runs on FreeBSD, providing a stable operating system, while the user PC uses DEBIAN Linux – for easy upgrading of applications and enhanced security – and KDE, a graphical manager which support indigenous languages.

icomtek specialises in information and communication technology projects which are geared to development and societal needs. These include human language technologies, using Open Source as a platform for creative expression, and easy learning in a multilingual environment.

In addition, the terminals are equipped with satellite receivers and general packet radio service (GPRS) cellular data technology for updating content and to monitor user feedback.

SouthAfrica.info reporter and BuaNews

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