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Feature Article of Thursday, 5 November 2009

Columnist: Pipim, Akokoraaba Adansi

Letter to The President: # 4

Open education and an IT-enabled economic growth in Ghana: Musings of a dutiful citizen

Excellency,

First, a caveat. This epistle does not seek to re-write an IT policy for the nation, a task that is beyond the current time and space constrictions. However, it seeks to put issues in a fresher perspective.

There is an interconnect between the IT education policy in a country and the economic growth experienced or expected. The current brief seeks to bring home a few take-aways from the lessons of the past few decades, based on summation and extrapolation of observations extending at least a century and a half into the past. Two significant forces are explored: IT policy, especially with regard to adoption of free and open source software, and learner-focused education.

One of the most apt criticisms of the nation's education system was provided by Patrick Awuah, President of Ashesi University College, that flourishing private liberal arts college that has managed to win acclaim both home and abroad. The occasion was the 58th Annual New Year School Lecture at the University of Ghana. There have been other significant contributions from both educators and laypersons, coming from areas including academia, traditional institutions and industry .

A number of seemingly unrelated events that have occurred over the past few weeks are interesting with respect to the country's stand on Information and Communications Technology, especially relating to free and open source software (FOSS) and IT education in general. The ante was delivered by The Director of Finance at The Ministry of Communications, Mr. M.B. Alhassan, in a speech at an ICT career exposition event.“ICT can create open learning environments in which people are free from the constraints of time and space, ICT is a self-propelling, self replicating and self sustainable driver of welfare and development,” he said.

Next, a little over a month ago, the nation was blessed with a familiarization visit by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web. He was accompanied by a staffer at his (Berners-Lee's) World Wide Web Foundation (WF). Berners-Lee is known for his stance on ensuring global barrier-free access to the web: “The Web Foundation will break-down the barriers that now prevent billions of people from being connected and empowered by the Web, while advancing future technologies leading toward a more capable, useful and usable Web for all people on the planet.” To achieve its mission, the WF says it intends to “fund and coordinate efforts that work towards a future:

• served by One Web that is free and open, • where understanding, capability and robustness of the Web improves • where the Web is usable by all people, and • where useful content and services are available for all people who might benefit from it “

That visit enabled the team to make contact with people and organizations doing work interesting for web access and also to find out the barriers and opportunities that faced not only the nation's internet business, but also the entire IT and mobile communications sector. Three of the key personalities they met are Deputy Minister of Commnications Gideon Quarcoo, about the most prominent IT figure in Ghana, Dr. Nii Quaynor, and David West, an internet entrepreneur and owner of Busy Internet.

Still on the local scene, this year's Software Freedom Day (SFD) marked by the theme: “Open Source: Solutions for Business.”, was celebrated with a keynote delivered by Dr Richard Boateng, Director of Research at the International Centre for Information Technology Development Southern University in the USA, who said “businesses have much to gain not only in adopting software free of charge but also being able to shape and localize them to solve peculiar problems”.

It was not the first time SFD was being marked in Ghana. It has been celebrated annually since 2004. What was new was the collaboration between The Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT (AITI-KACE), The Accra Linux User Group, organizers of the celebration, and the Association of Ghana Industries, (AGI) to hold a press conference to inform the general public about event, which occasion was also used by the AITI-KACE to launch this year's Innovation Week The efforts of the indefatigable Dorothy Gordon, Director of AITI-KACE and her team deserve the highest commendation. Under her leadership, that institution has stood in defense of free and open source software (FOSS) and has served to introduce the larger portion of the general public to the existence of FOSS and its (FOSS') viability as a business model.

Still on the topic of free software, a major event announcement was made involving global IT giant IBM, Canonical, the company behind the most popular and fastest growing distribution (Ubuntu) of the Linux operating system and other partners. They launched a Cloud- and Linux-based Netbook Software in Africa. Described as a “flexible personal computing software package for netbooks and other thin client devices to help businesses in Africa bridge the digital divide by leapfrogging traditional PCs and proprietary software”, the bundle is the first cloud- and Linux-based offering from IBM and Canonical. The initiative targets the rising market for netbooks.

“Businesses in emerging markets are looking to gain the freedom and flexibility afforded by open standards,” said Bob Picciano, General Manager, IBM Lotus Software. “The IBM Client for Smart Work builds on the movement toward open standards and Web-based personal computing by giving people the power to work smarter, regardless of device.”

Around the same time, a breathtaking speech was made by Michael Tiedmann, VP of Open Source at Red Hat Inc., President of The Open source Initiative (OSI), and one of the most experienced open source entrepreneurs on the planet. He stated that open source software could save the global IT industry $1 Trillion annually! Before that assertion is treated by anyone as a bluff, it might help to remember what Tiedmann did some twenty years -or thirty-five internet years!- ago. He probably knows more about making money from free software than anyone else. It was Tiedmann who as far back as 1989 approached Richard Stallman, author of The GNU C Compiler (GCC), for the latter's blessing to set up his (Tiemann's) company, CYGNUS, a little while after coming across Stallman's compiler. He was amazed by the quality of Stallman's compiler, and decided that it must be possible to build a business around it. Not only did Stallman offer his blessing, he also asked Tiedmann to license his product under GPL, a software license framed by Stallman. The General Public License (GPL) is characterized by “the four freedoms that every software user should have: • the freedom to use the software for any purpose, • the freedom to change the software to suit your needs, • the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors, and • the freedom to share the changes you make”.

CYGNUS was later acquired by Red Hat, a then budding open source software company . As Tiedmann disclosed some ten years ago:

“It comes down to my relatively simple belief that free markets are really the right way to run economies, and that if you've got a better way, it should be possible to make that profitable and successful.”

All the software and other tools to enable users have a lot of fun, an enjoyable user experience and increased productivity while working with free and open source software are available.

The political will to make free and open source software find its desired place is what remains. It cannot be done with a magic wand. Neither is anyone asking for proprietary software to be outlawed. Indeed, on the contrary, as FOSS blossoms and flourishes, it will compel proprietary software developers to work hard to improve the quality of their software. There is however no guarantee that proprietary software will match open source software in quality.

Primary Education

In Boston, Walter Bender of Sugar Labs, an educational software company revolutionizing primary school children's lives around the globe through the Sugar learning platform, was busy delivering his seminal speech before the gathering celebrating this year's Software Freedom Day. He spoke on the role of free software in Education, elaborating on Sugar, which he described as a platform to “to help children learn to learn and learn to love and exercise their freedom on”. Recalling the economic argument for education, i.e. the premise that “investment in human resources results in improved productivity “, and drawing on Thomas Jefferson's more fundamental rationale (“the most important bill in our whole code that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people”),.he landed on Jean Piaget's assertion some 200 years later, that:“only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.” Before Piaget, Jefferson had rightly concluded that education “enables every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.” According to Jefferson, Each of us are the “ultimate guardians of own liberty.” Posing the begging question: Is freedom necessary to preserve learning?, Blender analyzed the status quo and made the following observation:

“Forty-years ago Seymour Papert developed a revolutionary thesis that computation is the most powerful “thing to think with” and that access to computers enables children to explore powerful ideas. But today, most children don't have access to computation as a regular part of their schooling and those that do are for the most part using a computer designed for office workers. They are not free to imagine, realize, critique, and reflect. They are not being prepared to ensure their freedom. ”

The solution? In order to achieve economic growth driven by a culture of innovation, he proposes a platform for learning that has “a bearing on all of the challenges our children will inherit; learning is essential if they are to be a generation of critical thinkers and problem-solvers, excelling in an ever-changing world.” He observed: “ Providing every child with the opportunity to learn learning will allow them to develop independent means towards their future.” Blender writes further:

“We created the Sugar Learning Platform to facilitate exploring, collaboration, and reflection and to encourage critical thinking. Designed from the ground up especially for children, Sugar offers an alternative to traditional “office-desktop” software. Sugar users (we often say “Learners”) create demonstrations, projects, and critiques in Activities, not “applications”. They develop craft, engage and persist, envision, express, observe, reflect, stretch and explore, and understand. They engage in open-ended exploration and discovery, going far beyond the use of the computer simply as a means of access to information. Although the interface can be off- putting to grownups used to filing cabinets and a trashcan, children adapt quickly to the interface. The child's work is automatically saved to their Journal, a diary of everything a child does in Sugar. ”

The connection between Red Hat and Sugar Labs? Well, originally, the Sugar platform was built on top of the Fedora distribution of the GNU/Linux operating system as the user interface for the OLPC XO-1 computer. Without doubt, the development of Sugar has benefited greatly from the culture of free software, which has also exerted it influence on the learning platform. Fedora is the community, free -as in 'free beer'- version of Red Hat Linux. OLPC is the One Laptop Per Child initiative of Nicholas Negroponte, Blender's previous employer. It is OLPC that has helped Uruguay achieve the dream of placing a laptop on very schoolchild's desk, ahead of all other nations! Rwanda, is another early adopter of the OLPC scheme; it is on track to achieve a similar goal. That nation's IT sector is one of Africa's most highly developed.

General Education

"For education, free software makes it possible to teach everything using computer tools: art, science, maths, computer science, music, you name it." Mark Shuttleworth, Founder of Ubuntu Used in homes, schools and businesses by over 8 million people globally, Ubuntu is one of the world’s most popular versions of Linux. Ubuntu Education Edition (Edubuntu) is custom-designed to help students get the very best educational experience. And, because it is free, there are no licensing costs or restrictions placed on the learner, the school or administrators. It provides users access to world class software for desktops and servers, with a choice of various editions which can be used in the Classroom, School Administration, and the education department. For the purpose of having a trial of the experience of Ubuntu, the Ubuntu LiveCD makes it easy for pupils to boot their home computers temporarily into Ubuntu and use exactly the same applications that they are using at school. The LTSP server software allows teachers and administrators to create a low cost computer lab so that students can have access to the educational opportunities that Ubuntu and the Internet can provide. Above all, Ubuntu is set apart from other operating systems by its unwavering focus on simplicity and ease of use. Ubuntu's motto is "Linux for Human Beings" and every development decision and application has that goal in mind. The result of this focus means that Ubuntu is easy to learn for both Educators and Learners. No steep learning curve for beginners and, no retraining costs for users familiar with other windows based desktop environments. The goal of the Education Program is to: "Enable Educators to spend more time teaching, and less time managing the computers or network". Let your educators spend more productive time engaging their learners. Ubuntu's accessibility features strive to provide a pleasant, high-quality computing experience to disabled users. comes with abundant applications that help improve productivity and creativity in education. It has a vast library (repository) of software packages that permits users to install and uninstall packages as the needed or become redundant. Ubuntu has a constantly increasing community of users scattered across the globe, some of whom are busily engaged in providing translations and other localized support to enable different persons have the same experience of working with the operating system. Interesting enough, Ubuntu has its origins in Africa; South Africa, to be precise. Mark Shuttleworth, the South African Founder of Ubuntu, lamented in a presentation before Google developers and their counterparts from the free and open source software community (in 2206) the poor attitude to adoption of free and open source software, and especially Ubuntu in Africa! A case of a Prophet not recognized in his own land? His is in spite of the fact that Ubuntu has demonstrated its ability to “put cutting edge computing technology into schools and education facilities around the globe”. Ubuntu has provided ample opportunities for institutions to save money and provide a solid information foundation for their students. Schools, colleges and universities round the world, including the Harvard University Medical College, a are leveraging the benefits of Ubuntu.

The Future role of IT

Three areas on the IT terrain in which Ghana must seek leadership in West Africa over the short-term and Africa in general in the middle- and long-term are: 1) free and open source software, 2) backbone connectivity providing assured broadband delivery for all internet-enabled devices, including mobile sets and 3) wireless technology.

Without paying attention to the aforementioned issues, the economic and good governance benefits accruing from business process outsourcing (BPO) and e-government cannot be reaped to their maximum.

These issues are going to drive the IT sector to help the nation achieve super-normal growth rates. Attaining the workforce productivity needed to ensure that such growth not only takes place, but that it is also sustainable, is the imperative that places demands on proper training in the requisite skills. In short, not only must decision-makers decide what to do (the task of being effective), they must also implement the decisions in the right manner (efficiency component).

According to Alhassan Umar, Executive Secretary of the Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) Secretariat of the Ministry of Communications, Ghana earns about $45 million annually from the Business Process Outsourcing industry alone. He told the Ghana News Agency (GNA) that “in the short term Ghana was targeting to earn between $60 and $70 million a year and one billion dollars in the long term”.

“We hope to attract at least 10 major BPO companies from Europe and US to Ghana and we also want to get more local entities like banks and insurance companies, as well as companies from within the sub-region to transfer their back office jobs to BPOs in Ghana,” he was quoted as saying.

To achieve these targets, Ghana has hired US company, Avasant, the leading BPO advisory company in the world to help reorganize the country’s BPO sector. Avasant is expected to gather data on the BPO market in Ghana and redesign promotional tools to market Ghana’s BPO potential internationally.

ghanabusinessnews.com published an exclusive interview with the President and Managing Partner of Avasant, Dr. Pradeep Mukherji. In the interview, he said Ghana has potential to lead in BPO in Africa.

It is important to build and augment capacity in the areas in which it matters most for IT-driven advancement. This calls for training that is not only cost-effective, but also efficient. Here, training in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) systems deserves utmost priority. Interesting enough, Ubuntu has its origins in Africa; South Africa, to be precise. Mark Shuttleworth, the second self-funded Cosmonaut and creator of the Ubuntu Linux distribution is a South African citizen. He lamented in a presentation before Google developers and their counterparts from the free and open source software community (in December 2206) the poor attitude to adoption of free and open source software, and especially Ubuntu, in Africa! A case of a Prophet not being recognized in his own land? This is in spite of the fact that Ubuntu has demonstrated its ability to “put cutting edge computing technology into schools and education facilities around the globe”. Ubuntu has provided ample opportunities for institutions to save money and provide a solid information foundation for their students. Schools, colleges and universities round the world, including the Harvard University Medical College, a are leveraging the benefits of Ubuntu.

The overarching areas of concern must be IT security, e-government and open systems. These are going to form the basic guarding principles underlying the policy of continuous innovation needed to catapult the economy into the ranks of middle-income nations.

Akokoraaba Adansiman Pipim is the pen name of a Hamburg-based ICT for Development (ICT4D) consultant and entrepreneur. He is Co-Founder and Director of an IT education initiative for Africa, with Ghana as pilot country. He earned his MBA (International Strategic Management) from Leipzig's Graduate School of Management. Prior to that, he had obtained his MS in exploration geophysics and acquired several years of international working experience, including world bank projects.

Akokoraaba Adansi Pipim

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