School in a Box: Cloud e-learning Solution for Contemporary Schools
By Sam Agona
In the last few weeks of 2013, a project team from CLS Uganda has been tirelessly working on a teaching solution for elementary and secondary school which is called “School in a Box” meant to aid learning in collaboration. The Project Lead, Ken Stober thought of a self-contained system (the box) that could aid education both on interactive instructional and non – interactive instruction basis. Our thought was further compounded by the strike that has rocked primary schools in Uganda. If we had a system that was self-instructional, probably our children would have the chance to sit in class while learning something on their own, as their teachers and their organizational bodies sort out the impasse they are embroiled in with government, though caution is important that this system is not a replacement for a teacher but rather a supplement to a teacher’s input. The system is organized in such a way that we try to keep it in a state where the teacher does as little as possible before launching a class, this is save time and also to allow technology enhance rather than impede their work (conducting lessons/ classes).
L-R Mildred, Sam and Ken, the School in a box team in a brainstorming session
Our solution introduces a learning suit-case. This document looks to highlight on the technologies and the “wins” in deploying this solution in your institution:
The system enclosure has a mini-laptop which is used to present the content and or play the audio-visual content both on and offline (internet). Typically a windows mini laptop, 11” display, 1.66 GHz and 1 GB RAM system is sufficient.
Server (C3 – Cloud Classroom Content)
The C3 works as a connection point, file host, access server and access point, it has a motherboard, power supply, it contains memory that can be used to store and retrieve both curriculum and local content. It has a cloud management interface onto which a user is given rights to once they purchase the C3 server (hardware). Cloud academic packages like RACHEL (Remote Access Community Hotspots for Education and Learning), School Wikis among others. The server provides for high speed access to educational content sources for schools, ranging from encyclopedias to custom designed school content. C3 works with low bandwidth connections, 3G, satellite and Wi-Fi (hotspot capable), thus allowing access and administration of cloud material. C3 runs on SSD (solid state drives) which regulates the temperature of the system, and not getting unnecessarily heated since SSDs don’t use moving (rotations) parts on their drives, explaining the high speed during I/O processes and high startup speed. The C3 is configured to update whenever it gets connected to the internet, this enables users to access up-to-date content as much as possible. Through critical links, content cloud server checks for updates and downloads them automatically. Other services offered by the server include routing, DHCP (thus no need for cabling it to a computer), security services, web-service, email among others.
The system is designed to run on a small portable projector for display of pictorial and video content. It stands on a tripod stand when in use, and can be remote controlled like any other projector. It can work on any machine with 1.8 MHz speed and 512 MB RAM and with an nViDIA or ATI graphics card. It has networking capabilities both on wireless and through cable and can also play content straight from a USB drive.
Used for audio output, normally small speakers that can fit as part of the encasing and consuming not more than 5 watts of power, does not require any sound amplification.
In the box, we have a 4 plug power adaptor which accounts for the computer, server power input, speakers and projector power inputs.
Lay out of the final system
The unique aspect of this project is that it considers the need to keep the environment green. The whole box runs on power of 82 watts, when system components are powered simultaneously, wattage may increase to 120 watts. In a rural environment without electricity, this system can run on solar with as little as: one 30 watts panel, 1 battery of 100AH, a 20 amps charge controller and a 180 VA inverter at basic.
Minimum running power
In conclusion, this is such an efficient and cost effective system that needs to diffuse in both urban and rural learning environments, it can enable education with minimum input from the instructor, local content can also be incorporated easily; it gives the instructor a better opportunity to demonstrate what they are teaching. Content comparison between institutions of learning can be done more easily using the cloud as the host. And importantly, areas with challenges of access to electricity can use this system very cost effectively through solar power as shown above.