Going to Eritrea – I really didn’t know what to expect. Of course I had been reading and told about the country many times before, when Andrés, Roman, and other HEI-ICI people had been visiting there. Also, I met Samuel and former Vice President Prof. Tesfamichael Arefaine in Finland at the end of last year. I was prepared for a dry, warm weather in high altitudes, friendly people, limited or no connectivity to outside world, and for drinking lot of coffee. Nevertheless, I really didn’t have a clear picture what was to come. So let me start from the beginning…
After almost 24 hours of travelling I landed with a handful of other people to Asmara in the middle of the night, on Sunday February 21. After passport control and negotiating a while with custom officers, I met Marcus who kindly had woken up in to meet me at the airport. Driving a while in peaceful Asmara and we arrived to Crystal Hotel. Finally I was able to get some sleep!
After few hours of rest, it was time for a breakfast and getting prepared for the first exercise: Sunday hike of Asmara expatriate community. Hanna from Finn Church Aid picked us from the hotel and we drove in a convey of five or six cars to outskirts of Asmara for a walk. The terrain was somewhat rough, the hike path going mostly in the bottom of a canyon following a dried river. As it can be seen in the picture, it wasn’t always that easy to go on. Luckily nobody got wet and after almost two hours (and only few kilometres) we were back in the cars.
After few refreshing drinks we had a bit of sightseeing over Asmara and then headed back to the hotel. After a couple of hours resting I was ready to go on with some paperwork of the project together with Marcus. So was the first day in Asmara. Feelings were high for the training to be started next day.
My actual duty here was to give an intensive course on educational technology and edtech lab activities. A diverse participant group in the course came from the ICT & Tele Education Centre of EIT, Colleges of Education, Science, and Engineering, Ministry of Education and Asmara Community College of Education. The training was started on Monday, February 22. Participants for this training were the same of those in video training course in the previous week, and they also continued working with the video projects during the morning sessions. The edtech training aimed at sharing experiences from running the edtech lab at UEF and exposing the participants to potential technologies that could be used to equip the EIT edtech lab. The training consisted of hands-on activities focusing on robotics, low-cost computing and mobile application development. A constant emphasis during the training was put on gathering feedback about usefulness of similar activities and technologies for the future activities of the EIT edtech lab.
We started the edtech training by introducing the ideas and pedagogy behind educational technology activities in the context of edtech lab of UEF. Based on introductory material, the participants conducted a brainstorming session about the role and desired functions of the EIT edtech lab. In large, the participants brought up ideas of supporting EIT colleges on implementing hands-on activities and project-based modules during the courses. Also, ideas on community outreach activities with educational technology were brought into discussion.
Next topic to introduce (on Tuesday) was educational robotics. We had brought with us some robotics hardware based on Arduino microcontrollers. We settled the course to work in three different workshops. First workshop was about building a basic circuit with Arduino microcontroller, prototyping board, jumper cables, resistors, and LEDs. The aim of the circuit was to make LEDs to blink in a desired manner.
The second workshop was about getting familiar with a readily built Arduino-based robot equipped with Adafruit motor driver and Seeedstudio ultrasonic sensors for measuring distances to obstacles. In the third workshop, the participants got familiar with ScratchDuino robot, which is an easy-to-use educational robotics set built around Arduino controlling board with printed custom boards (PCBs) for making the robot modular and easy to manipulate. Programming of ScratchDuino robot is made with a tailored version of the Scratch programming environment made by MIT.
Robotics workshops were received very well amongst the participants, and it seems that Arduino ecosystem and educational robotics in general are very promising tools for the future EIT edtech lab activities, and these tools can be applied in many levels from school outreaching to advanced, final year project work of EIT students.
On Wednesday afternoon, participants continued robotics activities and presented the activities and lessons learnt to others. Furthermore, participants were introduced to low-cost computing with RaspberryPi computer and Intel PC sticks. Both technologies were seen suitable for EIT edtech lab activities in many levels. Especially community outreach programs would benefit from devices that have low power consumption and are easy to move to different places. Furthermore, connectivity of RaspberryPi with its general purpose I/O pins expands possibilities of using it as a part of advanced projects on robotics and embedded systems, hence bringing new dimensions to EIT students’ projects.
The last topic in the course was introduction to mobile programming. This learning module was built around authoring educational material in HTML5 format and wrapping the authored material to a native mobile phone application. Participants authored a piece of material about their robotics experiences. Ready materials were packed together and converted to an iOS app which was tested in a simulator. Deployment to physical devices (Android or Apple mobiles or tablets) was not possible on this time due to lack of needed SDKs (software development kit). These tools are freely available on internet but unreliable and slow internet connection of EIT prevented us to download these tools. However, simulator view to iOS app gave sufficient enough feeling about how the app would look like.
The last day of the course was dedicated for finalizing educational videos and screening them to all participants. Furthermore, we visited Vice President of EIT, Professor Ghebrehiwet Medhanie and provided him our report about the course activities. Prof. Medhanie also signed Memorandum of Understanding covering project activities on behalf of EIT.
Afternoon of the last course day was for feedback and certificate ceremonies. It was great to hear that participants saw the course very useful for themselves as well as for building the forthcoming activities at the EIT edtech lab. All in all, both courses set very good ground for further project activities and gave a lot of confidence that ICT4EEDU project can be implemented successfully and it can make difference in the country.
Of course the week in Asmara accommodated other activities than teaching too. When walking in the city, Asmara proved to be very peaceful and easy city to go around. We had some delicious injera dinners with a variety of local dishes, as well as very nice Red Snapper in red chili sauce at the Italian restaurant which Andrés strongly suggested for us. One participant of the course also arranged us traditional coffee ceremony during Thursday afternoon. I must say it was one the best coffee experience I have had!
Finally, after the course we spent some hours by sightseeing Asmara and its mountain outskirts during sunset on Friday evening. The views were truly amazing and we had great time on seeing when the darkness settled over the mountains. Saturday, the last day of the trip, was for packing and discussing the remaining open issues for the further project plans. We also went out to city for some shopping and having relaxed time with our Eritrean friends, and then it was a time for farewell.
So what about the IKEA furniture? Still on Saturday evening Hanna from FCA cordially invited us to join to an effort to setup few IKEA items in the “most beautiful house in Asmara”. And indeed, the house was marvellous! With joint Swedish-Finnish forces we managed to complete the bed after only few error-trial rounds. Then was time for a dinner and some memorable moments with almost full Finnish community in Asmara (that’s not too much what it comes to number of people, though). Final packing in the hotel and then we were ready to go! Marcus and I had flights departing close to each other, so Samuel made an effort in the middle of the night to take us to the airport. Thanks for that!
What Eritrea show me, was hot and dry weather, extremely friendly people, good food, great coffee, and lot of excitement around what we are doing in the project. Looking forward for the next visit sometime in October, and meeting Eritrean colleagues even before that in May in Finland!