Africa is home to the youngest population in the world with 200 million aged between 15 – 24 years. At the same time, Internet penetration in Africa is above 25% and growing. These and other publicly available data raised challenging but meaningful questions on the future of our capacity building initiatives, such as; do our capacity building efforts account to much? How do we scale the existing trainings to address the emerging demand and supply issues resulting from Internet growth?
Well, first let us put this discussion into context. Since the year 2000, organizations such as the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), AfriNIC, the Internet Society, among others have supported the Africa Network Operators Group (AfNOG) annual hands-on technical training workshops (see more at www.afnog.org). These trainings are reminiscent of the ISOC INET events held in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that aimed to provide basic knowledge to participants from emerging regions. Similary, AfNOG offered an introductory course and several advanced courses. Beginners would attend the 5-day Unix and system administration course referred to as “Track 0”. Though effective, it was limited to a maximum of 30 new “Track 0” entrants trained annually.
“The “Track Zero” course covered introductory topics on UNIX and Internet Services and had been well received on the continent by engineers from ISPs, NOGs and NRENs. Each trainee was trained on how to build a working UNIX server over the 5 days training with working Internet services.”- Michuki Mwangi, ISOC
Subsequently, in 2008 AfNOG, NSRC and ISOC formed a joint initiative to have more “Track 0” trainings conducted at the local level. The initiative was branded “AfNOG localization” and it enabled AfNOG to focus on more advanced courses at its annual event. The “AfNOG localization” made significant inroads with over 1,500 trained from 15 countries, from 2008–2012. However, this was a drop in the ocean in comparison to the demand. In addition, the cost of training 30 new entrants over 5 days, excluding the time in planning and logistics, was at least USD $10,000 or over $330 per trainee. Nonetheless, the face-to-face trainings taught us many lessons on efficiency and the evolving African environment. For instance, to simplify the workshop logistics, the course integrated desktop virtualization technology. We also realized that when requested, majority of participants could bring laptops to the training.
These experiences triggered the idea of taking the “Track 0” course online, as a means to reach more people in a sustainable and efficient way. But there was one underlying challenge; How would it be possible to take the offline, technical hands-on course, online? Well, the answer was found in breaking down all components of the face-to-face training and resulted in a self-paced, remote moderated online course.
“This resulted in the course titled “ Introduction to Network Operations: UNIX/Linux, Networking and DNS”. It was organized into 9 progressive modules taken over a 4-week period. ISOC’s Internet Leadership team assisted in the design and development of the online course. The course begins with the basic installation of a Unix operating system in a virtualized environment and ends with setting up a functional Domain Name System (DNS) Service. The Domain Name System was selected as the main topic because DNS is a key technology of the Internet – one which almost all other Internet services rely on for example email and web services.” – Kevin Chege, ISOC
This new online course was a new frontier for the Internet Society and its partners in the project. The initial feedback received provided an even clearer indication that there was still much to be done.
Transforming the face-to-face course into an online self-paced, remote moderated course took 9 months with several material and expert reviews. In December 2014, 11 months after the initial work began, an inaugural group of 24 participants from Botswana, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Swaziland, and Uganda amongst others, took the complete online course for the very first time. Their response was positive sighting the convenience of taking the course from their respective homes or workplaces.
Following the successful completion of inaugural group, the online course was launched in March 2015 and since then, more than 450 trainees have enrolled for the course. As expected local Network Operators Groups (NOGs) such as Tanzania (TzNOG) have taken the lead in using the resource to train several local engineers.
“I found out about the Course through TzNOG. I work with an ISP company. I would definitely recommend the course to others… it is very useful and easy to understand. I would like to see more courses developed”. – Ms. Jane Ligoi, TzNOG
Further, we have been pleasantly surprised by the innovative use of the course. For instance, the Kenya Education Network Trust ( KENET) has found it complimentary to its capacity building initiatives.
“The ISOC online UNIX course has been very popular with the KENET community of ICT technical staff. It has helped many entry-level network and systems administrators to acquire foundational UNIX skills that are necessary for more advanced courses in network management or Cyber security. KENET now uses the course as a pre-requisite for other courses and we have noticed improvement in learning outcomes and skill levels of the techies in advanced courses that required competence in UNIX”. – Professor Meoli Kashorda, CEO, KENET
It is encouraging to note that all participants who have attended the online course have repeatedly underlined that they would recommend the course to their colleagues and would also like to see more courses developed.
“The course has helped me on how to troubleshoot DNS issues and it has also enabled me improve my skills on working with Linux” – Isaac Maposa, Zimbabwe
A number of other NOGs and Internet technology groups are planning to use the course as a pre-requisite for other Capacity Building initiatives in their countries this year.
“The online training attracted more registrations due to being free and flexible to take (pace and working schedules). As a TzNOG Convenor I can say that these ISOC online trainings have supplemented the existing efforts of training more Engineers at an affordable price / no cost. I would therefore recommend ISOC to invite other existing local NOGs in Africa to the online training platform and if possible upgrade it to higher levels so as to attract experienced IT Engineers as well.”- Abibu Ntahigiye, Tanzania NOG Convenor
There are plans to also incorporate locally hosted online training labs on the continent to further improve the training experience. Currently, the course is being translated to French to expand its reach in the continent. We hope the language diversity will enable other groups and regions to benefit from this resource and as eloquently put.
“Learning online for professionals is the best way to enhance much needed life-long learning and personal development plans of working professionals because one finds time to learn and at a pace that is consistent with their ability to absorb”. – Bessie Nyirenda, Malawi