Kathy Gibson is at the E-Learning Summit in East London – When Fujitsu set out to solve one specific problem – that of bringing e-learning to mud schools in the Eastern Cape – it had little idea that just two years later it would have built a self-sustaining ecosystem that closes the loop of education, maintenance, technical skills transfer and tertiary learning.

Marketing manager Steven Kramer describes how an idea that surfaced at the May 2017 E-Learning Summit in East London sparked the initial idea for building a solar-powered classroom in a container.

The fully self-contained classrooms contain desk space and thin clients for 30 students, a teacher station, a smartboard, server, storage and multi-function device that scans and prints, and even marks learners’ scripts. Cameras take care of security.

Fully insulated units stay cool in summer and warm in winter, but air conditioning can also be run off the solar power system.

The first prototype unit, built by Sizwe Africa IT Group, was completed just six months after the idea was first flighted and has been running live as a demo unit at Fujitsu’s Midrand office since January 2018.

The units generate more power than they need to run the thin clients, server and storage, so there is also capacity for students, teachers and community members to charge their phones and more.

A number of partners have joined in to complete the Edu-Smart Centre solution: Vodacom provides connectivity where possible; and software is provided by TopDog. Importantly, the teaching software can be delivered via the cloud, where connectivity is available, or can be run from the on-premise server where the Internet is non-existent or intermittent.

Today there are 23 self-contained classrooms deployed in the Eastern Cape, with more set to be rolled out soon.

Their use in a real-world situation has prompted additional design tweaks. Recognising that the classrooms are usually deployed in rural areas, they are now built to include water-wise toilets; and the desks are made of wood rather than stainless steel as students prefer the warmth of a familiar material.

Kramer points out that perhaps the most significant part of the Edu-Smart Centre is that fact that Fujitsu has created a fully sustainable ecosystem that ensures the units will have longevity and continue to remain relevant.

The centres are deployed under an initial three- to five-year contract, with Sizwe Africa IT Group taking care of deployment, maintenance and services.

Students and community members are also encouraged to take an interest in learning how to do the maintenance, and several local youngsters are trained up in computer maintenance.

These youngsters can then move on to tertiary education in the ICT field, making use of the Innovation Centres that have now also set up.

The Innovation Hubs are resource centres – also self-contained and mobile – that can be used by tertiary students, people reskilling for new job opportunities, or community members looking to increase their skills profiles.

A new Innovation Hub will be opened within the next few days at the Eastern Cape Department of Education. This unit has been equipped as a customer care centre that includes walk-in services and a call centre accommodating 14 agents.

The partners have simultaneously developed ICT Centres. These are fully-provisioned data centres, self-contained in a container, that can be placed at any location for a fraction of the cost of building a brick-and-mortar data centres. The first one is already running in the car park of the Eastern Cape Department of Education.

By bringing all of these resources to the rural areas, Kramer believes young people can upskill themselves and their whole community by creating a feedback loop that helps to uplift whole communities through sustainable education and further education opportunities.