African virtual open source initiative bears fruit

The African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources (Avoir) project was put together so that African institutions could have access to modern technology-based learning systems — and so that they could be part of developing a world-class technology in Africa, and for Africa (but usable by anyone else around the world).

This project is bearing its first major fruit with the first working modules of the Kewl.NextGen learning management system, which the developers believe is the only large-scale Open Source Software project in Africa so far.

Kewl is an advanced Web-based learning management system (LMS) that was designed for tertiary education, but can be used in any teaching environment — even corporate. Kewl is the Knowledge Environment for Web-based Learning, providing a way to give learners access to the content that they need, and managing the learning process through to performance and grading.

It was initially developed by the University of the Western Cape as an internal research and learning tool, using Active Server Pages in Windows environment. It proved highly successful, and a project was initiated to turn it into a full-blown modular system with a number of collaboration tools, based on an open architecture and developed through an Open Source model.

Universities from around Africa were gradually brought into the project, and now there are almost 30, including Jomo Kenyatta University in Kenya, University of Jos in Nigeria, and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania — with input from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US in terms of the development process. The project started, says Avoir project manager, Melisse Benn, because the option of buying an LMS is a problem, as they are so expensive.

With a definite need, and the skills to address it locally, the project went from strength to strength, with more and more people coming on board. The Avoir team is keen to keep the project African, to show the world what can be done on the continent, although Kewl has been implemented by users as far afield as Canada and China.

The driving force behind keeping it an African Open Source project is to build capacity and develop skills in software development on this continent, says Benn. The practical difficulties for the development team are substantial, especially with bandwidth. “The technology does let us down from time to time,” she says wryly. The upsides are significant, however, both from the value that the Kewl system brings to users, and the development of computer science as a vocation.

Graduate students contribute to the project, getting valuable practical experience in a professional development environment. All modules for the completed system are expected to be in final testing by October, with release in November. Some of the technology developed in this project is already being used in related areas, such as in drug dispensing management.

An antiretroviral dispensing system was developed by the Avoir team using technology that it developed for the extremely budget-strapped Jooste Hospital in Mannenberg – and can be re-used all over Africa.

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