Overcoming Connectivity Challenges in Rural Schools with Content Servers


Many schools in Asia Pacific have deployed computer labs to increase ICT literacy. However, it is challenging for schools to move beyond teaching basic computer skills such as typing, and office productivity tools without good internet access. There are incredible rich educational resources available in the cloud including Wikipedia, Khan Academy, and PhET. However, remote schools either lack adequate access to the internet or cannot afford it due to the high cost of broadband connectivity.

So, how can schools, particular remote and rural schools move beyond teaching basic ICT literacy and integrate ICT into core subjects such as English, Math and Science? The answer is a content server.

Content Server Options

While the concept of a content server is not new, it has evolved in recent years with more affordable hardware and relevant content. There are two key features that define a content server. First, it has to be simple to use. Second, it has to be robust and require zero or little maintenance.

Students and teachers access the content server using a standard web browser on a device that is available to them whether it be a desktop, laptop, tablet or even a smart phone. Content on the server must not require access to the internet but yet provide an experience that mirrors applications on the net.

Nowadays, more and more such content is available. For example, Kiwix started by making Wikipedia available in an offline mode but now has moved to offer additional resources such as wikitionary and TED® talks. KA-LITE from Learning Equality has developed a version of Khan Academy that is easily deployed on a local content server and provides a similar learning experience to the cloud version Khan Academy. PHeT has a server version that provides their rich simulation apps to be accessed in the browser. World Possible has curated content and made it available through Rachel, their off-line educational content portal.

These are just some examples of popular cloud education resources that are now available in versions suitable for a content server. Often it only take some minor tweaks to migrate country specific educational content into a format suitable to be placed on a content server.

A content server must be robust and require little or no maintenance. Schools do not have the IT support to maintain a traditionally server. Thus, ideally a content server only has an on/off button with no keyboard and monitor. This prevents “misuse”, which can introduce viruses or unintended configuration changes. For example, I have seen “servers” used as an additional desktop only to have configurations changed inadvertently rendering the server unusable.

A content server is a not a traditional server requiring large “server” hardware. Rather it can be implemented on different hardware including small form factor desktops, a network attached storage, or even a Raspberry Pi. One interesting implementation is an integrated unit called Intel Education Content Access point which combines a server with a Wi-Fi Access point, a 3/4G connection and a battery which makes it ideal for schools with unreliable power. Most implementations are running a version of Linux operating system due to its stability and small footprint.

Content Server Deployment

server lab

So, how does a content server look like in practice and what impact does it have? Marilog Elementary School is a primary school in Mindanao, Philippines. While not remote, the school has no internet access, and cell phone coverage is poor. The school had a small computer lab for several years. Two years ago, the school received a content server along with several tablets.

In this implementation the content server was a C3 unit from Critical Links. A small form factor desktop measuring only 12cm X 12 cm X 5cm integrates a server with a Wi-Fi access point. Thus students can access it directly without the need of WLAN. However, the major advantage of the C3 is that content can be updated remotely. That is, once in a while the content server is connected to the internet at an office, and the content can get updated.

Students access the content using tablets. The off-line version of Wikipedia has proven to be one of the most popular application with both students and teachers. Students use it as a traditional encyclopedia, while teachers particular like the photos within Wikipedia to supplement their teaching materials. More recently, teachers started augmenting the content server by posting their own educational documents allowing for an easy and efficient way to distribute information to their students.

The concept of a content server is not new, but technology has evolved so that a content server can now run on very affordable hardware and requires minimum maintenance so that schools without access to the internet and without IT resources can now provide some of the educational applications of the 21st century.

Bernd Nordhausen advises organizations and governments on how to effectively utilize technology to bridge the digital divide.