Common challenges to digital learning in developing countries include high technology costs, limited availability of technical resources or expertise, and an unpredictable infrastructure. A new set of low-cost technologies has the potential to lower barriers to the distribution of Health OER and other materials. Two such options, LibraryBox and Raspberry Pi, provide access to local wireless networks even in areas lacking power or Internet access.
First, on the recommendation of two master’s students from the University of Michigan School of Information, we explored LibraryBox. Through a web browser, users gain access to a list of files available to download. We used TPLink portable routers (approximately $40 each) to serve as the wireless access points. Anyone in range of the wireless access point can connect to browse the contents of the attached USB drive. We gathered Health OER content from dozens of sources to fill a 64 GB flash drive to distribute.
The Raspberry Pi is an ATM card-sized computer that is programmed using open source software to perform many desktop PC functions. Raspberry Pi includes all of the functionality of LibraryBox, and offers many more options in terms of services and customization of the user interface. For example, Raspberry Pi provides the option to connect to the Internet when connectivity is available, to download additional resources, such as syncing with a Dropbox folder. We experimented with multiple Raspberry Pi units, paired with a USB 1 Terabyte external hard drive, to provide access to an even larger collection of digital content over a local wireless network. Additionally, we added a rechargeable battery pack to serve as a backup power source. Setup for distributing offline digital content in this way costs between $100 and $200, depending on the accessories used.
Setting up and configuring these devices takes just a few hours, and does not require extensive technical knowledge. Once they are configured, it is simple to access or update the content. Anyone with a wireless capable device, such as a laptop or mobile phone, can access Health OER from the Raspberry Pi or LibraryBox when they are in range of this wireless network.
These low-cost technologies can provide access to digital content in institutions that are power-challenged, network-challenged, and economically-challenged. Between June and August 2013, we deployed nine Raspberry Pi devices to sites in Kenya and Ethiopia and eleven LibraryBoxes to sites in Liberia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. In the coming months, we will gather more feedback from our African Health OER Network partner institutions about the usability and maintenance for these low-cost, lightweight local networks and report on the results.