By Frederic Musisi, 15 April 2012
It is arguably one of the best innovations at Makerere University; an innovation which connects students to the best laboratories across the world with a click of a mouse.
This is the iLabs project, a seven-year-old computer network that is fast turning the university into a hotspot of research and innovation. At first sight, the iLabs strikes one as an assembly of computers connected to the Internet where one can access the usual sites - Facebook and Google. But the project, that has benefitted over 1,500 students, is an academic system designed particularly for science courses like Electrical, Civil and Mechanical Engineering, Telecommunications, Architecture, Geo-Information Science and a host of others.
"The iLabs is simply a system which enables students to access science laboratories in over 20 universities across the globe.
"It was geared towards development of online support science and technology curricular in Uganda by providing a low-cost flexible, convenient and reliable experimentation platform," explains Cosmas Mwikirize, the project's associate principal investigator.
The project was started in 2005 under the iLab-Africa project in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA and two African universities - University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), Tanzania and Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) in Nigeria with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The computers are linked to an internal network and then configured to a special hardware, the Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS), that connects them to the global network that provides access to the laboratories. The network allows students access laboratory infrastructure, equipment, tutorials, research findings, books and other publications from participating universities across the world.
Initially, due to technical challenges, both the students and staff solely utilized the iLabs infrastructure at MIT which had helped start the project. However in 2007, a team of three undergraduate developers embarked on research that led to the establishment of the project's infrastructure at Makerere University. Over the past four years, up to 30 iLabs have been developed in various fields to support curricula.
Mwikirize says: "The logic and working of the iLabs somewhat seems a complicated undertaking but students are steadily adapting due to the competitive academic age we live in."
According Doreen Orishaba, a graduate research assistant of the project, "iLabs has enabled students have a hands-on experience with a number of science infrastructures most of which we don't have in the country."
Orishaba adds that the project has enhanced the university's research portfolio. Todate, 10 scientific papers have been presented at international conferences. Currently, the project is only at Makerere University but plans are underway to get other public universities like MUST, Busitema and Kyambogo on board. And early this year, iLabs @ MAK launched a campaign to establish online networked laboratories in secondary schools like Gayaza High School, King's College Budo, Mt St Mary's College Namagunga, Makerere College School, and a few others.
"Because the project is expensive to maintain, we have so far targeted schools with already established computer infrastructures for the pilot study but soon we shall be going across the country," Orishaba says.
As usual, there's the issue of funding. Currently, Presdient Museveni bankrolls the project. During a visit to the university two years ago, Museveni was impressed by the project's vision. However, it's hard accessing the funds given the red tape and the project is also hampered by poor internet connectivity.
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