Thursday, February 24, 2011

On computer viruses

I was up-country in a rural Liberian computer lab last week, assisting Nate while he trained a classroom of secondary students and their teachers on how to use the online platform for our program. These schools usually have donated desktop computers but no regular power, so it's not unusual to hear about students taking up a small collection to buy fuel so they can use their school's computer lab. To them, learning to use computers is worth the investment and it's way cheaper than an Internet cafe, assuming there's one in town.

We make a preliminary assessment of each participating school's computer lab before we arrive, taking time to ascertain how many of their Ministry of Education-donated computers are functional. Usually, it's just a fraction of the total.

At the beginning of our trainings, when the team is busy connecting the working computers to the Internet, I notice as the virus-riddled machines sit there in silence. They may as well be rocks, for all the use are to their students.

Last week, one school we trained had such a myriad of malicious code that it took us 45 minutes to do what normally takes five. The modems picked up viruses and their connections got flaky, the computers had to be restarted every few minutes, and even the digital camera managed to crash a few times.

Still, nothing could daunt the excited of students being connected to the Internet for a first time. One group stayed past 5:00, until their computer teacher sent them home, threatening that the generator was going to run out of fuel.

I wonder if the hackers who write computer viruses know that this is where their code ends up, in a simple African classroom, keeping children whose families live on a dollar a day off the World Wide Web.


  1. Seriously. People work hard to ensure that donated machinery can end up in these places, opening opportunity up to young people in countries with no leverage or influence. All that money goes to waste as soon as some virus from 9 years ago cripples a machine that was made 12 years ago. Congratulations. Not just the 40 kids in my program but their 900 schoolmates don't get to enjoy technology because you could take the time to write malicious code but you couldn't take the time to control it.

    -Nate Calhoun

  2. Why don't you try Linux? You'll never see another virus. And it's as easy/easier to use than Windows.

  3. Good idea on the Linux. The computer teachers in these schools would need to be trained in a new OS--and want and agree to one in the 1st place. It's a good idea to put on the table for the future.

  4. as louisa said, you are in luck - totally solved problem. check out CSIR's Ubuntu version specifically made for classrooms (for example) that grant cambridge has led on - they have training programmes + everything. also shuttleworth foundation would probably have some thing too (steve vos.)

  5. We can raise this potential solution with the Ministry, but unfortunately our program doesn't have the authority to reformat computers at government school labs. It would be a great project for a roaming Africa-wide tech team with a mandate, though...

  6. Yes, it is a great shame that Linux is not used more in Liberia. It's horrible to see public computers (from schools right up to ministries) crippled by viruses, with public information being corrupted and destroyed each day.

    I have the distros (10.10) of Ubuntu Linux (Desktop 32bit, and Server 64bit) if they are of any use to anybody here in Monrovia.

  7. For the next phase of our project, I think we'll include basic IT support pre- and mid-program for exactly that reason. I wonder if we can ask that participating computer labs switch to Linux? It would be an easy sell sustainability-wise, but I wonder how much training the computer teachers would need to figure it out. There seem to be a wealth of resources online.

  8. I´d be interested in switching to a LINUX OS due to the very same reasons.

    Eli - can you forward my contacts to "Nick" so that I can get in touch with him.


  9. @Andy, I'd like to, but I'm not sure which Andy you are! You can get our contacts from the RCW contact us page at


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