Home > Personal > Decline of the tuxLab

Decline of the tuxLab

A few years ago, the Shuttleworth Foundation started a project called tuxLabs. In a nutshell, they were taking old unused and donated computers, refurbishing them and then setting up computer labs in very poor schools. By using the old and donated hardware and using a customised version of Linux, they were able to establish a lab for a fraction of the cost of what it would normally cost a school. The other idea was to cluster the schools, so that they could help each other out when technical issues arose.

When it started, it went well and it soon expanded. So long as the old hardware didn’t break, most labs ran pretty well, and brought computer education to children who had never seen one before. The labs were mostly set up in primary schools in the poorest suburbs of the Western Cape, and it proved to be a hit. Later it expanded to other provinces and some high schools.

However, as time went on, the Shuttleworth Foundation decided that the project was a success, and as such was viable enough to stand on its own. Some members formed a new company to put support behind it, and that’s more or less when the decline started. It wasn’t due to the people of the new company not working hard enough, but rather due to the fact that there were so many schools, and few trained staff members at those schools to work in the labs.

Technical requests mounted as the hardware gave issues, as well as lack of training on the school staff side. Some schools just gave up entirely on using the lab, since so many computers were broken, or they had no one who could manage the lab. At other schools, despite some heavy anti theft measures in place, equipment still got stolen. The volunteers who had helped before lost interest, as the company behind the labs wanted to charge support fees, and this went against what they originally signed up for. This led to even more pressure on the company to settle issues. The backlog started reaching 3-4 weeks at times.

It’s actually sad to see this decline, because in theory the idea behind these tuxLabs was fantastic. Never mind Linux vs. Windows, this was simply about bringing computers to the poorest of the poor. The system wasn’t perfect, but kids learnt how to move a mouse, type and do research. Some played games and just had simple fun they wouldn’t have had otherwise. In some areas the lab was/is used by members of the surrounding communities, and again it was bringing something new and fantastic to people who never had that resource before.

So while the tuxLabs have been on a steady decline, they did create a path for others to follow and help bridge the digital divide in South Africa. For that they deserve a huge round of applause and a lot of respect.

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