Building a Tele-Learning Room in Bamako, Mali for the African Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics

A significant component of the African Center for Excellence in Bioinformatics (ACE) program is to provide distance learning for students and researchers at the sites in Africa. The first ACE site in Mali at the University of Science, Technology, and Techniques in Bamako (USTTB) needed a room that provided the center with an optimized environment for teaching classes from distant campuses, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as providing students in the new Master’s program at the Faculty of Science with a means to use the new infrastructure. Research Data and Communication Technology (RDCT) has been building video teleconferencing and web collaboration rooms at the international centers for over ten years and has extensive experience not just in running modern technology in regions with less reliable infrastructure but also the construction in that environment.

The University donated the classroom space to the ACE program and the new Master’s Degree in Bioinformatics program based within the Faculty of Science. The room was 33x23 meters and had a ceiling height of 3 meters. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all cement construction and windows lined the outside walls of the room. To be an effective room in this region there were a number of factors that needed to be considered: the lighting, the acoustics of the room, the interaction of the students with the remote professors, the high probability of power outages, the lack of stable power, and technical support for the room equipment. The facility at the Faculty of Science is on the other side of the Niger River, opposite from the Faculty of Medicine that houses the new bioinformatics server, the data center, and the internet connection that supports the primary labs and offices of the NIH collaboration in Mali.

To connect the two campuses together and to provide internet access and connectivity to the bioinformatics server donated by Intel and HP, RDCT installed a high frequency microwave connection between the two sites. Because both campuses are on the hilltops across the Niger River valley from each other, it was easy to achieve a line-of-sight connection. The AirFiber technology that RDCT selected runs at 24 Ghz and at 33 watts of power to achieve a 1,000 Mbps throughput. The radio on the dish antenna uses Power-over-Ethernet (POE) to reduce the attenuation of signal through cables and can use the infrastructure power of the data center at the medical school to deliver the highest quality and greatest reliability possible.

Figure 1- the AirFiber installed on the roof of the Faculty of Science, pointing across the Niger River to the Faculty of Science

The most important feature of the distant communications, web collaboration, or video conferencing is the audio experience. Working in low-middle-income countries and building rooms for collaboration over the past 17 years, our experience has consistently shown that the common construction in using concrete for all surfaces creates an unfriendly environment. Therefore, several years ago RDCT commissioned a white paper about conference room design to help RDCT optimize the experience for the scientists whose international collaborations require infrastructure that RDCT supports. If the room does not have properly designed acoustics, the resulting echo or deadening of sound can make communication nearly impossible. There are three features of room acoustics RDCT can measure and for which they make corrective adjustments: absorption, reflection, and diffusion. The decibels (dB), the reverberation, and the dB ambient correction are the measurements RDCT uses to assess the acoustics of the room and it is now possible to use smartphone applications such as AudioTool to test the rooms and collect this data. In the telelearning room provided by the USTTB, the room initially had baseline readings of 82 dB, .73 RT60, and 0 dB of ambient correction. By adding Pro-Panel ceiling tiles on a drop-ceiling below the concrete ceiling and acoustic absorption wall panels from Auralex®, RDCT was able to target the range of human speech, 125 – 250 Hz. This reduced the amount of correction that the video conferencing equipment required to counteract the “echo” commonly interrupting voice and video conferencing.

Figure 2- the results of testing using the Smart Phone App AudioTool

In addition to the physical treatments for the conference room, the hardware is also very important. The speaker and microphone need to work to correct for problems with the audio in the room as well. The Phoenix® speakerphones that RDCT selected provided several important features. They have a built in 10 dB ambient noise filter that corrects for constant sounds like those from air conditioners and fans. The Phoenix® also has automatic voice level correction which compensates for different pitches and volumes of voices that are speaking in the room. Finally, one of the most important elements of the design was the low power needs. Each unit needs only 10 watts of power, reducing the load that the devices place on the battery backup power needed during the frequent blackouts and load-shedding, both of which are common in Bamako. In addition, the Phoenix® speakerphones receive this small 10 watts of current using a special USB to POE adaptor and standard ethernet cabling. They also connect to the conference station desktop over the same cabling. RDCT placed these speakerphones in the center of the room to simplify the cabling and to keep them equidistant from speakers at the desks on either side of the room.

Another critical feature of a room designed for video conferencing and online collaboration is the lighting. Improper lighting can cause faces to wash out if it is too bright, or disappear into shadow if they are too dark. The specifications for the optimum lighting are color temperature, color rendering index, and lumens. In addition, RDCT wants to again optimize for the low power environment and the lack of access to replacement parts - so it should be very low wattage and have an extremely long life cycle. RDCT selected the Cree HD CR22 LED fixtures that have a color temperature of 3500 kelvin, and emit 3200 Lumens at a color-rendering index of 90. They draw only 32 watts of power per fixture with only 8 fixtures in the room and have an expected life of 75,000 hours at 220v and 50Hz. Finally, the paint on the walls has a direct impact on the lighting and therefore it needed to be a specific shade and reflection to optimize video conferencing, tele-learning, and teaching experience. The slate blue shade of paint chosen has both a low reflective quality and it is the best to offset the wide range of skin tones so that people in the room are defined against the background for the distant professors.

A common problem with video conferencing and particularly with tele-learning is the disembodiment of the presenter. Most systems only display the presentation content and the presenter (or often in this room, the professor) becomes only a voice. To try to improve the learning and teaching experience, RDCT installed two displays at the front of the classroom. The primary display was an 85 inch LED LCD and a smaller 40 inch LED LCD on the side mounted lengthwise to provide an image of the presenter. Together, the total power consumption of these two displays is less than 220 watts. The desire to provide this learning experience also influenced the selection of WebEx® as the web collaboration tool, because it was the only one web collaboration tool available at the time that provided the ability to split the presenter from the content.

Figure 3- Dual monitor display for content and instructor

For the workstations, the same priorities governed the selection: process, power, support, and cost. The HP t410 Zero Clients integrate the monitor and the client reducing the electrical wiring requirements, as well as reducing the power consumption and keeping the support for the room as simple as possible. In addition, the use of POE not only reduces the power consumption, but also the need to install both power and network cabling. While not part of the original specifications for the project, RDCT discovered that Zero Clients could not use USB flash drives when powered by POE. This feature eliminates the primary cause of malware distribution in Africa. The workstations connect to the bioinformatics applications by using the Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) over the wireless bridge to the Faculty of Medicine where the RDCT managed data center hosts the VMWare® virtual environment and high performance computing appliance donated by Intel. This keeps the most sensitive and important infrastructure components of the ACE program in the best computing environment available within the Malian Ministry of Higher Education. The end result of the careful planning for power consumption is that the entire classroom computing infrastructure (using the Zero Clients) consumes only 204 Watts with an peak use of 294 Watts.

Figure 4- Thin Clients installed in the room. The gray dome shaped devices next to some of the monitors are the Phoenix® Microphones

Figure 5- 24 hours of power use graphed from the POE Switch that connects all thin clients to the network and supplies power

Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is a simple tool that is commonly used by Windows workstations to connect to Microsoft servers and other workstations.  There are also clients available for virtually all other platforms such as Macintosh® and Linux. Microsoft servers and desktops comprise the majority of computers in the world today making its use and adoption much easier to support.  In addition to its ubiquity in the computing environment, another advantage to using the Remote Desktop Server (RDS) from Microsoft as a platform for teaching, is that the remote professor can use the shadow feature to view the screens of the students. If a student is having problems with an assignment the professor can look “over their shoulder” at the screen of the student to assist. RDCT is also using UNIX XRDP on the bioinformatics appliance to simplify the connection from the Zero Clients to the server for some applications. This is particularly useful for graphical software such as protein folding and crystallography, as well as for command line access to the server for classes in statistical programming with R© and for courses in analysis of sequencing data.

Figure 6- The view of several remote desktop sessions on the Microsoft Server 2012R2 in Mali

The telelearning room that RDCT built for the new African Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics at the University of Science, Technology, and Techniques in Bamako is an example of using the best design practices with appropriate technologies for a specific environment. The room leverages the knowledge accumulated by sound and light engineers for the optimum video conferencing experience. RDCT also selected technologies that will make it possible to deliver classes from anywhere in the world to the telelearning center in Bamako. The technologies RDCT selected demonstrate how to optimize power use for training rooms, a vitally important feature in regions of the world with unstable power and less reliable infrastructure. The entire teaching technology in the room can run for an hour on a single UPS.

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