The Circa Library

Another non-how-to-post, this time looking at a project I started a few years ago..

A Series of Tubes.

When connected to my uncapped home WiFi, the cost of an individual megabyte is quite meaningless. Data has just become another monthly utility cost. App updates, music, video, documents, email, it’s a limitless fire hose of megabits powered by flashes of light in optical fibre.

I’m going to assume that most of you (if you share my demographic) are in the same position. We’re a minority though; there are plenty of people out there counting each megabyte. That’s a shame because so much amazing educational content on the internet is free:

(Arrows represent data flows)

Stuff on the internet can generally be used for free (paid for by user data or advertising) but the data to transfer the content is not free. That red arrow is the problem. It represents internet costs and, when sufficiently far away from civilization, the communication infrastructure itself.

If you have the means to drive the cost of the red arrow to zero, the internet becomes an amazing democratized educational resource. Tackling the red arrow is what this post is about.

Story Time

🧮 Math is cool 🧮

It’s 2018 and I’m tutoring Mathematics at Verulam Secondary School. One of my Matric students has an old smartphone but no money for data. It’s hard for him to spare the cash for a few megabytes to grab some past papers and solutions from the Department of Education website. For him, the red arrow was pretty insurmountable.

I wanted to help him and other students like him that had these smart devices but a lack of data to access educational resources.

The obvious way to help was to buy them data so they could access the internet but that would be expensive and unscalable. Could I instead bring the internet to them at their school?

Bringing the Internet to them

To understand how we can “bring the internet to them”, we need to first understand a bit about how the internet works.

Let’s use the example of scholar downloading a past paper from the Department of Education website via WiFi at home:

(If you’re a network engineer, this diagram isn’t for you 😅)

  1. The DoE website server (the computer that the DoE’s website lives on) sends the file to your Internet Service Provider’s server (solid blue line).
  2. Your ISP sends the file to your wireless router (solid red line, this counts as your data cost)
  3. Your wireless router sends the file to your phone, tablet, laptop etc. over WiFi and you can then view it. (Dotted blue line).

We need to take everything in this green box…

… and create a device with a server and wireless router that:

  • Lives at the school
  • Has all the content that the students will need
  • Creates a WiFi network they can connect to with any device

One would assume that this device would be large, power hungry and impossible for public schools and libraries to afford.

All these assumptions would be incorrect:

All that, in the palm of my hand ✋

I call it the Circa Library (or CL in the rest of this post). It’s tiny, can be powered from a phone charger and contains past papers, text books, music, novels and more!

Instead of needing to ship a stack of textbooks or print pages of notes, teachers and students can use the devices they already own to access to educational resources.

Live Demo

Here’s how it works:

Constraints and Decisions

Hardware and connectivity

I wanted the cheapest hardware that could broadcast a WiFi network and run a web server. Easy then to choose the Raspberry Pi Zero W as the hardware platform. To keep initial and ongoing costs as low as possible, cellular connectivity was not added. Hence, the Circa Library can’t automatically update the content available or report errors and usage data.

Software and Educational Resources

The CL uses open source software and educational resources that have permissive licenses allowing commercial use.

“Competitors” in the Market

After some time building the Circa Library, I found that I wasn’t the only person who had the idea of helping “offline” learners. World Possible’s RACHEL, Nicolas Martignoni’s MOODLEBOX and the Internet-in-a-Box are other projects that allow for learners to access resources in a similar manner to the CL.

Project Status

You may be thinking “This is so cool, why isn’t it in every school?” The short answer is that I spent most of the time developing the concept and not enough time on business development and relationship building with sponsors and the Department of Education. Although the resources are free to access, the hardware is not free. For it to be a feasible business within the chosen design constraints, it’d need many moving parts to align to succeed. Since I couldn’t dedicate the time to make the project viable, I decided to pause work in late 2019.

What’s Next

I absolutely love the Circa Library concept. That’s why I’ve decided to ignore commercial viability and absorb the cost to build a few and give them to schools that will benefit. If you think that your school (in and around Verulam) will benefit from having a Circa Library, leave a comment below or contact me.

If you have any questions/would like to share your experience with using technology to assist in education, leave a reply below. To receive an email when I publish a post, subscribe here.

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