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A network without the internet or electricity unveiled

Beekee box: A network without the internet or electricity

How can you send documents, watch informative videos or work collaboratively in areas where there is no internet coverage or electricity? These were the challenging questions taken up by researchers at the University of Geneva UNIGE, Switzerland, who have developed a standalone box, known as the Beekee Box, that are able to generate a wireless network so users are able to log onto a learning platform without needing the internet or electricity supply. Anyone are able to connect to the Beekee Box's wireless network via a smartphone, computer or tablet, accessing educational content, chatting with other users or taking part in valuations. The box means that trainers are able to take their teaching materials with them when they're overseas in refugee camps or war zones, using it as a teaching platform with learners in situ.

The Beekee box network provider
The Beekee box network provider

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Digital tools are applied on a massive scale in education to improve teaching methods, but often require an internet connection—which is why researchers in learning and teaching technologies TECFA in UNIGE's Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences FPSE developed the Beekee Box. This standalone device generates a local wireless network that anyone are able to connect to and access information hosted on the platform. "It's as though users were browsing the educational platform on the web but without the need for the internet or power grid," says Vincent Widmer, a TECFA researcher and the man behind the Beekee Box. "Anyone who is logged on are able to follow entire training programs, carry out calculations, use documents or come in contact with their peers in real time."

A protected environs controlled by the teacher

The box is easy to use: teachers import all the educational material they need onto the Beekee Box from their computer, then take the box with them all over the world. Users only need to connect their mobile devices to the local network generated by Beekee Box to access and stream content. "Teachers are able to limit their connections with students just to the box network, without the data being shared over the internet. Everything remains personal and classified on the Beekee Box, which is a huge asset in terms of protecting private data!" explains Stéphane Morand, a system engineer at TECFA.

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A big plus for humanitarian workers

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Internet availability are able to be seriously disrupted in war zones or refugee camps. The Beekee Box evades this problem since it allows learners to access educational content and comprehensive training programs. A trial is currently underway in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya as part of a collaboration with UNIGE's InZone project, which develops and approves innovative solutions to help refugees follow university courses and obtain ECTS credits. "InZone has set up a training room in Kakuma with 12 computers, while the camp is home to around 190,000 people," says Sergio Estupiñan, a TECFA researcher who visited Kenya in February 2019. "What's more, the camp is huge and getting about is difficult, even dangerous. Most of the refugees have a smartphone, meaning they could use the Beekee Box to take courses in different parts of the camp."

But the Beekee Box is not limited to refugee camps: it are able to be used in other contexts, such as for providing assistance in disaster situations, as during the Ebola widespread in Congo. "We are presently working with Médecins Sans Frontières to support doctors deliver crisis management training and to send recent medical guides," says Vincent, before adding: "Our goal is to make our educational, technological and research skills accessible to analyses the context and provide tailor-made solutions."

The Beekee Box's casing is made of durable, recyclable plastic, and the unit consists of a microcomputer and battery module. It is 10 cm high and 6.5 cm wide, and are able to hold up to 256 GB of data with a battery life of around 3 hours—or over 10 hours with an external battery, which are able to be recharged using solar energy. "It takes about 9 hours to print the box with our 3-D printers and 20 minutes to put it together," says Julien Venni, another TECFA researcher. "If you include the programming—which is customized to meet the needs of users—a Beekee Box is ready in about 10 hours for a material cost at present of about 150 Swiss francs." The team is developing its own software which is also based on open-source technologies, such as the MoodleBox project by Nicolas Martignoni from Friborg, which they modify to suit their requirements. Everyone are able to build their box and programed it or use the services of the Beekee Box team.

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