Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Joys and Struggles of Teaching Computers in a Developing Country

The area where I feel like I have made the most strides at Shaanika is with the teachers at my school. With the much, much smaller class sizes, I’m able to give individual attention and each person is able to have their own computer. It makes a really big difference. Teachers also have more self-discipline than the learners – they can pay attention during the lessons without being distracted by typing on the keyboard or opening up any random program (though I know there is the occasional Facebooking going on…!).

My beginners have come a long way! The beginning teachers had never used a computer before. They are an older group, and most went to university many years ago. We started with the very basics, and it takes them just as long, usually longer, than the learners to get the hang of things. Technology in general isn’t very familiar to them. Already they know how to format a document, create a table, and cut, copy, and paste. One of the highlights of my week was showing two of my middle-aged women learners the Internet for the first time! How do you explain the depths and lengths of the World Wide Web? I basically told them, “What or who do you want to know about? Anything you want to know, you can find it on the Internet.” And the truth behind that statement is awesome, frightening, overwhelming, and empowering. They were truly amazed by what came up in a search engine, and with the interface of Facebook. How easily I forget the complexity of what seems so simple!

The advanced teacher class is also going very well. We spent a couple lessons on Microsoft Excel and learning how spreadsheets can be very useful for keeping track of grades and other important data. I also showed them the value of formulae, and how the mathematical calculations they are currently doing by hand can be done with a few clicks of the mouse. This week we worked on PowerPoint and they are having fun with animations, transitions, slide designs, and learning how they can more effectively teach their learners. Next, we will set up email and Facebook so that we can all stay in touch when I leave.

As for the learners, things are not quite as easy, but still equally rewarding. The learners literally run from their classrooms to the computer lab. I have to remind them to slow down on their way in so they don’t damage the computers or tear out the cords that run haywire throughout the lab. As I’ve mentioned, teaching 45 learners with 20 computers presents many challenges, especially when computers are down, and you have less than 20. Often times I find myself frustrated with their inability to pay attention to the 10 minute lesson. Computers are distracting machines, and they are bursting with excitement and curiosity about what they will discover next. Sometimes I get upset when I have to “discipline” them, which in my world, is telling them, “Stop touching the keyboard/mouse, close the typing skills program/Internet/Encarta, or I will switch you with a classmate that is standing”. Typically, that is enough, but sometimes I actually have to move them.

In venting to my roommate/colleague, Jen, she reminded me that this is a very different view of disciplining learners than my colleagues. Stay tuned for a blog update about corporal punishment in Namibia…coming soon….

She reminded me that while I might feel like I’m scolding them, the reality is that I show them more respect and love than they are used to getting from any adult or a teacher they know. I tried to take this to heart, and while I might occasionally scold the class, I give affection, praise, and love as much as I can to individual learners each time we meet. I have found that I can give a lesson for ten minutes or so, and spend the rest of the class period walking around while they practice an activity. I’m able to be hands-on with them (literally, my hand on top of theirs on the mouse), show them how to do the skills, and give them a squeeze or pat on the back and tell them “Good job!” or “Yes, perfect, you’re awesome” and that goes a loooong way.

Another key to success is finding the learners that already know what I’ve taught, or picked it up quickly. These learners are very, very few…maybe one or two per class. When I praise them for a job well done and ask them if they will please help me and show their classmates how to do it, they are ecstatic. They feel so privileged and excited to help out, and then I have someone to help me tackle the 40+ learners who can’t seem to get it down.

It’s amazing how much I take for granted and assume when teaching computers. Imagine if you had never typed on a keyboard before? Or had never highlighted something? These basic skills that are practically inherent in our culture do not exist in their knowledge base. I have spent entire class periods with learners trying to teach them how to highlight. There is more to it than you realize. Try to highlight something on your screen now…think about all of the different steps, and how you would explain it to someone. Now think of two, or three MORE ways to explain if they didn’t get it the first time…

I am constantly reminding learners to use Shift and then press a letter, and not to switch Caps Lock on and off to make capital letters. They frequently forget how to get to the next line (Enter), and will hold down the Space Bar until the cursor arrives at their desired location. Some are still at this level, while others are copying/cutting/pasting with no problem.

While it can feel like a constant struggle, and like I’m incessantly repeating myself, when they get it, it is a triumph like none other. The look on their face when they grasp that they don’t have to press the Space Bar to get something Center Aligned, or when they see something disappear (cut), and reappear (paste) in the correct place, is priceless. Helping someone learn to highlight, one of the most basic computer skills, recognizing them for their accomplishment, and seeing their joy in such simplicity, makes all of this worthwhile.

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