Teaching Small, Thinking Big

It is without a doubt that I am teaching my students ICT in a way that no syllabus in Kenya would have them learn. This is mostly because for the amount of time I see my students (2 hours per class per week), if I taught based on any syllabus I have seen they would learn specific aspects of computing that would never help them. What good is knowing how to make something bold if you can’t even turn the computer on in the first place? My whole goal is to make my students comfortable with computers overall, so that they might someday purchase their own. It helps that they are not examined at the end of the semester and they know full well they aren’t even getting a certificate for work they do in my class (it’s just how the situation is run here) because it means I have a little more freedom in how I teach and they have no expectations. It’s taken a while, but I think my students are starting to trust me that I am really trying to teach them, even if what I am teaching doesn’t match up with pieces of paper they are slipped from friends on the outside who are taking the notorious, “Kenyan Computer Packages,” courses widely available to anyone with 3,000 shillings and a week of time.

This past week, we moved onto cut, copy and paste as well as highlighting. The actual practical aspect of these skills is something that is relatively easy to teach. It does take time for practice however, and even at the end of an hour lesson ( not including the half hour of mandatory typing and half hour of free-use time as well), it’s still very common for not everyone to be fully dexterous to highlight accurately. Those of you growing up in the West may be curious about this, but in general, Kenya is a much less hand-eye coordination culture and instead a much more foot-eye coordination-centric (thank you international football-dom) culture.

Teaching the skills themselves is only half the challenge though. I still face the challenge of getting my students to wrap their heads around the potential of the computer. I can’t get their attention by telling them about accounts and spreadsheets, because that’s like trying to teach a baby to walk by enticing him with images of flying airplanes. Somewhere along the way there is a disconnect. Instead, I try to make more, abstract connections, but ones that are directly applicable to their thought process.

For example, when I teach about highlighting, I make the connection to handing in assignments during primary and secondary school that have to be written in pen. When handing in a finished assignment oftentimes there cannot be any mistakes on it: no cross-outs or white-outs. This means that if a student makes a mistake, he needs to start all over again.

With highlighting, and computers in general, a user has the power to manipulate parts of a whole without needing to rebuild the whole. It is this feature that makes computers very useful for business and data tasks: because it is very easy to manipulate and change things. Too often had I seen students deleting entire assignments because they make one mistake. I knew that this was not simply a habit that had to be broke, it was a whole mentality that needed to be changed: a paradigm shift in mentality as it were to the illusion of permanency in data.

Cut, copy and paste represent an entirely different power of the computer. They represent the ease with which computers are able to manipulate and exchange data internally (and nowadays externally as well). The explosion of the desktop-wide universal clipboard has only driven this point home: it is the computer’s job to correctly interpret data coming from different sources, and with relative ease, transfer it to various types of locations. Pictures from the Internet should be copyable into my document. Charts should migrate just as easily. Any data conversion should be happening behind the scenes for the everyday user. My analogy here is comparing cut and paste to transferring notes from the board into their own notebooks or listening to me and transferring it to their notebooks. Knowing how difficult that can be (for a variety of reasons), I hope my students gain a better appreciation of the power of computers.

The problem with teaching computers is that teaching it is far too practical here. But when many computer teachers here hear I am teaching, “computer theory,” they think of complicated things like principles of networking or algorithms or programming. That’s not the case. Instead, I am trying to build basic computer-interaction skills and teach my students not only how to click a mouse, but why they are clicking it as well. Drilling into students which button is for bolding is not what is important. Instead what is important is teaching them what buttons are in the first place, what they do, and how one can leverage all buttons, all menus, all aspects of a computer, in his favor, not just the ones he gets tested on.

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