Tag Archives: teaching computers

Failure of Design

One of the most interesting components of my time here in Kenya has been watching as people simply interact with technology. Kenya is a very different place to grow up than the US, particularly when it comes to regular, daily interaction with electronic devices. Few schools have computers, and even fewer that are functioning; households are not awash with washing machines or microwaves or other appliances though most people do have daily access to mobile phones. The result of all this has been a significantly decreased level of reinforced learning on how to interact with said electronic devices.

When someone sits down in front of a computer, do they even know where to being? Not really. At least not for my students. Is this wrong or incorrect behavior? Of course not. If you have never utilized an electronic device in any capacity at all, why should you be expected to know how to use one all of a sudden. Should I expect everyone I meet to speak French if I speak it to them, effectively placing French in front of them? Is that fair?

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Quick Updates again

Still living without electricity and still not really caring. Though it’s funny to see people get nervous when they find out, as if it’s an unspeakable shame that the mzungu is living without electricity. “Umesikia? Nyumba ya mzungu ni bila stima!” (Have you heard, the mzungu’s house is without electricity!).

For those who may not recall, my personal laptop died a few weeks ago, but I have been using the school computers quite nicely since that sad loss. Of couse, just 10 minutes ago “my,” computer in the lab just fried. As it stands, since coming here, I have lost 2 computers to RAM failures (most likely caused by humidity), 1 computer to a fried power supply due to irregular voltage or humidity, another computer to a fried power supply due to I don’t know, and a final computer due to a lizard crawling into the power supply, and, well, that’s that. 5 computers down for the count in almost 6 months of being on the job. Kenya is not friendly to computers, especially when the labs are quite open to the elements. Now I know why we air condition everything, and I can very easily see the connection between computer bugs and real bugs.

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Self Motivation

I have a project that I would like to complete, but I am fighting to get over one last hurdle.  But the hurdle isn’t one of the normal hurdles you hear about in development work.  The government isn’t blocking my visa or application.  I don’t need to bribe anyone.  Everyone around me supports the idea.  The only thing stopping me is… me.

Never before have I encountered such a complete lack of self motivation.  But I am finding more and more that its not a general lack (which is relieving), it’s just a lack of motivation to complete a specific project.  The project is to create a series of packets that allow for at least a minimal level of self guided instruction on learning the basics of a computer.  They would include pictures and diagrams and would potentially even be translated into kiswahili.  I have in fact actually ranked them with my highest personal priority for completion.  Yet I cannot bring myself to write them.

At first (a few weeks ago) I was worried that it was a complete lack of self motivation, but since then I have been able to complete a few projects.  Admittedly some other projects, mostly my NYS Daily News Grabber, have fallen by the wayside, but that is more from other lackings, such as internet and an internal server (which should be fixed soon).  Again, this is a bit of a relief because at least I can get some work done.  But why not these packets.

Am I afraid that such work is below me?  That would be terrible to me.  I don’t think that I am above helping at the basics.  I admit, I don’t like it much, but there is a real necessity for these packets and I would like to think that it would overcome any sense of superiority.  Is it that the task seems daunting?  That might be part of it.  If you take at a a look at the ICDL packets, it’s a lot of information packed in there.

I think part of it is that I don’t know what to make.  If I make an intro course only, then those people wanting deep knowledge get left out.  Also, I don’t really know a lot of the information.  My knowledge of Excel and Access is extremely limited.  I just never had to use them.  But here, there are four students who want to know everything about everything, even if they never use the information.  It’s all because they have seen the certificate courses and they think they can get certificates if I teach them and then they go and pass the test.  Except, I actaully don’t have a syllabus for teaching the certificate level coures nor doe I have the vast resources and examples that Polytechnics have, hence the need to make the packets in the first place.

I am just frustrated, because, gah, I don’t know why.  It seems like such an easy request to fulfill: “Teach me Word.” Ok, I can do that.  But apparently I cannot teach enough Word, and nobody actually has any need to learn word yet so they don’t come with a desire to create their own content.  I am just stumped.    And then I fail at teaching something that seems natural to me, but is completely befuddling to my student, like Highlighting or text cursor placement.  As I think about it more and more, I am overwhelmed.  I think I lack the motivation out of fear of missing something, of forgetting to insert a step.  It’s all so complicated, and my students need it all written out explicitly that I am just overwhelmed.  Not a happy feeling. 

I think I answered my own question.  I lack the self motivation to complete these lessons because I myself am overwhelmed at the complexity of the tasks involved.  Not a  happy notiong at all :/

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An Update on teaching Part II

Many of my readers have raised a concern that my posts are too long to read in some free time.  Sorry.  I have a lot of time, and like to express completed thoughts, being as objective and non-ranty as possible.  This usually results in long posts.  But I took the initiative and split this one into two parts.  It’s technically one big post, but I wrote it in such a way that you can read the first part first, and then come back to the second.  I even left a cliffhanger about solitaire!  Please scroll down to read Part I before reading Part II, or just read Part II and be partially confused, if you feel partial to that method.  But before I depart on some tangent, let me impart with you the rest of the my story (did you get all that?).

I gave them a test.  I was still unbelieving about their thought
process, so I wanted to see how they would handle some random
thinking.  I posed seven questions.  The entire exam was in English and
Kiswahili, with the option to reply in either one.  I would like to
think I  had removed language as an issue (another topic for another entry for another day).  The exam was as follows
(kiswahili removed):

1) What is your name?

2) What do you like to do in your free time?

3) Why is the sky blue?

4) Why is the grass green?

5) Why do people build houses?

6) Why do you have friends?

7) Why do you fall in love?

Four out of my six classes received this exam.  I missed my monday class due to Peace Corps related travels and nobody passed me the memo that we were not having friday classes that week due to something about recruiting for the Adminsitrative Police.  They laughed and they chuckled.  Some interesting things happened though.

First of all, there was a question about the first question.  Apparently in kenyan english it is appropriate to ask for someones nameS if you want their first name and last name.  Some of my students overcame this hurdle and answered with both their names anyways, some had questions about this which I clarified, and gave them a cultural lesson that it was my fault because in America when we say Name, we mean both first and last name.  Of course, they don’t call it last name in Kenya either, but nor do surname or family name seem to work.  I’m baffled how to address that issue.  One time I tried “Father’s name,” but then people wrote both names of their father, first and last.

Question two posed no issues.  Though there was some obvious brown-nosing going on in my opinion with such responses as “play solitaire,” or “use computer.”  Whatever, I won’t hold it against them.  And heck, maybe they really do like playing solitaire in their free time.  Who knows?  They wouldn’t tell me even if I asked them.

Question three had three stock answers.  I’ll let you mull over them yourself.  Answer 1: Because it is as far as the eye can see.  Answer 2: Because it reflects the color of the ocean.  Answer 3: Because God made it that way and man hasn’t made it better.  Each student, of the almost 100 that took this exam answered question three with one of these answers.  Slightly different wording, but not significantly different.  I will come back to question three.

Question four had a similar set of responses, though they got a little more scientific.  Answer 1: Because of the chlorophyll.  Answer 2: Because they have life. Answer 3: Because God made it that way.

Question five illicited expected answers of “For protection from animals,” “for protection from people, ” and as such.

Question six did not quite reach the level of thinking I had hoped for, but apparently my students only have friends for support in times of need.  I think one or two of the 100 answered differently, but for the most part, apparently friendship in this country is only for supporting each other in times of need.  Maybe there are no times of joy, or maybe no times of fun.  Maybe there only are times of need?  I don’t know.  But I did find that response… interesting.

Question seven truly revealed the cognitive dissonance surrounding love in this country.  Some of my students answered like, “For support and someone to share my ideas with,” but others were more apparent examples that the youth in this country are fully aware they are sexual beings.  Listed below are some choice responses in my opinion.  These are not meant to mock in any way, but rather to applaud the frankness of character of my students.  For once, I got a straight answer from a Kenyan.

“I fall in love because of that inner emotion and lust for loving.”

“I fall in love because of having sex satisfaction and having good relationship with other people.”

“I do fall in love so that I can find a partner who can comfort me in good and bad time and also for sexual satisfaction.”

“I fall in love so that I can have conjugal rights (sex).”

“I fall in love so that I can satisfaction of sexual desire.”

After administering this exam for the fourth time though, the answers to question three got to me.  Too many people were saying the sky was blue because it reflects the color of the ocean.  And I’m not saying Americans know why the sky is blue (it has something to do with color dissipating from gases in the atmosphere and something called the Rayleigh effect), but at the same time, I wanted to see how they would react to me challenging their belief.  So for class four, my thursday afternoon class, I challenged them: If the sky is blue because it reflects the color of the ocean, why is it not green or brown or red or yellow over the land?  No one had a response.  So I went on a little spiel about asking “Why?”  It had nothing to do with computers really, though I tried to tie them in.  I just wanted them to start challenging accepted beliefs until they believed them for themselves and not just because someone told them to believe them.

I don’t care if your Kenyan or American, related to me or not, this is the one thing I truly believe in and want everyone in this world to do.  Don’t just blindly accept something.  Challenge it, play your own devil’s advocate, and if at the end of the day you still believe it, fine, great, but only believe it because you have convinced yourself, not because someone else told you to just believe it.  And I know that we all cannot conduct our own experiments and whatnot, so come up with a system that you trust.  If you trust and believe the BBC for providing factually correct news, fine, but why?

Be able to defend it.  And your defense does not even have to stand up against much, because ultimately trust and “the truth,” become a thing of faith, but at the same time, have some defense.  And I know there is no winning this argument.  That one can just argue back at me that this is my students’ level of trust.  That my perception is just skewed by having grown up in the West.  Why shouldn’t they trust their teachers the same way I trusted mine?  Why are they wrong and I am right?  Well, I never told my class they were wrong.  I even specifically told them that I did not say they were wrong.  I just wanted more of a defense than blank stares.  We will see if I get the homework handed in tomorrow afternoon.

So what am I teaching this week then?  It’s back to lecture and some hands on time.  This weeks topic is word processing.  I refuse to teach simply “Microsoft Word,” because it’s going to be gone in the next five years anyways, or at least as we know it, and I want to prepare them for that.  So I have abstracted and taken my lessons up a level from the top-down perspective.  Instead of Microsoft Word, I am trying to teach the concept of word processing using MS Word as an example (because at the moment it’s what I have).  I will try to do the same with spreadsheets and whatnot.  But I have also implemented some exams.  They have one review quiz at the beginning of class and one write-down-three-things-you-learned-today quiz at the end.  I need to start gauging what these kids are taking in.  Of course, the end of class exam nets me responses like, “How to word processor,” and “Solitaire,” so I may need to refine those instructions.

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An Update on Teaching Part I

Ok, so here’s my long-awaited update on teaching.  So let’s backpeddle a few weeks now and describe what has been happening.

A few weeks ago I noticed a critical deficiency in the ability of my students to think critically about a given situation.  If a task was not spelled out for them word for word, they would have much difficulty completing it. In my opinion, this will make it very hard to use computers.  Modern day computing is all about being able to read new instructions, mostly ill-written and ill-conceived, and follow them using known computer-interaction paradigms and whatnot. 

For people in the West, these interaction paradigms are drilled into us early and almost as much as learning how to breathe and walk.  We live with computers, we use them every day, it is obvious that we would be able to learn new things on them quite quickly.  This is not the case for most Kenyans, who most likely are coming from a life in a very rural area; where living at NYS is probably their first encounter with consistent electricity, running water and maybe even food.  And no, I am not trying to be dramatic.  That’s simply life here.

Combine this unfamiliarity with computers with a learning style completely alien to the learning style of the society that developed modern computers in the first place.  The notion of interacting with learning is a foreign concept.  I think it’s even more foreign than the concept of a white guy from America trying to teach it.  At least they can see people like me on TV.  For so long they have been drilled that wrong answers are unaccpetable, that experimenting is pointless, and that whatever a teacher tells you is absolute truth.  Computers were invented by people who were wrong a lot, were experimenting in their basements and garages, and were certainly not cut from any “normal,” mold.  And I would bet most of them were arrogant and cocky enough to argue with their teachers… a lot.

But you cannot lecture computers.  It is impossible. Sure, you can lecture computer theory and more abstract concepts, but this requires two things: 1) a basic understanding of the fundamentals of computers in order to understand the more abstract, theoretical concepts and 2) a brain that has been trained to analyze, deconstruct, and apply theory to practice.  My students have neither, sadly.  It is no fault of their own, they are simply products of their education system.

So what do I do?  Hand hold them through every word of a research paper or number in an accounting spreadsheet.  I’ve reconciled that I will have to teach them more specifically than I first desired, but still, how?  It doesn’t help that some of the kids have the fundamentals of computer interaction down and others don’t.  Some know how to click and type fairly well, others don’t even know how to hold a mouse.  It also doesn’t help that I only get about half attendance per class, and that it’s a random attendance.  I don’t even know who’s dedicated!  Frustrating in its own right.  Heck, I had an entire class not show up yesterday.  An entire class!

It also doesn’t help that the Kenyan computer instructor, who I was hoping could be my Kenyan-Thought-Process translator, has been recalled to Nairobi and may not come back, ever.  Or that his replacement, who is of an unknown teaching-stock (the first, Mr. Mutuli, being known and well-liked by Dai Kato), has an indetermined ETA.  So I am on my own effectively.  Even Dai Kato is leaving in two weeks.  Oh Boi.

So we played solitaire two weeks ago.  It’s a game that is installed on every computer we have.  It requires a decent understanding of mouse control, click, drag and drop, and a constant reevaluation of the play area.  It forces my students to think critically, but within a time frame that they control because they control the flow of the game.  I stood up and gave directions, which Mr. Dai Kato, who has never played Solitaire before himself was able to follow and learn how to play.  And he’s not even fluent in English!  I walked around and helped the individual students after explaining the directions.  They didn’t get it.  Despite repeatedly showing them that they could uncover new cards after moving top cards from the piles, they would still require my prompting to do so.  I would make a circuit of the class and come back to see the same cards flipped over on a student’s screen.  And don’t even get me started about the concept of moving King Cards to empty spaces.  Needless to say I was frustrated.  I had failed again.  How do I teach these kids?

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