Friday, October 29, 2010

Who's teaching the teachers?

During my first full week in Kumasi (Oct. 11-15), Liz taught a “Basic ICT skills workshop” to 45 math, science and ICT teachers (ICT stands for Internet Communication and Technology). The teachers were broken into two 20-25 person groups—still way too many people for a hands-on training on technology. Each training session was supposed to last 2 days, but one group had to return for a third day due to Internet problems (more on that below).  As with any other event in Kumasi, many pictures were taken, some of which I’ve posted here.

The workshop experience from start to finish rather different from any similar situation back home. For starters, in the places in the US that I’ve lived and visited, it is usually possible to find an existing computer room with enough terminals to teach 20-25 teachers in basic computer and Internet skills. However, here in the Kumasi school system, the 15 participating schools are the first group in the entire 1.5-million person city to have dedicated Internet access. To do the training, the teachers had to take all the computers—desktop models, not laptops—to a single computer lab at one school in the system, Opoku Ware. They also had to bring their wireless routers with them, as the routers themselves have SIM chips in them that allow the schools to access the Internet.

Early in the week, we ran into the issue that these SIM chips were set up with an initial amount of 4GB of download for the first time, with the schools needing to buy more credit after that. [Side note: it’s the same way that I’m paying for phone credits—by “topping up” with scratch cards.] This created a major headache regarding installation of software on the computers. In the US, Land of “I paid my $20 this month, I can download anything I want anytime I want”, companies expect users to have unlimited Internet access, so they create “installation” programs that are really just a small program that goes to get the full installation program from the Internet. The companies like it because this set-up ensures that the user installs the most updated program. Unfortunately, when the users pay by the GB, installing Skype on every computer using SkypeSetup.exe burned through the credit of the router for the school we were at. It took some serious Googling to find out that I could download SkypeSetupFull.exe, the full installation program for Skype. Of course, given the limited internet downloading, I wasn’t sure I could get the full 20-MB program at the workshop.

Luckily, I quickly became acquainted with the Vodafone Internet Café, which markets itself as “Africa’s fastest Internet”. (Thanks to our driver, Akmed, for knowing what we wanted when we asked for fast Internet.) When we walked into the café the other day, it was like stepping into another world—the one I left. The clean, slick white desks and sleek monitors starkly contrasted with the fact that everyone uses crumpled 1- and 2-cedi notes to pay their 90 pesewas per 30 minutes of Internet access. It took only 10-15 minutes to download the full Skype 20 MB full program, during which time I also uploaded pictures to my website. The Vodafone café has been a lifeline to the West, as it wasn’t until this past weekend that we got permanent wired broadband at the house.

The site of the training, the Opoku Ware JHS, was identified by Zain, the internet provider, as fluctuating between 2G (EDGE) and 3G (GPRS) networks for their wireless broadband signal. If I had had any say in where we did the training, I would have pushed for one of the schools with a reliable 3G signal, as we had major issues with the 2G/3G flipping throughout the training. Murphy’s law was in full effect, as the most likely time for the Internet to fall into EDGE mode when Liz was trying to show website navigation on my laptop PC, which was hooked up to the projector. In addition to the Internet problems, we also ended with viruses and worms infecting all the PCs there. It’s a bit like taking a sick kid to day care—you can guarantee that everyone else in the room will get whatever he has. Additionally, the PCs were set up with administrator accounts without passwords, which is just asking for those PCs to be hacked.

Have you ever tried to teach someone how to use the Internet without access to the Internet? How about teaching someone about computers, using desktop machines, without reliable electricity? Let me tell you, it’s a challenge, but Liz was able to overcome these problems to teach a great workshop. The first day of the two-day training session was focused on Microsoft Word, which meant that the Internet problems were not an issue. But on Monday, the electricity was still out from the wild storms the night before (the deluge that started after the Ghana-Sudan game). All the PCs were on UPSs, which prevented them from cutting off immediately, but every time the electricity went out, we had to turn them all off. The second day was supposed to be all about the Internet: email, finding reputable information on the Net, and Skype. However, due to the ongoing Internet problems described above, it took multiple tries and the better part of an hour for some people to get their email accounts created. We were having so many troubles with the Internet with the first group that we asked them to come back on Friday to finish up the training.

The amazing thing is that, even with all the problems and challenges, the teachers really appreciated the workshop. Here’s a sampling of the feedback we got from the training:
"The faciliators were friendly. They did very well. Such workshops should be organized regularly for us."
"The workshop was quite successful and worth the time."
"Such courses should be organised frequently to update the knowledge of every Ghanaian teacher."

What I have come to realize is that these teachers are used to the challenge of teaching technology without working technology. They are used to developing novel solutions to the issues of unreliable electricity. The resourcefulness and ingenuity that the Ghanaian teachers exhibit are skills that I would like to gain from my time here. I can only hope that they realize that I’m learning as much from them as they are from me.

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