Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Well, clearly I haven't been keeping up with the blog, and a lot has happened. So here's a summary of the last three months:
  • I hired two full-time staff members: a sys admin and a second teacher.

  • The lab now has 17 workstations. Eight of the computers are at desks facing the front, eight are in the back of the room so people can work while classes are taught, and one is the teacher's workstation at the front of the room. The last one is hooked up to a data projector.

  • There are two main groups of students: students who graduated from Royal High School last November and are in the mandatory off year before university, and current students and teachers from the high school. We're concentrating on teaching the graduates good search and writing skills, and we're teaching the high school students and teachers basic computer usage.

    The project is way ahead of schedule. Or rather, since there's never been a schedule, it's ahead of where I thought it could possibly be by this point. I'm currently in the US on a seven week break, and my staff is teaching classes while I'm gone.
Photos follow; click on each for a larger image. It's worth it.

Installing the data projector with a typical Ugandan homemade ladder:

The lab in use:

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tech & Teaching notes

Darn... I keep on hitting "Publish" when I mean to press "Save as Draft". So here's a draft of the next blog. Think of it like one of those TV guide summaries of next week's TV shows - no useful information, just enough to whet your appetite.

* Internet speed. Only region w/o cable. Everyone's waiting for it. Like train tracks, goes BOTH ways.

* One copy of XP in Uganda. People get a copy, have no license, ask their friends for their friend's license, and it works. Hacks to stop "bad license" message.

* Learning crimping, cross-xxx connectors, etc. Bugged me at first, then realized they're just so hungry to learn that it's all find. At university, Godfrey studied computing for three years. There were 250 students and a lab with 12 computers. Mostly diagrams were drawn on the board. Took me too long to see that this was a reflection of the students eagerness to learn in an economy that doesn't support it.

* Typing lessons.

* Has to be Windows.

* The emphasis on a) general skills (Word, Excel, crimping, etc), b) drumming it into their head with no notes. Why this is & what I'd thought.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Moving the Big Box

The lab space is large, light, airy, and spacious. We've only had one problem with the space: the Big Box in the corner of the room.

The landlord gave us a great deal on the space because he had three old plate printing machines in that box, and he was insistent on not moving them. But as the last few weeks progressed, it became clear that we really really needed to get rid of them. We'd been trying to make a deal with him, and yesterday he finally agreed, so today we moved it all out!

Lots of photos here; as always, click to see a larger version.

Taking the box apart:

What was in it?

Yikes. It didn't look as bad once it was uncovered:

There were boxes and boxes of of spare parts too:

We hired a crew and a lift loader to lift the machines out:

My camera battery went dead just before things got exciting. I missed photographing the lift-out of the largest machine - it weighed slightly over one ton (we think) and the harness they used to lift it was unbelievably frayed. I did get a photo of the frayed harness while they were lifting the first machine though. IMHO it's definitely worth clicking on the image to see the fray in its full glory.

To make sure it didn't tear further, they ripped up a couple of cardboard boxes & stuffed the cardboard between the fray and the machine. I would love to show photos of that, but oh well.

After some time of camera battery recharging, the box is out and my students have cleaned the room!

The students after cleaning...

... and helpfully posing in the now-clean Big Box corner.

This was a very satisfying day.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Phase II Begins!

... so it's probably a good time to report on Phase I.

I arrived in Kampala three weeks ago today. A brief recap of where things were before I arrived: I'd hired my friends Joel & Davis to run a few classes on basic computer usage & basic internet usage in their Internet cafe, and hired my friend Charles to set up a rudimentary computer lab. Twenty students had been through the classes already, and Joel & Davis were in the middle of three weeks of teaching six more students.

Charles picked me up at the airport and took me right to the lab. The entrance to the lab is at the end of the walkway, and that's Charles standing in front of the lab. (Oh - it's not entirely obvious (to me, anyway), but in this blog, you can click on any photo and voila! a larger photo).

He'd secured the lab very well.

This is the lab interior. When Charles showed me the lab the first day, it hadn't been in use yet.

I'd decided to spend the first few weeks mostly observing. The last set of six students was still going through the training, and I wanted to see how they were being trained. We moved the training into the lab. Joel moved his evening Internet class into the lab, and we set up typing software so students could learn to type during the day. (Verdicts thus far: Mavis Beacon, C+; MiracleType: A-).

This photo was taken on a day when the lab was quite full.

The biggest problem we were having is that there are two separate groups of students at the lab: students & teachers at Royal High School, and the students who graduated from Royal in November. Their needs are different: the students/teachers at the school want to learn computing so they can teach better and learn better, but the graduated Royal students want jobs. It took me far too long to realize that the Royal students & teachers can only attend at night, while the graduated students can attend during the day.

So now we're moving into phase two. We've found 14 graduated students who are willing to participate in this program full time. We're going to start a four-month trial: we'll pay their expenses plus a bit more for their participation, get them certified at basic computer skills (certification means a lot in Uganda), teach them how to use the Internet for research, have them learn Moodle so they can develop courses on their own, and have them continue to work on their typing skills - we'll have speed & accuracy Contests in April, with decent prizes.)

That's the current idea, anyway. My plans have been adapting themselves to the local needs day-by-day, so this could go off in entirely unexpected directions. That's fine with me - I'd rather be responsive to what's needed than keep to a particular plan that's not necessary.

Starting tomorrow, we're going to spend the week building out the lab. We'll get ten more computers, making 16 total for now; partition the lab into two sections (a classroom and a study area); move the Big Giant Box out of the corner of the lab (see third photo above - the box contains three one-ton pieces of printing equipment); and a bunch of other things. The week after that, we'll start the classes in (somewhat) earnest.

So. Thus far, it's mostly been one small victory one after the other, though the (literally & metaphorically) truly heavy lifting hasn't started yet. I do have the sense of understanding the slogan "One Day at a Time" way better than I did before.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Lab Progresses

Just a quick update on where things are.

Charles and a crew of student volunteers have cleaned out & cleaned up the lab space! My website Anamorph has a number of photos and videos, though they're not what you'd call well-organized - it's just an open directory right now.

I leave on Friday February 27, a little over three weeks from now. My return flight is booked for the end of June, though that date could change. Four months for this particular visit feels right, but it could wind up being shorter or longer. Also I'm finding that preparing for a four month stay is a whole other animal than preparing for a two week visit. Yikes.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Africa is Bigger Than You Think

Well, bigger than I'd thought anyway. And I already knew it was big.

That hand-drawn little green shape represents, approximately, Uganda.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Bit of Background

This is Royal High School, in Kampala, Uganda.

There are six classrooms for the 150+ students.

All the classrooms are equally sparse. There's no money for textbooks, and even notepads and pens cost more than what many of the students can afford. The education stems from a British curriculum, but the Brits left Uganda in 1963, so the education and information is often pretty outdated. Many of the teachers lecture from the notes they took when they were in High School, and the students copy down what they're told from the old notes, sort of like a multi-decade game of Telephone.

The second time I was there, I spent a week teaching & fielding questions from students. The third time I visited, I bought three computers and rented an Internet connection, and for two weeks showed the teachers and the older students how they could use the Web to find answers to most of the questions they'd been asking me! They saw its potential, and were somewhat in awe, but I worried that the ultimate lesson they were learning was "Ha-ha, look what we have in America that you can't afford to use here!"

Luckily, the owner of an Internet cafe near the school offers computer training at a more than reasonable price by US standards - $35 per student for three weeks of training, which includes basic computer skills (mousing, etc), email usage, and Web Usage. This is Jet Internet Cafe:

In December we put twelve students and teachers through his courses, and another twelve students start on Monday. In the meantime, my Ugandan friend and colleague Charles found a nice space just behind Jet for us to build our own computer lab. This is how the lab looks now:

We rented the space earlier this week, and Charles and some student volunteers have started clearing it out and sprucing it up. My last day at Perforce is today, and I'll leave for Uganda in about a month. We'll turn it into a full-on computer lab / classroom, and then I'll start teaching.

If this sounds vague, it's mostly because it is. I know what I want to teach at the start: Internet search skills, critical thinking (how to tell Internet truth from Internet lies), and (maybe most importantly) how to type! But after that... who knows? All I can say is that I once I get there we'll finish readying the lab, I'll start teaching, and I'll stay until I think the lab can run smoothly and that the same classes will be taught well by other teachers while I'm gone for awhile.

So, um, I guess that's it. I'll give more details later. Please ask me anything at all!